Last time, I introduced us to one of the greatest adventures of all time: Red Hand of Doom, a 3e D&D campaign module. Today, I’ll take us through the first half of Part 1 of the adventure. These are some jam-packed Parts, and it’s worth giving each some room to breathe. I’m going section-by-section; as always, if you have the book or the PDF, you can follow along pretty closely. And, if you’re an extremely cool person who is reading or listening to The Chaotic Neutral Chronicles, this writeup takes us through the plot of Episode 025: The Ghost of Caer Karnak.
This is the first proper encounter of the campaign, and showcases a lot of what makes this campaign great. There’s lessons to be learned here! Core principles!
The encounter begins when the party is ambushed by six hobgoblin archers hiding in the trees on either side of the main road. These hobgoblins will be joined in four rounds by another six hobgoblins waiting further down the road. There are a few special units, too; a hobgoblin bladebearer, a Doom Hand cleric, and two hell hounds. This is a tough encounter – twelve hobgoblin soldiers, plus the special units. As written, it’s intended to be a few levels above the party level.
The encounter as written needs almost no tweaking. But there are three main things you want the party to come away understanding:
- The hobgoblins are an army, and think strategically. These guys are not your run-of-the-mill bandits. They should operated with efficiency and tactical precision. This is your chance, as a DM, to flex those wargaming muscles. From a story perspective, show the party that these hobgoblins are well-organized. Have them call out battle commands, use military terminology, refer to each other as “privates,” whatever – show the party that this is an army.
- The Red Hand is dangerous. Okay, this might sound obvious. But this is the perfect chance to establish the Red Hand as a truly threatening organization. You want the PCs to come out of this encounter going “holy shit! Those guys are tough!” If it’s a pushover encounter, they’re liable to waltz right into the rest of the battles with the horde.
- The Red Hand is magical. Literally. The hobgoblin soldiers are fodder, in the end, and the designer notes put paid to this. But the Doom Hand Cleric, Hobgoblin Bladebearer, and Hell Hounds are where the signature flair of the Red Hand comes into play. The cleric is absolutely wearing a holy symbol of Tiamat, and you might consider throwing some flavorful curses in there – “By the five heads!” or “Tiamat’s teats!”
This first encounter sets the tone for the whole campaign. You can convey these three important lessons about the party’s foes right here, right now. The PCs are up against a dangerous, sorcerous army of hobgoblins and who knows what else. That right there should tell them everything they need to know about Red Hand of Doom.
This encounter also teaches you, the DM, about the way encounters will be written in this book. Two important boxes: the Designers’ Notes and the Developments. The Designers’ Notes are one of the best parts of RHOD. James and Rich, the two lead designers, share some of their thoughts on why they made XYZ design choice. Here, for instance, they explain why the encounter level is so high relative to the party level, and ways to augment that depending on party composition.
But my favorite text box is the Developments box. This is where the designers leave notes about what happens with captives the party takes – what information they know, things they might say, and what the party has to do to weasel that information out of them. These are good places to think about how you’re layering in later storylines early on, but they’re also just a nice opportunity to think about who these characters are. That is, who the hobgoblins are. The hobgoblins here are all described as religious zealots who would rather die than talk (a good chance to impress on the PCs exactly how serious these guys are). But maybe you want one of the hobgoblins to be a rat who finks on his buddies.
The post-fight captive-interrogating is a big part of D&D. I love when adventure modules give you something to work with for that stage of the encounter, and RHOD does it well. The hobgoblins in this attack should know a few things – they are working for Wyrmlord Koth, a mighty sorcerer, as well as his lieutenant Karkilan, a “bull-faced” guy (actually a minotaur). They’ll also be able to point the PCs in the direction of the forest to the west, and allude to a threat against the nearby human town. This encounter should pull the PCs directly to Drellin’s Ferry, and then to the forest across the river.
The Ferry to the Forest
Drellin’s Ferry is the PC headquarters for the first part of RHOD. The adventure provides a nice little scene outline wherein the Town Guy In Charge hires them to check out the hobgoblin activity across the river. Hopefully the marauder attack will impress on the party some sense of urgency, but if they’re loitering around in Drellin’s Ferry for too long, the designers suggest throwing another goblin raid at the town.
The town itself has a reasonably large and interesting cast of characters; the PCs will probably interact with them more when they return to the town later. On their first visit, it’s important that they come away with a feeling that Drellin’s Ferry is an idyllic little town with few, if any, serious problems. The town is going to get blown up pretty soon, so if you know a good way to endear the town to your PCs, employ that here. Are they a sucker for a goofy kid NPC? Do they always get drunk at the tavern? Whatever thing about towns your PCs love the most, give them a taste of in Drellin’s Ferry. It’ll make the town’s destruction that much worse.
