The Rise of Tiamat Post Mortem
[This post was started before we completed the module in an attempt to keep the info fresh in mind]
D&D 5E’s The Rise of Tiamat (RoT) is the second of the Tyranny of Dragons storyline. Throughout these two modules, the players are thrust into the middle of a region-wide plot to release the dragon-god Tiamat from her other-worldly prison to reign over the material plane. I won’t go through the Hoard of the Dragon Queen (HotDQ) plot here except where relevant to the events in RoT. Our previous sessions are recorded under the “Adventure Co” category here on the website if you’re interested in those adventures.
RoT picks up almost immediately after the players have either saved or crashed the cult’s flying castle, interrupting their plans, and bringing the party to the attention of the cult and the newly formed Council of Waterdeep.
The party is brought before the council and asked to be a “special forces” unit tasked with investigating and finding ways to weaken the cult before they begin their ritual.
We’ll discuss each chapter, although I’m not necessarily going to present them here in the order in which they’re presented in the source material (we’ll get to that later). I’ll include an overview, and some thoughts from the DM’s side of the screen about the chapter, and how it went down for us.
Part One: The Council of Waterdeep
The Council of Waterdeep (aka “the council”) is a coming together of representatives of the major concerns from around the Sword Coast region. There are humans, elves, and dwarves from merchant cities, military enclaves, and xenophobic forest communes, all of whom must put aside their differences to work together in order to overcome the threat of the Dragon Cult.
The party is introduced to all of these representatives up front. From the DM’s perspective, this is a veritable nightmare because the DM is expected to somehow present about 12 different personalities as 12 different personalities for the effect of making the players believe that this is a body of convenience, not of choice. Giving multiple NPCs unique voices is hard enough, but giving them unique voices at the same time, every time is a serious PITA. I ended up talking at the players as the council members bickered back and forth, and in the end I’m not sure how much of that work added to the flavor of the adventure or altered it in any way outside of wasting a lot of time and giving me a headache.
Technically, the council is a just mechanism to give a face to the scorecard. The scorecard is a series of rows of tasks, with columns for each concern on the council. Each concern has either a preferred or unacceptable outcome for each task. For example, killing Neronvain, son of one of the council members, is positive for some members, but negative for his father, King Melandrach. Capturing Neronvain is positive for Melandrach and some others, but potentially negative for some as well. Council members can also have overwhelming positive or negative reactions to certain events. As the party completes objectives, their decisions are circled, and at the end of each of four “phases”, the tallies are made. At the end of the adventure, the scores for each concern are compared to a required value. If the score meets or exceeds the value, the concern accepts the situation and will commit their resources to the fight. If they are below the necessary value, then the concern is supposed to remain unconvinced. Theoretically, an enthusiastic acceptance may mean more resources than a begrudging acceptance, but that’s up to the DM’s RP choices. Similarly, a score lower than a required threshold doesn’t specifically say how the concern will react…that’s also up to the DM.
After every chapter or two, the party is meant to return to the council to report their findings, engage in RP with the council, level up, accept short side-adventures, and get new marching orders. We score their performance on the previous tasks on the scorecard and move the ball down the field.
Part Two: The Sea of Moving Ice
The first task the players were asked to undertake in our version of the module was to find something called the draakhorn. This is a sounding horn that compels chromatic dragons to answer (but does not enslave them). The cult is apparently in possession of this device and is using it to summon the chaotic drakes to their cause. The last known location of anyone who knows anything about the draakhorn (who isn’t a cultist) is way up north in a region referred to as the “Sea of Moving Ice”.
With the help of some local guides, the players learned about a frost dragon who had a lair carved into a massive iceberg, and there were reports that the person they were seeking might have sought this dragon during her own research into the draakhorn. It turned out that the iceberg was also host to a native population of thralls to the dragon and who were too afraid to leave for fear of retribution. The party convinced the tribe’s mystic that they were there to deal with the dragon, and were allowed to enter the iceberg in search of the wizard.
