In this post I’m returning to my series on villain design and implementation, this time to talk about The Rise of Tiamat. It is, of course, the follow-up to Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but it’s also quite sensibly presented in its own book, because the two arcs are entirely dissimilar in style. As before, I’m only giving one Spoiler Warning, because I’ll be talking about the villains and their plans in detail.
The Rise of Tiamat breaks the story into nine Episodes. The text opens with a breakdown of all of the factions at work in the story, good and evil alike. It assumes the survival or successful resurrection of Rath Modar and Rezmir from HotDQ. On one hand, this undermines the sense of victory at spending all of those adventures running Rezmir down (and the adventure continually keeping her juuuust out of reach until the end); on the other, at least there’s emotional context with her. That’s helpful, considering how many new villains get introduced and how little time there is to establish them.
As noted before… Tiamat is not the main villain here, she’s just the cataclysmic event at the end. This is like the first half of Lucifer’s Hammer, where they’re prepping for disaster to strike and weakening the damage it will ultimately do. Here it’s just reified as a creature you can stab, because D&D.
Episode 1: Council of Waterdeep
This Episode is a great example of how differently RoT is organized – you come back to this chapter four times, each time with a new context. You might think of this chapter as the narrative “home base.” As such, it imparts information about the villains and presents most of the hooks for individual adventures, but does not feature face-to-face encounters with villains. Since the actual information about the villains is stored in later chapters, I’ll talk about those details when I come to them. From a player perspective, though, you learn a lot of good information while defending your actions to the Council. This winds up a lot like having a Senate hearing between adventures, so you should expect a lot of (presumably in-character) grumbling from your players before and after each Council. The friendly NPCs are super jerks who get mad at the PCs for making judgment calls on the spot. I’m reminded of nothing so much as Mass Effect here. I’m almost surprised that none of the Council members turn out to be villains in their own right (though, er, you’re allied with Zhentarim and the Red Wizards of Thay, so “villain” is a complicated word to throw around).
There are also some political maneuvers that take place between Council meetings. It can be a bit hard to figure out from the text exactly why they’re happening. I think they’d also tend to increase player suspicion of corruption at the top, but that’s (as far as I can tell) a red herring.
Episode 2: The Sea of Moving Ice
This Episode isn’t so much about directly confronting the bad guys. The PCs track down a scholar who has the exposition they need, kill a dragon who would otherwise support the Cult, and secure an alliance with another villain faction. At least, the Hosttower of the Arcane and the Arcane Brotherhood were evil as shit back in 2e and 3e. That’s much less clearly the case in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. Maccath the Crimson is, in this adventure, the kind of rescue that makes you really question your commitment to heroing, because she tacks on a bunch of extra stuff you have to do before she’ll leave with you.
The salient villains of this Episode, then, are Arauthator and Bonecarver, though Bonecarver can be won over to the PCs’ side early on if she fails to poison them. The story here is largely about Arveiaturace, one of the big bad dragons of Realmslore, who appeareth not in this adventure. The short version is that Arauthator has controlled or cowed several different groups, and the PCs dismantle that power base on their way to killing him or driving him off.
The good part of this villain buildup is that the PCs get to hear a lot about the dragon during their approach, from people who hate and fear him. They also see several signs of his handiwork, though I have real doubts that he (at CR 13) could have beaten the 10 giants he’s shown to have fought, unless he took them down 1-2 at a time. Especially since 8 of them are just immune to his breath weapon. PCs hear what people say about the dragon and see what he’s done, so those are good fundamentals. I would have liked to have seen more banter with the dragon.
