The Saviors of Phandalin move on to better things in Waterdeep. But first, they slog through wetter things in a deadly swamp.
When last we left our heroes, they had just completed The Lost Mine of Phandelver. Having cured the little village of all that ailed them, namely goblins, thugs, and Drow, they decided to seek greater fame and fortune in the greatest city of Faerun, the crown jewel of the Sword Coast, the City of Splendors; Waterdeep. But first, they have to get there.
The High Road to Waterdeep skirts alongside a notorious swamp called the Mere of Dead Men. The swamp has a great and tragic history that dates back to the same time as the original fall of Phandalin. In 951 DR, the same Orc horde that laid waste to the Phandelver Pact laid siege to the kingdom in this area. The humans pleaded with the King’s high mage, Inarev, to help defeat the Orcs.
Little did they know that Inarev had become a lich and was angered by these demands. Still he agreed to end the siege. He summoned a giant maelstrom that flooded the entire area. He destroyed the Orcs but he also obliterated the kingdom, killing thousands, their bodies left to rot where they died. Hence the name The Mere of Dead Men.
Now a treacherous road runs along the narrow spit of land between the swamp and the Sword Mountains. Inarev’s Tower still stands on the mountain side, but only the foolish or the desperate dare to sleep behind its walls.
There is an excellent series of adventures detailed in Dungeon Magazine issues 69 – 73 that explores this swamp. But that is a long, full campaign and I just want I quick single session adventure. I’m so naïve, nothing ever takes a single session. Hell, the entire first half of just this session was all bookkeeping. The players have advanced to 5th level. There were new abilities, new spells, new magic items, and even new minis to learn and remember.
First, there is Regizar Imperium, played by my son, Andrew, 13. Regizar is a human Champion Fighter. He is a land-less noble who is determined to regain his title and honor by any means necessary. That is a dangerous combination for a Lawful character.
At the conclusion of the last adventure, he was invited to join The Harpers, a secretive organization that generally works for the forces of good. He has no contact information, but was told “We’ll find you, when we need you.” Also, he recently obtained a powerful artifact called the Zeitbrille which will have lasting implications on the campaign.
Next is Riandon Moonwhisper, played by my other son, James, 11. He is an Elven Conjuration Mage but he plays his character more like a druid. IRL, James loves animals so he spends most combats trying to catch the monsters with a variety of nets and lassos. He currently has 1 large spider, 3 twig blights, 4 stirges, a grick, and an stolen, unhatched green dragon egg. Currently, his only plan for this menagerie is to “Get more.”
Riandon became friends with a batty druid, Edoith the Green Wood Elf, (Ed Greenwood, for short). Riandon has been inducted into the Emerald Enclave, a group dedicated to preserving nature. The contact in Waterdeep is the head groundskeeper of the Heroes Garden in Sea Ward. Rianodon’s most prized possession is a Figurine of Wondrous Power that can transform into a flying leopard named Chuy.
Then there is Callan Claviar, Halfling thief extraordinaire, played by my friend’s son, Jack, 13. Sadly, the Lost Mine of Phandelver has no real roleplaying opportunities for a thief, so Jack has yet to find a good storyline for his character. This will change once he gets embroiled with the various thieves’ guilds of Waterdeep.
Callan has two precious items that will affect his character. The first is a Lucky Coin, Tymora’s Fortune, which is really beneficial until you become inevitably addicted to it. Second is a twisted dagger, ShadowStrike, which has the ability to incapacitate or kill. This will allow Callan to explore his dual personality, the rogue and the assassin.
Finally, there is Clarissa the Creepy Cleric, played by Jack’s father, Jim, 40+. Ostensibly a Dwarven Cleric of Life, Jim has never bothered to identify what “god” he pays homage to. I might just have to have some sort of Temple War spill into the streets of Waterdeep to spice up this character.
Clarissa has been indoctrinated into the Order of the Gauntlet, a militant and self-righteous faction dedicated to law and order. This should provide for some good roleplaying, especially given the morally loose and chaotic nature of the group.
Of course, all of these factions are thinly-veiled excuses for lazy, convenient quest giving, so let’s add one more. As thanks for all their help during the Phandelver Affair, Sildar Hallwinter, the Captain of Exposition, the Keeper of Inexplicably Delayed and Surreptitiously Doled-out Information, has rewarded the group by conscripting them into the Lord’s Alliance. A rather heavy-handed group that serves the interests and protects the peace between the governments of several aligned city-states. Waterdeep, Neverwinter, Silverymoon are all members, and it would be a tragedy if something were to splinter this group and bring about chaos to the lands. Yup, that’d be a real shame.
Moving on, the group says their goodbyes to the village of Phandalin and journeys down the High Road headed for Waterdeep. In addition to the four players and their travelling zoo, they have three other NPCs in their entourage.