The wizard was, in fact, engaged in a kind of partnership with the dragon: she agreed to be the new “companion” for the dragon’s mate and in return the wizard would be allowed to study the stolen books and scrolls that the frost dragon had stolen from the Arcane Brotherhood over 100 years prior. When the party showed up, her stand-offish nature clashed with the party’s swagger, and the party was instantly distrustful of her motives due to her being a scholar of the maligned Arcane Brotherhood. After routing the dragon, the party argued with the mage over the possession of the ancient and potentially dangerous mystical materials. The mage wanted to return them to the Brotherhood herself in exchange for the recognition of her findings, while the party, lead by the warlock-paladin (“waladin”) and the bard, wanted to keep the materials out of the Brotherhood’s hands. In the end, both sides begrudgingly agreed to let the council decide the fate of the artifacts.
Unfortunately, the draakhorn was not on the iceberg. The mage recalled seeing several purple- and red-robed figures communing with the frost dragon, and then leaving with the draakhorn several weeks before the party arrived.
This was a good chapter. It had a good amount of RP with the tribe, and good decisions were made that lead to a satisfactory conclusion. The point of contention was when the party decided to break into the mage’s room and steal her books. The party was very adamant about keeping these objects in their possession, believing that the Brotherhood was some kind of chaotic evil organization like the Thayans. In truth, the Brotherhood are more like single-minded scholars who believe that understanding supersedes safety. They just happen to be really, really arrogant.
Part Three: Varrum The White
Despite not having the draakhorn, the council was aware of one of the key components of the cult’s plans: the dragon masks. These five chromatic masks granted their wearers the ability to sway the opinions of dragons of the same color of the mask. While the council suspected that the cult would keep these critical artifacts at their base of operations, they learned that apparently one of these wyrmspeakers had vanished — potentially with the mask in his possession.
The party was dispatched to this cultist’s last known location, a small encampment called Boarskyer Bridge. The locals knew of this cultist, a dwarf, and regarded him kindly: he’d dealt with some troublesome lizardfolk who are native to the area, but he and his retinue vanished into the swamps shortly after.
Taking up the dwarf’s trail lead the party to an ancient and ruined tomb of a long-dead mage named Diderius. The tomb was riddled with traps intended to thwart would-be raiders, but the complex was so ancient that the traps essentially guarded nothing but dust and memories. However, the lizardfolk had found a secret mountain cavern system behind the tomb, and had set up their base of operation there. Apparently, the dwarf had found his way to this tomb, and was somewhere inside.
Prior to this chapter, our waladin and druid left the party, but we’d gained two new members: a warlock and a barbarian. We had to find a way to fit them into the story somewhat organically, so we allowed the warlock to be found inside this complex. He’d been attempting to infiltrate the wyrmspeaker’s inner circle but was discovered and left for dead during an encounter with the native lizardfolk. Similarly, the barbarian was found locked inside a cell, awaiting his turn to act as a sacrifice used to power Diderius’ ancient scrying pool.
The wyrmspaker, Varrus the White, was a captive of the lizardfolk who were about to sacrifice him in a ritual. The party negotiated for his release on the false promise that the shaman would “return his soul” if they were allowed safe passage from the caves. There was no actual “soul hostage”, but the party secured their prisoner, sans dragon mask.
This chapter went well, considering we had a party composition change. I don’t recall any unusual or difficult parts to it, although the monk had some spectacular life-saving rolls to his advantage.
Part Four: Metallic Dragons, Arise
The council was both happy and angry to see Varrum; some felt that this struck a blow to the cult despite Varrum’s own admission that he had ducked out of the cult for his own purposes, though not to lend aid to the council in any way. Others were well aware and contemptuous of Varrum’s self-serving nature. Lord Brawnanvil of the northern dwarven alliance, in particular, wanted Varrum to be tried and executed for his crimes against his own people, but the council put Varrum’s strategic use ahead of Brawnanvil’s request.
A lengthy interrogation by the players saw Varrum planting the seeds of doubt in the party’s mind: was there a cult spy in the council? Turns out no, there was not, but so long as the party felt that Varrum had critical information, they would keep him alive. He did, however, provide information on cult activities and strategy strictly for RP purposes.