This section leaves a lot of money on the table, though. Maccath’s infodump during the adventure mentions a bunch of cult members showing up to collect the Draakhorn, the relic on which she is an expert. She doesn’t know anything about the cultists, though. The PCs have to be the ones to recognize the Cult by her description of the robes. This is going to be obvious and automatic for them by this point in the adventure series, unless you skipped Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Improve this by having Maccath be moderately knowledgeable about the Cult, and let her tell the PCs that she saw one of the wyrmspeakers in that group. Presumably you’d use Varram the White for this, since he’s the next on the chopping block and another chance to drop his name would be useful. Arauthator’s death or escape does not canonically have any later effect, but you could certainly arrange something. He seems like the kind who would seek revenge if given half a chance, and Episode 5 is specifically about the Cult taking proactive steps to murder the PCs.
Episode 3: Death to the Wyrmspeakers (Varram)
This two-Episode section is a chance to carry out separate hits against two of the named villains – one the PCs have been hearing about since HotDQ, and the other whose revelation needs to get built up as shocking. (As far as book layout goes, this makes exactly as much sense as if the beginning of a chapter in a book said “Chapters 3 and 4,” and then just had a large-font header to signal the start of Chapter 4. Just… why?)
Varram the White is a name that has been bouncing around for awhile, thanks to the potential treachery of Talis the White in HotDQ. Varram is in a dilly of a pickle, because one of the Zhentarim stole his mask. It looks like the race is on to find the mask. Or at least find the scrying-pool that can lead them to the mask. At the end of the adventure, though, the PCs find out that they and Varram have both lost and the mask is already back in the hands of a different Cult member. Thus the exciting premise of the adventure has predetermined the least interesting answer, and the outcome of not going on this adventure is the same as the outcome of going on it. You can gain some information from capturing Varram at the end, but the adventure only roughly sketches that.
Only the very beginning and the very end of the adventure reveal anything at all about Varram, and every detail is either incorrect or a lie when the PCs receive it. The first – that Varram is heroic for killing a yuan-ti – they don’t have much of a way to learn the truth about. The second, that Varram’s soul is trapped outside his body by the yuan-ti, is a lie with almost no point to it, except that his captor wants to bargain for the lives of her people. Varram has a motivation, but no history; if the PCs ask at the end why he joined the Cult, be prepared to wing it, unless you find something in this book that I’ve missed. He does not, in fact, even merit a stat block.
Functionally speaking, he’s barely even a villain, since he provides none of the actual opposition to the protagonists’ goals. He’s basically the MacGuffin that they can win, as opposed to the one they can’t. If he’s not the villain of this adventure, then I guess the yuan-ti abomination priestess is. She doesn’t receive a name in the text, and she explicitly has no motivation for opposing them other than being upset that the PCs killed her people who were standing in the way.
To fix this adventure, I’d start by revealing up-front that Varram is on the outs with the Cult and is desperate to recover his mask. The point of going to Diderius’s pool is something other than finding out where the White Dragon Mask is. Establish before this adventure that Waterdeep is lousy with Hydra agents Cult members, and the PCs need to flip someone who can identify them. This is kind of established in the “Death of a Masked Lord” header in Episode 1, but that seems like it’s more about fridging a dude to give his wife a motivation rather than establishing the threat level of a larger conspiracy. Thus, the PCs understand from the beginning that they need Varram alive and reasonably compliant. While you’re at it, look up the Night’s Black Agents Conspyramid and fit your version of the Cult to that.
Episode 4: Death to the Wyrmspeakers (Neronvain)
The Cult lost a lot of treasure at the end of HotDQ, which drives them to step up attacks in the Misty Forest. Considering that HotDQ ended with “this setback won’t matter,” I’m really glad it at least motivates the bad guys to act in RoT. The king of the Misty Forest is part of the Council of Waterdeep, so the PCs can win favor with him (which they need to do because they’re going to piss him off bigtime a little later on) by investigating the attacks. I should clarify: the elves have already stopped the attacks on their own. They want you to figure out who the mysterious leader of the attackers was.
