I wound up liking the rest of the adventure enough to spur more writing on it. Part 4 ends with the PCs arriving in Waterdeep after a tense moment with the cultists on the caravan following one of them getting murdered by the Zhentarim gnome, Jamna Gleamsilver who I’m on record as thinking is poorly written. I’m surprised there isn’t more information about Waterdeep here. Personally, I would not be surprised if a Waterdeep campaign setting was out next year. There was more flavor on Baldur’s Gate in this adventure. It’s just kind of assumed the players know things about the city. Fortunately it’s not a huge deal. The players need to stick with the wagons so they can get hired on the next caravan headed to Neverwinter.
This part of the adventure is rushed. The goal is to get the PCs to the Roadhouse which is kind of the next set piece. It’s essentially the same thing as Act 4, except with less tension. The random encounter chart puts the chances at less than 50%. Not sure how I feel about the random monster encounters on the road. In Act 4 they had story and roleplaying hooks. This is just combat for the sake of combat that doesn’t move the story forward. I do however think it might be a good idea to throw the troll on this chart at the PCs because there’s a troll later in the adventure and it might be a good idea to get the players used to the mechanics. On the other hand, that troll later will scare the fuck out of your PCs with its five 2d6 attacks per turn.
The Roadhouse on the way to Neverwinter is like the camp, it could take five minutes if the PCs hit the right buttons/skill checks. The cult is taking their stuff through a secret tunnel in the roadhouse to a castle nearby. Honestly I’m not sure what else to say. This could’ve easily been folded in with Act 4. The players are expected to find the hidden tunnel and follow it back to the cult’s hidden rebel base. But this raises the biggest plot holes for me in the adventure. The only planned encounter in the road house is one of the cultists challenges a PC to a fight. After that, the players find the tunnel somehow.
Wouldn’t the cultists in the caravan assume the adventurers are on to them when they disappear? These heavily armed, possibly magical mercenaries have been with these guys since Baldur’s Gate. At least one of them has probably recognized a PC from the camp or Greenest. They’ve been with each other on the road for nearly 3 months dogging their every step. And the night that allllll the treasure they were gathering for their secret cult gets turned over to them these dudes go missing from the caravan they signed up for headed to Neverwinter. That’s some bullshit. I realize their bold and intrepid leader isn’t with them, but how stupid are these guys? This isn’t putting two and two together, this is knowing that two comes after one.
I said before that parts 6, 7, and 8 were all dungeon crawls with no friendly NPCs. That wasn’t entirely accurate. I would call part 3 of this book a dungeon crawl. It’s blood and its swords and you kick in the door, get the treasure, and get out. In these last three, they are open maps with lots of combat but the PCs can still basically stroll around as long as they don’t blow a charisma check. In Part 6, the castle is actually split up between 2 factions. The Cult of the Dragon is a force obviously but the castle is split between a tribe of Lizardfolk (the good guys) and Bullywugs (total assholes). The Lizardfolk are called the Scaly Death tribe which, is…the worst name ever. Seriously?
On the way to the castle the PCs can meet a Lizardman named Snapjaw. He’s a great ally because he manages to not be a source of exposition nor is he a useless drone to kill off the first fight. You need him to convince the other lizardfolk to start a revolution and take over the castle. But, I do wonder if there should be more DM advice for running a side NPC on the player’s side. If only because it was a fucking nightmare in 4E. But as I said before, that revolution is, as written, a mere blown charisma check away. There should be more advice for not making it so absolute. You don’t want the adventure to be either “RP to get NPCs to do all the work” or “the players must kill every man woman and child in the building.” It’s a bit too easy to screw this up.
This all goes towards the concept of a “living dungeon” something which this adventure has throughout every part of it. Each of these places are ecosystems they serve a purpose outside the context of the adventure. Again it sounds like I’m about to shit on Delve style gaming, but whenever I do that, remember its because its something I don’t like, not that its something that doesn’t have a purpose of place or that it’s a lesser form of gaming. It actually goes towards making these parts of the adventure insanely challenging because, you have this castle full of bullywugs. There are dozens of the fuckers. and if you get caught or if you think its going to be a discrete set of encounters like 4th Edition, you’re going to die. In 4E, if the monsters in the next room heard you and came to help out the people you were killing, it was because the adventure planned it that way. If it wasn’t, then the battle would take like 2 hours and not be fun.
I’m also not a huge fan of these maps. This map is lacking a number 6. The Hunting lodge map doesn’t have a 12. There’s also a lot of flipping back and forth between pages since the castle map has 4 levels. And since they’re not very big and a bitch to read, especially the last map at the floating castle. While I’m bitching, the opening map of the sword coast doesn’t have the adventure sites on it. Would it have been so hard to put the castle, camp, and roadhouse on the map? Also the Sword Coast should’ve been a poster with the adventure.
One thing I like about the adventure that goes a long way towards selling this as a living dungeon is the amount of treasure that is waaay too big for the party to take with them. There are Dragon statues, books, heaps of coins, and even some treasure that is only valuable to a collector. I like that kind of thing. But I don’t think that’s going to work when this game is part of the Encounters program. You can’t take the thousand pound dragon statues to Waterdeep in the middle of this adventure. This leads me to conclude that the castle has to be a base for the PCs.