The council pulled the party from the interrogation for a mission of critical importance: they were to act as the diplomatic liaisons to the metallic dragons. While the metallics had no love of their chromatic cousins, they weren’t natural allies of the humanoids either. Lady Silverhand’s requests for an audience had been granted, however, and the council needed to make a strong case.
The dragon council was held in a protected valley to the north, and several tribes had representation. Some dragons were already given over to joining with the humanoids, while others were more stand-offish. The metallics were already planning on taking on the cult on their own terms, so the party worked on convincing the dragons that there was strength in numbers: their power and wisdom, and the humanoid’s numbers.
In the end, however, several concessions had to be made to secure the alliance: a large portion of the collected treasure at the Well of Dragons would need to be surrendered to the metallics, and an apology and the return of dragon-skin armor from the dwarves. Neither concession went over well with certain elements of the council, but in the end, the cooperation of the metallics was considered to be too important to derail with petty bickering — at least for now.
This was another “multiple personality” challenge for the DM, made worse by having to portray dragons, ancient, hyper-intelligent, and belligerent creatures, in negotiation with not-so-ancient, intelligent, and similarly belligerent party members. As an RP session, it was rather difficult because the party made the excellent arguments that one would expect — strength in numbers, fighting the same enemy, etc — but also kind of “talked down” to the dragons, lecturing them in a very Star Trek way on lawfulness and the unlimited potential of the human(oid) race.
This was a RP scenario, and I wish it had played out differently. I felt that the players played as players and not as characters. Players were trying to convince the DM, playing dragons, of their case, when I had hoped they would have been playing characters who were in awe of the majesty of the situation of being in the presence of some of the oldest, most powerful, most magnificent creatures in Faerun. Dragons are self-important and vain. It seemed that the players might have felt that the IC “bow and scrape” approach was distasteful and that their best approach was to convince the dragons by debating them — a contest that any player-character would certainly lose. I would have liked to have seen the players focus on the “weakness” of each dragon (vanity, intellectual superiority, etc) to appease them and get their buy-in that way. They could have totally have made it out without a single concession if there had been more in-character play at work.
Still, I couldn’t in good conscious allow those dragons who had reservations to stand their ground in the face of human arguments (as I am also only human, and I suppose this was me dropping the ball in this chapter) combined with support from a few of their dragon colleagues. In the end, the dragons themselves are a MacGuffin, so I suppose even if the players hadn’t secured their help, it wouldn’t matter much anyway except when it came to the council scorecard.
A Brief Interlude: Assassins in the Alleyway
As the players had downtime back in Waterdeep, the barbarian went for a stroll and later needed to be retrieved. The bard took it upon herself to find him, but in the process noticed some suspicious, purple-robed figures hustling into an alleyway.
Returning to the scene with the rest of the group (sans barbarian), the party found themselves ambushed from all sides. Although they were able to take out the assassins, things did not appear to be what they seemed on the surface. Each assailant bore a similar tattoo uncommon to any cultist they had encountered before.
The module suggests that the cult actively attempts to murder the party in between chapters. This is cumbersome, and also stupid, which is almost admitted by the module itself. As their reputation grows, it makes sense that the cult try to take them out, but as their reputation — and skill, and familiarity with the cult — grows, the harder it is to do that. So it’s suggested that the attempts need to escalate in power each time.
Instead, I dredged up a bit of old custom lore from HotDQ. At one point in that module, the party had stopped at a roadhouse to get out of the rain and ended up killing a pack of assassins who had commandeered the entire place and evicted other patrons. I gave these guys a backstory that they were headed out of Waterdeep after having completed a job there, killing a minor noblewoman. It was just happenstance that the party ran into these killers (though I believe it was actually in the module), so these alleyway assassins were converted from cultists to opportunistic retaliatory attacks for having taken out their members back in HotDQ. It had nothing to do with the cult plot line, except that the party’s fight against the cult is no big secret, the assassin’s guild decide they could use this opportunity as a smokescreen, and the situation could be used to set up a smaller adventure after the events of RoT.
