Volo sends our heroes on a wild goose chase; they get caught in a gang war, and then they rescue the wrong guy.
When last we left our heroes, they had finally made it to the Yawning Portal Inn only to be attacked by a couple of Shambling Mounds that decided to relocate from the dungeon below. After the battle, the Saviors met one of the most famous celebrities of the Forgotten Realms, Volothamp Geddarm. Known as Volo to his friends and creditors, he has a favor to ask of our hearty adventurers. But first, I have a favor to ask my players.
Last week, neither my players nor I were in the mood for any role play, but I had an important non-combat encounter that I wanted to do before the players got wrapped up in the Yawning Portal storyline. So, we did the encounter today, out of sequence.
Of course, this is not ideal. What if a character dies during the “before” sequence, or they kill an important NPC? Doesn’t this destroy the illusion of reality? Maybe, but it’s okay. We are not perfect DMs and storytellers; sometimes we forget things. It is no different than saying, “Last week, I forgot to tell you guys that you have this key in your possession, or whatnot,” just more detailed. Now, I have four basic rules for running an encounter out of order.
First, use this tacit rarely and for good reason; maybe you forgot that key piece of information or you need an encounter to set up a bad guy. Second, don’t go too far back in time; usually no more than a day or two. Going back too far increases the risk of altering current events. Third, don’t use this with a combat encounter, there are too many variables. Use only role play encounters, and make it clear to the players that combat is not expected. Also, don’t use NPCs that are deeply involved with the players in the present moment of the campaign. Fourth, don’t kill a player.
In my campaign, in addition to running an expanded Dragon Heist, I am interweaving several stories from the Waterdeep novels, particularly Blackstaff Tower, Godcatcher, Death Masks and City of Splendors. Last week, I had an encounter planned that would introduce the major players of Blackstaff Tower, but I could tell my players were a little bored, so I held off on the encounter.
So today, I tell the players that it is the morning before they head off to the Yawning Portal. Riandon still needs to register as a wizard at the Mages’ Guild, the Watchful Order of Magists and Protectors. En route to the tower, I incorporate many of the tips I outlined in the post How to Run a Fantasy City.
At the tower, the group has a prophetic encounter with that standard trope of pulp fiction; the crazy madman with the wild vision of the future that everyone ignores but eventually is proven completely true. This madman is identified as a priest of Oghma, the god of knowledge. James’ character, Riandon, is also follower of this god, which should give them further leads to follow. The madman is continuously chanting a verse from the ancient prophet Alaundo, who is the Forgotten Realms version of Nostradamus.
Jack was frantically trying to write down the entire verse, not knowing that I had started reading it from some point in the middle because the players did not catch the beginning. Fortunately, the prophet repeated the poem over and over. The players only recognized two lines of the prophesy, but they know that more will come, and they were excited for it, which is great.
Inside the Tower, they encounter more bureaucracy except with cool Ministry of Magic elements. But soon their attention is drawn to the most interesting man in the room, Samark Dhanzscul, or as he is more commonly known, The Blackstaff, the most powerful wizard of Waterdeep.
James has mentioned several times about getting his character a mentor. I wanted James engage with this person, so I made Blackstaff a Conjuration mage and showed this by having him absentmindedly conjuring random items. First a dog, then an apple, a noose, a goat, an egg, a rat… If my players had been paying close attention, they would have realized that these conjurations spelled out the word “danger” but they missed it.
Even worse, James did not want to talk to him at all. James is one of my most creative and inventive players but when he feels that he is put on the spot, he freezes up. Fortunately, Jim, playing the cleric, realized that the encounter was about this guy and went over to talk to him.
The meeting is interrupted by Khondar, the imperious Master of the Mages’ Guild and all-around-jerk, and his even slimier son, Centiv. I dropped some clues that these two were practitioners of Enchantment and Illusion magic, and then they made some vague threats and left before Andrew got bored and stabbed someone.
The Blackstaff spoke with the players afterwards and was very friendly and charming. He knew who the players were from their heroics at the Trollgate and said that he would be monitoring their exploits and offered aid if needed. If you care to read the whole encounter as written there is a link to the PDF here. Blackstaff Tower Intro
Now back to our regularly scheduled timeline. Our heroes have accepted a job from Volo to help find his friend, Floon, whom he has misplaced after a night of carousing. Volo offers the group 40 gold now and 400 gold extra if they can find his friend. Volo also gives them a copy of his Waterdeep Directory, which is a listing of all the major businesses within the city. They’re going to need it in a minute.
In the book, this investigation to find Floon is minimal to say the least; go to one bar, which happens to be a Zhentarim hangout, and then find the one store, whose owner just so happened to see that Floon was kidnapped by said Zhentarim and just so happened to know where he was taken, even thought that location, an unmarked warehouse on Candle Street, is nowhere nearby.
