D&D Diary – Waterdeep: Dragon Heist – Session 6

The Saviors infiltrate a Xanathar hideout, find their quarry, but then seriously underestimate a mind flayer.

Waterdeep Dragon Heist cover title

When last we left our heroes, they had accepted a simple quest to find a missing man. Little did they know that they would soon be thrust into the middle of a ruthless gang war, with several factions all fighting for the same thing; to steal over a half a million in gold.

While drinking at the renowned Yawning Portal Inn, they met the indelible Volo. From Volo they learned that his friend, Floon, has gone missing after a night of carousing. Following a trail of breadcrumbs left by a jerk DM, they wound up in a warehouse that was the site of a bloody massacre.

Kenku Ambush
This is one of my favorite pics in the book, I love the skewed perspective and hidden danger. But the halfling is so disturbing. Did she escape from a circus? What’s with her hair?

Inside the warehouse, The Defenders of Trollgate rescued the wrong guy. But the person they saved was even better than the one they were looking for. He is Renaer Neverember, the son of the most powerful man in Waterdeep, the Open Lord, Dagault Neverember. Renaer immediately offers his services to help find Floon, and he can become a powerful ally for our heroes. In fact, he is too powerful, and this is one of my biggest issues with the entire adventure.

Renaer Neverember’s statistics list him as a Swashbuckler, a new NPC class in the module. He has 12 Hit dice with 66 hit points and fights as a 11th level fighter with multiple attacks per round. As written in the module, when the players meet him, the party is only first level. As in 1 Hit Die, and maybe 8-10 hit points. Renaer could mop the floor with a party of 1st level adventurers, kill all of his captors, and rescue Floon all by himself without even breaking a sweat.

Renaer Mini
“Don’t mess with me. I’ve got Plot Armor!” And why is his picture right-handed, but his “official” mini is left?

And he isn’t the only one. Virtually every character presented throughout the adventure is extremely powerful and well beyond the level that the players can hope to challenge in combat. This is done for two reasons.  First, it allows the DM to impress the players with the awesome might and power that the players might possess someday. Second, it forces the players to resolve conflict without just murdering everyone and calling it a day.

I agree strongly with the first reason, but I disagree wholeheartedly with the second. Of course, there should be a few NPCs that are virtually untouchable; he might be a long-lived legendary fighter who survived alone in a death dungeon for a decade like Durnan or she might be one of the most powerful wizards in the realms like The Blackstaff. And absolutely, in some cases, the final villain could be so powerful that only the foolish would dare to fight him directly like Manshoon or Xanathar. But for everyone else, it’s fair game.

While it might be sad (and certainly disruptive to some of the Forgotten Realms novels) if Renaer were to be killed, it isn’t tragic. There will always be another NPC to pick up the exposition, or the deus ex machina, or whatever purpose Renaer served in your story. And if you really need to keep a famous NPC alive, then just make something up, like a magic item that teleports him to the nearest temple the moment he reaches 0 hp. That is no more ridiculous than making someone nigh invincible.

Yawning Portal NPCs
 Even among all of the “friends” your players get to pick, the weakest one is 5th level. Even the waitress, Bonnie, is secretly a 8th level fighter.

Another problem with this is that it makes the players irrelevant. Let’s use the very first encounter as an example. As written in the adventure, while drinking at the Yawning Portal, a troll and four stirges climb up from the dungeon and attack. Durnan takes on the troll and orders the players to take care of the rest. Great, the players get a little combat against properly leveled monster and just as they kill the last creature, Durnan slays his troll. But what if the players were not there? It would have taken Durnan less than 12 seconds (2 rounds) to kill the rest of the monsters without any help. Always remember, the players are the center of the story, they are not there to sweep up the crumbs.

In my story, the players were already 5th level, too high for a group of pathetic stirges. So, the encounter became two Shambling Mounds, one for the party and one for Durnan. Once the monsters were killed both the party and Durnan were now equal but different. Collectively they had each done the same thing and felt powerful, but individually the players knew that Durnan was far more powerful than they were.