Part Five: Neronvain
Before departing for the meeting with the metallic dragons, the party had been approached by Daalan Winterhound of the Harpers, and Prince Agarthas, son of High-Elf King Melandrach of the Misty Forest. Cultists had been raiding settlements in the Forest, and Melandrach had responded by increasing patrols. He believed that this could be credited for a sudden decrease in the raids, but an independent scouting venture by the Harpers at Agarthas’ request seemed to indicate that the cultists involved were merely regrouping. Melandrach refused to hear this argument, despite the rumors that there was a dragon and a dragon rider involved.
The party declined to investigate the first time this situation was brought to their attention but returned to the situation once they had the bandwidth. They arrived at a tree-top settlement that had recently been attacked, finding the place decimated and many of its inhabitants dead, wounded, or dazed. The party identified one militia commander in charge of the evacuation efforts but was suspicious of his cagey nature. It was revealed that he had been cowed into handing over information to the raiders after his wife was executed in front of him. He didn’t know where in the forest the cultists were located, but he gave the party the use of his pet raven to guide them in the general direction.
The cultists were holed up in a cave behind a waterfall, and the party quickly found themselves in the most difficult fight of the module. I had to tone it down from what the Fantasy Grounds implementation provided because it would have been too overwhelming for the party to overcome and for me to execute. As it was, the combat tracker became unwieldy and useless for the usual method of target tracking, but with some careful tactics, the party was able to route the dragon and its rider, take out the henchmen, and free some prisoners.
Unfortunately, chasing the dragon to its lair turned out to be nearly fatal for the warlock, who was felled by the dragon’s poison breath. However, the ranger was able to chain several skills and take out the dragon in one round. While Neronvain attempted to escape, the barbarian’s rage-state resulted in the death of the wyrmspeaker.
I had aimed to have Neronvain escape so Melandrach could increase his involvement with the council in a fit of retaliatory rage directed at his estranged son. Instead, the death of Neronvain struck a blow that caused Melandrach to pull his support from the council entirely. This was based solely on the scorecard; I could have allowed the elves to remain and staged it as revenge for having turned Neronvain away from his family, but because of the brutal nature of his son’s death, this seemed more appropriate. I understand and support the RP scenario in which the barbarian killed Neronvain, but that the party had consistently overlooked the potential for the character’s unchecked violence so long as it served their immediate purpose — ending a fight — was kind of disappointing.
Part Six: The Well of Dragons
It was time for the party to Do Their Thing. Even with Melandrach out of the picture, the Council felt that now was the time to get their act together and maybe preemptively interrupt the Cult’s plans. But first, the party had to travel to the Well of Dragons, infiltrate their ranks, and do anything they could to throw a wrench in the Cult’s works.
Thanks to an inside source, the party was able to enter the Well via an entrance that the Cult believed to be closed off. This lead to the prisoner pens. Dozens of prisoners were being held and used as ritual sacrifices to power the goings-on in the Temple of Tiamat, so the party moved to free them and remove that part of the equation. While there, they ran into Jamna — the Council’s “inside source” who revealed herself as a long-time agent of the Zhentarim who were now working with the Council against the cult.
The party assaulted the temple directly using the entrance through which the prisoners were lead and which gave the party the element of surprise. They semi-methodically took out enough of the cultists to shut down the ritual (which killed the remaining cultists including Severin) and allowed the party to retrieve the five Dragon Masks. They quickly beat cheeks as a Cult army chased them out of the Well.
This part wasn’t horrible. It started with the party very focused on the draakhorn and the idea of shutting that down, but thankfully it didn’t last because it would have been a difficult and wasted trip. Instead, they got the message that the ritual was the key to stopping the Cult, and they wasted little time after that. This meant that their time spent in the Well had been limited to a few hallways and the Temple, which was fine; personally, I was sick of dungeon crawling at this point.
The trick of the Temple was that of the 11 cultists working in there, five had to spend their action each round working on the ritual, for a total of 10 rounds. Interruptions would skip a round, so it could take 11, 12, or even 20 or more rounds to complete if the players could annoy the cultists properly. Of course, the players opted to kill the cultists, and managed to take out enough of them in about 4 rounds to stop the creation of the portal and the exit of Tiamat.
