We were cautiously optimistic when we jumped into playing Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. The Fox and I were both in the beta and our takeaway was mostly, this is sh*t, and went back to playing 4e.
I’m glad to say that most of the things we hated in the beta were corrected, and there were only a small number of house rules we implemented to cover the rest.
Save 1: Bards still suck.
But this isn’t a 5e review, it’s a published adventure review.
And my question is why is Lost Mine of Phandelver so much better than Horde of the Dragon Queen?
Lost Mine of Phandelver (LMP): Associated hooks are bundled in with the chapter. Monster Stat Blocks are in the chapter, or conveniently located in the back.
Horde of the Dragon Queen (HDQ): Hooks aren’t a problem, as there aren’t any of value. The two are “You have motivation to travel to Greenest” and “You are interested in the Cult of of the Dragon, you should travel to Greenest”. Stat blocks for Generic creatures are in an online supplement, custom creatures are at the back of the book. Except for specific generic creatures, like guard drakes… those are in the back…. or they are in the supplement. Hard to remember. Also the Urd, you know the Kobold with Wings. That’s in the generic… Not under Urd, not under Kobold… it’s under Winged Kobold.
That last issue with the Urd is a running joke on the 5e design team. High Elf, Moon Elf, Wood Elf are listed under H, M and W… and not Elf – High, Elf – Moon, Elf – Wood as has been done since at least 2nd edition. This means that if you want to throw together an encounter full of Kobold variants you need to already know what they are so you can look for them, and then you need to index several points in the bestiary or even online to get all of the information you need. This is terrible.
LMP: Here is the Background, Here are the Players, Here are their motivations.
HDQ: Here is the Organization, Here is the End Goal for their actions, Players will be introduced as needed.
Lets just get this one out of the way… HDQ is a Save the Word story arc which is an absolutely terrible story arc for just about any story. The world is too big, there are too many players over too much space with far too many possibilities.
LMP is: Take the stuff to the Guy that is Looking for the Place. Guy is Missing! Find the Guy that is Looking for the Place. We Rescued the Guy! Go to the Place. And in between those points, here is a bunch of interesting and ultimately optional things you could be doing.
3) Plot: Welcome to Who’s Story is it Anyway? Where the Plot is contrived and the Players don’t matter.
When the players arrive at HDQ the scene is in progress. Which means the players, all with presumably different character hooks, have to arrive at the same time with roughly the same motivations. And the next WTF part is, the city is being attacked by 1) An Army and 2) A Dragon. And our band of intrepid level 1 heroes should feel inspired to rush to the defense of this town for … heroics maybe? … it is only by the trust your players may have for you as a DM that you wouldn’t throw them into a situation where death was a sure thing they they would do this. If you put yourself in the shoes of these characters, if that was your life, even if you were a fledgling hero, you would totally get comfortable and wait for the fighting to end before you entered that town. And the best part is that if your players stand by and do nothing, the outcome only changes in that a bunch so inconsequential they don’t even have names NPC’s die.
Highlight of this Siege is the Blue Dragon accompanying the army. Since the players have no chance against a dragon at this level they write into the story how apathetic the dragon is to be here and he leaves after any reasonable damage was dealt to it or if it kills too many players.
If you make it to the Keep in HDQ you will meet one of exactly two NPC’s with names. And the 2nd NPC is just there to give you the key to leave; a task that could have easily been handled by the first guy. While in the Keep you can “Deal with the Dragon Flying Around” which would have been awesome if none of your characters were ranged attackers; or you can run one of a handful of missions that amount to rescuing more nameless NPC’s. They have a note that Governor Nighthill will be very disappointed in you if you decide not to help the town which is awesome in that you have absolutely no loyalty to this town, you are not rewarded even if you do help and ABSOLUTELY NOTHING CHANGES IF YOU SIT IN THE KEEP DOING NOTHING.
The Chapter culminates with the Enemy General calling out a champion for single combat to save the life of Nameless hostages who are the family members of Nameless guard. There is no reasonable way a player will win this encounter, my group sent out our Archer Warrior who proceeded to die in 1 hit. But we at least built up a bit of tension first with some sweet Il Triello, so we had that going for us.
For Fighting you are rewarded with Healing potions which you would not have needed if you hadn’t fought. If you lose the fight, the army leaves and you are tended back to health. If you win the fight, the army leaves and the book states that where you are supposed to encounter that NPC later in the campaign, if the players had killed him he is to be replaces by a duplicate NPC with a different name. Either way, the hostages are released to zero effect on the story or the party.
For not fighting the hostages are killed to zero effect on the story or the party. Except maybe the town is mad at you because this is totally your responsibility amirite?
To reiterate… ABSOLUTELY NOTHING CHANGES IF YOU SIT IN THE KEEP DOING NOTHING.
In LMP the players backstories lead them to… caravan guard… which is right behind “Meet in a Tavern” for cliche but at least they have a shared motivation. After the first encounter they can follow the goblin trail back to the cave, or they can continue to town. At the cave they can rescue Sildar, meet or Kill Klarg and get some loot. Did I mention the loot in HDQ? If not it is because there wasn’t any.
But here is the important part. If you don’t go to the Cave you don’t learn about the Bugbears. If you don’t’ rescue Sildar there is information that you cannot get elsewhere. If you don’t defeat Klarg, you will meet him again later but if you do he is dead… there isn’t some magical Bugbear that takes his place.
Once in Town you can branch in several directions. They all provide different tidbits of information, they all come from different named NPC’s with motivation and backstory, and they all lead places that work both as a standalone and can tie back to this or future adventures. There are in fact so many connections between this story and future plot hooks that you are advised to ignore most of them just to keep your story manageable. There is a kid responsible for one line of exposition in an optional gather information table that has more Backstory than Governor Nighthill from HDQ.
4) In Conclusion:
That is just Chapter One, reading the rest of the module didn’t make me any happier. I don’t want to say that Horde of the Dragon Queen was made by the ‘B’ team. Rather it seems that unlike the Lost Mine, the story for HDQ was dictated on high by executive producers at WoTC so that it would fit into the narrative they are building for Forgotten Realms and 5th Edition. The team Making HDQ didn’t have enough time for backstories, loot tables or non-railroaded story beats and in the end the entire module feels jumbled, incoherent and sorely lacking all of the fine detail that separates a Published and Paid for module from any lazy DM’s home brewed story.