To give my players a bigger challenge, show off the breadth of the city, and inject a little humor into the scenario, I increased the size of the wild goose chase. Also, I changed the start to a nice, comfortable tavern in the area and each step got rougher and nastier until they ended up in the worst tavern in all Faerun. At each step, they got a new clue about where to go next and the players had to use the city map and the Waterdeep Directory to work out the clues.
This worked really well for some players and just okay for others. Jack, my shyest player, loved it and hijacked the entire scenario. He hoarded the handouts and solved most of the clues. Andrew didn’t care and just enjoyed getting virtually drunk by ordering an ale at every tavern (this will bite him in the ass later). Jim was just happy to see his son so engaged. Only James was bored by this. I felt bad about that, but Jack doesn’t get too many opportunities to shine so I let him have this one.
There was one thing that everybody liked. In every bar they went to, if they mentioned Volo, the bartender said, “Oh yeah, I know that guy. He owes me money.” The players thought this was hilarious until it dawned on them that they too were probably not going to get paid for this excursion. I thought that part was hilarious because it’s true.
Here is a quick rundown of all the locations visited during the Wild Floon Chase.
First, The Friendly Flounder, a nice boring tavern. Volo told them to start here. From here the barkeep, Eaengul Skullcrown, said that Volo and Floon were going to the Pearls.
Three Pearls Nightclub. James was jealous that the act on stage was Geldedlocks and the Three Owlbears, which performed tricks like balancing on balls and not mauling all the patrons. A barmaid, Halidara, remembers that after Volo left, Floon met up with “that charming prince” Renaer Neverember and they were headed down to that smoky poet place on Net Street.
The Hanged Man. This is more of a stuffy, fraternal organization for bards than a tavern. From the Vital Versifier (lead poet), Auldenuth Orbrymm, the party learns that the two men went across the street to the Sleeping something-or-other.
The Sleeping Wench. (And not the Sleeping Snake.) A loud and busy bar. The hostess, Pelda Thrael, remember that the handsome Renaer was here with another man. They left together to check out the taverns near the Inn with the big ship, south of here.
The Thirsty Sailor. A typical dive across from a beached ship turned into an inn. A local drunk, Kaerovan “Smiles” Yuluth, is wearing a cloak matching Floon’s description. He claimed that he bought the cloak from Floon and then they headed off to that “Bloody dump with a Big Fist on the sign.”
The Bloody Fist. The Half-Orc, owner/bouncer, Uglukh Vorl, says that Floon and Renaer got into a fight and got thrown out. One of them (Renaer) threatened to get 50 gallons of perfume and come back to kill the smell.
The House of Pride. The twin owners of the perfume shop, Areeth & Ilitel Harmoth, said that two men came by bought some lilac perfume. Then they asked for the nearest tavern. The twins told them about the Serpent, and that they regret even mentioning it because that place is a nasty den of theives and cutthroats.
The Skewered Serpent. The ugliest, meanest dive in Waterdeep. The owner, who refused to give his name, claimed that the men they are looking for never came here and that the party should quit being nosy and beat it before something bad happens to them too. Fortunately, a beggar outside said they went north up Fillet Street and they were followed by some thugs. Now we’ve caught up to the book.
The Old Xoblob Shop. Outside the shop the party finds some fresh blood and a broken bottle of lilac perfume. Inside the owner, who calls himself Xoblob although that is not his name, tells them that the Zhents attacked the men they are looking for and took them away, probably to a warehouse they have nearby in the alleys just north of here.
Across the street from the shop, there are only three entrances into this section of alleyways called The Ophidia. All three are blocked by town guards, so the party is probably on the right track. The guards keep everyone away, stating that there some fighting going on between the Zhents and the Xanathar and no one can go in until they kill each other off. The party can bribe, convince, or fight their way in. Or they can look for one of the few more difficult ways in, involving perception and ability checks. Perhaps they could pick a lock into a random house and hope that it has a back door into the alley, or climb up a rickety trellis to the rooftops, or investigate the strange archway that is just big enough for a halfing only to enter. But the group elects to charm their way in, and using their notoriety as the defenders of Trollgate (see Session 3), they get in.
Once inside this warren of rough-hewn cobblestones and dilapidated buildings, it is easy to find the warehouse they need, just follow the dead bodies. Dozens of corpses litter the street. Most are human with the traditional Zhentarim winged snake tattoo; some are grimy versions of the rarer humanoid races like kenku and bullywug. But a few are twisted, freakish mutations of man and monster; a man with tentacles for arms, or a demonic cross between a man and a goat. All of these abominations are covered in tattoos of a small circle surrounded by a larger circle. The party has seen these tattoos before; on the bald head of one of the thugs from the bar fight at the Yawning Portal. This must be the mark of the Xanathar, whoever that is.
