by Mike Shea on 10 November 2014
This article is the fourth in a series of articles covering each episode of the D&D 5th Edition adventure, Hoard of the Dragon Queen. The three previous chapters include Greenest in Flames, the Bandit Camp, and the Dragon Hatchery. Like these previous articles, this article is packed with spoilers for this adventure so if you plan on playing it, stop reading now.
You can read all of our Hoard of the Dragon Queen articles here:
While previous chapters have focused on particular areas and events that span roughly a day, this chapter covers more than two months of travel from the town of Greenest, through Elturel, Baldur's Gate, and all the way to Waterdeep. In both time and distance, this is a huge journey. This is going to be a hard chapter to run at the table.
Due to the length of this chapter and the extra work required to run it, we're breaking up our discussion of this chapter into two parts. This first article covers episode 4 from the bandit camp to Baldur's Gate. The second article will cover the journey from Baldur's Gate to Waterdeep.
We can make our lives easier by clarifying for our players and ourselves the mission the PCs must undertake. Right up front there should be a clear motivation:
Follow the Cult of the Dragon and uncover their villainous plot.
For this chapter, the NPCs Erlanthar the Monk and Ontharr Frume of the Order of the Gauntlet can further refine the mission:
Track down and follow one of the Cult's treasure wagons by joining the caravan in which it hides.
It's up to both you and the players to aim the game towards these directions and it can be tricky to do so. As the DM, you'll have to be prepared to tie together any loose threads to get the PCs on their journey north.
The first part of episode 4 is very loose when it comes to the PC's journey from the bandit's camp to Baldur's Gate. As written, a DM can easily fall into the trap of expounding too much narrative and providing too few opportunities for exploration and combat. You'll want to ensure you empower the PCs to discover things on their own and maybe get into a scrape or two. This article includes a couple of encounters and some clues you can drop in that will help the PCs feel like they're directly involved in the investigation instead of following a trail already laid out.
Somewhere between the bandit camp and Greenest consider having the PCs run into one of the wagons of the Cult of the Dragon, now disguised to look like traveling merchants. The wagon has a broken wheel and is stuck in the mud of the swamp. An exasperated dragonclaw, now disguised as the merchant and her guards and scouts, asks the PCs for help. This can lead to some interesting exploration, interaction, and a fun combat encounter when either side realizes the other is the adversary. It can further provide a clue that the Cult wagons are all headed by different paths through Baldur's Gate, though none know where they are headed after that. If you want to tie the thread closer, add in an NPC the cultists are supposed to contact when they arrive who will further connect them on their journey.
Here's an example letter the PCs might uncover that ties together such information.
The PC's next step should be to return to Greenest to complete their quest with Governer Nighthill. As written, the adventure would have Erlanthar the monk already departed for Elturel but this makes it hard for him to impart the importance of the mission to continue hunting the Cult of the Dragon and steer them towards Eltruel. Instead of having him already departed, consider having him still in Greenest and ready to hire the PCs to travel with him north to Elturel.
Erlanthar knows much about the cultists' plan to move vast sums of money through Baldur's Gate, though he knows not where beyond that. He also knows that the cult believes they can draw the Queen of Dragons herself from the fiery pits of hell. Erlanthar is a great NPC to help fill in any critical gaps the PCs have in understanding what's going on or how they fit in. He's the NPC who can apply the most motivation to get the PCs headed in the right direction.
The trip from Greenest to Elturel can be uneventful. There's so much travel in this chapter that you don't want to put too many random encounters in. There's also no cult activity in the area so there's nothing the PCs can run into that helps them understand the larger story. Instead, describe in a couple of sentences the journey they take to Elturel and then describe Elturel itself.
Ontharr Frume is the primary NPC in Elturel and he and Erlanthar are old friends. The adventure would have you perform a bunch of parlor tricks with Frume to prove their worth but you can skip that and simply have Erlanthar speak for them. That doesn't mean Ontharr Frume won't want to wrestle the party's strongest character, though!
Ontharr Frume can give the PCs a friendly contact in Baldur's Gate who can help them should they get stuck. He can also give them a boat to travel along the river Chiontar.
The trip from Eltruel to Baldur's Gate takes about a week by river. If you want, you can have each player describe something interesting the party encountered while traveling across the river. How do they deal with rapids? Do they see any ancient elven statues peeking out of the mud on the banks of the rivers?
Now is a good time for another encounter to space out the piles of NPC interaction going on. Here's one you might consider.
One ogre (plus one additional ogre per PC above 4) stands at the top of an ancient stone bridge spanning a narrow portion of the river. A nasty half-decayed animal hangs from a rope below the bridge. The ogre demands payment to cross the river and has barricaded the other side of the bridge with a webwork of sharp pointed sticks. If the PCs refuse, he hurls the rotten carcass at them which breaks apart and attracts three crocodiles. The ogre then pummels the boat with stones while the crocodiles capsize the boat and try to eat the passengers. After three rounds the boat gets caught in the spiked barricade causing 1d6 damage to everyone left on the boat. The ogre then leaps in and attacks the boat directly. The Paizo Flip Mat: Battleground includes a bridge over a river map that works well for this encounter.
At this point the river expands out and the PCs find themselves on a small boat in huge river. This is a chance to pull out the recent Murder in Baldur's Gate adventure if you happen to have it. If your players have played through it, your PCs can learn much of what has happened since. Has there been an election for the two ducal vacancies? Has the Flaming Fist cracked down? Baldur's Gate is a fantastic city with some great detail so don't be afraid to give your players a glimpse. Much of the PC's interaction with the city will be in the outer city, though it is possible that the PCs might uncover a noble house in the upper city that harbored Rezmir while she was traveling through. If it feels right, that might be a fun investigation to add in.
Most of Baldur's Gate chooses to ignore the troubles going on, they have troubles of their own. Most choose to hide their heads in the sand while conspiracy nuts are focused on the Cult of Bhaal that nearly destroyed the city. No one is watching out for the Cult of the Dragon.
You can add in some intrigue in the form of a safehouse where the Cult of the Dragon passes through as they join caravans heading north to Waterdeep. This safehouse, a two-story building in the slums of the outer city, is known as the Fox Traveler. The Fox Traveler outfitters, ruled over by Aravax Foxtraveler, a half elf spy, rules over the Fox Traveler outfitters and is protected by a handful of thugs and a hell hound he keeps as an unruly pet. The PCs can learn the next part of the cult's plan—the journey to Waterdeep—by duping or intimidating Aravax, perhaps after a fun combat encounter.
In the adventure, Ontharr Frume suggests that the PCs meet with Ackyn Selebon. This is an important connection that is given little discussion in the adventure itself. In Baldur's Gate, Ackyn is the only ally the PCs have who can tie together what's going on and help them connect with a caravan containing cultists. You can use Ackyn to introduce any faction you wish. He could be a member of the Harpers, the Order of the Gauntlet, the Lord's Alliance, Emerald Enclave, or even Zhentarim depending on the interests of your PCs.
Ackyn is a great example of a Schroedinger NPC. She only exists when the PCs lay eyes on her. Her appearance and background only set in stone when it comes up. Choose your favorite movie or TV character as a model and choose her faction based on whatever faction will resonate with the largest number of PCs. Instead of sprouting narrative, have Ackyn fill in necessary blanks that get your PCs on track to join a caravan that contains members of the cult of the dragon.
Whatever adventures they have in Baldur's Gate, all clues should point the PCs towards joining one of the caravans harboring cultists that head north to Waterdeep. That begins the next part of this large episode. In our next look at Hoard of the Dragon Queen we will look at the encounters along the path from Baldur's Gate to Waterdeep.