Overall, I think things went as well as they could. The party was pretty focused, and it was good to see that.
The Council Scorecard
So what about the Council Scorecard?
The party actually hit their goals, despite a few things. First was the loss of Melandrach, although that was no slack that they couldn’t pick up elsewhere. Second, as you can see, I skipped two whole chapters of this module. The reason being that I didn’t feel that these two chapters added anything to advancing the plot. At least other chapters had hooks that could be used for or against the party, but these last two were just busy work. Considering we were quickly headed towards the Well of Dragons, throwing in more detours was something I was not eager to embrace.
Overall Thoughts on the Module
I was OK with HotDQ. RoT, not so much.
The upside of using a prepared module is that it handles a lot of the heavy lifting for the DM: encounters, treasures, plot, and backstory are all pre-digested up to a point where the DM can use it as-is or expand upon it.
RoT is really nothing more than a crude outline of a story with very little regard for organization. The Dragon Cult is a regional threat, the humanoids have to put aside differences and work together, and the party has to manage one group while combating another. It’s a great set-up, but the presentation is terrible, and that contributed to roadblocks that could have been handled better both by me and sometimes by the players — and certainly always by the module authors.
The module starts by cramming a literal ton of information into a poorly indexed series of pages — characters, motives, and responses that are consistently critical to pulling off a successful campaign are thrown around without regard for ease of future reference. It then proceeds to divide up scenarios into chapters, but chapters which both are and aren’t meant to be executed in order of presentation. The order is up to the DM, which makes this module nothing but a bunch of expanded bullet-points. Not even having the module compiled in Fantasy Grounds helped very much.
Each chapter provides an overview of the situation as if the players were already on-site. The only intro and outro available is part of the pile included in the first section of the module, forcing the DM to flip back and forth between the chapter section and the initial mass of text. Frequently, the DM will need to try and parse this disorganization when looking for something as mundane as a character name or motivation for a reference to a past event.
The setup works when there’s a map involved, as each room is set up in a workable but vague manner. Encounters in the print edition are suggested, but the Fantasy Grounds version often had encounters pre-built — sometimes hilariously over- or under-powered for a party that is meant to advance every few chapters in a module where chapter order is meaningless.
There’s just too much idea and not enough organization which in the end strips the whole point of running a pre-written module — convenience and a reduction in prep-time. At some points, I was spending two hours before game time going over a few paragraphs, writing notes, setting up dialog, building encounters, and doing exactly the same level of work I’d have to do if I were running a homebrew module.
In discussing the module with one of the players (who is himself a GM) after the final session, I came to this understanding: the draw of this scenario for me was that it was out of the ordinary on account of the council scorecard. The players had to not only go out and beat up cultists, but had to always keep the Council’s oversight in mind and that made this a more cerebrel, meta-game. The party was supposed to be taking on these tasks in order to impress each of the council members into listening to them, so when the time came the party would take the role of the Great Unifier, drawing these feuding scions together to fight for the common good of all of the races of Faerun. What happened, though, is that each chapter was a self-contained set of bullet-points that, so long as they were completed and the party didn’t let the bad guys get away, could be assumed to have appeased the council members that the chapter was intended to impress. In the end, the council scorecard didn’t mean jack because the point of the exercise — getting the council members to work together — took place off-screen while the party was off doing the real work of interrupting Severin’s ritual. Ultimately, the party didn’t need to work to appease the Council, as evidenced by the fact that I doubt that this party even remembered or cared that the Council was there for all the influence that either had in the other’s decisions.
I also understand now, in hindsight, that the best way to use this module it to pretty much ignore it. Like a concentrate, RoT is not meant to be ingested directly; instead, it’s the basis for a much larger offering that the GM and players must concoct. If a group tries to plow through the module as written, it’s going to be a loose collection of vignettes that are supposed to result in an ending that doesn’t rely at all on what came before it. Of course, injecting custom content into a module of this scope means that RoT is not a module for a few sessions; I could easily see that this campaign could take at least a year with decent and respectable filler, reiteration of the importance of appeasing the council, roleplaying, and a well thought out series of consequences.
