Tag Archives: Dungeons and Dragons

Prep for Episode 4 of Hoard of the Dragon Queen

Episode 4 in HotDQ is an interesting journey.  The PCs travel to Elturel, meet some members of a couple factions that encourage them to continue “tracking” the Cult’s wagons of loot, and move on to Baldur’s Gate and beyond.  It’s a traveling episode.

The bulk of the Episode centers on a caravan wagon in which the PC’s find employment as a cover to keep spying on the Cult’s activities.  Their goal is to find where this stuff is going.  And find out what exactly the Cult is doing.

In preparation for running this episode, I had to figure out several things:

1) Was it necessary to “flesh out” Elturel if they were only going to be there for a short time?

2) What might the PCs potentially need Baldur’s Gate information for?  As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, this is my first foray into the wold of Faerun and the Forgotten Realms.  I had a lot of learning to do.

3) How much did I want to develop the NPCs that the PCs might interact with?

4) What might be the logistics of managing combat in a caravan?  What does one even look like?  How does one operate?

5) What do I need to know about the area they’re going to be traveling through?

Fortunately, there is a wonderful tool available online that has proven incredibly helpful:  The Forgotten Realms Wiki.  I’ve been using this a lot to try to help me learn more about each area.  Through the wiki, I was able to determine that the PCs would be going through an area that had already been outlined in different resources, so I was able to purchase them to help me understand the “lay of the land”:  Scourge of the Sword Coast.  While this particular adventure ins’t completely necessary, it does outline one particular town the PCs will necessarily pass through: Daggerford.  It is a town on the Trade Way between Baldur’s Gate and Waterdeep, where the PCs are headed.  I felt it was important to know what this area was like so I could provide descriptive detail that implies a depth and richness to the table experience of the setting.

Session 1

I decided early on that Elturel was such a short stop in the PCs journey that I probably wouldn’t need to extrapolate too much on that particular location.  And my instincts were correct–we blew threw that area at my table and headed out to Baldur’s Gate very quickly.  My table finished their first session of Episode 4 following the Cult to one of their “safe houses” in the city, and staying at an inn nearby.  They found their contact, who facilitated finding employment for the Cult’s caravan journey north, and we left it at that.  After the fact, I did find an entry on the Faerun Wiki that could have potentially provided some assistance if needed, and a map through a Google search using Elturel as the term.

Session 2

Episode 4 to Post Sheet2I told my table I would have a conflict that would prevent me from DMing the following session as scheduled.  I told them they were more than welcome to join another table at our store for that week. They all decided to wait a week, but honestly I didn’t want to just leave them high and dry and not able to play because of me.  Instead, Caravanlayers2I worked on fleshing out the NPCs they found employment with, and sent them each personal emails with descriptive details and images of their particular NPCs that had hired them. In so doing I learned I had to be particular about a lot of things, so I created a whole panoply of personalities for the journey northward.

I also learned that I need to figure out just exactly what the caravan looked like, and how they might be set up for each evening.So I created a couple images in photoshop to help me make that happen.

And that made me realized I had to figure out when these adventures might be happening.  Their order.  Ack–nightmare.  I had 6 sessions to break things up into (as prescribed by my Store Organizer) and I created an order so we could play all the little random encounter scenarios that the players have to deal with in Episode 4.  I started by going backwards–figuring out which random encounters needed to happen when because there were specifics encounters that had to happen in a specific order and time in the Episode.Caravanwagoncircle

I started with those, backed the rest of them up, and figured out when each one would happen in the order that I desired.  I outlined it on a spreadsheet for easy reference, and dove in.  I tried to make certain encounters make sense in conjunction with other encounters.

I also learned that the tone of what happens in the caravan when the PCs are not actually engaged in one of these random scenarios is honestly the bulk of what this Episode is about.  In order for some of the scenarios to make sense, there neEpisode 4 to Post Sheet1eds to be a sense of place and climate established early on.  It is not outlined in the adventure.  The table atmosphere is, in part, what will make the later required encounters really work.  If your style as a DM means that you aren’t really describing how all the NPCs react around each other, the behavior of the Cultists, the impact of some of these scenarios on the caravan, it can be hard to then whip the final encounters into fruition without making the PCs feel “railroaded”. I would suggest DMs ponder ways to describe the climate, describe the quality of the journey, take time to create NPC banter and characterization, put the PCs in positions where they have to interact with the NPCs in order to, in the end, assume a sense of authority in the caravan that will be important for Episode 5’s NPC conflicts.

