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Horde of the Dragon Queen (what am I doing wrong)spoilers

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
So, to anybody who does like Hoard of the Dragon Queen, let me go ahead and apologize for calling it a terrible module. I was just trying to be quippy, but I don’t mean to poo-poo on anyone else’s preferences. Personally, I did not like HotDQ for a number of reasons, but if it worked for you, that’s awesome. Please know that my critiques of it are based on my own experience with it and my own taste, not meant to be taken authoritatively.

Ok, fair enough. One of my players had it and I don't have lots of time to do a homebrew campaign, so I ran it. Are you suggesting I ran things properly?
It seems to me like you ran things just fine. It’s just that HotDQ is extremely lethal in the beginning.

I've been playing 5e for three or so years and have been finding it to be a less deadly compared to previous editions. It could be that I've had a couple 'story driven' DMs who didn't push combat very hard. Even when I DM one-shots, I've found I've been able to err on the side of more deadly to challenge PCs.

I guess I was just 'trusting' the module for balance but a lot doesn't feel 'right' as I was prepping stuff. I know there's a thread to help 'improve' the module but what's the point of having a module if you have to read a 10-page thread? For me, I run modules to save time and reading piles of threads is just more prep that I don't have time for.
It has been my experience as well that 5e is generally less lethal that previous editions, save 4e. HotDQ, however, was the first module written for 5e, and I think the balance issues that many people find with it have a lot to do with that.

What modules are good? I'm willing to buy a different one. I was thinking of running Storm King's Thunder.
Lost Mine of Phandelver from the starter set is excellent. If you can get ahold of the Sundering modules, they’re technically written for the playtest version of 5e, but they’re fantastic and easily compatible with the final version of 5e. Curse of Strahd is pretty good, but I would strongly caution against using story-based level advancement with it. I can’t speak to Storm King’s Thunder as I haven’t read it, but I have heard good things about it. My experience playing it has been a tad on the railroady side, but not half as bad as Dragon Queen in that regard. I would not recommend Princes of the Apocalypse at all.

I told them to make new characters. They're all new to D&D so, on the bright side, they've learned the value of retreating and caution.
Yeah, I think for players who know to expect the early game lethality of HotDQ and enjoy that kind of play, it wouldn’t be a big problem (though such a group would still have to contend with its linearity).
 

Retreater

Adventurer
I've run a few of the published adventures, so I might be able to address them.

In addition to Hoard of the Dragon Queen, I've also run Lost Mines of Phandelver (a few times, actually), Storm King's Thunder, Tomb of Annihilation (a couple times), Out of the Abyss, and Princes of the Apocalypse.

Here are my quick summations of the issues with each. However, I do think that all of them are useful, even if just mined for ideas.

HotDQ: Railroady, imbalanced, improper use of the rules since it was written before the rules were finalized. Best used as an outline.
Lost Mines: Pretty strong sandbox adventure. Only goes from 1-5 levels.
Storm King's Thunder: The plot is a little more obtuse than needed. More than 50% of the book you're not supposed to use, as it's only "go to one of these four locations" several times throughout the adventure. We ended up scrapping the plot and going with something more direct.
Tomb of Annihilation: The motivation for the adventure is either lost or its causes the party to rush through the jungles of Chult, having little reason to explore the locations - which is the highlight of the adventure. Find a different reason to bring them to Chult and to seek out the Forbidden City.
Out of the Abyss: The opening is rough and requires buy-in from the group. You'll be running around a dozen NPCs, so it's a lot to keep up with. The introduction of demon lords very early in the adventure can cause the groups to lose heart and try to run away from the adventure (happened both times I ran it).
Princes of the Apocalypse: Pretty strong adventure with short dungeon crawls to keep it from getting boring. The first location - "the air tower" - has very complicated political machinations that I've never been able to wrap my head around. Best to tweek that one a bit.
 

jayoungr

Explorer
Lost Mine of Phandelver from the starter set is excellent.
I thought about suggesting that one, but if the group is having problems with lethality, I don't think LMoP is going to be better than HotDQ. I recall lots of groups reporting TPKs in the goblin caves at the beginning.

