As I hinted in the installment of Tiamat Tuesday on July 8, episodes 5–8 of Hoard of the Dragon Queen are more open-ended than episodes 1–4. The second half of the adventure isn’t a sandbox; characters still have a mystery to unravel and an evil plot to stop. They will, however, face dilemmas that have no by-the-book solutions. The usual methods for shutting down an evil cult won’t work against the Cult of the Dragon. There is no single high priest whose assassination will cause the organization to crumble. The cult’s crucial magic relics are so well-hidden and so misunderstood by outsiders that characters can’t even locate them, let alone destroy them. The cult is too big, too organized, and too dispersed to be knocked out by any single blow or even a combination of blows. Killing this beast will take a thousand cuts, and they must be well-placed ones.
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.
Working on the Tyranny of Dragons project has been something of a dream come true for me. Like a great many folks playing RPGs today, I grew up playing D&D. As an 11- or 12-year-old avid D&D player and aspiring artist, I used to spend hours marveling at all the adventures and rulebooks, daydreaming about how cool it would be to actually work at TSR when I grew up. Well, I’m all grown up now and I’m lucky enough to work in the RPG industry for some amazing companies and people, Kobold Press and Wolfgang Baur obviously heading up that list! However, for the 12-year-old D&D fan still very much inside of me, getting to work on an official D&D product, not to mention the very first adventure for the new D&D rules, is positively surreal!
As the primary person choosing the artists, assigning the art, and then working with the artists, I was determined that the art in these books would be as awesome as possible. One of the artists I knew we had to get involved was Guido Kuip. Guido had done lots of work for us in the past and I’ve always enjoyed working with him so I was confident he could deliver. And deliver he did!
Tyranny of Dragons is nothing if not epic. It starts out fairly small, as a tale of unknown raiders attacking towns and caravans along the Sword Coast for loot and ransom. Before it’s done, those raiders will be rounding up prisoners to sacrifice in their dark rituals, dragons will gather in numbers not seen for generations, and every political and military force on the Sword Coast will need to unite against the threat if they hope to stave off an unimaginable evil.
The Forgotten Realms is big enough to allow that kind of story—to absorb the devastating blows that these amassed evil forces deliver and survive. But with so much going on everywhere, we had a big task just deciding what to focus on. The player characters are clearly the heroes of the tale, but by the beginning of The Rise of Tiamat, the Cult of the Dragon is operating across a region that spans thousands of miles. A handful of heroes can’t be everywhere at once.
Let’s get down to the basics: The Cult of the Dragon is one of the longer-running and more interesting villain organizations in the Forgotten Realms, and I was delighted to hear that Wizards of the Coast wanted the first big adventures for the new edition of D&D to feature these bad guys. My first thought was, “Dracoliches. Cool!”
Well, my first thought was wrong. The Cult of the Dragon is interesting because its members mean to bring dragons to rule the world (while, of course, standing right beside them and reaping some of the benefits of draconic power!), but the cult itself hasn’t always agreed on what’s what. In the case of the Cult of the Dragon, there’s an inner circle and a cult leadership, and sometimes the people at the top are killed off by adventuring parties or by disappointed dragons. When that happens, the cult might take on a new direction. The phrase “under new management” possibly leaps to mind.