For the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game, the story told in Tyranny of Dragons is spread across two separate adventure products: Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat. Hoard begins with fledgling, level 1 characters and follows them to level 7 or 8. Rise picks up right where Hoard leaves off and continues on to level 14 or 15. But while these form one continuous story, they are very, very different adventures, and not only because of the difference in tiers—although that plays into it.
Hoard of the Dragon Queen gets characters through the first experience tier and well into the second. The Player’s Handbook states “In the second tier (levels 5-10), characters come into their own,” and that’s certainly the case in Hoard. Each episode in the adventure corresponds roughly to a level: characters should be level 1 when they play episode 1, level 2 when they play episode 2, and so on.
In episode 1, characters are entirely swept along by events. They start in a town under attack by raiders—a situation that demands rapid action. Throughout the course of a long night, they are assigned missions by the town’s leader to rescue villagers who are surrounded in isolated buildings, to capture prisoners for questioning, to seal a breach in the keep’s defenses, to drive away a blue dragon, and so forth. Characters could branch off on their own, but there’s no reason to. The keep’s commander is a capable leader, he knows the town, his plans are tactically sound, and the things he asks characters to do probably are what they’d wind up doing if they struck out on their own anyway.
The episode is structured this way to make it easy for first-time players and DMs to pick up. In the big picture, players have a minimum of choice, in that their characters are mostly following orders. They have leeway in how they follow those orders, because each mission leads them into a situation where they need to assess risks, choose a course of action, and probably win a short combat. New players (including players who are old hands at D&D but new to the 5th Edition) will learn the system in easy bites.
Episode 2 is structured entirely differently. Characters are given a long-range reconnaissance mission where they’ll be on their own for days in enemy territory. No friendly NPC is standing by in this episode to tell the characters what to do. The situation is fraught with danger, but it’s all up to the players to decide how much of that danger they tackle. If they simply watch from a distance for a few days and then report, they’ll fulfill the minimum requirements of their mission. But how many players can resist the urge to take a closer look inside the enemy camp? This episode is all about learning how D&D lets players assess risk, solve problems, and interact with complex situations, possibly without ever needing to unsheathe a sword or roll a damage die.
Episode 3 is familiar territory: an old-fashioned dungeon. This one is a dragon hatchery manned by a handful of cultists, some monsters, and everyone’s favorite low-level foe, kobolds. In a larger sense, it takes what players learned in episodes 1 and 2 and puts it all to the test: problem solving, risk assessment, exploration, and combat.
Episode 4 sends characters on a long road journey. Because The Rise of Tiamat is set in the Forgotten Realms, we wanted to let characters see some of the countryside and learn a bit about their world before they risk their lives further trying to save it. Faerûn is a colorful, endlessly interesting place, and it would be wasteful not to capitalize on that with a dollop of life on the road.
Those four episodes see characters through the first four tiers of play. By the time episode 5 kicks in, the characters aren’t rookies anymore. They’re seasoned veterans who’ve investigated strange events, confronted injustice, infiltrated enemy camps, and fought hard scraps against bandits, monsters, and cultists set on demolishing everything that makes life on the Sword Coast worth living. From that point on, the adventure becomes more freewheeling and more dependent on the characters’ and players’ judgment. The story is still driven forward by events, but characters’ decisions play an increasing role in steering those events. That, however, is a topic for another post.
Steve Winter is one of the designers of the Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure for the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. This adventure is available in an exclusive autographed collector’s edition with a Queen of Dragons unit patch available only through Kobold Press.