How to Run Red Hand of Doom: Part 1

It’s an absolute classic. Maybe it doesn’t have the brand power of “Tomb of Horrors” or “Temple of Elemental Evil,” but it’s a constant presence on top Dungeons & Dragons adventure module lists. That’s right: it’s RED HAND OF DOOM.

Red Hand of Doom (RHOD, from here on out) was published in 2006 for third edition Dungeons & Dragons. It’s an adventure module that spans 6th to 10th level – not an insignificant stretch of time for characters. While many D&D adventure modules are written around a single dungeon or a main location, RHOD spans an entire war. The PCs fight along the many fronts of a developing invasion of the Elsir Vale by the forces of the Red Hand, a hobgoblin/monster horde devoted to the worship of Tiamat. There are ambushes, raids, pitched battles, sieges, recon missions, assassinations (sort of) – it’s a huge mishmash of adventure types.

It’s an adventure worthy of a revival! You can buy the PDF of the adventure over at DMsGuild; there’s also a 5e conversion guide + maps on DMsGuild. I haven’t checked those out myself, so I can’t really say if they’re well-done or not, but I will say: if you’re familiar with running fifth edition at all, it’s not a huge feat to patch RHOD. I’ll mostly be writing here about my experience running it in 3.5e, but I’ll include notes for my own recommendations on balancing it in 5e.

As a quick peek behind the scenes: if you’ve been reading my ongoing serial story, The Chaotic Neutral Chronicles, you might recognize some of these things. Our main characters are on their way out to a place called the “Hestor Vale” to do battle with the forces of the Red Hand. The Chronicles is indeed based on my ongoing D&D campaign with my good buddies, and we did, at one point, play through a modified version of RHOD. So if you are for some reason worried about spoilers for the Chronicles, keep in mind that I will be hitting the plot points of RHOD in these writeups.

I’m going to break this into nine short parts. (I know – nine? But there’s a lot to talk about in RHOD, and I want to be as helpful as possible). If you’re following along from the adventure PDF, here’s how I’ll be breaking it down:

  • Introduction (covering, well, the Introduction)
  • The Witchwood Part 1 (covering up through Vraath Keep)
  • The Witchwood Part 2 (covering up through the battle of Drellin’s Ferry)
  • Sidequests and Missions (covering part of Part II of the adventure module)
  • The Ruins of Rhest (the rest of Part II in the module)
  • The Ghostlord’s Lion (Part III)
  • The Battle of Brindol (Part IV)
  • The Fane of Tiamat (Part V)
  • Conclusion

How Do I Get Ready for RHOD?

On the material side: get your maps ready. Even if you play totally theater-of-the-mind, like I do, you the DM will still find it immensely useful to have plenty of reference maps. Especially of the Elsir Vale itself. It will be very important for your players to understand where one thing is in relation to another, so make the grand-scale maps available to them as best as possible. There’s a very useful blog post over at Fallschaden with player versions of some of the maps – that is, names of secret locations have been excised. Can’t recommend that enough. If you do play with miniatures or battlemats, it’s not a bad idea to print up some of the provided battlemaps well ahead of time (again, see the Fallschaden post for some high-quality downloadable maps. There are also maps available for $$ on DMsGuild). There’s two dungeons in the story – the Ghostlord’s Lion and the Fane of Tiamat – and both are worth prepping for. If you need to buy some miniatures: a few different kinds of hobgoblins, to represent the different flavors of foe, plus at least one dragon mini. If you’re a freak with money, get yourself a Tiamat miniature. That’ll come in handy at the end of the Fane.

Good luck finding one, though.

When it comes to stats: if you’re playing in 3.5e or 3e, relax! There’s a wonderful appendix with all the stats you’ll ever need for all the NPCs in the adventure! If you’re playing in 5e: well, get ready for a little bit of surgery, because you’ll need to graft things together a little. Personally, I think you can overhaul all the stat blocks for 5e just by replacing them with their vanilla 5e Monster Manual equivalents and then juking the numbers and adding some custom feats to make them act the way they should. Most of the enemies are hobgoblins or bugbears, even the big bosses. There are slight flavor changes, but for the most part all you’ll need to do is a have a hobgoblin in most of the major character classes – barbarian, sorcerer, cleric, warlock, monk, and fighter should cover it – and then beef up the regular hobbos as necessary. Red Hand clerics tend to rely on invisibility; Red Hand sorcerers tend to rely on, well, setting people on fire, electrocuting them, etc.