There is Garrick Agundar a junior noble in the House of Agundar in Waterdeep. The party rescued him from the Cult of the Dragon in Thundertree. Garrick has mentioned that his father will pay handsomely for his return, although I think the players have forgotten this. He fancies himself a bard although he only knows a few cheers and bad limericks. My plan is to have Garrick be the parties’ legitimate ally, contact and guide through Waterdeep.
There is also Elsa, formerly the waitress from the Stonehill Inn. She was intended to be a sacrificial lamb during the Goblin Invasion of Phandalin. She actually died during the battle, but unexpectedly, the players went to great lengths to save and resurrect her. Elsa has sworn a debt to the group and will be the group’s maid wherever they end up.
Last is Droop, a goblin that the group rescued from his own tribe. Andrew has adopted the creature, who acts as a sort of valet to Regizar. He watches the horses and tends to get kicked in the head a lot. All of these NPCs are non-combatant but they will fight as needed. And they will be needed soon enough.
Even though we spent over an hour, leveling up the characters and recapping where we stood, the players were having a great time. On paper, it seems tedious and trite, but it is a weird quirk of D&D that this was still fun.
Since half the session was gone, I skipped an elaborate encounter with a gang of Gnolls that were trying to ransack a roadside inn. I’ll save that one for another time. Instead, I jumped right to the village of Leilon, just north of the Mere of Dead Men.
As the party rode into town, it appeared deserted. They found all the villagers in the center of town having a heated debate amongst themselves. Half the village seemed ready to abandon the town while the other half was determined to stay. Like a moth to a flame, the group spoke up, “Is there anything we can do?” Suckers.
The town leader took them to the most southern home, nearest the swamp. “A tenday ago, the nearest edge of the swamp was a half mile away by those trees. Yesterday it reached this field and today it has overtaken this home. The swamp is growing and the water is foul. People are becoming sick from the vapors. No travellers have made it through the mire, and the previously peaceful lizard folk have been raiding our village. Something evil has infected this swamp.”
Callan the Thief asks, “Did this happen during the Red Eclipse?” It did not, but this was a brilliant idea, so the mayor said, “Why, yes it was!” If a player accidentally suggests a better plot than yours, always steal it. It also has the added benefit of making the player feel brilliant for jumping to the right conclusion.
The Red Eclipse, or more properly the Goreclipse, was a bit of flavor I added to the end of the Lost Mine of Phandelver, and is part of the Zeitbrille story. But now it has become a portend to greater catastrophe. I always intended my players to be active participants in the Second Sundering, the meta-game cataclysm that marks the split between 4th and 5th edition D&D. Well now, the first signs of the Second Sundering just began with this Blood Moon.
Naturally, the group announces that they are travelling through to Waterdeep, but they will stay on the lookout for any way to help these villagers. The mayor thanked them profusely, and then he warned them about the swamp. He warned them to stay on the road. He warned them to not use magic, because it’s been unpredictable since the Spellplauge. And he warned them to avoid the will-o-wisps, “cause they’ll jinx ya, and lead you to your doom.”
Like good little lemmings, the players trotted off into the swamp without a thought, or a plan, or a care in the world. –sigh-
So, in the swamp, I intended to unleash horror upon horror on them. They were going to be lost, exhausted, unable to sleep, unable to heal, beaten down until they could take no more and then square off against a superior foe in order to undo the evil infecting this swamp. Ah, all good plans of mice and men…
First the vapors in the swamp are toxic. It acts like a permanent Stinking Cloud spell. The characters are constantly nauseous with a splitting headache. On Day 1 it is a nuisance. By Day 5, it can drive you mad. The players will also find out that they can no longer sleep properly. Eight hours of sleep only gives the benefit of a short rest, and long rest benefits are impossible to obtain.
Then there is the Spellplauge. Every time D&D goes to a new edition, there is a cataclysmic event to justify (metagame) all the changes. In 4th edition, the Spellplauge was caused when the god of magic, Mystra, was killed. All magic went wild in an apocalypse of blue fire. My campaign is set in 1479 DR, 94 years after the Spellplauge and one year before the start of the 5th edition change, the Second Sundering.
By 1479, most of the Spellplauge had subsided but pockets of Plaugelands remain. The Mere of Dead Men is one of these lands. A blue mist pervades the swamp and all magic is perverted. Every time a spell is cast there is a chance to roll on the Wild Magic table from the Sorcerer class.
So now, I just have to railroad them into getting lost in this swamp. Yeah, I know, railroading is bad, and I am an evil DM. But here’s the rub. Nobody forced them to walk in the swamp. They could have said to hell with the villagers and gone the long way around. They chose to enter the swamp despite all my NPC warnings. This is simply the consequence of that choice.
Plus, I had several methods of getting them lost and waited until their actions and failed dice rolls triggered one. A horse might bolt during combat, they might enter the swamp to avoid an encounter, a will-o-wisp might ensnare a player, or the road may become so washed out that the path is lost, plus there is a wyvern flying around who might chase them into the swamp. Of course, all of this is moot, because the very first encounter nearly killed them all.
