Played July 22nd, 2016
After heavy casualties, the enemy has been repelled, but they’re already regrouping. It seems clear that the raiders will eventually overwhelm the keep. Those refugees in the courtyard who are of fighting age have been armed with spears from the armory for a last minute defense, but Governor Nighthill, now sporting a gash running from his ear to his neck and one arm in a sling, asks Ront and an unlikely ally to help secure an escape route. Arvensis Cotula, having already retrieved his life’s work and secured it in the castle, has offered his services in seeing the village and its inhabitants through to safety. Governor Nighthill doesn’t trust the tiefling at all, but as he explains to the equally skeptical Ront, “I trust him more than the kobolds who are already attacking us.”
Ront agrees to go with Arvensis to clear a secret escape tunnel of any creatures that may have taken up residence there in the century-ish between its construction and now, the first time it’s been used, and unlock the grate at the end. Escobert the Red (a dwarf with bright red hair and beard done up with all the usual braids and so on that dwarves are so fond of), the castellan of Greenest Castle and closest thing the place has to a captain of the guard, hands Ront a key to the grate. The tunnel is home only to a swarm of rats fleeing from the aura of fear of the dragon that still swoops overhead. Once they reach the grate, Arvensis tries the key in the lock. It turns, the lock clicks, and then the key snaps in Arvensis’ hands. Ront scowls and facepalms. Arvensis gives the gate a cautious nudge, and it swings open. Ront sighs with relief.
Outside is a cultist with a few kobolds searching the riverbanks for hiding villagers. The cultist discovers one, pulls him out from his hiding spot, and says to the kobolds “found one! Come cut him up!” That’s when Ront’s javelin caught him in the shoulder, and then Arvensis’ fireball in the gut, and he dropped and the villager fled. The kobolds briefly attempted to overwhelm the pair, but after Ront hacked through two of them, they fled. Arvensis pursued and destroyed them, fearing they might reveal the location of the tunnel to others. He wasn’t even sure if they’d seen the tunnel, but he was taking no chances.
Ront and Arvensis returned to report to Governor Nighthill that the tunnel was open and clear. Nighthill introduces them to Robyn Hood, a bandit who raided the nearby countryside, but had always respected the merchants going to and from Greenest. She has some kind of vendetta with tyrants, and Greenest evidently does not qualify. Nighthill has offered Robyn shelter from those who sought to bring her in, saying that so long as she did not trespass against the people of Greenest, then she would be welcome here, same as anyone else. Now Robyn has decided to repay the town’s kindness with courage in its hour of need. “I got stuck inside when the raid started,” she offers in a bright voice.
Robyn has just returned from the temple of Tyr. She scouted the area, fired an arrow inside with a message, and they fired it back out as a response. They have several dozen villagers hiding within the well-fortified walls of their temple, but the raiders have ripped a supporting wood pillar from a nearby house to use as improvised battering ram and the doors won’t hold forever. The priests inside the temple cannot hope to triumph against the army outside on their own. Governor Nighthill attaches Robyn Hood and two soldiers to the party and asks them to go to the temple’s aid.
I wouldn’t normally replace fallen party members with convenient NPC backup like this, but in this situation I felt like it was only fair to balance out the way we’d started the party strung out and run the first two missions and several random encounters with an incomplete set.
The team heads towards the temple, and after a brief scuffle with some mercenaries setting fire to houses for giggles, they arrive. The front door is being battered by a ram manned by a pair of cultists and directed by a blue dragonborn armed with a scimitar, barechested and with a baggy leggings from the waist down. A half-dozen kobolds scurry about, waiting for the door to crack. At the rear entrance, a pair of cultists and a similar number of kobolds are hammering on the door and hurling the occasional taunt. Most of the taunting is coming from the bad circling the temple. There’s a dozen-odd kobolds, a pair of the horse-sized drakes, and a few cultists to boot.
Arvensis devises a plan. Robyn will distract the large group and then attempt to run and hide from them, hopefully leading them on a chase long enough to evacuate the temple. Arvensis, Ront, and the guards will assault the rear door, get inside the temple before the enemies at the front of the temple can respond, and smuggle the civilians out in small-ish groups of about 15 a piece to avoid drawing the attention of the dragon circling overhead. Robyn Hood has difficulty outrunning the enemy, and at the back door, the guards and Ront go down to the enemy forces inflicting only minor casualties. Fortunately, Arvensis devours the remaining enemies in the fire of his burning hands. He has used all of his spell power for the day, but the enemy has been reduced to ash and the clerics within the temple are able to put Ront and the guards back on their feet.