Of course, who the Xanathar is, is one of the worst kept secrets of D&D, but I am still running it as if the players do not know, even though I’m sure they all do. I want the Xanathar to be the last of the four villains they face during Dragon Heist, so I want him to be extra special. I’ve added in the mutant Amalgamations from City of Splendors to be part of the Xanathar storyline. I did not like the novel, but I loved the creepy and grotesque monstrosities that were the bad guys in that book. What sick, deranged subplot is the Xanathar up to this time? We shall see. Get it? See?… Because of the eyes?
Once inside the warehouse, I ran the encounter like the book, except I doubled the number of monsters. I kept some of them as kenku, and made some of them bullywug, mostly because those were the minis I had on hand. I also made two of them part of the Amalgamation. One had metal plates adhered to his body and had actual swords for arms. The other had the fur, speed and agility of a cat.
The Defenders made short work of these henchmen. Granted, the two unique mutants gave them some challenge. They were 5th level after all. I will make a post about the statistics for all these mutant monsters and add it here, soon. They even managed to capture one of the kenku alive. Let the torture/questioning/moral ambiguity begin… Next week. For now, the session has been going a little long and I want to wrap up the search of the warehouse.
The party quickly ransacks the place. They are still money-grubbing murder-hobos at heart, you know, teenagers. However, they still haven’t quite got the knack of always searching for secret rooms and what not. So I threw them a bone. When I created the PC version of the warehouse, I deliberately left in the excessive hash lines. One of my sons noticed this and asked what that was about. He knows that I don’t miss details like this. I replied, “I don’t know. What do you think is up with that?”
“I search for secret doors!” he immediately cried out. Lo and behold, there is one and they discover the Zhentarim secret stash. Here’s the thing about secret doors. They are pointless unless they are discovered. Sometimes they might be discovered at the end of the dungeon, as we will see next week, but if the secret treasure, or even the only treasure, is hidden behind a secret door and the party never finds it, then it is a waste of time to even bother planning one and writing it down. All secrets in all stories must be revealed eventually or they serve no purpose.
Inside they find the obligatory gold and four exquisite paintings of various cities along the Sword Coast. This is a great piece of flavor, but how are a bunch of 1st level noobs supposed to lug 200 pounds of fine art around to the next dungeon inside the sewers? Is the fighter supposed to carry all this crap, and gets the “fun” of spending the first round of every combat carefully putting down his precious junk? Tedious and silly. Now, I had previously given James, as the wizard, the spell Tenser’ Floating Disk, so he could haul a giant throne/rock back to his wagon back in Phandelver Session 8, and he used it again here; but he is 5th level, and can burn a spell slot on something stupid like this. No 1st level wizard would waste a spell like that.
Eventually, in an obvious back room, hidden behind an obvious pile of junk is not the man they’ve been searching for. Instead, they find Renaer Neverember, wayward scamp and estranged son of the current Open Lord of Waterdeep, Dagault Neverember (remember, my campaign takes place in 1479 DR when Dagault was still in power, not 1492 as the book suggests). He had been hiding here waiting for the gang members to leave so that he can go about his life and forget that Floon is probably a dead man because of him. At least that seems to be his plan until the players arrive.
Basically, the story goes that Floon and Renaer were kidnapped because Renaer is the son of the wealthy Open Lord. He is often subject to attacks for ransom. (If I were subject to frequent kidnap attempts, I would probably hire a few guards, but I digress.) They were both taken hostage and dragged here. Then the kidnappers mistook Floon for Renaer (even though Floon has blond hair and Renaer’s is ginger red.) Floon was taken elsewhere but Renaer doesn’t know where. (Unless, of course, the party has no other way to find Floon, in which case, Renaer “remembers” some vital clues.) When the gang war erupted in the warehouse, Renaer hid until all the bad guys had left and then he could make his escape. But now that the party is here, Renaer will gladly offer to help find his dear friend, Floon. And become an important ally later on.
Except, here’s the problem: Raenar is a 12th level Swashbuckler. Twelfth! With 66 hit points. He doesn’t need the party for anything! He could have pummeled the 5 kenku, as written in the book, to death with his bare fists. I’ll allow that he was overpowered while he was drunk, fine. But that was over 36 hours ago. My worst hangover ever lasted exactly 8 hours, just enough so I could call in sick the next day but be perfectly fine again by 5pm.
The entire module suffers from a whole slew of over-powered NPCs. I get it, this is a story-driven investigation adventure, and nobody wants the important character with pertinent information to die accidently (or on purpose,) but this is too much. “Hey that’s a famous character invented by Ed Greenwood, you can’t kill him, make him 20th level.” But I’ll talk more about this problem next week, and offer a few solutions.
Speaking of next week; Next Week our “heroes” pluck all the feathers from a bird for information, storm a Xanathar hideout looking for Floon, and gravely underestimate a mind flayer. Should be fun.
As always, alter every adventure and make it your own, and Game On!
Names is for tombstones. What d’you want on yours? – An angry barkeep, when asked for his name.