The mysterious figure is Neronvain, the lost son of King Melandrach. It helps a good bit if the PCs have a reason to know that Neronvain is believed dead, and I’m not super sure how that would come out in conversation with Melandrach. Probably the best case is a PC – especially an elf – passing a History check and spouting lore at the party. Regrettably, DMs also need to invent their own reasons that Neronvain went bad. There’s one reference to Neronvain’s journal calling Melandrach “my poor father.” It takes a lot to get elves on board with indiscriminate slaughter of the same subrace of elf, so I’m not really sure what to recommend here. Maybe Tiamat promised him a frickin’ Silmaril, I have no idea.
The adventure starts with the players investigating the site of a recent attack. As you run this adventure, pay close attention to just how fragile the trail of bread crumbs from this scene to the actual adventure is, and think real hard about whether risking derailing the whole adventure with a failed DC 18 Insight check is a good use of anyone’s time. Also, if your PCs are inclined to Intimidate a suspect as a first course of action, think about how you’ll recover if you heed the text’s note that “Galin will not respond to intimidation.”
Anyway, there isn’t a lot of other contact to develop PC investment in hating Neronvain or his green dragon buddy Chuth. The text suggests that they fight for awhile and then flee, possibly returning in Episode 5. The PCs have two important goals in the whole Episode: first, to learn that Neronvain was alive so they can tell King Melandrach and turn him into an ally on the Council; second, to learn that the Green Dragon Mask is also already shipped off to the Well of Dragons. The second isn’t actually important in any way. Neronvain himself will just get replaced if he dies.
I’m even more at a loss as to how to fix this. Probably the best move is to cut the character of Galin, and have the PCs get involved with fending off a new attack by Neronvain and Chuth against a village of the Misty Forest, followed by some kind of pursuit back to Chuth’s lair. There needs to be a sense that the PCs accomplish something useful to their broader goal of uniting the forces of good and opposing the Cult, but Episodes 3 and 4 are hacking at limbs that have already fallen off the tree.
Episode 5: The Cult Strikes Back
Like Episode 1, you come to this chapter three separate times. For villain presentation, this is probably the most important Episode, because it shows the Cult going on the offensive against the PCs. The text even calls out that the fights need to be desperate and brutal, with real risk of character death. Every named bad guy in the book that isn’t dead for other reasons (or whose corpse the NPCs might have recovered and raised), other than Severin, can and should show up here, because fighting a familiar face means more than fighting a stranger.
On the other hand, the text leaves it very much up in the air as to what kinds of horrible things the Cult does in these attacks. There are a few suggestions, but you’re working on your own here, by and large. My advice would be to name the leader of each death squad (if you’re not using a named NPC already), and give them something distinctive, as per the DMG’s advice on presenting memorable NPCs. As much as possible, strike when the PCs feel safest or when they’re tired and battered, to either erase the idea of safety or to really put the screws to them. They get paid a level for each of these three encounters, if you’re using milestone XP, so… go nuts. For a most-ideal case, try to split them up and spread them out, forcing them to move around more. If there’s one thing dragons should have in spades, it’s movement. Also, there are red dragons in the third attack. Light something on fire.
The structure of Rise of Tiamat can be tweaked to resemble a spy thriller. The Cult are political (not ethnically distinct) terrorists that infiltrate everything, Tiamat is their nuke, the Red Wizards are post-Soviet “friendly” Russians, Rath Modar & co. are the splinter faction of the KGB or FSB or whatever, the Wyrmspeakers are the high-priority enemy agents you want to turn or kill, and this Episode is a trio of terrorist attacks. To make this Episode all the more interesting, turn at least one of the attacks into a coordinated attack on a major city that the PCs learn about shortly before it happens. Target the military assets that the players are gathering in the Council meetings. The text alludes to city attacks happening generally, but doesn’t bring it all the way into focus for you.
In fact, I just added that to my plan for why Rezmir goes to Baldur’s Gate in HotDQ. It’s the way to get armies and materiel across the Chionthar, other than ships that are famously vulnerable to dragon attacks? Right, well, since the Well of Dragons is in the Sunset Mountains south of the Chionthar and almost all of the allies at the Council are north of the Chionthar… it looks to me like Scornubel is the other priority target to isolate the region. (The text doesn’t engage with the fact that Darkhold and Cormyr are right there next to the Well, so I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader as well.)