***

[MENTION=15882]TaranTheWanderer[/MENTION]: Re-reading your initial post, I do think maybe you're playing the enemies as smarter than many DMs would, especially for a low-level game. An enemy that gets down to 1 HP would, in my low-level games, just run off to lick his wounds, rather than summon help. And with the way you used the boss and mooks in the Frulam Mondath fight, I think you outmaneuvered your players, in addition to outnumbering them.
 
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ART!

Explorer
I haven't read much of the thread yet, but yes: HotDQ is...not good.

The big final encounter/location is a de facto TPK unless as a DM you have some experience or know the system really well. The PCs are almost completely isolated - and the only would require skill checks whose failure will kill you - in a large location full of all kinds of things that can kill them, big and small. Best guess is the PCs are expected to hide and heal a lot, or be very, very, very clever and/or lucky.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I thought about suggesting that one, but if the group is having problems with lethality, I don't think LMoP is going to be better than HotDQ. I recall lots of groups reporting TPKs in the goblin caves at the beginning.
Yeah, the goblin caves are a TPK waiting to happen if the players try to fight their way through them. But the adventure gives them every opportunity to negotiate with either the goblins or klaarg (or both, and play them against each other.) I think it’s a very good use of a deadly encounter - yes, if you end up fighting and don’t retreat, you likely won’t survive. But several things have to go wrong for you to end up in that situation,
 

Gradine

Archivist
As soon as I saw the thread title I was like "someone's going to say 'playing HotDQ'" and this thread sure didn't disappoint!

HotDQ is great for new players but pretty terrible for new DMs because it does take quite a bit of tweaking; there's generally too many combat encounters, and it'll either grind your players into paste or bore them to death depending on where you are (Greenest vs Naerytar, for example).

But what it does is provide you a series of very different styles of adventure in its first half (hub-based missions, subterfuge/infiltration, dungeon crawl, tour-the-realms), then presents you with a handful of site-based adventures where you can utilize what you've learned in the previous chapters to tackle them in any different way.

You can't really run it as written, which is definitely a knock, but there's a surprising amount of good ideas here given the reputation it has.
 
Horde of the Dragon Queen (what am I doing wrong)?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but...
I can tell you exactly what you’re doing wrong. You’re running Hoard of the Dragon Queen. It’s a terrible module.
...that.

2 TPKs.
I don't get it. Am I playing the enemies too hard/smart?

Greenest:
HotDQ went to the presses before the Encounter Guidelines, and it shows. Especially in the first set of encounters. Being outnumbered tells more heavily in 5e than in most prior eds, and the author either didn't realize that, or was obliged to design encounters a certain way that simply didn't work well. Aside from that, had they been guideline-compliant encounters, the Greenest set-up was a pretty good way of getting DMs and players used to the Short-Rest trade-off. Each hour you have a choice to go on a mission or rest, if you go all missions, you'd probably die, even if the encounters were built to suitable guidelines.

Also, 1st level is just the deadliest level of 5e.

Is the whole module like this?
Yes, but the /system/ improves as the PCs level. By 3rd you should be seeing far fewer problems.

What modules are good? I'm willing to buy a different one. I was thinking of running Storm King's Thunder.
Not great either, also might steer clear of Tomb of Annihilation. Phandelver's s'posed'ta be quite good, for a beginning module. I liked Curse of Strahd, and the collection-of-classic-modules-re-boot, Yawning Portal.

They're all new to D&D so, on the bright side, they've learned the value of retreating and caution.
I have a sneaking almost-conspiracy-theory suspicion that it was intended. 5e tends to break a little 'easy' compared to other eds, especially once magic items come into it, so making 1st level a little rough may establish a first impression that it's a 'hard game,' letting players feel better about running roughshod over it later.
 

Sabathius42

Villager
Two qualifiers to make a comment.

1. I have never ran, ran in, or read HOTDQ.
2. I have no idea the exact circumstances of the scene where the Goliath was KOed.

