Saturday, 21 February 2015

Starter Set Sandbox 18 - Using Red Hand of Doom to expand LMoP

I decided to post this for two reasons:

1. I was about to post something like this anyway because it's the direction that my own game is taking; and 
2. +Banesfinger posted an interesting question in the comments at the bottom of <this post>.

However, I need to add one disclaimer: I am not a fan of Tiamat. I also think she has been horribly overused as a BBEG across multiple editions of D&D and even in the execrable D&D cartoon from the 1980s. She also doesn't seem to me to be a classic FR villain but, of course, YMMV. 

But there is one major advantage of sticking with the idea of Tiamat as the BBEG of an adaptation of Red Hand of Doom: it will help tie the adventure into the wider events of the Tyranny of Dragons adventures, Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat, should that be important for your game.

The Simplest Approach

In theory, the simplest approach involves simply finding a section of the regional map from Lost Mine of Phandelver and simply overlaying the regional map from Red Hand of Doom. However, I emphasise in theory as there is nowhere that is really a good match particularly when you consider the map of the Elsir Vale in Red Hand is some 320 miles (EW) by 240 miles (NS) which is larger than the regional map in Lost Mine!

In practice, you really would need to move the whole adventure further east, off the regional map from Lost Mine, and then place the key locations from Elsir Vale elsewhere. I may edit in some comments about that another time but, for now, I want to focus this post on using Red Hand to expand a campaign set in and around Phandalin.

The More Complicated Approach

This involves ditching the Elsir Vale map from Red Hand and relying instead of placing key locations, or reasonable analogues, on the regional map that came with Lost Mine

When Red Hand of Doom was first released, WotC posted the introduction and a synopsis of the five parts on their website for public consumption. I saved a copy of this and it is probably still there buried beneath the sheer incompetence that characterises any WotC attempt at using modern technology in conjunction with D&D.

What I am going to do is, beginning with the introduction, quote each section of the synopsis and provide some ideas as how to make this work in and around Phandalin.
The quoted sections will appear in this format.
Red Hand of Doom casts the player characters in the role of heroes fighting to stem the advance of Azarr Kul's horde. There are far too many enemy warriors for the PCs to deal with them all personally. Instead, the heroes undertake vital missions that influence the outcome of the war. These missions include the following:
  • Spying out the movements of Azarr Kul's army.
  • Defeating roving bands of marauders.
  • Leading the effort to rally an elf army to meet the Red Hand horde.
  • Disrupting an alliance between the Red Hand and a powerful lich.
  • Killing important enemy commanders, champions, and monsters.
  • And, finally, infiltrating the Fane of Tiamat to defeat the Red Hand warpriests and their leader in their secret stronghold.
The adventure is divided into five parts, describing five key locations the PCs are likely to explore in the course of the adventure. Event-triggered encounters are also woven into each of the five parts. The adventure locales and events are designed to interact: Events will steer the heroes toward adventure locales, and things the heroes do in the locales will trigger events.
At this point you need to decide whether to stick with the existing BBEG or to change it to something/someone else.

In my game, the real threat is the Zhentarim but the Zhentarim are split into two factions: the more traditionalist, but smaller, Bane-worshipping faction and the newer and larger Cyric-worshipping faction. The Banites need a significant victory to return to dominance of the Zhentarim so they're the ones behind the Red Hand of Doom. And an aspect of Bane is the replacement for the aspect of Tiamat as the final "boss" monster. (It's also helpful that I have an aspect of Bane miniature, but lack an aspect of Tiamat.)

That also means that the various spawn of Tiamat that are encountered during the course of the original Red Hand of Doom don't really have a place in my adaptation. That said, there is a beast of Bane template in 3.xE to represent creatures that have been touched by the Black Lord. So, for example, rather than having those greenspawn razorfiends flying around, I will just have wyvern or manticore beasts of Bane.

Azarr Kull also does not fit into my more Zhentarim/Bane-oriented adaptation. Rather than the half-dragon, the leader of the horde is either a hobgoblin warlord (and possibly also an evil paladin) or a human Zhentarim commander (who may also be an evil paladin: if you have the 5E DMG then you will also know such things exist in 5E too!). I don't need to make a decision about his identity right away so I will leave that undetermined for now.

However, for those of you who are sticking with the Tiamat-based storyline, unless you're running 3.xE you will need to convert the spawn of Tiamat to your preferred edition.

Part I: The Witchwood => Raid on Phandalin
The adventure begins when the player characters confront a powerful warband of raiders threatening the small town of Drellin's Ferry. Under the command of Wyrmlord Koth, the warband of hobgoblins and goblins lairs in the ruins of an old keep buried in the dense Witchwood, scouting out the surrounding lands in preparation for an attack. Soon the Wyrmlord and his warband intend to sweep down on Drellin's Ferry and slaughter its inhabitants.

