Ideally, players and Dungeon Masters (DMs) who sit down to tackle The Rise of Tiamat will already have played Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Rise is a continuation of Hoard’s story about the Cult of the Dragon, but they are very different adventures in style.
Hoard of the Dragon Queen is a big, sprawling adventure that spreads across hundreds of miles of territory and encompasses several distinct styles of play, from the short commando missions of “Greenest in Flames” to the dungeon crawl of “Dragon Hatchery” to the extended road trip of “On the Road” to the open-ended investigation of “Castle Naerytar.” But running through all that variety and tying it together is a unity of theme—the paired ideas that no one outside the Cult of the Dragon yet understands the full extent of the cult’s plot, and that the player characters, being brave but largely unknown, are good candidates to investigate and find out what’s up.
By the time The Rise of Tiamat kicks off, that situation is reversed. Through the player characters’ investigation and the cult’s own actions, the truth about Rezmir’s plans for the Sword Coast is revealed and the adventurers become famous heroes with well-known reputations. Those two changes lead to a noticeably different structure and tone in The Rise of Tiamat.
In Hoard, investigating the Cult of the Dragon was a sidelight for the factions, something that a few people with strong intuition (or who were just naturally suspicious) started looking into on their own initiative. With the full horror of the cult’s plan laid bare, the powers-that-be in Western Faerûn can’t ignore the danger anymore or push it toward the bottom of their priority lists. The situation becomes a matter of urgency for kings, generals, lord mayors, chief wizards, high priests, and rulers of every title. If the cult’s plan succeeds, there will be no more kingdoms, no more churches, no more merchants’ associations—there will be no power but Tiamat and her cabal of all-consuming dragons.
Faced with that threat, the movers and shakers of the Sword Coast convene a Council of Waterdeep to debate the proper response to the situation and to plan how best to oppose the cult. The council involves all five factions plus the most important rulers, nobility, and merchants of Western Faerûn. We’ll have much more to say about the council in a follow-up article. For now, it’s sufficient to state that, along with pursuing more traditional quests, player characters must also interact with the Council of Waterdeep, and that gives The Rise of Tiamat a political component seldom seen in D&D adventures.
Hoard of the Dragon Queen struck a balance between linear and nonlinear storytelling. It has a clear progression of events for characters to follow as they unravel the cult’s secret operation, but within those events, characters have enormous freedom of action. The Rise of Tiamat is structured differently. Specific events and situations are presented for characters to investigate or attack, but DMs aren’t required to run the episodes in a set order. The adventure suggests one sequence, but it’s not the only one possible. Many threats are developing at once around the Sword Coast. Characters learn about some of them through the Council of Waterdeep, some from other NPCs, some through informants or news brought by travelers, and some through their own effort. A DM who functions best when things are kept orderly can present just one or two situations at a time; a DM who’s comfortable with more chaos can present many leads and rumors and let players prioritize the risks themselves and tackle the episodes in whatever order they choose. This also means that most of the episodes are not restricted to a narrow range of character levels. Thanks to the way fifth edition D&D is built, it’s relatively easy to design situations that are just as challenging for 14th-level characters as they are for 10th-level characters.
Finally, there’s the finale—the great confrontation that everything builds toward. The situation we created for The Rise of Tiamat is not a typical boss fight. The fate of the entire Sword Coast and beyond is at stake, and it’s not up to the player characters alone to win this fight. The outcome of the final battle depends only partly on how well the characters fight that day. Equally important are how much damage they inflicted on the cult along the road to this point and how well they impressed members of the Council of Waterdeep to lend their support to the war. If the factions are feuding between themselves and the independent powers of the Sword Coast haven’t been influenced to take up the common cause, there’s every possibility that the Cult of the Dragon will win the day and bring ruin to Faerûn. If characters make their move against the cult in league with a strong alliance of powers, they have a solid shot at victory and at carving their names alongside some of the greatest heroes of the Forgotten Realms.
Steve Winter is one of the designers of the Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat adventures for the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat are available in exclusive autographed collector’s editions with a patch available only through Kobold Press.