D&D Tyranny of Dragons Campaign Review & Rebuttal

Note:  I have done my best to keep this discussion spoiler free. However, the links in the Resources for the DM section will take you to spoilers.

I have really been enjoying the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons. To learn some reasons why I love D&D fifth edition so much, you can check out this blog post and this blog post, as well as this episode of Game Master’s Journey.

I’ve been running the published campaign for D&D, Tyranny of Dragons. This consists of two books published by Kobold Press. The first book, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, takes characters from level 1 to 8, and the second book, The Rise of Tiamat, takes characters from level 9 to 16.

I am enjoying running the campaign immensely. As I’ve discussed in my podcasts, for the vast majority of my over two decades of game mastering I’ve run my own adventures and campaigns. However, in the past few years, due to time constraints and the fact that I’m almost always running at least two or three campaigns at a time, I’ve started running published adventures more. The published adventures I’ve run (and can remember) include:

  • parts of The Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil for D&D 3.5
  • parts of the Kingmaker, Carrion Crown, and Shattered Star adventure paths for Pathfinder
  • The Curious Case of Tom Mallard for The Strange
  • numerous adventures for Numenera, including The Devil’s Spine (Noble Pursuits, The Insidious Choir, and The Mechanized Tomb), The Hidden Price, Seedship, Into the Violet Vale, The Beale of Boregal, and Beyond All Worlds.

I’m telling you all this to put my next statements into proper context.

I’m having more fun running Hoard of the Dragon Queen than I’ve had running any published adventure in any system. I’ve read both the books in the Tyranny of Dragons campaign in their entirety, and the campaign is hands-down the best campaign I’ve run or read. I am running the game for two groups, one online and one in person, and so far I’ve gotten through the first two adventures of the first book. I’ve read the second book cover-to-cover twice, and I’ve read the first book three times, going on five (I usually read each chapter/episode at least two more times while preparing that adventure).

The reason I’m writing this article is because I almost didn’t buy this amazing campaign. The reason I almost didn’t buy it is because I always research a product before I buy it, and there are a lot of very negative reviews of these books online. Luckily for me, I kept digging and did find some positive reviews that put the negative reviews into the proper context, and I found some amazing resources for the campaign, which I will share with you in this article. I’ll give you the gist of what I got from the majority of the negative reviews, and I’ll tell you why I decided to get the books anyway, and why I’m glad I did.

Poor Editing

There is no doubt about it; there are quite a few editing issues in the first book (I haven’t noticed them as much in the second book, but I’m not running that one yet). These editing issues range from simple typos (which can still be confusing if you’re not paying attention), to more serious issues like certain maps lacking keys or numbers on the map. There are also some confusing mechanics errors (e.g. referencing mechanics that don’t exist). Some of these errors are more forgivable than others. However, of all the criticisms of the products, the editing problems are the ones I actually think are legitimate.

From a consumer buying a product point-of-view, the typos and map errors are pretty deplorable. This product needed at least one more pass by the editors (or a few) before it was published. This is the first product I’ve bought by Kobold Press, and I will definitely think long and hard before buying another (and read all the reviews I can find first). There may have been some extenuating circumstances, however the bottom line is they released a product with an inexcusable number of errors. If this is an example of the quality of editing for all their products, I wouldn’t be interested in buying Kobold Press products in the future.

Some of the other errors are more excusable, for example referencing mechanics that don’t exist (like readiness). The reason for this is that Kobold Press was developing Tyranny of Dragons simultaneously to the development of fifth edition. They did the best they could (presumably), but mechanics were being changed throughout the development of Tyranny of Dragons, and this is what is behind some of the confusing mechanics errors. However, this isn’t really an excuse because another pass by the editors should have caught and corrected these problems. Perhaps the release date for Hoard of the Dragon Queen was too soon, and a decision should have been made to delay it, as opposed to releasing such a poorly edited product.