One thing that goes kind of looked over is, where is the treasure? The Lizardfolk take the treasure from the Roadhouse to the Castle. This castle is where the PCs get ahead of the treasure. But the adventure doesn’t really call attention to it. And its weird that Rezmir the Black Half-Dragon has the password to just the next stage of the adventure. In the basement of the castle the PCs find a portal to the next stage, it requires a password that Rezmir has, but shouldn’t she have more than just the password required by the adventure?
In the next act the players are magically teleported to a hunting lodge that was apparently a wizards vacation home. I’m not kidding. That’s cool. But it doesn’t fit the rest of this adventure. It feels like they needed a way to get the PCs from the shithole castle in the swamp to the Flying Cloud Castle. And this was the most logical way to tie those two points. It also makes me ask, what are the resources this cult has? The adventure says that the collected treasure is a small part of the overall hoard they’ve gathered. Is this like, 25% of Faerun’s wealth? More? The first time I saw this cult in the text they were toadies for Thay in the Neverwinter sourcebook. This made me go out and look up the FR Campaign Guide. It sounds like they’ve acquired a few ancient dragon hoards over the years. And while that would barely keep a 4E party in new +4 Necklaces, a more pragmatic group of people could really get stuff done with that kind of money. But none of that discussion of what this group has at its disposal is in the adventure. As presented, they just have all the money and people they need.
This part of the adventure also has a four armed troll that is going to kick the player’s asses. I don’t care if they’re level 6, someone is going down.
This is also another portion of the adventures where the players are expected to waltz through on stealth/subterfuge until a bad dice roll. No one seems concerned with the players presence in and of themselves. Especially in this act, at the cult’s most secret stronghold. The NPC here, Talis, is ready to deal. She has an agenda of her own which I like. So between her and Snapjaw, traitors are wiping this cult the fuck out..
And while I’m thinking about it, what is the visual difference between a Half-Dragon, Dragonborn, and Dragonwing? I don’t know.
In part 8, the players jump on a cloud giant’s flying castle. Like the lodge, I feel like this was a set piece written for another adventure. It doesn’t matter how the players get there, it was just written we want the finale to take place on a flying castle. It’s like Dark Clouds Gather, just without actively hating its PCs.
I understood why the dragon hatchery and the swamp cave were there. They fit the context of the story. Part 3 in the hatchery was kind of unnecessary because it’s a side quest to deal with a cult problem not related to the Hoard of the Dragon Queen. It’s the only part of this adventure that has nothing to do with the hoard. But it was logically something the cult would have. The lodge and the castle were pulled right out of someone’s ass. Don’t get me wrong, I dig Talis in act 7. She’s an interesting NPC because she’s part of an organization that asks, what do I want for me? She wants the White Dragon Mask and she doesn’t care what she has to do to get it. Which makes it kind of odd that she turns on the players so fast in Act 8. Its like they were written by two different people. And whoever wrote part 8 realized the White Dragon mask isn’t in the castle so why should they care? Varram the dwarf who has the White Dragon Mask doesn’t appear in this adventure which feels odd given that Talis is such a big part of the conclusion here.
This flying castle feels like a high level adventure. The players stand a very good chance of getting their asses beat if they get caught. There are ogres all the hell over this place. This map is a mess though. It’s a 3 dimensional map, but the pictures and maps aren’t big enough to provide anything approaching the kind of detail you need to run the adventure. And again like the previous acts, there’s one NPC that doesn’t like the cult that can be easily convinced to betray them. In this case it’s the Cloud Giant that actually owns the castle. The White Dragon at the end of all this is clearly not expected to get out of its cave. This encounter is the money shot of the adventure. It should get its own full page map. There are like, three ways out of this room but fuck if I can describe it.
The conclusion of the adventure is rushed. I have no idea where the PCs are expected to go after this adventure. It basically fades to credits as the PCs stand over this massive hoard of treasure. This is a nitpick, but the next line of the adventure is “By hijacking a huge hoard of treasure the characters have slowed and damaged the cult’s chances of success.” How? The PCs uncovered information, killed leaders, but money doesn’t seem to be the Cult’s problem or what’s preventing their success.
The Black Dragon Mask is the only mask in the adventure, I’m curious if that fucks everything up for Rise of Dragons or if the plot will contrive a way to get the mask, or if its not needed. I have a suspicion that the adventure will turn loose the pair of black dragons mentioned but not seen in this adventure to grab the mask but for some reason leave the players alive. Basically, the mask is in a teleporty cabinet that sends the Mask to the Very Final Dungeon named the Well of Dragons if Rezmir dies. There really is a 50-50 shot the players will not get the mask, so I’m curious what happens after. Because the Cult needs all 5 masks to summon Tiamat, that’s what it said at the start of the adventure. Here’s my guess. In Act 6, the castle, the PCs might learn about a pair of Black Dragon twins near that location. They don’t play a role in an adventure, but it says “they might be encountered in Rise of Tiamat.” I’m wondering if they’re going to send two black dragons after the PCs in a fight they’re basically expected to lose in order to get the mask. That would be a bunch of bullshit.