Tyranny of Dragons Book II: The Rise of Tiamat (Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition/D&D Next)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast/Kobold Press
Cost: $29.95 ($18.94 at Amazon.com)
Page Count: 95
Release Date: 11/4/2014
Get it Here: amazon.com
Back in August of this year, Wizards of the Coast and Kobold Press put out the first half of the Tyranny of Dragons campaign. Hoard of the Dragon Queen was a great introduction to Dungeons & Dragons 5e for new players and Dungeon Masters alike. It was well laid out, easy to follow, and made things easy to understand for newcomers while being open enough so that veteran gamers could modify the campaign in some way. It was an excellent release to coincide with both the D&D Starter Set and The Player’s Handbook. Between Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Lost Mine of Phandelver and a whole host of Sundering based adventures, D&D 5e really provided a lot of options for gamers to delve into.
Unfortunately, The Rise of Tiamat isn’t as good as the previous options. It’s not bad. In fact, far from it – it’s quite good. However, it repeats several of the issues people had with Hoard of the Dragon Queen and brings in some new unfortunate problems unique to this release that make it the weakest Fifth Edition offering since Dead in Thay, but nowhere as awful as that adventure was. Mostly, The Rise of Tiamat suffers from forgetting that this is a brand new release for a brand new edition of the game, and while Hoard of the Dragon Queen was newcomer friendly, The Rise of Tiamat seems geared towards only long time RPG gamers (regardless of system). The learning curve between the two halves of the Tyranny of Dragons campaign is pretty extreme and newcomers or more casual DMs will be either lost, frustrated or disappointed with what is (and what is not) here. Long time gamers won’t have a problem with how hands off parts of this book are, but for those who don’t eat, sleep and breathe D&D… well, this is not really going to endear them to 5e. After all, when a new edition starts, a game needs to be as friendly and explanatory as possible. Instead, the difference between the two is like giving a brand new gamer the old classic Red Box of Basic D&D and then telling them, “Explain to me AD&D 1e’s Bard and Psionic classes.” If you don’t get the reference/analogy, then that is a pretty good indication of what you are in for with The Rise of Tiamat. So let’s cover what is wrong with this book so that we can end the review on a happy note, because overall, the adventures in this half of the campaign are a lot of fun – they’re just not newcomer friendly.
So first up – like Hoard of the Dragon Queen, most of the monsters and items needed for this campaign require a downloadable PDF supplement instead of being included in the campaign itself. Now, there are a few antagonists in the back (six monsters, four bosses and TIAMAT’s stats), but everything else you need, including the Dragon Masks, will be in this PDF supplement. So if you don’t have net access or forgot the e-reader you downloaded it to at home, you really can’t use this spiffy hardcover. Now, the good news is that, unlike Hoard of the Dragon Queen, the Monster Manual is out, so you can use that for nearly all of the monster stats (but not any of the magic items or relics) instead of the PDF. The bad news is that, even though the supplement is supposed to be up at the specific Rise of Tiamat section on the D&D website, it currently is not there. Whoops. So even if you are the absolute best DM ever, having been reared by Monte Gook, Gary Gygax and the Hickmans since you were old enough to possess cognitive thought, you still won’t be able to play Rise of Tiamat exactly as it was meant to be played. Hopefully that will be fixed at some point. I personally have access to it, because I was part of the playtest process and have a copy of the supplement (as it looked back in May of 2014), but most other reviewers and gamers that get a copy of this early DON’T. I’m 100% sure this will be up by the official release date, but it would have been nice if the Rise of Tiamat PDF was already publicly available so that gamers would know that their preferred reviewers actually played the campaign and/or to spread some buzz about the upcoming release. (EDIT: The PDF is now publicly available as of 10/29. Hurrah!) ANYWAY, I know some gamers still haven’t joined the digital revolution and will grumble that part of the book is physical and part is digital instead of things being 100% one way or the other, but it is what it is. I do think it’s silly in 2014 to not offer a fully physical or fully digital version, especially when so many classic releases are over at D&DClassics.com, but I’m neither upset nor unhappy with the release in the form it is in. Especially since I have the Monster Manual. I know this was a sore spot with some of you with the first part of Tyranny of Dragons, so I wanted to make sure you know it repeated again this time.