Now, from a DM running a D&D game perspective, it’s a different story. First, the campaign is awesome! The story is truly epic in scope. I love the way the campaign begins by throwing the PCs in a veritable meat-grinder. It really sets the tone for the adventure and foreshadows the deadliness of this campaign very well. The campaign also does a great job of presenting something for everyone. The three pillars of play are all represented very well; there are plenty of opportunities for combat, exploration and social interaction. I love that so many of the combat encounters can be solved or avoided by social interaction and good roleplay. In fact, there are quite a few encounters in which the risk of failure is increased dramatically if the PCs use combat to get past them. I really like that. This campaign will teach the players to avoid combat whenever possible and always be on the lookout for another option, if only in the interest of survival.

Yes, the editorial problems are annoying, and we should (and do!) expect better from a published adventure, especially one backed by Wizards of the Coast. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the campaign is amazing. It does add a little bit to your preparation workload as a DM, but honestly, if you’re doing your due diligence in preparing for the adventures, it’s not that much extra work. There are also some great resources out there to help you out.

There is effectively an errata for Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Author and designer Steve Winters has been kind enough to answer questions about the many editorial issues in the book. You can find the corrections all compiled here. As a DM you can just print this out. It’s organized by chapter in the book, so as you prepare each chapter, you can look up the errata for that chapter. I made the physical changes in my book with a pencil. It’s really not a big deal. Steve also does a great job of explaining why some of the errors are there, and it’s a bit more forgivable when you know the circumstances.

Those who have the most difficulty with the editorial issues will be those DMs who want to try to run this adventure “out of the box”, i.e. with little or no prep. If you try to do that with this campaign, it will probably be a train wreck, but that’s not just because of the editorial problems. Tyranny of Dragons is a complex campaign (especially The Rise of Tiamat) and is not intended for new DMs. The more experienced you are as a DM, the more you will get out of this campaign. Like all things in life, the more you put into the campaign (read prep), the more you will get out of it. I don’t think you can (or should try to) run any adventure of more breadth and complexity than a beginner box adventure with no prep and do it justice. Even a beginner box adventure will greatly benefit from a little prep on your part as DM, and your players will thank you for it. Even if there were not one editorial issue in the entirety of the Tyranny of Dragons books, you wouldn’t be able to run this campaign out of the box. It is too complex and nuanced for that.

We’ve now covered the legitimate beefs about the campaign. The rest of the criticisms are not legitimate in my opinion, and I’m not going to waste too much of my time with them. However, I do want to address them, because you will encounter them.

Too much work for the DM

This touches upon one of my pet peeves—lazy game masters—so I will try to remain impassionate here. There are a variety of complaints that fall under this category.

There is not enough hand-holding for the DM. People complain that the books don’t explain every little thing about how to do every encounter (I’d be willing to bet at least some of these people would complain the adventures are too “railroady” if they actually did explain everything). Again, this is not an adventure for inexperienced GMs. If you need your hand held, if you need every little thing explained to you, then this is not the adventure for you.

Some complain that the books don’t give detailed information on places like Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate. Are you serious? There are literally entire books devoted to these topics. There’s also this thing called the internet where you can find all the information on these places you want (again with a little bit of effort on your part). Sure, I suppose Kobold Press could have reprinted this information, but it would have drastically increased the page count and price. I’m really glad they didn’t.

A good DM takes any published adventure and makes it his own. Running a published adventure doesn’t mean you no longer have to do prep as a DM. It means that you spend that time prepping different things. Instead of having to come up with the plot and encounters, you can spend your time doing things like fleshing out NPCs and locations.

Another common criticism is that the stats for the monsters aren’t included in the books. These people truly mystify me. Each of the books has a free companion PDF. You can download the PDF for Hoard of the Dragon Queen here and The Rise of Tiamat PDF here. These include all the monsters, spells, and magic items that aren’t in the free basic rules PDFs. Again, this is much better than having even more pages to flip through in the actual books, and keeps the cost down. I don’t think that some people realize that the more pages there are in a book, the more it costs. Providing information that would be redundant for anyone who has the Monster Manual in a free PDF, instead of having it in the adventure and increasing page count and price, is doing the consumer a huge favor.

