Dragons of Babylon, Part 2

The Red King levitates above as swarms of Hittite soldiers pour into the king’s tent

Of course, as we started our D&D campaign one Spring evening in 2015, I didn’t intimidate the players by telling them “Now we begin a ginormous campaign that will suck up your Wednesdays until 2019!!” I tried not to burden the players with too much plot early on; like a manga or a TV show, I always kept my eye on an “escape route” by which I could bring things to a quick, more-or-less satisfying ending if people got bored.

Though of course the PCs could and did go in unexpected directions, I structured the game as a series of branching paths: for example, in the first session at the tavern, the PCs basically had the choice between:

(1) the pirate path: following a treasure map to a mysterious island —> leading to the 3e adventure “The Secret of Manjack Cay”

or

(2) the more heroic path: accepting a job to find what happened to a lighthouse that went dark —> leading to the 3e adventure “Wreck Ashore”

The Tower of Babel. One of many handouts I drew on the backs of 19″x24″ bristol boards.

To me, DMing is like DJing: you don’t have to make original music. Throughout the game I used D&D & OSR adventures I found on the internet, re-skinned to fit the general feel of the campaign. One of the design goals of D&D 5th edition was to make it easy to reuse old D&D adventures, and the designers really succeeded at this. There’s so many D&D adventures on DMsGuild, and so many OSR adventures on RPGNow and online, it’s easy to find a pre-existing dungeon/quest/city and re-skin it to whatever you need for your current group and campaign. I did occasionally make up my own maps from scratch, such as for the dreaded Temple of the Sword God.

The cruel city of Assur. The PCs actually only went here in Hell, not in the real world..

So the game went on, and new players joined as old ones dropped out. After a few weeks, I felt confident enough to lead the PCs into a longer story, for which I chose the first official 5th edition campaign…HOARD OF THE DRAGON QUEEN / RISE OF TIAMAT!

Kubabar, Queen of the Silver Dragons

“Hoard of the Dragon Queen” is an excellent adventure with lots of cool setpieces. (Flying castle! Swamp castle! Defending a besieged town! Diplomacy mission! Stealth mission!) I mostly used “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” unchanged, except for re-skinning areas into their Babylon/Egypt equivalents and putting the opening sequence on islands for pirate sailing ship action. (I also rearranged the map a bit for nitpicking’s sake… why does Rezmir spend all this effort dragging the hoard overland in one direction, then get in a flying castle and fly it in the other direction?) One other reason I didn’t launch “Hoard” till a few sessions in is because, as written, it begins with the players walking past a town and seeing a giant dragon attacking it. As other D&D bloggers posted, many player groups responded with “We run away!!” By familiarizing the players with Tarut Town a bit before I sent in the big dragons to blast it, I tried to give them more emotional investment in saving everybody. (And even so, the players very nearly turned their boat and sailed in the opposite direction… for which possibility I consoled myself by planning “If they do that, I’ll just have them shipwrecked on an island and run ‘Tomb of Horrors.'”)

Rezmir and Father Toad, the two villains I changed the least

I also tried fleshing out the Tiamat cosmology and society to move it away from the Euro-fantasy pure-good-vs-pure-evil Forgotten Realms setting. For example: where do dragonborn fit into a world where the central conflict is dragons vs. humans? Do they have conflicted loyalties, listening as their well-intentioned allies say things like “It’s not dragons that are the problem, it’s Radical Dragonism”? And since I wasn’t using the D&D law/chaos/good/evil alignment system (zzzzzzz) in the game, couldn’t the Tiamat worshippers have more interesting and varied motivations than just being evil jerks? The original adventure is just G.I. Joe vs. Cobra and doesn’t have any interest in these themes, and perhaps they don’t fit easily into an essentially escapist game like D&D where most players want to punch evil dudes without the DM psyching them out and depressing them with moral gray areas, but I played with them a bit anyway.

(For those who care, another change I made was to take D&D’s “there are 5 types of good dragons and 5 types of evil dragons” and change it to 3-7 favoring evil. It’s just more fun when the forces of good are outnumbered.)

Shahrivar, the Gold King

“Rise of Tiamat,” the sequel to “Hoard”, is sadly a bad adventure. It consists of a bunch of thematically disconnected mini-dungeons which aren’t very interesting, and (worst of all) it’s written from the assumption that the adventurers can *never* stop Tiamat from rising so all the mini-adventures end in pointless “Sorry Mario, the princess is in another castle” setbacks leading up to the unavoidable Climactic Fight with Tiamat. Basically it’s just bad writing; instead of the mere illusion of choice, the authors should have given the players the actual possibility of getting the dragon masks and stopping the cult. The only things I used from from “Rise” was the “meeting with the good dragons” encounter, the “meeting with all the kings & queens to discuss the Tiamat situation” setup, and the green dragon encounter.

Puzrish-Dagan, one of the Four Pirate Kings (one guess where I stole THAT idea from)

So for the second half of the campaign, I pretty much completely made everything up from scratch (while pillaging from pre-existing maps and adventures whenever possible, of course). In my next post I’ll talk a little about stuff that happened during the campaign, what the adventurers did and where they went.

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