Welcome to another Roll20 Review, my written and video series in which I review the paid modules available for sale at Roll20. A review copy of the module was provided.

“Tyranny of Dragons” was the name of the first two campaign books released for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition back in 2014: “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” and “The Rise of Tiamat.”

As the first official campaign story published for 5E, “Tyranny of Dragons” is a bit rough around the edges. Some of the rules weren’t quite solidified yet. The Monster Manual wouldn’t even be released until several months after RoT; the Dungeon Master’s Guide and even Player’s Handbook not until after HotDQ.

Lost Mine of Phandelver” was designed as a the first intro starter adventure, whereas “Tyranny of Dragons” had to evoke a full campaign. While it tells a fun story of both dungeons and dragons, it’s very linear and railroady, with few overly large maps that don’t look very good on a virtual tabletop.

Both modules draw from classic D&D scenarios and monsters and use lots of fun locations, from a flying Cloud Giant castle to a White Dragon lair in the middle of the Sea of Moving Ice, culminating in the dark dragon goddess being summoned to Faerun.

The Roll20 package offers both modules together for the normal campaign price, or you can purchase each one separately. While the original adventure may be the earliest, and roughest of the 5E campaigns, Roll20 has steadily been refining their D&D 5e adaptation process, adding in lots of welcome bonus features to “Tyranny of Dragons” such as rollable loot tables, a Council Scorecard, and extra random battle maps.

roll20 review

Since you can purchase the modules separately I’ll be reviewing them one at a time, then give my overall thoughts of the entire campaign at the end.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen

The following content is included in the $29.95 Hoard of the Dragon Queen module:

  • 7 5-ft battle maps (4 locations) with Dynamic Lighting (for Roll20 subscribers)
  • 2 10-ft battle maps with 5-ft subdivisions (Dynamic Lighting)
  • 3 20-ft battle maps (1 location) with 5-ft subdivisions (Dynamic Lighting)
  • 2 non-gridded maps (Greenest town and Raider Camp)
  • 1 overland map of the Sword Coast
  • 6 5-ft original battle maps by Roll20 (town, camp, forest, swamp and day/night road)
  • 20 tokens for all potential caravan travelers in episodes four and five (though no pics/handouts)
  • 23 named NPC character sheets with matching tokens (16 w/ pics & handouts)
  • Over 70 NPC monster sheets with draggable tokens, vision, and separate player handouts.
  • Rollable tokens for shape-shifting creatures
  • 17 Magic Item player handouts (6 w/ pics)
  • Journal organized into 8 episodes, each containing DM notes and player handouts
  • Rollable tables for random encounters
  • A fully searchable database courtesy of the Standard Rules Document for 5th Edition

Of the two modules, “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” is the messiest. With an unfortunate reliance on way-too big battle maps and a large chunk of the middle of the adventure devoted to a lengthy road trip, it doesn’t translate very well to a virtual tabletop.

It begins with an exciting premise: a dragon cult attack (with adult blue dragon!) descend upon the small town of Greenest. The player characters instantly jump into being heroes, helping townsfolk and mitigating the devastation (episode 1).

roll20 review

The Greenest map is non-gridded, though it is properly measured and scaled. Tokens are about 20 feet in size, meaning you’ll have to somewhat abstract real tactical combat.

Alternatively you could use the Random Battle – Town map that Roll20 provides to simulate smaller, individual scenarios, kind of like how a JRPG would shift to a separate battle screen.

I believe this is the first time Roll20 has provided original battle maps in the official 5e modules that weren’t just a blank page. The maps have Dynamic Lighting lines drawn in, though the settings need to be enabled if you want to use them.

The Greenest map includes all the tokens you could ever need right there on the GM layer, including both random and scripted encounters. One of Roll20’s biggest strengths with the official 5E campaigns has been in providing all the extra tokens and information directly on the map, and nowhere is there a better example than right at the beginning in Greenest.

I like the way the adventure kicks off, but it quickly grows linear as the players are captured while exploring the cult’s nearby camp, then escape and return to explore a nearby dungeon (episodes 2 and 3).