In the course of their fight to drive off the marauders, the PCs learn that Koth's warband is just the tip of the spear, and that a horde of goblins, hobgoblins, and their allies is marching south. They also learn that their enemies are driven on by the fanatical warpriests of Tiamat. Drellin's Ferry can't be saved, but the heroes can give the townsfolk time to flee by wrecking a bridge on an old dwarf road the Red Hand horde needs to cross. There they confront the youngest of the Red Hand's dragon champions, a green dragon named Ozyrrandion.

By the end of this part, the war has begun. Thereafter the PCs divide their time between fighting to stem the advance of the Red Hand horde and foiling the plans of the other Wyrmlords, whose work will give the horde an irresistible advantage if left to run its course.
Firstly, the easiest thing to do is replace Drellin's Ferry with Phandalin. Sure, there are some terrain mismatches but the goal here is to make Red Hand an extension of Lost Mine: Phandalin is the only option.

There are quite a few options here, and none of them involve an area of forest: ditch the Witchwood.

Instead of destroying a bridge, there is instead a dwarf-crafted tunnel or a key pass that is facilitating the horde's access from the southern side of the Sword Mountains and the Kryptgarden Forest to this side. Collapsing the tunnel or causing an avalanche to block the key mountain pass will buy the "good guys" time to prepare for the horde's arrival.

Oh, and a green dragon may still be appropriate. Maybe it too is a follower of Bane.

Part II: The Ruins of Rhest => Ruins of Leilon
Something has cut off the Old North Road in the vicinity of the Blackfens. None can flee by that route, nor can help from more distant cities reach besieged Elsir Vale. While scouting the swamp and seeking an answer to the question of who or what has cut off the road, the PCs encounter the reclusive owl-riding wild elves known as the Tiri Kitor. From them, the PCs learn that Wyrmlord Saarvith has allied with a black dragon named Regiarax, and together they have established a hatchery of sinister dragonspawn in the ruins of the drowned city of Rhest. The PCs must defeat both the Wyrmlord and the dragon to prevent the appearance of these vicious creatures in the war. If the PCs play their cards right, they can even gain the aid of the Tiri Kitor elves against the advancing Red Hand horde.

At the end of this section, the PCs discover the threat of the Ghostlord (see Part III). Meanwhile, the Red Hand horde is striking deep all across the vale's western marches, and the war is going poorly indeed for the beleaguered humans.
The hatchery is instead in Leilon. This means a different take on Leilon compared to the version I posted earlier in this series of posts, but I would keep the enchanted tower that can paralyse those who gaze upon it.

You could also keep the Thayans if you assume that, as is the case in the 4E Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide, these Thayans are followers of Bane which is, of course, the state religion of Thay thanks to The Haunted Lands trilogy of novels by Richard L Byers. Perhaps these are Thayan clerics who have been instructed by the Black Lord to prepare the wyvern or manticore beasts of Bane in support of the goblin horde. FR purists may find the idea of an alliance between the Zhentarim and the Thayans shocking but they are united by a common religious belief... and it provides further variety in terms of the encounters.

Part III: The Ghostlord's Tower => Master of the Dread Ring/Ebondeath Mausoleum
Azarr Kul brings a deadly new ally into the battle when Red Hand agents steal the phylactery of the human druid lich known as the Ghostlord and coerce this powerful undead menace into joining the war on the Red Hand's side. After gaining possession of the stolen phylactery, the PCs travel into the Thornwaste and do battle with Wyrmlord Ulwai Stormcaller in the lich's lionshaped lair. Eventually, the PCs must confront the Ghostlord himself and either destroy him (no small task) or purchase his neutrality by returning his phylactery in exchange for peace. By the time they dissuade the lich from joining his forces to those of Azarr Kul, the Red Hand horde is bearing down on Brindol.
I don't think a lion-shaped lair fits it with the Neverwinter Wood or anywhere nearby but YMMV. Personally, I think there are at least three other options that would be better:
  1. The Dread Ring in the Neverwinter Wood can be seen on the earlier version of the regional map that was originally published in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting. Instead of a druid lich, the Dread Ring suggests the possibility of Valindra Shadowmantle who now haunts the benighted ruins of the Dread Ring cursed by Szass Tam himself.
  2. I have already covered Agatha's Lair but what if the banshee stood in for the Ghostlord? She doesn't have a phylactery but perhaps, as my post about her lair suggests, there is something else she values than can be used to manipulate her?
  3. Finally, for those who have access to Dungeon 73 and the Eye of Myrkul adventure - fifth in the first Dungeon adventure path, the Mere of Dead Men series -  what about Strongor Bonebag, a former cleric of Myrkul, as the lich that the bad guys control? On a related note, what about the black dragon Ebondoom returning as a dracolich?
Obviously, any of these changes would require a bit of work on the DM's part to create a new lair etc....