Session 3

In Episode 4 there is a major editing error in the adventure as it was published.  A stat block was changed after some monsters were selected, making one particular random encounter a real death-fest.  There has been some thick debate on how to deal with it.  I decided to run the scenario as written.  I warned my players.  They performed AWESOMELY!  Charm Person, Crown of Thorns, Hold Person.  It was incredible.  I was so proud of them for taking down/”dealing with” 4 CR8 creatures (that kept failing their saving throws) so deftly.  I was proud to award them the XP they deserved.


I will continue describing the events as the game progresses.  Currently, I’m getting ready for Session 4 of this adventure, when they all go through Daggerford.  I have a lot of reading to do in prep.


My Table’s Hoard of the Dragon Queen Experience: An Intro

Like many many others currently playing the new 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, my table is running Hoard of the Dragon Queen, one of the latest adventures available.  I am DMing a table under the auspices of the Adventurers League (AL), Wizards of the Coast’s official Organized Play structure that facilitates the mass-coordination of hundreds of tables all across the world.  AL provides a basic set of common rules for all the participants in an effort to facilitate players playing the same games in different locations or traveling to play those games at different locations than their original table’s locale.  This means DMs can (and often do) run tables for strangers that are visiting their vicinity, or accommodate shifting player numbers at specific venues.  The rules allow the table playing experiences to be somewhat similar whether the game is being run in Oregon or in Florida, Australia or Canada.

HOTDQImageMy particular table is in southern California.  I started running Horde of the Dragon Queen (HotDQ) a couple of months ago, and I’ve had a variety of different players come and go.  There have been some consistent players (for the most part) but things have taken a turn lately where I am pretty much DMing for the same six players.

HotDQ is partitioned into 8 Episodes.  It is for character levels 1- 8.  The adventure continues in a sequel called Rise of Tiamat (RoT) that provides playable content for levels 8-15.  My group of players have managed to meet weekly for about 2 hours, during which we’ve managed to make it through Episodes 1-3.  Those episodes have “companion” content issued by Adventurers League to help facilitate the playing of the adventure.  But from Episode 4 onward, the table shifts from being “counted” as what AL calls an Encounters table to a Casual Table.  Encounters is a program AL uses to introduce new players to the game, and it is limited to PCs (player characters) of levels 1-4.  There’s some confusion whether Episode 4 is technically still playable by level 1 characters as the PCs may not be at 5th level by then, but I haven’t had to deal with that, so for me it’s not an issue.

I am going to try to outline my preparation and table’s play experiences in these blog posts.  I’m doing it not because I want to share how the events in the adventure unfolded for my players, but to discuss preparation and materials that I’ve worked on for other DMs if they’re interested.


Preparation for DMs to run these adventures varies depending on the preferences of the DM.  Some desire a lot of prep, some don’t.  I, personally, need to flesh out the details I read in the adventure so I can wrap my head around what the players might do.  Since D&D is an open-ended game, there is no telling what a team of players might decide they need to do and it’s my job as the DM to facilitate the story telling they decide to create.  I guide them, of course, to follow the general plot thread that is outlined by the adventure itself, but there’s a lot of “fleshing out” that I have to do for myself to make their experiences rich and thorough.

In so doing, I’ve learned a lot of things:

Scourge1) I am not familiar with HotDQ’s campaign setting, Forgotten Realms.  The adventures take place in a world called Faerun, and I have never played in that particular setting.  Last time I played D&D, I was playing in a world called Greyhawk, a completely different setting with different topography, towns, cultures…  In short, a very different place.  Faerun has a whole different flavor, and my learning curve is going to be quite daunting.  I realize how much I don’t know every time I look at HotDQ.

2) I am still learning the rules of D&D, so I’ve got a double learning curve.

3) I don’t know how to “wing it” and run a table experience from the book itself.  My lack of knowledge with the setting and rules prevent me from improvising a good game in the moment.

First Steps

FRCSSo.  One thing that neither Wizards of the Coast nor Adventurer’s League has done is provide a lot of setting information.  The adventures can be run without having to know a whole bunch of backstory, but it is clear (at least to me) that a general familiarization with Faerun is a good thing.  To that end, my first step was to buy an e-book version of an old campaign sourcebook printed about 10 years ago called The Forgotten Realms.

I also learned that immediately prior to D&D’s 5th Edition release, a version of the game called “D&D Next” was released that is set in the general vicinity of the world that HotDQ is happening in.  So I have purchased a couple of those, namely Dreams of the Red Wizards: Scourge of the Swordcoast, simply for background material.

