In our DM’s Notes posts, we take a break from the main story to discuss running the game. If you’re looking for the story, just click the links at the bottom of the post! Or check the Archive!
I decided to kick off this series with The Hoard of the Dragon Queen for completion’s sake—it’s the first full adventure released for 5e and the first to take place in the Forgotten Realms chronologically. Also, my partner, Lou, had been running a few DDEX1 Adventurer’s League one-shots while I prepared HotDQ. These adventures take place within the same time frame and often feature dragon cultists as antagonists, so the players had had a glimpse of what they’d be up against—and were already invested in unravelling the Cult of the Dragon’s schemes.
I’m aware that HotDQ isn’t the best reviewed of the campaigns (I see you, Curse of Strahd, judging me from my bookshelf), but to be honest, it drew me in immediately with its enormous siege, dragon attack, and time-pressured night of fighting and sneaking. A thrilling start to a first campaign, even if some aspects of it do need a bit of work.
Partly to address some of its problems, I made two major changes to the adventure as written at the start of session one. On the whole, I was pretty pleased with how they played out…
1. I added a journey
The first session of a new campaign is often more of a session 0.5, especially when players and DM are returning after a long break: the players are getting into the swing of their characters, the DM’s getting back into his/her stride (I know I was), and everyone’s generally getting a feel for the game again and remembering how stuff works.
I wanted to give this process the time it needed, so the first change I made to HotDQ was to start it with a journey from Baldur’s Gate to Greenest. This made sense, as several of my players were bringing pre-existing characters to the table, most of whom had been in Phandolin (playing through the events of Lost Mine) immediately before this adventure. I wanted to cover their journey south, and I wanted to give the players space to introduce their characters and get to know one another—especially as we had a new player joining the group.
A side-benefit of the journey was that it gave me a chance to throw an encounter or two at the party, allowing them to stretch their legs and me to gauge their play styles and combat strengths before the main narrative got underway. I cooked up a medium-difficulty encounter using Kobold Fight Club, with goblins and a lizard king, to see how they did, and they barely struggled at all. The only hairy moment was when the lizard king got a critical hit, which luckily hit Aleph, our Warforged meat-shield. I made a note that the party is mostly comprised of low-health, high-damage characters with moderate armour; so, a tough enemy getting behind Aleph could cause quite a stir, but waves of lower-CR enemies tend to miss a lot and get mown down.
I also used this fight to experiment with a few tactical tweaks. I’ve been easing my newer players into 5e’s combat rules, so the first of these was to introduce them to the concept of flanking—in the middle of the battle. On the goblins’ turn. They flanked Aleph, who was a very good sport about the whole thing.
The other tweak was to have the goblins behave a bit more tactically than my players are used to, with help from the advice in The Monsters Know What They’re Doing blog. So, they woke each other up when our bard cast Sleep and then ran off when their leader died. These changes really threw the players (good!) and forced them to think more tactically in their turn.
On a side note, The Monsters Know is a great source of insight on monster behaviour and tactics, and I’d heartily recommend it. I’d also strongly recommend having enemies run when players are obviously winning, and it makes sense for them to do so. Mowing down a swathe of very weak enemies makes players feel powerful (look up the minions from 4e for a great example of this) but grinding down 12 goblins over four rounds of combat is just busywork.
Overall, the journey to Greenest worked in the way I’d hoped it would, but it did remind me of some important DM home-truths:
1) Initially, my plan for the journey was that the players would just roleplay for an hour or so while they were on the road. I soon realised that this wasn’t going to work, because I hadn’t given them anything to work with—riding a cart along a quiet trade route does not make for scintillating roleplaying. As soon as I realised this, I fast-forwarded the first half of the journey, introducing the combat encounter earlier than I had originally planned. D&D is a collaborative storytelling game—if I don’t give my players interesting scenarios with which to interact, I shouldn’t expect them to just entertain themselves!
2) Travel montages can be difficult to manage—what parts to skip? What to describe? When to have an encounter? I started with a description of the first day on the main road and the first night off the main road, where the party caught sight of the goblins that attacked them the next day. I skipped over most of the rest. While it’s important to give players a sense of the journey’s length (which you can do by including a night/setting up camp scene and a few descriptions of changing scenery), remember that the journey is not the adventure and be ready to say, “the last x days pass without incident; you pull into town tired and happy, eager to find a roaring fire and a comfortable bed” or something like that. The world should feel large, but traversing it shouldn’t be boring.
2. I gave the players time to explore Greenest before the siege
Rather than starting in medias res, as HotDQ suggests, I wanted to get my players into Greenest a few days before the raid that kicks off the campaign. There were two main reasons for this: it gave me a chance to introduce some side quests for the PCs, and it gave me a chance to introduce the locals.
Almost all the players immediately went to the inn, where they learned about an undead infestation in the local temple and a broken pact with the fey in the nearby woods. These rumours gave them something to discuss over dinner as they decided what to investigate first.
Our resident spy, Keothi, decided to use his Criminal Contact background feature (he’s a spy with a shady past) to chat to a well-connected local about his plan to assassinate a wizard he has tracked to the town (and against whom the party has a vendetta). Of course, I hadn’t anticipated anyone actually using their background feature, despite spending months preparing this adventure, so I said, “great!”, but thought what the hell am I doing with that? So, Thenrey, the local butcher, suddenly became a member of the Zhentarim. I tend to roll up four or five random NPCs and rumours at the start of a session to call on in situations like this. You won’t need more than that in a session, especially if you have a campaign book with some NPCs of its own.
I stuck a handful of locals in the inn and used The Great Big Random D100 List of Tavern Drinks to roll up a couple of specials at the bar. Most of the PCs proceeded to get incredibly drunk. Everyone had started to settle into character by this point, so this led to some great roleplaying. Keothi got hammered, failed every constitution save he could make, and blurted out that he was a spy to everyone he met. Nubbins became fast friends with a brother of Chauntea. Aleph built up the barricades around the town and chatted to the local militia about siege-preparedness.
By the end of the night, the party had bonded with several NPCs, which was exactly what I was hoping would happen. Starting an adventure in the middle of a siege is all well and good, but this way, by the time the siege takes place, the players will (hopefully) have a lively interest in the fate of the town. It won’t just be an abstract, good vs. evil battle for them: the lives and livelihoods of their friends will be at stake.
The next morning, the players decided to dive into the undead-infested crypt. There were around a dozen zombies, but they only grappled the players and pushed them away. I was pleased that it took the group a couple of rounds to work out that the zombies weren’t actually doing any damage (they’ll discover why next session), since it made the fight look pretty damn hard, initially. There was a hole at the back of the crypt, which no one was interested in investigating. In the end I had one of the zombies push Cyd down it instead, triggering a meeting with… well, you’ll find out in the next session post.
The first session was the culmination of months of drawing maps, writing side-quests, and emailing out downtime updates. In the end, we only managed to get through part of one side-quest, despite my prepping material for all six side-quests and the entirety of chapters one and two of the main narrative—which we haven’t even started yet!
I definitely tend to over-prepare, but part of me is still worried that the players will steam through everything I have ready for next session… we’ll see!
Post script: The lessons I learned prepping this campaign and running downtime (inefficiently, I might add) could fill a few blog posts in themselves—I might dive into that in a later post, if there’s interest. Downtime is a difficult thing to manage in 5e and preparation is always a balancing act!
Check out the notes from Session 2 here!
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Lou & Cam