Part IV: The Enemy at the Gates => name unchanged
While the PCs have managed to counter some of the Red Hand's outlying efforts, the horde has been advancing remorselessly into human lands. Now the characters confront the main army of the enemy directly in the Battle of Brindol, in which the PCs' actions make the difference between the human city's survival or destruction. Depending on how successful the PCs were in the previous parts of the adventure, the battle can end in anything from a hard-fought draw to a catastrophic defeat. Either way, in the aftermath of the battle it becomes clear that the best chance of winning the war is for a brave band of infiltrators to strike into the heart of the hobgoblin lands and decapitate the horde by destroying the Red Hand order.
Brindol? No! This is a battle for Neverwinter itself, parts of which are still in ruins. Beyond the change of location and the use of Neverwinter's map, this section of the adventure may be largely unchanged.

That said, Neverwinter has a large band of orcs camped out in one of its districts: are they allies - and, if so, do they need to be won over? - or are they enemies? That could add an extra dimension to this section of the adventure, as could negotiations with a unit of Cyricist Zhentarim who may offer their services as mercenaries to help defend the city.

Part V: Fane of Tiamat => Fane of the Black Lord
The PCs assault the High Wyrmlord's stronghold, the Fane of Tiamat, deep in the Wyrmsmoke Mountains. Temporarily checked in the Battle of Brindol, Azarr Kul and his circle of high priests are seeking infernal aid from the Nine Hells, summoning devils and fiendish monsters, including an aspect of Tiamat herself, to break the last human resistance. The PCs fight a desperate battle in the dark temple, and ultimately confront High Wyrmlord Azarr Kul himself in the heart of the Fane of Tiamat.
Clearly I cannot call this the Fane of Bane so if I am going to stick with "fane" I suppose it has to be Fane of the Black Lord. However, I may steal one thing from Tyranny of Dragons: this picture of a temple of Tiamat could just as easily be a picture of a temple of Bane as there is nothing particularly draconic about it.

But if you want a picture that says "Bane" and "Zhentarim", you cannot beat, IMO, William O'Connor's cover art for 3.5E's Mysteries of the Moonsea:

Banite Monsters

And that picture segues nicely into another issue in the event that you're using Bane instead of Tiamat: what do you replace all the dragons with? For me, the quintessential Banite monster is the beholder: use them liberally. And if a straight-up beholder is too much of a challenge, use gauth, their weaker cousins. They have yet to be officially statted up for 5E but I ran one on the fly using a few adjustments to the spectator stat block in the 5E Monster Manual.

Otherwise, 3.xE introduced the beast of Bane template to represent a creature touched by the Black Lord. They had a barghest-like ability to devour a creature and they could produce fear by howling or roaring. It wouldn't take too much to do the same thing in either 4E or 5E and give such creatures as wolves, worgs, hellhounds, manticores, wyverns etc... a howling attack that created some sort of fear effect. And other than that, all you would need to do is change their colour to black with emerald green for their eyes, tongues, breath weapons etc.... (I rather like the imagery of a black manticore firing off bolts of baatorian green steel [that's a substance introduced in one of the 3.xE books: Arms & Equipment Guide, perhaps?].) 

But the main reason to run Red Hand of Doom is to fight goblins and lots of them. And that doesn't change whether the BBEG is Bane or Tiamat.
Summing Up

Speaking selfishly, I now have the outline for the rest of my campaign following on from events in Phandalin and possibly a side-trip to the Caves of Chaos. That aside, I think there's a fairly logical progression from Lost Mine of Phandelver to Red Hand of Doom with a penultimate confrontation against the goblin horde around the walls and within the gates of Neverwinter, followed by a final battle in a temple of either Bane or Tiamat with an aspect of the appropriate deity.

While there it doesn't then allow an easy segue into Hoard of the Dragon Queen or Rise of Tiamat because of the level of the PCs, if you were to skip Part V: Fane of Tiamat/Fane of the Black Lord as detailed here then Rise of Tiamat does become a possibility. However, a few more easter eggs may be required to better link it into Rise.

But for my game this is nearly perfect. It's an outline based on a tried and tested adventure and it allows me to continue to feature the Zhentarim as the BBEGs of my first foray into 5E. And that to me feels more like the Realms than trying to stop Tiamat from being freed....