This brings up another thing that’s really cool about Tyranny of Dragons—you can run it with just the free basic rules PDFs, which you can get here. The basic rules and the PDFs for Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat have everything you need; you don’t need the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, or Monster Manual.

Another common complain comes from people who just hate the Forgotten Realms. This is just silly, as this campaign can be placed in any campaign setting you want. It will take very little effort to do so.

Resources for the DM

These resources are for the DM’s eyes only! If you’re a player, please don’t follow these links as they will spoil the adventures for you and your group. Show the DM some respect. She deserves it. These very helpful resources will help you to make the most of this campaign and give your players and experience they’ll never forget.

One of the challenging parts of the campaign is the very beginning. You have to set it up correctly for it to work, and you need to know what you’re doing to present it properly so the PCs get the appropriate feeling of danger, while still having at least a chance of surviving. You can find some great advice on setting up the first adventure here.

I found a great series of blog posts where Mike Shea gives excellent advice for running Hoard of the Dragon Queen. He’s taking the first book episode by episode, and as of the time I’m writing this, he’s covered up through episode 6. These guides are invaluable in preparing for the adventures, and I highly recommend them.

Episode 1: Greenest in Flames

Episode 2: Raiders’ Camp

Episode 3: Dragon Hatchery

Episode 4: On the Road part 1

Episode 4: On the Road part 2

Episode 5: Construction Ahead

Episode 6: Castle Naerytar

Finally, another great resource is watching another DM run the game. I am streaming my session on Twitch. We play every Thursday from 6:30 to 10:30 pm EST. You can find my Twitch channel here. I’m also putting the videos up on YouTube. You can find those videos here.

The Dicestormers are also running Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and I highly recommend their actual play videos. You can find those here.

Wizards of the Coast is releasing an actual play videos of The Rise of Tiamat. You can find those here. Unfortunately they’re skipping quite a bit of the campaign. However, the Dungeon Master, Rodney Thompson, is an excellent DM, and I learn a lot from him.

Finally, Dave from Table Top Gaming is running Hoard of the Dragon Queen. You can catch up on the campaign on YouTube, and you can find him on Twitch here.

Conclusion

I love this campaign for a lot of reasons. It involves a lot of different types of adventures and game play. It has dragons! It’s a truly epic and exciting campaign where the player characters get to take part in major world-changing events. The antagonists are really well done, and you can go the extra mile as a DM and make them even more awesome. I love the deadliness of the campaign. It’s very likely some or all of the PCs will die, probably even multiple times. I’m not a DM who enjoys killing PCs, however I like my games to be dangerous. I don’t want anything to be taken for granted, and if the PCs enter battle, I want the players to be truly afraid for their characters’ lives. I also like that the books give you advice on what to do if and when PCs do die.

This is not a campaign for a new DM. This is not a campaign for a lazy DM. This is not a campaign for a DM who needs to be held by the hand. This is a campaign for an intelligent, experienced DM who understands that any campaign, published or homebrewed, is only as good as what you put into it. The more you put into the prep of this campaign, the more you and all your players will be rewarded at the table. This is a great campaign for a DM who wants to present a truly epic and exciting campaign. If you have players who love dragons, this is the campaign for you! If you have players who love playing noble and good character (especially paladins and clerics), this is the campaign for you. This is a campaign where any and all classes can really shine (even druids!).

Finally, another thing I love about this campaign is that it gets out of the DM's way. Everything you need is here, but there’s also a lot of room for you to add in your own ideas. Whether it’s new NPCs, new encounters, new locations, or anything else you want to add, there are plenty of opportunities for you to truly make the campaign your own.