Hopefully, though, they won’t linger long, because the real action is across the river in the Witchwood. The Town Guy In Charge should point them in the direction of Jorr Natherson, a versatile NPC for Part 1. Jorr is a ranger, able to navigate the Witchwood for the party. Now, when I ran RHOD, it was a two-person party with a DMPC (barbarian, rogue, and cleric respectively), so Jorr was a badly-needed niche-filler, rounding out some chip damage in combat and handling the wilderness navigation checks. But if you have a large party, and especially if you have a party with one or more rangers/druids, let those characters take center stage in navigating the Witchwood, with Jorr available as a curmudgeonly reference book as needed. He’s only written into the adventure for Part 1, so unless you decide to go off-book, Jorr isn’t exactly the fulcrum on which RHOD swings.
Once in the Witchwood, there’s one pseudorandom encounter before the main scene at Vraath Keep: a hydra. Now, personally, I’d skip this encounter wholesale. It’s one of the few encounters in the whole adventure that truly feels like little more than a glorified random encounter, but it’s prewritten and designed. If you need to drain party resources before they hit the keep, throw this at them, but it’s very skippable if you want to keep the story moving. And if the hydra isn’t really scratching the itch but you still want to throw something at them, there’s a good table of random encounters for the Witchwood.
This is the first big action scene in the adventure. By itself, it’s almost a standalone module. You’ll get pages of backstory on Vraath Keep here, along with a nice sidebar giving DCs for knowledge checks on the keep. The next section of part 1 will involve the backstory somewhat, as they players have an opportunity to meet a giant who may be swayed by their knowledge (or lack thereof) regarding the history of the keep.
By hook or crook, I recommend putting the PCs in a situation where they end up approaching the keep late in the evening. Mostly for atmosphere reasons. The goblins have a Scooby-Doo-style ghost rigged in the keep, and the effect of that will be better felt if the players see the “ghost” at night. This is a hard series of fights for the players; if they’re not cautious in their approach, the situation can quickly compound into a deadly encounter.
Laying out the combatants, we have:
- Two goblins, with two worgs
- One manticore
- Four hobgoblins and a minotaur named Karkilan
- A bugbear sorcerer (Wyrmlord Koth) with 6 character levels
Altogether, using 5E rules, those monsters present a very deadly challenge for a 4-person party at 5th level. Taken piecemeal, though, they’re not that bad – a couple goblins with worgs should be no problem, for example. Use this to your advantage. Is the party rolling like crap tonight? Maybe the foes inside the keep just aren’t making their Perception checks to notice the sounds of battle outside. Is the party mopping the floor with those goblins and worgs? Well, maybe the bugbear sorcerer is going to ambush them with a lightning bolt at a crucial juncture. The manticore is a good wild card here, which is thoughtfully written into the developments for that encounter area – the manticore, the designers say, may not be interested in fighting unless it’s attacked by the PCs first. It might choose to watch, engaging only if threatened, or might choose to fly away and warn the horde rather than get its claws dirty. Likewise, Karkilan the minotaur can be a strong deciding factor for the flow of combat. The text has Karkilan seeking out Wyrmlord Koth at the first sign of battle, taking him out of the action economy for at least a few rounds. It’s up to you to follow this guidance. Personally, I kept him in the fight – it turned the action economy against the players a little, but also meant that when Koth entered the fray later, Karkilan was faster to die off, giving the PCs a final surge of momentum against the Wyrmlord.
A note on Wyrmlord Koth. Decide ahead of time how you want to play the Wyrmlord here. The text suggests running Koth as a total coward, prioritizing flight from the battle as first priority. His stat block as written comes with a potion of Fly and a scroll with which to summon a mount. This can be good and bad. You know your group best: if they’re going to feel genuinely cheated by having Koth get away wholesale, let him tangle with them mano-a-goblino. If they’ll appreciate the juicy plot implications of the boss flying off cackling into the night, vowing to fight another day, well, lean into it. The Developments sidebar makes it clear: there’s certain information that the PCs can come away with here regardless of whether or not they’re able to capture & interrogate the Wyrmlord.
Finally, there’s the treasure vault beneath the keep. Even the developers acknowledge that the treasure here is fairly significant: the deed to the keep, 3,550 gp worth of coin, gauntlets of ogre power, a +1 frost sword, a +1 mithral shirt, a staff of life, and a plot hook to give to the giant they’ll meet later. The developers do justify this by pointing out that the pace of RHOD doesn’t give the players a lot of time to buy magic items or seek out high-level wizards or clerics for services. In a lower-magic-item system like 5e, you could probably omit some of the magic items (or not, it’s really fun and cool to throw some of this stuff at the players). Tailor them to your group as needed. The only that I can give concrete universal advice on is the staff of life, which in third edition was a portable way to cast a resurrection spell. The developers call this “adventure insurance.” It’s really not a bad idea to include one free resurrection in this treasure trove somehow. RHOD is a deadly, dangerous set of adventures, and because it’s a fast-paced action story, your table might find that it interrupts the flow to replace someone’s PC partway through.
Or not! Character death is part of character life, after all.
That’s it for Part 1 of Part 1. Check back soon for Part 2 of Part 1 – Skull Gorge Bridge through the fall of Drellin’s Ferry!