The major stat overhauls for 5e will be the main villains: the five Wyrmlords. Each of them has a gimmick, though, and a gimmick is all you need to build an interesting stat block. To sum up:

Wyrmlord Koth – his gimmick is that he sucks and dies. Okay – before he dies he’ll cast lightning bolt. He’s a generic sorcerer.

Wyrmlord Saarvith – he’s a ranger. Big bow. Goblin, not a hobgoblin.

Wyrmlord Ulwai – she’s a bard with a whip. As written, RHOD gives her the stormsinger prestige class, which gives her STORM MAGIC. You can keep her as a bard or mix her up a little as a cleric or even a warlock – no matter what, she’s supposed to be a pretty gimmicky, interesting enemy.

Wyrmlord Hravek Kharn – big hitty guy. Look, technically he’s a favored soul/Talon of Tiamat multiclass, with all sorts of interesting little things, but there’s a few important gimmicks to save: he’s a spellcaster/hitty guy mix with a breath weapon. Easy way to resolve it, I think, is to make him a Dragonborn Paladin under some kind of Oathbreaker/Antipaladin variant – pick your poison there. He is a holy warrior for Tiamat. You don’t even really have to make him a dragonborn to get the breath weapon – Tiamat is a goddess. She can totally just decide to give this beefy hobgoblin the power to spit acid or whatever.

Wyrmlord Azzar Kul – he’s a cleric. Really, that’s it. He’s a half-blue dragon hobgoblin cleric, level 11.

You’re going to have to noodle with all the stats anyway to get them balanced for your specific party, so my advice would be: don’t plan too far ahead on the specific stat blocks.

The last thing I would say when it comes to getting ready for RHOD: pick three major subplots. The book’s introduction provides pages and pages of material on the history of the vale, the individual towns scattered here and there, and, while it’s all neato mosquito, not much of it comes up in the bones of the adventure. Skimming the other parts will help you here – maybe you want to emphasize some politics of the Tiri Kitor elves, or maybe you want to flesh out the dwarven Hammerfist Holds (which gets, like, two mentions in the story but could be a whole nother faction unto itself). The politics of the city of Brindol make an impact during Part IV, but you can lay some chum well beforehand to establish the connections between Lady Kaal – a classic villain – and some of the other brigands around the Vale. There’s also some mention of the Circle of Eth, a druidic circle active in the Vale…plenty of things to expand on. This gives you some room for verisimilitude while not having to generate entirely new stories – after all, the point of using an adventure like this is not spending hours and hours and hours generating from scratch.

I will say: I spent a good deal of time figuring out the networks and relationships described in the adventure module. You can see my Charlie-from-It’s-Always-Sunny flowchart below:

As a note: this flowchart includes some changes I made to character names and relationships.

Can’t say I would recommend this method, but I found some of the relationships fruitful. It’s particularly helpful to see how major late-story players like Lord Jarmaath and Lady Kaal relate to the politics of the rest of the Vale.

Before the Hand – Leading the Party to the Elsir Vale

The adventure as written provides a few hooks, all aimed at drawing the party specifically to Drellin’s Ferry (and Vraath Keep beyond!) They’re not bad exactly, but the fact the adventure begins at 5th-level leaves a lot of room for pre-Red-Hand adventures. You could imagine an entire pre-RHOD module running characters from 1st to 5th level, culminating in them reaching Drellin’s Ferry, or the Vale, or whatever you choose. The horde provides a lot of low-level options – worg riders, goblin bandits…even, perhaps, a low-level dragon that the horde tried to recruit.

If all that sounds familiar: well, I did kinda do all of that in the campaign that created the Chaotic Neutral Chronicles. The Red Hand first appears in my story waaaaay back in Episode 04: The Ballad of Gary, when the party encounters a dying worg with a Red Hand branded on its flank. As I write this post, I’m in the middle of writing season 3, where I really intersect with RHOD as written. Fear not, loyal reader: I’ll be making some significant changes from the adventure as written…

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