Episode 6: Metallic Dragons, Arise
As in Episode 1, this chapter involves a diplomatic summit to win over potent but selfish, grudge-holding allies. If the Council of Waterdeep is NATO or the US Senate or whatever, this is a group of potential allies who were formerly part of the Warsaw Pact, but haven’t been admitted to NATO or the EU yet. Or, like, Wakanda. Choose your own metaphor here. Anyway, this isn’t so much about developing the villains as it is about airing dirty laundry of the “good guys.” If you think your players will get bored with more diplomacy, take a page from Captain America: Civil War and blow some shit up.
Episode 7: Xonthal’s Tower
In Episodes 3 and 4, we see two cases of the story presenting the players with a hope of killing an important member of the Cult and capturing one of the Masks. In both cases this is a false hope – there’s nothing the PCs could ever have done to succeed, and they don’t find this out to the end. This Episode does the very same thing: the PCs hear that a Cult member might defect with a Mask, and all they have to do is extract him. There’s just one problem – the Mask is a fake and the defector dies before the PCs could possibly catch up to him. It’s… nominally possible to break the plot and save the defector, but the Mask is gone long before they arrive. Running a bait-and-switch once is risky. Three times is deadly to the DM’s credibility.
Episode 7 is the worst of these, though, because of one line: “If divination spells are used to assess the situation, give the characters a strong sense that that Iskander is on the level, and that the Blue Dragon Mask is in his possession.” Having the PCs’ magic fail for no reason – considering that we’re probably talking about 6th-7th level spells here, including the mighty commune – is dirty pool.The text never clarifies why Iskander was unaware that he had a false Mask, or anything else about the situation – it simply calls it a “troubling mystery.” Moreover, none of the characters in the entire Episode can tell them anything new of Severin’s plots. There is explicitly nothing here to gain that is in any way relevant to the plot – just loot and XP.
I’m not really sure who the villain of Xonthal’s Tower would be. The most interesting person in the Episode is Xonthal, who has been dead for an unstated amount of time. He did weird magic stuff and created weird magic locations that present a sense of wonder.
Opposition comes from unnamed cult members and cult fanatics, from disgruntled but non-defecting Cult member Jorgen Pawl, and from the efreeti Taraz the Fair. Of Jorgen we learn nothing more than I have just finished saying. His sending to Lennithon to harry the PCs… happens off-camera and it’s hard to imagine how the PCs would learn of it. Taraz is only found in one room, and God help you if the PCs believe any of his lies, because you could be stuck with a whole session of wasted time.
Fixing this Episode’s problems come down to giving Iskander some actual purpose. Manage that, and the rest of the adventure comes together pretty well. Don’t give him a false Blue Dragon Mask; since he was also taken in by it, that stops him from having any credibility. Instead, add more major Cult attacks against the cities of the Sword Coast that Iskander can tell them about, and they can thus prevent. Or supply lines they can cut, or… it doesn’t really matter. Invent useful secrets and have him distribute them. Don’t have him be dead before the PCs find him in the Tower. Creating organized opposition within Xonthal’s Tower would also be a fine plan; letting Jorgen Pawl head that is fine.
Episode 8: Mission to Thay
In this Episode, the PCs try to recruit the mainstream faction of Red Wizards, the one headed by… probably the pre-eminent named villain of the 5e Realms, Szass Tam. Still, when you’re choosing between a really bad dude way over there and the end of all civilization west of Thay, going with Szass Tam makes some sense. This would be a good chance for the PCs to ask questions about Rath Modar, in case there’s anything left to learn. Be prepared to invent new secrets here, and it would help if they were useful to know.
There’s some decently sinister stuff happening in this Episode, though the payoff of the whole Episode is in the final battle, in ways the PCs won’t see. Bulk that up – if nothing else, prepare a detailed monologue describing the head-to-head conflicts in the battle.
