Last month into early this month, I ran the first episode of Hoard of the Dragon Queen more or less out of the book. I changed the starting situation (instead of coming across the city, the players were in jail there). Freed by a turncoat guard, they were given the option of joining in on the looting and murder, starting with that lady and those kids over there. They declined, and did the things heroes do.
This isn’t a summary blog, so don’t worry. I mention the start of the adventure because it got the gears in my head turning.
I felt that I struggled a bit running the first episode. I have some pretty neat ideas for the adventure that can run parallel to it without disrupting the overall narrative, or so I thought. Honestly, I felt shackled to the book. Without getting too crtical, it is very much an adventure written for either a) new groups; or b) weekly game store events with fluctuating attendance. It is a mostly linear railroad to allow easy integration into both of these situations, neither of which apply to my own group.
Last week, one of my players (playing a warforged, archfey warlock named Chrome), pointed out that our group has a century of gaming experience. Without doing the math myself, that seems about right. Railroads don’t work for us anymore. Sure, we can jump on the train when we want to, but, invariably, we’re jumping off or, more likely, throwing the engineer out the window and crashing it into a racist street gang’s gas station hideout.
My anxiety, my struggles, were placing my own feelings, those of being shackled, on to my players. According to one (a drunken, elf, two-weapon, fighter named Avram), I was nuts and everyone was having a good time. He also added:
If I were you, I would just internalize all the major happenings and things the villains are going to do, and then just run it free form. Read up a bit on the Forgotten Realms setting, know the motivations of the villains, have some plots going on in the background, and, boom, you can keep us entertained with that for countless sessions. And I know you’ll come up with something more interesting in the end than they would, and be able to let it naturally evolve as it goes, to boot (Corrected some text message-caused errors).
Frankly, Avram is right. As soon as I set the book down, took what I remembered and started working through it in my own way, I began to have a lot more fun. In fact, for the last two sessions, I only referred to the book for names I had forgotten. Part of this is because a lot of the book is happening in the background. Between the book and the table, the gears were turning.
In preparation for running HotDQ, among other things, I read Hack & Slash’s write up on part 2 of the adventure (spoilery-spoilers). I found myself tickled by his treatment of the “cult” as a divided army with elements from multiple factions living and working together and sometimes against each other, and how that organization informs their conversation and their treatment of the players. The book really is boring when it comes to the army camp, and I saw a lot of potential in Courtney’s article, which, in turn, draws from ideas developed by the D&D with Pornstars blog (awesome and probably nsfw).
I had already decided to have the camp set up in a similar way when the turncoat guard offered the heroes a share in the looting. I was quite confident they would not accept, and they played to their alignments and did not. But, after the fact, I began to ponder how much fun it would have been if they had joined in, even just to see what was going on in the town. The problem was, the price for admission was too high. “Start with killing that lady and the wounded man. The kids will catch a fair price.”
After my conversation with Avram, I couldn’t get that plot direction out of my head. I knew I just had to attempt to implement it. My first thought was to have Nighthill suggest it, but, instead, he would ask the players to determine the status of the scouts he’d sent to follow the army (including his dear friend, Leosin). And the party would begin searching for a chest of personally valuable items that had been removed from the keep’s armory by raiders who breached the sally port.
With that set in motion, it was Leosin himself, (they found him crucified and dying on a ridge near the camp) who implored them to infiltrate and complete the mission at which he had failed: find the army’s greater goals. And, since he had been spotted as an infiltrator almost immediately after entering the camp, his suggestion was that they join the army to successfully fit in. Offer themselves up as soldiers in the fight for the Dragon Queen, find out the information they needed, and make good their escape.
Easier said than done, but that is what they did.
The party was accepted into a squad called The Dragon’s Hangmen under The Black Wing of Tiamat. After one session, they are already embroiled in dragonarmy politics, with more to come, hopefully. The tiefling cleric (Glory) was hit on by Frulam Mondath. They have walked in step with Cyanwrath, the dragon creature that already murdered one of their own outside the gates of the keep. They’ve also fought alongside and been befriended by their squad mates, who aren’t half bad.
I hope there is plenty more to come and I will endeavor to share it here.