Speaking of how The Rise of Tiamat requires something that doesn’t quite exist yet, all three parts of Episode Five (more at that later) in this book require the Dungeon Master’s Guide to be properly playable. You know, the book that doesn’t count out until DECEMBER? This is the problem with staggered releases. On one hand, it lets gamers spend money slowly instead of having to make an expensive bulk purchase. On the other, it means that if books are extremely interconnected, you can’t really use a release until EVERYTHING has come out. In this case, you need to use an encounter table in the DMG with references to Hard and Deadly Encounters. Now, this chart is not available because the DMG for Fifth Edition isn’t out, so you are a bit screwed, especially if you are an inexperienced or more casual DM. Veterans of RPGs will know how to craft one of these encounters pretty well based on the options provided. However, again, this is a NEW edition, and for there to be a mistake of this caliber that will stymy newcomers… that’s just terrible. I can tell you Episode 5 was NOT in the playtest I did earlier this year, so it had to be added between then and now, which makes for a pretty good example of why you playtest things. This is something I know many of us would have caught. Hopefully WotC has caught this error as well and will include the table in the yet to be available supplement, but if not, less experienced DMs won’t be able to use this book until December, because Episode Five occurs three times in the campaign, and you WILL need that chart if you’ve never homebrewed before. (EDIT 2: The free supplement went live the day after my review and does indeed contain the proper encounter chart to allow you to use Episode(s) 5 correctly. Here’s a link: http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/basicrules)
So there are two final issues some of you will have with the book. First up is the layout of the episodes/adventures. There are nine episodes in the book, but that’s not an accurate number, because Episode One occurs FOUR TIMES in the book and Episode Five (as mentioned previously) occurs THREE times. Now, these episodes do not occur in the actual chronological order that they occur in the campaign. Why? Because this would make sense, be newcomer friendly and actually flow smoothly. Instead, the episodes are grouped by something that makes sense to the design team, but not anyone else. Again, in the playtest alpha/beta version I have, the adventures were not grouped in such a way as to utterly perplex newcomers to D&D. They were arranged logically and in the order they would occur within the campaign. Just a terrible decision by everyone involved to lay things out in this manner. I can somewhat see where they were coming from. “Let’s put all the talking head adventures together and group them as Episode One,” and “Let’s put all the customizable sneak attack adventures together as Episode Five.” However, most gamers won’t appreciate or even remotely like this grouping – especially not the newcomers for whom 5e is their first RPG (or their first taste in a while). So even though the book lists episodes in the order of Episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9, the actual order of events is 1, 3, 2, 5, 1, 4, 6, 5, 1, 7, 8, 5, 1, 9. Insane, isn’t it? This not only means a lot more prep work for even experienced DMs, but this all could have been solved had the planning team actually looked and realized what a cluster they had made of this release. Again, this will be a mild to middling annoyance for experienced DMs and/or gamers, but for newcomers… oh man, this is just a terrible decision across the board. Who actually thought this was a good idea to order a book in this fashion when it’s the time most newcomers pick up a game? Ugh.
