In the first session the players started in Winterhaven, where they learned that the card of the Deck of Many Things they had found was one of a set. Lord Padraig of Winterhaven has at least one other card, and is interested in the full deck in order to defend his town. So he told the group about Gardmore Abbey, where most of the cards apparently are scattered, and asks them at the same time to scout the layout and number of orcs there. The players manage to get more information about the abbey from the library of the mage Arris, from Lord Padraig’s counselor Valthrun, and from a bard singing ballads about the place in the inn. Lord Padraig also provided the group with a squire and horses for faster travel between Winterhaven and the abbey.
At the abbey I gave the players a picture of a front view of Gardmore Abbey. And after the scouted the outside of the abbey a bit more, I gave them my player map of Gardmore Abbey. Now the principle of the adventure and the map is that the players can approach the abbey from any side they want: Frontal assault on the main gate, climbing the wall to the north of the gate, going through a hole in the wall to the south of the gate, or try to get up the hill from the un-walled back side. From all the groups I’ve read on the internet having played the adventure none ever choose the frontal assault on the main gate. In reality the main gate isn’t all that heavily guarded, but a frontal assault on a large army of orcs just doesn’t appear to be a good idea.
So this group went through the hole in the south wall. From there they could go to the watchtower, or straight up the hill through a fey forest, or north along the wall back towards the orc main keep. They first tried the watchtower as a probably vantage point, where they saw some weird scenes from back in time through the windows. They decided not to pursue that further, still didn’t want to move towards the orcs, and thus went up the hill through the fey forest, in order to get a view from the top.
So they came across a magical fountain where a group of high elves was camped. The elves were mistrustful, but not hostile. Their leader Berrian Velfarren told the adventurers that he was here in search of traces of his father, who disappeared centuries ago. He also believed that there were documents somewhere giving the elves some claim on the fey forest. And his sister Analastra had gone missing. After receiving some visions from the magical spring, the group followed the path further up the hill. They came across the groundskeeper’s cottage, where they fought the owlbears now inhabiting it and found the documents the elves were looking for. Then the came to the garden behind the main keep, where another group of rival adventurers were fighting spiders. Trying to help them resulted in the rival adventurers disengaging and leaving the heroes with the spiders. But they did found a sword they had heard about in a ballad about a lost paladin.
Further up the path the group came across some nymphs playing a game of telling each other secrets, and learned some of the secrets of the abbey, including the fact that the missing father had last been seen in the watchtower. Then they came to a bell tower, where Analastra was fighting two displacer beasts and a nest of stirges. The highlight of that fight was the druid keeping Analastra alive with healing words, while using a Call Lightning spell to damage the displacer beasts and eliminating the nest of stirges. Having rescued the sister, the group returned to the elves to rest there.
As they had already finished two of the three quests of the elves, and Berrian had promised them his card of the Deck of Many Things for finishing all three, the group headed to the watchtower next. The elves had said that they couldn’t find an entrance to it. But after some experimentation it turned out that the group’s card opened the door. But stepping inside the group was trapped in some extra-dimensional space connected to the Far Realm, a plane of chaos. In the first room they fought a black pudding (who destroyed the druid’s armor) and two mimics, who had been disguised as cards forming a bridge. After that fight we stopped because it was getting late. But having finished encounters 13, 12, 9, 10, 11, and 14 of the adventure was good progress, 6 encounters out of 33.
On the combat side the encounters were tough, which was mostly because of two players missing from the group of five. Next session we should be up to 4 players, which will be easier. But I didn’t have to cheat or remove monsters, the adventure was still doable with just 3 players of level 5. They earned about 40% of the xp needed towards level 6, so I think that by the end of the adventure they will be at least level 7, if not 8. However I don’t really have a good follow-up adventure for level 8 characters in store, as all of the official 5E adventures start at low level. Except for the Rise of Tiamat, but that one is the second part of a story that starts with Hoard of the Dragon Queen.