Comment

If I were running a low level adventure in which the heros killed some bad guys and rescued some prisoners but in which one of the players (who was heavy) was dropped I would probably rule that the captives can help the party to "shoulder the load" by taking on their packs/weapons/whatever and the party could get away safely with the unconscious character. I really try to avoid killing low level characters, especially ones that players have put some effort into creating story and party interconnection hooks with.

DS
 

Nebulous

Adventurer
What modules are good? I'm willing to buy a different one. I was thinking of running Storm King's Thunder.

I told them to make new characters. They're all new to D&D so, on the bright side, they've learned the value of retreating and caution.
Personally I have run Lost Mine of Phandelver (loved it), Princes of the Apocalypse (loved it) and about half of Tomb of Annihilation so far (loving it). The latter are probably for more experienced DMs and not newbies, but they're super fun. I heard that Curse of Strahd if fantastic but I haven't run it.
 

Parmandur

Legend
Ok, fair enough. One of my players had it and I don't have lots of time to do a homebrew campaign, so I ran it. Are you suggesting I ran things properly?

I've been playing 5e for three or so years and have been finding it to be a less deadly compared to previous editions. It could be that I've had a couple 'story driven' DMs who didn't push combat very hard. Even when I DM one-shots, I've found I've been able to err on the side of more deadly to challenge PCs.

I guess I was just 'trusting' the module for balance but a lot doesn't feel 'right' as I was prepping stuff. I know there's a thread to help 'improve' the module but what's the point of having a module if you have to read a 10-page thread? For me, I run modules to save time and reading piles of threads is just more prep that I don't have time for.

What modules are good? I'm willing to buy a different one. I was thinking of running Storm King's Thunder.

I told them to make new characters. They're all new to D&D so, on the bright side, they've learned the value of retreating and caution.
It's not that HotDQ is horrible, but...it was the first big adventure for 5E, and the DMG encounter guidelines were still in flux when it was published. They actually turned the dial down pretty close to the last minute before the G went out the door. If you break it down, HotDQ is in hard mode according to the published guidelines for encounter building, that the subsequent books adhere to more closely. So, no, it's not just you, this is a bonkers module in terms of difficulty.
 
Yeah, the goblin caves are a TPK waiting to happen if the players try to fight their way through them. But the adventure gives them every opportunity to negotiate with either the goblins or klaarg (or both, and play them against each other.) I think it’s a very good use of a deadly encounter - yes, if you end up fighting and don’t retreat, you likely won’t survive. But several things have to go wrong for you to end up in that situation,
I’ve run those caves twice, and played through them once, and none of the PCs died. And they did fight their way through...but they also used the lost art of *sneaking*. I wonder if that’s the issue here. People thinking they can just charge in to every situation. Yes, your barbarian can kick in the door. But first sneak up on the guards and clobber them from behind, barricade the rest into the barracks, and *then* kick in the door.
 
...but they also used the lost art of *sneaking*. I wonder if that’s the issue here.
IDK, 'lost art' implies that it was once a thing. But trying to hide-in-shadows/move-silently up on something back in the day was really kinda improbable, and you had to be far in advance of your party's healer & best fighters (all in clanky heavy armor), to even try. So it tended to get you killed. Eventually, the system got the idea that maybe having to succeed at two skill checks to accomplish one thing was a bit off, and combined them into Stealth, but, even then, if your whole party Stealthed up (opposed by one or more enemies), it was prettymuch a given that someone would fail, (and/or one of the enemies would roll really high) and blow the whole thing.

Now, we have Group Checks vs Passive Perception, and sneaking up and surprising the enemy is finally practicable.
 