Finally we have that learning curve issue I talked about. Hoard of the Dragon Queen was nicely designed in that it accommodated DMs of ALL skill and experiences levels. It held hands for newcomers while giving suggestions for modifying adventures for more experienced DMs. With The Rise of Tiamat, it’s like WotC and Kobold Press have assumed that, after Hoard of the Dragon Queen, all gamers will be at exactly the same skill level and thus able to run D&D as if they have been playing since the days when Dave Arneson was involved. So while some episodes are still purely hack and slash dungeon crawls that less experienced DMs will be able to navigate decently, some episodes, like the “Councils of Waterdeep,” “The Cult Strikes Back,” “Metallic Dragons, Arise” and even the final episode, “Tiamat’s Return,” read as if the DM has been running Storyteller games where talking and politics are 85% of the overall gaming experience. Granted, I’ve been playing (and admittedly prefer) those types of games, like Call of Cthulhu, Vampire: The Masquerade and Paranoia, but those games play quite differently from D&D and are an utterly different experience. While I applaud that 5e has really tried to present D&D as a more well balanced experience and has given concepts like diplomacy, subterfuge, intrigue and roleplaying over hack and slash dice rolling an equal part in this second half of the Tyranny of Dragons campaign, they unfortunately forgot that, even for some long time D&D gamers, entire play sessions and/or adventurers where all you do is talk to various NPCs in an attempt to get what you want through words instead of mindless violence is going to be a huge paradigm shift. To do these sections without any real attempt to help those inexperienced in this type of roleplaying situation is… let’s just call it unfortunate and ill thought out. Roleplaying tips for the large amount of NPCs are either not there or extremely scant. There is also very little detail to these RPG heavy episodes. All four Episode Ones take up a mere six pages, and that’s with a page of introduction and a page of scoring explanation. That comes out to a page for explanation, descriptive text and roleplaying help per EPISODE. I’m actually a little disgusted by the absolute lack of thought newcomers (to D&D or gaming in general) received in this book, especially compared top Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Again, I love the idea of episodes that are 100% roleplaying, but to throw these in without the slightest bit of help for newcomers or those primarily experienced in hack and slash RPGs… well, I honestly don’t know what the creative team was thinking. This is night and day different from the playtesting experience.
So there you go. 2,000 words of negative and constructive criticism regarding how deeply flawed The Rise of Tiamat is – especially for people trying out D&D (or gaming in general) for the first time. Good news though – we’ve covered all the really big problems (not counting typos and other errors that will need errata down the road) so now we can concentrate on the excellent stuff that makes The Rise of Tiamat worth purchasing. So if you’ve been reading this review thinking I’m a total Negative Nancy, it’s time to talk about what makes The Rise of Tiamat so good.
First of all, it’s an absolute bargain. Sure, the way the episodes and adventures are grouped together is terrible, but you get “nine” episodes for $29.99. That’s $3.32 an episode – IN PRINT no less. You can’t deny that is a fantastic bargain. However, the deal gets even better. Remember, some episodes actually contain multiple adventures. As there are actually fourteen adventures to play in The Rise of Tiamat, the cost drops to a mere $2.14 per adventure. That is insane, and cheaper than most digital only adventures these days. To get fourteen adventures, which will keep your gaming crew busy for MONTHS, for only $29.99, makes The Rise of Tiamat well worth picking up in spite of its flaws. Best of all, Amazon.com has this for only $18.94, dropping the cost per episode and adventure down to $2.10 and $1.35! I don’t think there’s a better deal released, adventure wise, in all of tabletopping this year. So if you’re a D&D fan at all, The Rise of Tiamat is pretty much a must purchase with the insanely cheap pricing attached to it. Sure, it’s got issues, but veteran gamers will be able to get around them with only slight annoyances and newcomers can buy this and hold off actually running it until they feel confident in their DM’ing skills. So yes, the price to content ratio is one of the best I’ve ever seen in all my years of gaming, and shows that even though some people were hit by sticker shock from 5e’s releases, that you’re actually getting a pretty fantastic deal with these books.