Preparing for DMing the first three Episodes of HotDQ was more about putting together maps for the use of figurines in combat, trying to understand how AL worked as an Organized Play campaign, and simply learning the logistics of the rules.  I could rant about what went wrong from an organizational standpoint, but I’m not.  I’ve already done that in various places like Facebook or the WotC Forums.  Suffice to say, the next campaign by AL may be a tad bit more developed and functional.

But that being said, I am now in Episode 4, and my table is moving on.  Our dreams of character “portability” from one table to the next have been sorta shattered for a number of reasons, so we’re kinda “pulling in” and coming to the understanding that we’re simply going to play our table to the best of our ability and not worry about using the PCs at other places.  The reality is that none of my players have decided their specific PCs will be playing in other places or at other tables, so we’re following AL rules because we want to, not because we have to.  And given the more sandbox structure of Episodes 4-8, the likelihood that any table experiences will be similar (even in the same venue) is ludicrous.


So we’ve circled the wagons and are doing this for us.  If new players show up and need to play at my table, I don’t know what I’m going to do.  But I’m not the Store Organizer.  I’m hoping it never happens.  It is technically possible that my table’s players could decide to make our table an AL-legal “Homeplay” game, but that would mean it is not reported by my store as “Casual” play, and they don’t get credit for it.  Potentially that means we’d also have to find a new venue to play, as they’re not going to give up their space for that.  So I guess we’ll continue along with the possibility of a new visiting player being inserted into our table’s story arc (somehow) in order to play at a convenient location.  I’ll deal with that when it happens.

In the next section, I will get to logistics.

Initiative Cards

My recent forays into D&D 5th Edition have forced me to explore different methods of tracking initiative.  A lot of the searches that I’ve made have rendered methods for using cards that require them to be propped up on a DM screen or used as “tents” apparently.  This is a system that I am not familiar with, and something tells me it developed after I stopped playing D&D in 2005.

And that made me feel sorta old.

When I dove into my initial DMing back for Living Greyhawk and 3.5, I learned a system for keeping track of initiative using index cards from my friend Eric Brittain.  That was a system I was familiar with, but my searches for something similar to what I remembered were fruitless.  Sadly, even some of the old companies that generated index cards (Like Game Mechanics) I came to learn didn’t exist anymore.

Now I was really feeling old and out of touch.

So I decided to make my own.

I blatantly stole some of the imagery from Frank Foulis (Thanks, Frank!) to develop my own.  I don’t know where he got it, or if he invented it, but I just want to make a shout out that it wouldn’t be possible without his initial work.  I’ve never met the man (seems like a nice guy on Facebook on the Adventurer’s League page), but hey–thanks again, bud!

So here they are.  A 3″x5″ Form Fillable PDF that you can fill out for each monster, save as a distinct file, then arrange multiples on a piece of paper to print out.  For those of you who know how these work–go for it!  But for those of you who don’t: you have the players all fill out an index card with whatever information you want on it, then put them all in initiative order every time it’s determined for each encounter.  (I usually make the monsters all go on the same initiative number to save time.)  As they’re killed, you put them all in a stack, and at the end of the session you add up their XP.

Some boxes are slashed diagonally for the initial stat and the modifier below.  The line of boxes at the right are to keep track of descending hit points.

I hope they’re useful for someone.  InitiativeCardFF

A sample Kobold example.

Some Tools to Ponder for Interesting Roleplaying

As I’m approaching DMing Episode 2 of Horde of the Dragon Queen I thought it might be helpful to make what seems like a primarily roleplaying episode a little less abstract in my mind.  In the past, I have found that making roleplaying a little more “concrete” can be helpful.  Many players and DMs struggle with the roleplaying aspect of their games, and it can be a challenge to find ways to make it more effective.  My personal method is to make the improvisational aspect of things a little more structured. Here are some things I’ve done in the past that have worked for me.


In the mod, for all NPC characters, I write down specific information for characterization during roleplaying interactions.  I use a loose scaffolding of characteristics to help me remember what each NPC might be like beyond the information presented in the mod.  I write these down in the margins of the mod by each NPC’s information, or on index cards for quick reference, just to help me remember when I’m actually roleplaying.

1) I write down a physical, vocal, and emotional characteristic for flavor.

2) I highlight important information each NPC has in a specific “roleplaying color” distinct from other highlighters I might choose to use so I can remember to share it in my interactions.