The Raider Camp is needlessly large (a recurring theme), with 20-ft tokens and sans any grids, making “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” an awkward introduction for any new players to Roll20.

Episodes 4 and 5 represent the low point of the entire campaign. The players are tasked with accompanying a caravan of the Cult of the Dragon as they make the incredibly long journey from Greenest through Baldur’s Gate and Waterdeep up to the Mere of Dead Men (about halfway to Neverwinter). That’s about 1000 miles to cover.

roll20 review

A road trip without battle maps isn’t an easy thing to convey in Roll20. There’s a single visual handout included and lots of information on scripted and random encounters that a DM can employ.

The random battle maps help salvage this awkward portion. Four of the maps can be used here. The forest map includes a road in the middle, while the Day and Night Road maps include the Sword Coast (or a river) on one side, and caravan tokens on the GM layer in case you want to use them. Finally the Camp map looks like it’s designed for the entire caravan’s campsite with over two dozen tents.

Eventually the caravan finally reaches its destination, and the players discover a massive Castle deep within the swamp (episode 6). Castle Naerytar is a huge dungeon made up of four separate battle maps.

Unfortunately the scale is a little crazy; three of the four maps originally used 20-ft squares, forcing Roll20 to subdivide them to create 5-ft squares, which makes for super teeny tiny tokens within a gigantic battle map.

The Swamp Random Battle Map could be he used here in the surrounding areas, particularly as a solid half of the Ground Floor map encompasses the swamp west of the Castle itself. The Castle can make for a neat scenario with two different factions (lizardfolk and bullywogs) who don’t particular like each other, but once again the maps are just too damn big.

roll20 reviewThe adventure picks up once players find the portal and teleport to the Greypeak Mountains. There they can ally with a Dragon cultist at a Hunting Lodge before journeying to the nearby town of Parnast (episode 7). Unlike most town maps I’ve seen in Roll20, Parnast is gridded and subdivided into 5-ft squares, making it usable to actually battle on.

Parnast has a docked Cloud Giant castle floating nearby, a formidable mobile base of operations for the cult (episode 8).

Skyreach Castle represents a really neat dungeon design, with giants, Red Wizards, a vampire, and a white dragon. Here the huge scale makes a lot more sense, being a damn Cloud Giant home, though the 3-dimensional design of the 3-in-1 dungeon could prove tricky to navigate in Roll20.

“Hoard of the Dragon Queen” begins and ends strongly, and the random battle maps could prove invaluable in the stages that lack any maps. There’s a lot of content here but it’s very linear, and doesn’t provide a satisfying ending to the overall dragon cult plot. For that you’ll need “Rise of Tiamat.”

The Rise of Tiamat

The following content is included in the $29.95 Rise of Tiamat module:

  • 2 10-ft battle maps with 5-ft subdivisions (Dynamic Lighting)
  • 3 15-ft battle maps with 5-ft subdivisions (Dynamic Lighting)
  • 1 20-ft battle map with 5-ft subdivisions (Dynamic Lighting)
  • 1 overland map of the Sword Coast
  • 6 5-ft original battle maps by Roll20 (town, tavern, forest, ice floe, volcano, evil temple)
  • Interactive Council Score Card page
  • Journal organized into 9 episodes, each containing DM notes and player handouts
  • 16 named NPC sheets with matching tokens (14 w/ pics & handouts)
  • Nearly 100 NPC monster sheets with draggable tokens, vision, and separate player handouts.
  • 37 Magic Item player handouts (12 w/ pics)
  • Rollable tables for random encounters and treasure hordes
  • Organized DM notes for Villain and ally factions and races
  • Detailed, organized notes on each council member of the metallic dragons and Council of Waterdeep
  • A fully searchable database courtesy of the Standard Rules Document for 5th Edition

If you like your fantasy adventures with healthy doses of political machinations (and Game of Thrones has definitely proven that audiences do), “Rise of Tiamat” will be your preferred module.

We move well beyond disrupting supply lines as the adventurers join in with the official Waterdeep Council to gather crucial allies in the war against the dragon cult.

Although you start at a higher level, “The Rise of Tiamat” isn’t exactly the Baldur’s Gate II of the 5E adventures. In fact it’s actually distressingly light on content, featuring only a handful of battle maps, none of which originally had 5-ft square grids.