Once again this amounts to “you do the diplomacy with complex, flawed, greedy people to recruit them as allies.” There two named Red Wizards, one a Tharchion. Though sketched briefly, they get some good roleplay notes, and their motivations are self-evident. The diplomacy gets real unfriendly, but they never actually become antagonists as such. Depending on your point of view.
Episode 9: Tiamat’s Return
The final chapter of the Tyranny of Dragons storyline involves the PCs and their allies going to the Well of Dragons. They finally meet and clash with Severin, the leader of the Cult of the Dragon. They also run into Naergoth Bladelord, who they haven’t heard of before this (unless the DM inserted something). Naergoth’s story is about the conflict between the Cult’s Old Guard of dracolich veneration and the new style of Tiamat fanatics, but it’s far too late for the PCs to care – a wight standing in their way is just another fight at this point. I can’t really see a party waiting long enough to hear his story, since he just attacks anyway.
Severin, in the end, is nothing more than a stat block. When the PCs enter Tiamat’s Temple, he’s in the middle of the ritual. The ritual – surprisingly enough at this point – has a failure state, and the text at least acknowledges that that might happen. Probably not, all told. The point of everything here is to debuff Tiamat, bringing her from probably unkillable through any means to a pretty manageable fight, or any point in between.
In theory, a lot of different characters – Naergoth, Varram, Iskander (raise dead or speak with dead), or someone – could tell you about Severin. You could possibly learn something about him from examining his quarters in this Episode. It’s not obvious how you’d even get that to inform the PCs’ encounter with him, assuming you made up a story for him. Let me strongly recommend Max Sellers’s work on developing Severin’s story.
There’s one part of Episode 9 that needs to change to account for other changes I’m recommending. The text requires that Severin has 4 or 5 of the Masks in his possession to start the ritual, which is why all of the PCs’ efforts to capture the Masks before now have to fail. Rewrite that. Let those things still be strikes against Tiamat’s power, if Severin doesn’t have them by the end. Episode 5 can also be about the Cult making a hard run at retaking those Masks. It also greatly increases the importance of rooting out Cult infiltrators. (You’ll also need to create your own way to destroy a Mask, or reasons the PCs shouldn’t destroy Masks.)
This is not a story about deep character motivations. It needs a lot of adaptation to give player choices any significance. Sure, all adventures require some adaptation, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask for basic narrative beats to work. No text should ever instruct the DM to repeatedly invalidate player decisions. Obviously, if what your players really want is a nice long run of monster-bashing fun and they don’t mind bashing a lot of the same cultist stat blocks over and over, don’t change anything. My remarks are for groups where antagonist motivations need to be clear and the protagonists’ choices need to affect the long-term story.
There are building blocks for fantasy anti-terrorism spy thriller, and you could get a lot more tension and character development by adding storylines of rooting out Cult moles in the factions and the major cities. The best-developed NPCs are the PCs’ prospective allies and their conflicts with one another, so look there for character tension. It would take a bit more digging into Realmslore to make it work, but there are also some geopolitical stories here, if more subtext than text.
Of the villains in Rise of Tiamat, Neronvain has the best emotional hook: he’s related to some people that the PCs meet, and NPCs tell specific stories about bad things he has recently done. No one here earns the PCs’ hate the way Langdedrosa Cyanwrath does. Rath Modar and Rezmir, as the two significant NPCs who might have survived HotDQ, get no further development here, but hey, at least the PCs know their names and faces.
There’s one thing I do absolutely love in this adventure, and in HotDQ: the book strongly encourages the DM to hit hard and, if the PCs survive that, hit harder. Let the bodies hit the floor, possibly as piles of ash. I’m for it, because a lot of the emotional connection that you need PCs to build can come from establishing credible threat. Episode 5 is the real shift in the book – the point at which dragons that they don’t bother to name show up on-camera.
I hope this commentary is useful to you, either in considering your own run of Tyranny of Dragons, or in thinking about how to write and reveal villains in games and published adventures.