Honestly, halfway through the experience, I wanted to call the whole show off. The module seemed to stretch to an infinite point on the horizon, and each chapter was an exercise in frustration: we had to follow the gist of the module, but I also had my hands tied by the poor construction and, in hindsight, a misunderstanding of how to really use the module which continued through our sessions until it was well past the point of being concerned about anything other than finishing. Two entire chapters were dropped from the session roster because neither was really relevant to the eventual outcome, and both were kind of stupid. The whole inclusion of the dragon masks — which the party was sent off to retrieve several times, but never got their hands on — was a red herring of the highest magnitude. Should they have gotten one and destroyed it, the whole module would have ended at any point. Let that be a lesson for anyone reading this who might find him or herself running RoT and looking for an escape hatch: Let the players have a dragon mask, and players: Destory that dragon mask as soon as you can.
Were we to do this again, here’s what I’d like to see happen:
- Use the module as intended: as an outline. For example, Neronvain is a threat to his father’s kingdom because he’s pissed off at Dad and believes the cult gives him power to make sure his father knows it. That’s really all we need to have for the chapter, distilled into one sentence. RPGs aren’t about the adventure as written; we could read a book, watch a movie, or play a video game if we wanted to cleave that closely to a pre-defined series of events. Instead, we need to take what’s give to us — the characters, motivations, encounters, and items — and fill in the gaps with our own adventures. However, in order to have that happen…
- Make sure the players are running the adventure. I am not sure where this aspect got lost, but back in my younger days the players were the ones who ran the adventures. The GM was there to describe scenes and run NPCs. The players were the ones who decided which direction to go in, and the GM had to respond. I feel that too often the players were either unsure or unwilling to take on the responsibility for going “off the reservation”, while at the same time I was attempting to fill in the bouts of dead-air with what I had — which was what the module provided. In reality, we all should have been ready and willing to accept that a decision would derail the course we were set upon, even if that ment that the other 95% of the story as planned would get thrown out the window. That’s another issue, though…
- Get my head more into the game. I admit that I don’t know D&D as well as my players do. Two of them are GMs in their own games, but I accept the responsibility that I did not do as well as a GM as I should have. I can come up with excuses like “I’m not as creative as I used to be” or “Fantasy Grounds automation means I don’t need to memorize the rules as I would have to if this were a face-to-face game”, but in many cases I fell back on these excuses because I felt that I was doing enough to get us through. The players seemed content to stay on the rails that the module provided, and I could do less work each week by ensuring that they stayed on those rails when they needed to be prodded to action. It seemed like a win-win, but in the end, all it did was help contribute to the mental fatigue and disappointment that none of us did as good as job as we could have to make the sessions more rewarding.
- Have a smaller group. This is kind of difficult, mainly because we gained and lost so many people over the course of the two modules, and when we lost people we looked for more. I now believe that a smaller, more intimate group that focuses on the game and understands their role in what is basically shared storytelling can go a long way towards moving the module along and helping the GM out by taking over a good bulk of the storytelling. Sometimes having many voices in the mix leads to no one wanting to be the one who says “this is the plan of attack”, or contributes so many ideas that no one wants to back down. I also still believe that our collective years of MMOing and CPRGing — where the mechanics are on-rails no matter how much freedom we seem to have — has put people into a mindset that when you see the story, you stick to the story, and forget about what’s over that hill because the programming won’t let you go there. That feeds back into points 2 and 3 above, and managing five people who lapse easily into that mindset (myself included) was sometimes more of a chore than it would have been with a smaller, more agile group.
At this point I’m “done” with D&D (as a GM at least) for the time being. High fantasy has lost its luster for me, which is why I’m looking at games like Call of Cthulhu and Numenera, which are both less combat-oriented systems that require and reward stronger player-agency. For now, though, I’m going to be looking forward to having my Thursdays freed up.
Still, I love tabletop RPGing. I don’t know how well I’d do as a player, though; I can talk about things that I wish my players did from a detatched perspective, but being a player means knowing more of the rules than I do, at least for how they apply to my character. It’s also work — maybe not as much as it is for the GM — so I think I’ll need some kind of hiatus before I get back into any kind of swing of things.