3) I write down tactics they might use to try to get what they want in the moment, or a tactic they might use to prevent the PCs from getting what they want.

4) I write down possible effective triggers that the PCs might use to glean the information from the PCs.

5) For 5th Edition, I’m going to write down potential Skill Check DCs for Performance, Intimidation, and Persuasion effectiveness if they aren’t already provided in the mod and prepare to modify them in the moment.  This may only be necessary if there is specific information the Players are supposed to glean from the NPCs that they aren’t willing to overtly give up.

This seems like a lot of prep work for roleplaying interactions.  But for some, it can be as important as knowing a monster’s stat block.  Even contemplating a portion of these ideas may go a long way to enhancing an element of the game that can be marginalized in favor of more concrete and fleshed out combat rule mechanisms.

Know your NPC’s objectives for the interaction with the Characters

What are they doing in the moment your PCs are interacting with them? Waiting tables? Recovering their senses after a battle? Keeping shop?

What do they actually want in that moment?  How important is that to them?

This is probably evident in the mod.

Know your PC’s objectives for the interaction with the NPCs

What are the PC’s trying to glean from the interaction?  This should be evident in the mod.

Create obstacles that stand in the way of both the NPCs and PCs objectives

Do the NPCs actually want to share information?  What might prevent them from doing so? Will they easily share it? What might be a trigger for an NPC to share information or do what the PCs want them to do?

Does that trigger require a Performance, Intimidation, or Persuasion check?

Prepare different tactics for your NPC to achieve their objectives in the interaction.  They may not achieve them, however. 

What are NPCs willing to do to achieve their objectives?

Good Tactics are action verbs:  To intimate, to plead, to insult, to beg, to hide, to get away

Bad Tactics are emotional states:  to be happy, to be sad

When one tactic is not working, consider adding another tactic or changing it.  Using the same over and over again is fruitless—you may get into a deadlock with the PC and the scene becomes boring and frustrating.

Some tactics may already be provided in the mod itself.

Players, on the other hand, will use all kinds of tactics to get what their characters want, and won’t even realize it:  buying a drink, helping a bartender cleanup, burning a health kit charge, bribing, threatening, cajoling, expressing kindness, etc.  Multiple tactics might possibly enhance the more obvious basic Skill Checks.  For example, a character that heals an enemy might get advantage on a Persuasion check.  A character that plays their lute soothingly might be considered helping the interaction of another PC in a persuasion check in the right context.  A character that holds their knife under a Kobold’s throat as another character interrogates them might be considered to be helping the PC in their intimidation check, and providing advantage.  Consider how or if a DC may change if one PC fails and another makes an attempt on the same NPC with a different tactic.

For Flavor

Flavorful roleplaying is what makes things fun.  There are a lot of things you can do to make your characters seem more “alive” without being a good actor.  Relying upon some simple tricks can go a long way to making the table’s game experience much more enjoyable.  They may seem trite or amateur, but they can prompt effective characterization that makes each NPC unique.

Prepare personality characteristics for each NPC:  A physical, vocal, and emotional

Physical Examples:

Twitch?  Too broad a smile?  Scowl?  Hunched shoulders?  Wringing hands? A cold? Continually coughing?  Looks down their nose?  How do racial characteristics impact these choices?

Vocal Examples:

High or low pitched voice?  Accent?  Slurred words?  Hoarse?  Slow or fast? How do racial characteristics impact these choices?

Emotional Examples:

Prideful?  Angry?  Impatient?  Distracted?  Fearful?   Stuck up?  Condescending?  Distraught? Haughty? Shy?

Consider whether there is a famous character or personality that the NPC might emulate that you can imitate?  It doesn’t matter how “good” you are—you aren’t playing that character.  Gandalf?  Batman?  Black Widow?  Gimli? Capt. Mal Reynolds?  Keep it in the back of your mind.

In Conclusion

The key to good roleplaying (in my opinion) is remembering what the goals for each interaction might be, then enjoying fleshing out how those goals are achieved (or not).  With the objectives in mind, it is easier to determine success or failure and guide the direction of the interaction.  Sometimes, the interaction is a mod requirement for an NPC delivering necessary information, other times it is about a PC trying to accomplish something.

This information may or may not be useful to you.  It may be burdensome for some, in which case you might want to come up with your own system.  It’s all good.  Just pondering these ideas can be helpful in some ways.  I hope that you consider what is useful to you for your style of DMing.