The plan continues to go awry when the front door begins to give long before they’ve finished evacuating the civilians. The party, the guards they brought with them, and the clerics prepare to defend the remaining villagers in the temple. The scimitar-wielding dragonborn attacks lightning fast (it’s difficult to describe the fighting style employed by the dragonborn, but this Lindybeige video demonstrates the basic idea – I take no position on whether or not this fighting style is at all historically accurate), but with the support of the priests, they bring him and his minions down and continue their evacuation. Everyone makes it safely to the keep.
When the party returns to the keep, they find its walls under attack again, this time a raid on one of the towers holding a ballista. The party rushes to the aid of the two guards defending the ballista from a drake, a pack of kobolds, and a cultist. Thanks in part to the healing provided by the priest they brought with them and to the extra damage provided by Robyn Hood’s bow, the battle is much easier than it otherwise would have been, although the guards still fall and must be revived with divine magic. The healing of the guards is at Ront’s insistence and the priest of Tyr is happy to oblige. Arvensis opposes wasting healing magic on the weak from a purely utilitarian perspective. The village is in danger and healing should be reserved as much as possible for the most powerful defenders. Ront would top this list, with the priests coming close behind, and Robyn behind that, and then perhaps himself. However, even assigning himself a relatively low ranking in the priorities list, Arvensis fears drawing the suspicion of the half-orc, so he keeps his objections to himself.
This is about the time that I realized I really wished I’d run Lost Mines of Phandolin first. Characters walking in at level 4 or level 5 would still be pretty comfortably within the power level of this adventure (though they would be significantly less fragile and thus much more able to power through lots of missions without need for rest), and Phandolin could be substituted for Greenest, with the whole adventure moved from the Neverwinter Wood to the Reaching Woods or the Wood of Sharp Teeth. The town is not annihilated, so the player’s efforts in Lost Mines would not be completely undone, but the damage done to it would help to involve the players that much more.
The battle continues outside, and the raiders have now captured the mill from a small detachment of guards who were previously defending it. A dragonborn with a staff crackling with electricity and wizard’s robes defends it with a small pack of kobolds. As Governor Nighthill explains, that mill contains nearly all the food from the recent harvest. If it goes up in flames, the village will starve. Nighthill requests the party go to the mill’s defense, and despite their mounting wounds, they agree. It seems to be a small enemy party, after all.
Along the way, they are confronted by a trio of mercenaries, with the baying of hounds close behind. Ront readies himself for battle, Robyn and Arvensis prepare to provide ranged support, and the mercenaries run straight past all three of them, pursued by a pack of hunting dogs released from a kennel at the foot of the castle when the attack began some hours ago.
Unscathed, Ront and company continue on to the mill. Robyn sneaks up to a nearby rooftop and catches the dragonborn by surprise with two arrows before he can react. He doesn’t survive the second arrow. The kobolds keep the party entangled while a pack of mercenaries and cultists descends upon them, however. It’s a trap! Surrounded, the front line overwhelmed, Arvensis is forced into the melee and quickly killed. His spells being already expended, however, the bulk of the party’s prowess is between Ront and Robyn, and they manage to overcome the enemy and defend the mill. They bring Arvensis’ corpse back to the keep to store it with Thaemin’s. The enemy is starting to pack up and leave, but another army is massing to try and storm the keep. Nighthill doubts they’ll leave without capturing the keep and the town’s treasury inside, and has decided to evacuate the town to Baldur’s Gate and leave the treasury and castle to the raiders. Hopefully, they’ll move on after a day or two, and they can return and rebuild.
Before they begin the evacuation, though, Nighthill would like to know more about the enemy. He wants the party to capture a cultist and bring him back to shake down for information. They find a caravan loaded down with captured goods, mostly pots and pans with some silverware, guarded only by two cultists and two kobolds. They ambush the group, kill two of the kobolds and a cultist, and bring the other cultist back to the keep for interrogation. Robyn Hood tells the cultist that they’ve captured another cultist and he’s already given them his story. If that story doesn’t match the new story, both cultists die. In truth, they’ve only got the one cultist, but this convinces him to talk, and he reveals that they’re gathering up a hoard for the release of Tiamat from the depths of Hell. So this problem just went from “evil marauders attack small town” to “Armageddon.” “The hoard we gather shall call forth Tiamat from her prison in the Nine Hells, and she shall make us as kings!” the cultist enthuses.
“Where exactly do pots and pans fit into the hoard of a god?” Robyn asks.
“I, uh, I dunno, I don’t really make the looting decisions…” the cultist mutters.