The political maneuverings of the adventurers are nifty, from trying to sway very different factions to a whole council meeting with the good mettalic dragons of Faerun to broker a powerful alliance.

Of course none of that is represented in any battle maps, with only a few handouts as visual aids. What you do get from the Roll20 module is an interactive Waterdeep council scorecard page, which is designed for the DM’s eyes only.

roll20 review

The scorecard lets the DM translate the players’ decisions into a point system, which ultimately will determine how much (if at all) their choices and alliances affect the climax. It reminds me of the ending of Dragon Age Origins, where your choices affected which factions helped you in the final battle.

Of course you can just download the scorecard from Wizards of the Coast, but it’s nice to see an option to do everything within Roll20. The total scores as rollable tokens work well, but moving the plus/minus signs from the GM layer to Token layer isn’t a great solution as I could hardly tell the difference; better to just delete or move them around as you need.

Like HoDQ, RoT is still a linear adventure, though it’s far easier to add your own content or modify the plot. Instead of literally following the cult around, you’ll be given missions and messages that send the party to various dungeons. The variety is nice, from an ice dragon lair in a giant iceberg to a mummy yuan-ti dungeon to a wizard tower with surrounding puzzle-filled hedge maze.

roll20 review

Unfortunately every single map uses 10 to 20-ft scale grids. Roll20 has made the proper adjustments, resulting in correct sizes but tiny tokens that will require you to zoom in. Every map feels overly big, with lots of unused spaces.

The Roll20 battle maps once again can help alleviate a lot of the map issues by providing smaller, more tactical battle maps. The forest and town maps are brought over from HotDQ, while we get four new area -specific maps, like an Ice Floe for episode 1’s icy incursion, and volcano and temple maps for the final climactic dungeon crawl into the Well of Dragons.

Despite similar map issues “The Rise of Tiamat” translates a bit better to the virtual tabletop format. There’s no large map-less sections other than the semi-scripted cult retaliations, which you could use the provided random battle maps for. Most of the map-less portions involve political role-playing, which shouldn’t involve any combat.

Roll20 has provided many welcome features in “Tyranny of Dragons” with the original random battle maps, rollable encounter tables, and council scorecard. “Tyranny of Dragons” is still the weakest of all the published Fifth Edition adventures, however. The bad map-scaling and parchment-like design is a big turn-off when using the original maps as a virtual tabletop, and the strict linearity could turn off many a role-playing group who prefer a more open sandbox world to explore.

Other groups may appreciate the linear story-telling – mine certainly would. If you are going to play “Tyranny of Dragons” on Roll20, the paid modules are definitely the way to go. Of the two “The Rise of Tiamat” is the more exciting adventure (though a bit trickier to run), and can easily be played as a high-level campaign with just a few lines to summarize the events of “Hoard of the Dragon Queen.”

The Pros:

  • “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” and “The Rise of Tiamat” can be purchased separately ($29.95 each).
  • The original Roll20 random battle maps are an excellent inclusion, perfect for providing random encounters and in filling out sections that don’t feature any set maps.
  • The Sword Coast map has all the location names and markers on the GM layer, letting you use it as an interactive Player Map.
  • Interactive council scorecard page lets you keep track of events within Roll20, with the added bonus that you could choose to show it to your players at the end.
  • Rollable tables for treasure hoards and random encounters.

The Cons:

  • Most of the official maps did not originally use 5-ft square grids; Roll20 adjustments correct the sizing, but the results are huge maps with tiny tokens.
  • Neither module comes with very many dungeon maps; many of RoT’s episodes are designed as role-playing-only, while the middle of HotDQ relies on random encounters on the road. As a result the entire campaign feels very light on content.
  • The three areas of Xonthal’s Tower (maze, tower, dungeon) are all included on a single battle map in Rise of Tiamat; I would’ve preferred 3 separate map pages to make navigation less confusing for the players.

The Verdict: The Tyranny of Dragons Roll20 modules provide many welcoming extra features that help elevate the otherwise weakest campaign in the Fifth Edition pantheon.

A review copy of the module was provided.