Next up are the production values. The Rise of Tiamat is gorgeous to look at, even if you never play the thing. The glossy hardcover with a beautiful spread of Tiamat across both the front and back is something truly awesome to behold. My wife, who has never played a tabletop RPG in her life (but really wants to play Deluxe Call of Catthulhu) walked by my table of products I am currently reviewing and said, “Oh wow. Is that Tiamat? That’s beautiful!” Again, she doesn’t even game and she recognized the D&D incarnation of Tiamat (as opposed to the Sumerian one) instantly and loved it. This is especially telling, since she usually (unfortunately for her) looks to see what I’m reviewing when I have something for Lamentations of the Flame Princess in hand and her response is always, “ick” to the art. There is a lot of power in a good cover, and The Rise of Tiamat has one of the best this year. The artwork inside is equally awesome. You have some great character portraits, some extremely high quality maps and more. The art is a little light compared to Hoard of the Dragon Queen or something like the Monster Manual which has a picture on nearly every page, but what’s in The Rise of Tiamat is pretty great to look at. Finally, the book’s binding is extremely sturdy and holds up quite well. The pages are also of a high quality paper stock (Not glossy though, sorry.) and feel slightly thicker and sturdier than a lot of recently released gaming books, especially in this age of PoD titles.
I know, I’ve talked about art, materials and cost but I’ve yet to get into the meat of the book itself. Well content is indeed king when it comes to roleplaying and despite several of the issues I mentioned above, The Rise of Tiamat is a lot of fun to play and/or to run. Remember, most of the issues with this piece really revolve around layout, a lack of access to things you need and general unfriendliness to newcomers. Well, since I’ve played (and edited) this before its officially release and now managed to fully read the finished product (and play some of the release version. I’ve only had it for a week after all), I can say that I really enjoyed The Rise of Tiamat even if I want to give the layout and editing staff a good flogging. Each adventure is a lot of fun. There is a great deal of variety in the content. One second you’re doing a dungeon crawl, the next you’re negotiating political summits and then you’re off to make allies with Thay or Metallic Dragons. This is not just some dry repetitive megadungeon where you just go from room to room rolling dice. The Rise of Tiamat is a complex campaign (Half of a campaign anyway) that will not only keep gamers on their toes from beginning to end, but offers something to every TYPE of gamer. Like hack and slash? There’s a lot of it. Really want to make a charismatic Bard or Paladin who uses their words like a barbarian uses a great axe? Those characters have just as much a chance to shine in this as a warmage. Want to make a druid who specializes in water spells, a red mage of Thay or a Dragonborn Warlock? Each of these characters will have a moment where an adventure will make them the star player for a bit. The adventures are wonderfully balanced so that any type of character, class and race you can think of will have its fifteen minutes in the spotlight while also being a very important supporting character when someone else’s PC is the one most needed for a particular situation. I can say that when I playtested this, I ran a Tinker Gnome Rogue and his skill with making things explode and thorough knowledge of architecture made him surprisingly important in the final battle against the Cult of the Dragon. So no, this is not going to be a campaign (or even edition) where the high level mages do most of the work. Everyone gets to shine, which is awesome.
Speaking of awesome. Do you like fighting dragons? Well you get to do that a LOT in The Rise of Tiamat. You can kill half dragons, Cult of the Dragon members (which are generally demi/human), White Dragons, Black Dragons, Green Dragons, Blue Dragons, Red Dragons and even do battle with Tiamat herself. Of course you really don’t want to do the latter because even a team of Level 16-18 characters will probably get mauled or TPK’d in the process. Heck, you can even fight the metallic dragons if your entire party is a group of dragon haters for whatever reason. There are lots of dragons here. Oddly enough, you don’t see a lot of dragon combat in D&D, mainly because there are so many other iconic monsters to encounter as well. The Rise of Tiamat however more than makes up for the times where you fight Beholders, Umber Hulks, Mind Flayers, vampires, liches, Rakshasas and Xorn. This half of the campaign is almost super saturated with dragons, letting players really test their combat strategies and letting DMs go all out with some of the biggest and baddest antagonists in the game (and also not feel the slightest bit of guilt if everyone dies in a breath weapon attack because they sat out in the open hoping the dragon might land and fight fairly.). While The Rise of Tiamat doesn’t offer much to newcomers in terms of RPG tips and hints it actually does give some great suggesting for how to use a dragon in a combat situation against the PCs. Hey, that’s at least a little bone thrown to the newbies, right? It’s a very important one too because they might otherwise treat a dragon like it was on the ground waiting for attacks like this was a turn based JRPG or something.