There’s not any official rules for what to do if the party tries to deceive the cultist into talking, but since Deception is the only social skill our party really has a good score in (Arvensis does have Intimidation, but he’s rather less intimidating than normal at the moment), my brother came up with a way to interrogate using Deception. I used the DC for the Intimidation check and Robyn Hood met it.
For now, however, Nighthill’s priority remains evacuating the villagers from the keep before the dragonborn champion makes his final push. The boats might not draw the attention of the army, since they’ve largely abandoned scouring the town for loot and victims, but the dragon is still circling overhead. This means that someone needs to lure out and hopefully, somehow, slay that thing, or more realistically, at least keep it occupied while the villagers flee. As bait, the guards pile up a wagon full of treasure from the castle’s treasury and disguise themselves as merchants trying to haul it out the courtyard and through the castle gates, in hopes of running the gauntlet of the raiders and getting away with their goods. The dragon’s greed overcomes his sense, and he closes in for a fight.
Two ballistae fire on the dragon and miss, and a horde of twenty arrows does little more than irritate him. With one fell breath, he annihilates a ballista crew. Robyn Hood takes its place while the dragon turns his attention to the archers, who are having more luck just due to sheer weight of numbers. Each breath slaughters another half-dozen archers. One powerful burst destroys not only the other ballista crew but the entire ballista. Robyn Hood and the remaining handful of guards flee the walls as the dragon turns his attention to the last ballista and destroys it behind them.
Much ink has been spilled as to how to run the dragon fight. I think people are thinking of it the wrong way, in that I don’t think it’s a flaw that experienced players will avoid it altogether (although it is a flaw that some may choose to run away from the entire adventure because of the presence of a dragon). I think that’s a feature. Hoard of the Dragon Queen was designed to introduce people to D&D, which is exactly what I’m doing with my younger brother. This is why the first mission is pretty hyper-linear, once you get to the keep the party is assailed by a cavalcade of missions and their only real choice is “sure, I’ll do it” or “gods, no, I need to recover some HP.” Once the game has introduced the basic game mechanics with the first chapter, it opens things up a lot more in the second, presenting players with an adventure that cannot be solved with the direct approach, where any amount of combat (besides brief skirmishing during the initial pursuit, before the main portion of the adventure) likely represents a failure of some kind. It’s designed to sell video gamers on the idea of D&D. The first adventure says “this is like a well-made video game,” and then the second says “this is more than a video game and can do easily things that video games have always struggled with.”
This is who the dragon encounter is for. It’s for people who don’t know how D&D works, to explain to them just how prodigiously lethal dragons are. To that end, I find it much better to actually roll the monstrous 12d10 damage of the breath attack to show players, in the same language they’ve been using in the encounters so far, exactly how dangerous this monster is. Framing the battle as “hold off the dragon for X rounds” rather than “kill the dragon (and secretly he will flee after X damage but you don’t even know that)” also helps.
Ront led the vanguard paddling the boats carrying the refugees out of Greenest. Where the river passes under the wall, the wall forms a bridge over the river. As the first boat passes under, the dragonborn champion drops down onto the lead boat, and a small army of kobolds armed with shortbows creep into sight on the wall above. The dragonborn introduces himself as Langdedrosa Cyanwrath and says he has been impressed by the reports of the half-orc’s prowess, and he wants a one-on-one duel with him. No cleric support, no kobold volleys. The dragonborn says he’ll spare the villagers if the half-orc agrees to the duel, regardless of who wins – the raiders already got what they came for. Ront asks the clerics to heal him before the fight begins, as a truly fair fight would see both combatants at their best. Cyanwrath tells him not to bother, and spots him a healing potion. When that one turns out to be a bit of a dud, Cyanwrath gives Ront another. “You could have ten if you need them! I got a hundred off the looting tonight. The apothecary had a whole vat of the stuff when we found it. I hope you don’t have too many wounded,” his tone dropping from jocular to menacing on the last few words.
“I’m going to enjoy this more than I probably should,” Ront responds, now fully healed, as he and Cyanwrath climb up onto the bridge, where the kobold swarm parts to give the two their dueling arena. Both combatants ready their great swords and prepare for battle. Ront deals a telling blow to Cyanwrath early on, but it is the only blow he strikes. Cyanwrath opens up a gash across his chest, then another along his thigh, and finally parries away a strike from Ront to shove his great sword through Ront’s gut. Yanking the sword out drops the half-orc to the ground. “I was expecting more from you,” Cyanwrath says, and then shoves Ront off of the bridge and into the water below. Ront’s allies drag him into the boat and heal him, and the boats pass through unmolested.