Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Review – Tyranny of Dragons Campaign

Hoard of the Dragon Queen
The Rise of Tiamat

Published by Wizards of the Coast

Well, how do you review a pair of tabletop roleplaying campaign books? With difficulty, that’s how. There’s so much I’d love to say about the plot, the characters and the story, but there’s always the risk that I’ll spoil it for players of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, and in turn for their DMs, too.

I was originally going to review the books individually, starting with Hoard of the Dragon Queen and then later The Rise of Tiamat, but I always thought there might have been a problem in doing it that way. There might have been what I thought were flawed plot points or directions that I may have thought were a little rubbish, only to have that view corrected by the events in the next book. No, I thought, I’ll wait until I’ve played through the entire campaign.

Well, here we are six months later and the campaign is over. Only two PCs bit the big one and everyone hit level 15 as promised by the adventure.

That’s pretty good going in my book. We’re a semi-regular group and this campaign suited us well as it gave us half a year’s adventuring, with a little bit of side questing thrown in when the players wanted to do some exploring, so I certainly got my money’s worth.

Hoard of the Dragon QueenHoard of the Dragon Queen

‘In an audacious bid for power, the Cult of the Dragon, along with its dragon allies and the Red Wizards of Thay, seek to bring Tiamat from her prison in the Nine Hells to Faerûn. To this end, they are sweeping from town to town, laying waste to all those who oppose them and gathering hoard of riches for their dread queen. The threat of annihilation has become so dire that groups as disparate as the Harpers and Zhentarim are banding together in the fight against the cult. Never before has the need for heroes been so desperate.’

The game starts out quick and to the point – the PCs arrive at a town under attack and are compelled to act. This opening feels like a questing zone in a fantasy MMO – that’s not a bad thing as it works well for beginning DMs and gives a familiar framework. Speak to character A, go to zone B, complete the quest, return, repeat. The small missions help to set up the story and the system and allows the group the chance to break into D&D 5th. This is something a new group, even new gamers, will need.

As the adventure unfolds the players are given to chance to fight, explore and interact with their environment and the NPCs that populate it. This early in their careers – the opening is designed for level 1 PCs after all – there’s a lot of combat (my group had their first fatality in the second chapter after misjudging a situation) but there’s plenty of chances to avoid all that and concentrate on getting to the end of each chapter with more than zero hit points.

I, as the DM, had a good time running this campaign. I found the book easy to use and the story enjoyable enough for even me to want to see how the players reacted to what was coming. I didn’t think it was overly new DM friendly, mind you. If the DM was a seasoned roleplayer and this was their first time in the big chair then I’m sure they would find this book a great way to get them into the role, but for newcomers to the hobby I’m not so sure. I can see them, and a new group as a whole, struggling with this.

Overall, it was a great first part to the campaign, which was then followed up by…

The Rise of TiamatThe Rise of Tiamat

‘The Cult of the Dragon leads the charge in an unholy crusade to bring Tiamat back to the Realms, and the situation grows more perilous for good people with each passing moment. The battle becomes increasingly political as opportunities to gather allies and gain advantage present themselves. From Waterdeep to the Sea of Moving Ice to Thay, it is a race against Evil. Succeed or succumb to the oppression of draconic tyranny. Win or lose, things will never be the same again.’

After the fun we had with Hoard of the Dragon Queen I expected more of the same with the second half of the campaign. It didn’t disappoint.

This second half really raises the stakes and really throws the characters into world-changing events. Now, instead of gleefully adventuring along, the players are going on adventures and making choices that have consequences. There’s a council that the players either impress or disappoint, and choices, actions and successes change their influence and support with certain factions. This plays an important part in the game as this popularity with the council will determine what kind of aid and support they get in the final battle with the big boss herself, Tiamat. This put the players beyond the simple hack n’ slash approach and they had to think how their actions would change things. That was a great touch and it kept the players on their toes.

However - oh, and SPOILERS - the finale is impressive but I couldn’t help but think that the reputation and aid the PCs gathered over the adventures really meant anything as once the action begins the support that the council has provided takes care of business off-camera while the PCs get their dungeon on. The players thought it was a great setup and that the enemy was being held off by their actions, whereas in reality it didn’t really matter who turned up for the fight.

Not only that, the players had to travel a lot and fight, negotiate and trick their way through missions. There was something for everyone and, as with Hoard, there was something for everyone of every career to do. It was a good ending to a great campaign, and me and my group had a lot of fun with it all the way through.

Overall, Tyranny of Dragons is a great campaign. It’d be easy to accuse it of railroading and that may be true, but that’s the nature of published campaigns, and any DM worth their salt would be able to run smaller adventures if the PCs go off track. There’s plenty of material to use even after the game is finished, or even if you have no intention of running the campaign but want some places for your group to do some adventuring. I like the idea of the council, and the actions of the PCs having an influence on the outcome of a huge event, but the payoff of this was lacklustre and could do have done with actual consequences. I’m sure the system presented could be adapted by a DM for other uses.

A great first campaign for D&D 5th and well worth the asking price for half a year of gaming.