My players have not had much exposure to Orcs, so I gave them some. I just didn’t expect it to be so nasty. A small band of Orcs is coming up the road ahead of the party. The Orcs seem emaciated and disheveled. I give the players a moment to decide what to do. But they take way too long, so I have the Orcs see the group and immediately charge. The Orcs are screaming, “Kill them. Eat them. Make it stop!”
The Orc gang consisted of two regular Orcs, an Orog, an Orc shaman, and a War Chief. The CR of this encounter is a 9, which is certainly higher than their level of 5. But I consistently ignore CR because it is mostly stupid and who said that the difficultly of the world is fair? This is video game mentality that requires that every encounter be balanced. BORING!
Unfortunately, I can tell immediately that the players are screwed. Andrew runs to the front line and is smacked down 46 hit points. (He only has 60). James is terrified of the Spellplauge effects and refuses to cast any spells. Out of game, I told him that the chance of wild magic was small and that cantrips were not affected. He refused to believe me. This fear was further compounded when the Orc shaman cast a spell which surged and turned every Orc invisible, giving them a huge advantage. Needless to say, every Orc hit in the next round.
It only got worse from here. By round 3, every player was critically hurt with single digit hit points, and all of the Orcs were still alive. This was the closest we’ve ever come to a real Total Party Kill. If you read my post on Death & Dying in D&D, then you know that from a narrative viewpoint, I hate the TPK. It just makes for a bad story.
Still, the heroes need to suffer a little to make the victory mean anything. But 5e makes it very difficult to challenge the players and make them fear death. I find myself designing more and more insane encounters just to put up a good fight. But this fight was woefully OP for the bad guys. There were two reasons; one which was my fault and the other was the players’.
First, I wanted these Orcs to represent what the player’s future would be like with a few days trapped in the swamp. I made the Orcs powerful, but intended to hinder them with exhaustion nerfs, like attack Disadvantage, and half-movement. Of course, I completely forgot, and played the Orcs at full strength which just kicked the player’s asses.
Second, the players all forgot their own new abilities. Fifth level players have a huge spike in their power, especially in dealing damage. But despite going over them less than 30 minutes ago, none of the players (and me) remembered them until about round 5. The fighter forgot his second attack, the mage forgot that his cantrips do double damage, the thief forgot his backstab did triple damage, and so on. It was a disaster.
To try and save the party, I activated Garrick. I generally don’t like to use NPCs as a combat factor. This is the player’s game in my scenario, not me playing with myself. But the party was seriously about to die.
Garrick jumped off his horse, attacked the goblin near Callan, and rolled… a Nat 20.
I roll all party NPCs in front of the players to “keep it real”. Now Jack’s Callan, had done most of the work, bringing the Orc to 3hp, but the players loved it when Garrick, whom the players consider to be “their boy”, sliced off the Orc’s arm, killing it. Jack liked it less when Garrick began to sing, “The great Garrick killed his foe, while poor Callan hid below.”
Garrick moved on to his next opponent, who was also near death, and rolled… another Natural 20. The players went nuts. It was weird that the players were so happy that someone else was doing all the killing, especially Andrew who likes to get the killing blow, but they really consider Garrick as part of their group and that they had earned this Deus Ex Machina.
Finally, just the Orc War Chief remained. The party had whittled his health down to where they knew the next hit would kill him. Garrick was up next in the round. The boys began to chant, “Garrick, Garrick, Garrick…” Garrick swung his sword and rolled… a 3. Wah, wah, wah, wahhhh.
The players demanded, “Give him an inspiration roll!” I obliged. A 4. Elsa, from the wagon, throws a beer mug at it. “Elsa, Elsa, Elsa…” She rolls a 2. Droop lunges off the wagon, short sword in hand. “Droop, Droop, Droop…” He rolls a 1 and falls in the mud. Finally, Andrew just put the Orc out of our misery.
The group was victorious. But the victory came at a heavy cost. Both Callan and Clarissa were unconscious at 0hp, and the other two were near death. Garrick was uninjured. Even worse, during the battle, Riandon’s horse bolted, taking the wagon, and his zoo with it, deeper into the swamp. Begrudgingly, they decide to enter the swamp (heh, heh) to find their stuff. And here is where we left them.
Next week, we find the players lost, exhausted, unable to sleep, unable to heal, beaten down until they can take no more, only to then square off against a superior foe in order to undo the evil infecting this swamp. I had planned four more encounters to get them to this state, but I guess I only needed one. Great encounter design!
I’ve created a Waterdeep Dragon Heist Resources Page to compile all of the maps, handouts, and extras used during the adventure including all of my homebrew side quests. Hopefully, you will find them useful for your campaign.
As always, the players don’t know that you have no idea what you’re doing. So, don’t tell them, and Game On!
Brave Garrick, the mighty. No one is as skilled as he. The Orcs all died, thanks to me. Until alas, I rolled a three. – The Ballad of Garrick Agundar