Oddly enough I think veteran hardcore D&D fans are going to enjoy the extremely hands off approach to this adventure and how at times, it’s more a collection of story seeds than actual adventures. Those amongst us that are enterprising enough to make their own content will be more than happy to fill in the same blanks that will drive newcomers to despair or confusion. You really get to make The Rise of Tiamat your own which some DMs will really appreciate. You can expand or contract this half of the campaign however you want allowing for some people to really flex their creative muscles. While I do think this approach was a horrible idea for the second half of a campaign that started out oriented towards newcomers or less experienced DMs, some gamers will in fact love the approach (but not the layout) because it feels like D&D is trying to find back those that left for a myriad of reason with third and fourth edition.
Most importantly is how the campaign ends. I honestly think the PCs losing (but not necessarily dying) is a better ending than the one they get with where the PCs succeed. Not only does the “bad ending” dramatically change how one views the Forgotten Realms, but it makes it a much more interesting place to be and game in. One of the big problems with the Spellplague and 4e is that the changes to the Realms didn’t happen organically or allow gamers to take part in it. They just had their campaign setting radically changed AND fast forwarded a hundred years without any real say. Here, if Toril becomes the stomping ground of Tiamat and Chromatic dragons rule (and destroy) all they survey, you have the makings of an extremely interesting campaign where the PCs are freedom fighters seeking to free their world from an evil god and its spawn. There is so much story and campaign potential from the bad ending, that neither DMs nor players will be that upset if it occurs because all you’ve created is a wealth of new possibilities to experience. That said, the good ending more or less restores the status quo, but still leaves a lot of dangling threads a good DM will more than make use of. Characters will be very high level at the end of this (but not epic level) but so will be the enemies they have made throughout this campaign. Hopefully you haven’t pissed off a certain ruler of Thay or the entire Zhentarim in your campaign! This really is a fantastic way to end a campaign because with either ending, you don’t have to retire your characters or think about what happens next. They are so many options awaiting PCs with either result than you’ll want to keeping playing even once The Rise of Tiamat has completed and now just lives on your shelf.
So in spite of the various issues that plague The Rise of Tiamat, the actual content of the adventure is a lot of fun and it was as much fun to run bits of the final version as it was to run the beta game. There are a lot of memorable moments throughout the campaign and it will definitely be a memorable experience for the gamers who take a character from a Level 1 rookie back in Hoard of the Dragon Queen all the way through to the final encounter with Tiamat herself. I love that you can either use experience points or have characters level up at specific times. The new version of leveling up at certain points takes away having to do math or manage the concept of bonus experience points – which is great if you’re a newcomer. You can just play the game. Of course it also does away with XP earned for acting out a great scene or coming up with a terrific plan, but it does also mean characters will be the same level throughout (unlike AD&D 2e where my Cleric would be several levels ahead of our poor fighter classes) and it means you don’t have to pause the action to divide up the earned XP between players and have them add stuff together (something “accidentally” incorrectly so that they level up sooner. We’ve all seen that happen, am I right?). The fact you can “level up” in two different manners is a fantastic idea and I hope further published adventures keeps the concept going.
So there you go: 2,000 words on why The Rise of Tiamat has a LOT of problems and a further 2,000 on why the second half of Tyranny of Dragons is pretty sweet and well worth purchasing. I’ll admit I strongly prefer Hoard of the Dragon Queen to this as it’s a better overall product quality wise (take that for what you will) and it’s certainly better laid out and far friendlier to the non diehard crowd. Still, once you get past the obvious layout and editing issues, you’re getting an exceptional amount of content and value for a relatively small price tag. The Rise of Tiamat is certainly a fine way to end The Tyranny of Dragons and it will keep you occupied for several months to come. Certainly longer than this in-depth and long-winded review anyway.