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I don’t even mean every character needed to use the Stealth skill. I was talking about it with my friend and decided that what I am getting at is more of just having characters think of solutions other than barging into everything thinking they can handle it. I’m having a bit of a “kids these days” moment, but I just imagine newer players trying to survive the fun Planescape adventure “The Eternal Boundary” I ran a couple years ago. That adventure is totally doable (and my players survived), and was obvious to them that you shouldn’t (for a number of reasons) kick in the doors of the Mortuary and treat it like a dungeon (or do the same thing with the Citadel of Fire). My players put on disguises and bluffed their way through most of it, though they did have a difficult fighting retreat (that’s a real thing!) from the Citadel of Fire once they were found out. They finished the adventure after that by just telling a faction or two what was going on, making the villain’s plans useless. (Of course, now they’ve made enemies that might pop up again at some point...)

I think the issue is that people coming into D&D nowadays are used to MMOs or other games where it is expected that if it is standing there in your way you can kill it. The DM is running this adventure, so the same must be true about anything we see, right? No. How boring that would be. Yes, an adventure that is fed to you as your only option should be winnable, but that doesn’t mean you should be able to kill anything you think is blocking your goals.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I think there’s a sweet spot somewhere between “you can march right up to any enemy the DM puts in front of you and expect to win against it” and “you can never expect to win without using Guerilla tactics.” Where exactly that sweet spot is will vary from group to group, but in the end, most players want a genuine challenge, but also a reasonable chance to overcome that challenge. Nobody likes a fight they have no chance of winning, but a game where you’re never in danger of losing a fight gets boring quickly. That’s why I’m a big fan of well-telegraphed deadly encounters. If the players can see the fight coming, know it’s likely to be more than they can handle, and have the opportunity to make preparations to shift the odds in their favor, that’s a deadly encounter done right, in my opinion. And that’s what the goblin caves in LMoP are.
 
I think there’s a sweet spot somewhere between “you can march right up to any enemy the DM puts in front of you and expect to win against it” and “you can never expect to win without using Guerilla tactics.”
What, you're not accepting the CaS/CaW dichotomy?
How reasonable of you.

Where exactly that sweet spot is will vary from group to group, but in the end, most players want a genuine challenge, but also a reasonable chance to overcome that challenge. Nobody likes a fight they have no chance of winning, but a game where you’re never in danger of losing a fight gets boring quickly. That’s why I’m a big fan of well-telegraphed deadly encounters. If the players can see the fight coming, know it’s likely to be more than they can handle, and have the opportunity to make preparations to shift the odds in their favor, that’s a deadly encounter done right, in my opinion.
One thing that helps is having ways of resolving too-deadly-combat encounters in another way that may still advance the goals of the PCs (even if that's, well, survival) and be engaging for the players. Shifting pillars, for instance. An encounter is too powerful to fight? Can it be reasoned with? (Interaction) Can it be discovered in advance and avoided? (Exploration)

Of course, that assumes social resolution more engaging than a Diplomacy check, and/or exploration resolution more inclusive than sending out a lone scout.
 
They did a good job of talking their way out of a couple fights. One of the group is pretending to be a cultist. They could have fought the Fruulam alone by going up the ladder. They knew where the guards were and how many there were and where the boss was. They chose to go through all the guards because they didn’t want to have to go up the ladder one at a time.

The biggest issue is they never felt like a long rest was reasonable. They obliterated the kobolds and one of the bosses and needed to rest. They knew how many enemies were left but felt that, if they waited, their attack would be discovered and they would lose surprise. There was lots of talk of smoking the enemies out which could have worked possibly. I just feel like there was one room too many. It didn’t help that they got wasted by the stirges. That encounter should have been easier.

Maybe if I hadn’t levelled them they would have been more cautious.
 
The biggest issue is they never felt like a long rest was reasonable. They obliterated the kobolds and one of the bosses and needed to rest. They knew how many enemies were left but felt that, if they waited, their attack would be discovered and they would lose surprise.
Pacing can be kinda fraught in 5e, you need to push the party through enough encounters/day to keep it challenging, and keep the various classes contributing meaningfully, and that often means emphasizing time importance and the downsides of resting...
...at the same time, if they take on too much, it'll go south fast.

It's a delicate balancing act, and, like designing encounters, is at least as much art & experience as working within the guidelines' formulas.
 

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