YP Mound Attack
So if it took 4 players to do what 1 NPC did then that means that Durnan is… Divide by 4, add the CR, carry the 3… Umh, Durnan is WAY more powerful that then players.

If I were to run the encounter again with just 1st level players, I would ignore the troll and have 12 stirges attack, one for each player and the rest for Durnan. By the time the party kills their foes, Durnan has already killed 5 or 6 of them, but now the players get to “save” Durnan and help him take out the final few. Equal but different.

Laeral Silverhand
And don’t even think about messing with this little lady.

But my main issue with making NPCs invincible is that it is lazy writing. As a DM, it is our job to roleplay reasons why it would be unwise to attack someone beyond “You can’t do it, cause I said so.” Let’s take the Cassalanters for example. They are a powerful and wealthy noble family, but their power is in influence and political position, not in butt-kicking. Rather than imbuing them with super-human abilities, make the party aware that any direct attack on them will result in swift and severe legal, financial, and harassment problems. They will spend every resource they have to ruin and destroy the players. This will require that the PCs rethink their strategy for dealing with them and at the very least require stealth and planning, which also elicits good roleplay. It’s a win-win.

Since my players are already 5th and 6th level, I will need to adjust my NPCs differently, but here are my basic rules for correcting the overpowered characters of Waterdeep Dragon Heist:

For the most powerful allies leave their level alone. They are unassailable but they also do not affect the story. NPCs like Laerael Silverhand, The Blackstaff, and Durnan are non-combatant quest givers, too busy to deal with the mundane work of clearing out dungeons and such.

For the contemporary allies similar in status or adventuring ability, they should be just a level or two above the players. Basically, any NPC that may become a companion should be of similar level with the players. This would include Renaer, Jalester, and maybe Meloon as well.

Doom Raiders
These are the “Doom Raiders”, whom your players will have to fight at some point. Good Luck, the weakest one is 15th level!

For the minor villains and henchmen, they should be 4 – 5 levels above the players. They present a real challenge to simply murder, especially when there are multiple bad guys. The Gralhunds, the Doom Raiders, the Xanathar minions, and maybe Meloon would be at this level.

For the major villains, they should be 5 – 15 levels beyond the players, nearly impossible to kill, but still possible with help and good tactics. The Cassalanters should be at the lower end of this scale, Jaraxle in the middle, and Manshoon and Xanathar highest and maybe even unkillable.

I will post is a complete list of my recommended power levels for a party starting at 1st level. Since my players are higher, I will list the levels I used when they appear in the story.

Speaking of which, back to our story:

Our heroes have just rescued Renaer, but they still need to find poor Floon. Fortunately, they captured one of the kenku assassins alive. James wanted to add the thing to his zoo, but I told him that you can’t put a sentient being in a cage, that is called slavery. This section is well written and I played it straight from the book. The kenku tells them to head into the sewers and follow the “eyes” to the next hideout.

City Gate note
My players still haven’t figured out that this handout which I gave them in Session 3 and the symbols they are following now are related.

As they exit the warehouse, a group of guards is approaching and orders them to stop. I wanted to sow some seed of division within the guard, and show that not every watchman will simply let the players do whatever they want. Renaer (who often runs afoul with the more rigid ones) tells the players, “This captain is no good and won’t listen to reason. We should leave before he arrests us.”

The party takes the hint and follows Renaer, except for James’ Riandon who want to profess his innocence. Bear in mind that Riandon has with him a giant floating disc covered in stolen loot including 4 valuable paintings. The questioning quickly goes downhill, and just before combat ensues to apprehend the thieving wizard, Riandon wastes an invisibility spell and catches up with the group; presumably with a pile of floating treasure following behind him.

In the sewers, the players are attacked by a monstrously foul beast that “litter”-ally lives on garbage, a Carrion Crawler. The fight is short and sweet and needed, since there is not much combat within the Xanathar hideout.

Crawler Battle
Why are there never any cute little bunny rabbits in the sewers?

There is a nice moment at the entrance to the hideout where the party is caught in the crossfire of two goblin archers. I love it when a couple lowly 1st level monsters can still give a party of 5th level players a real challenge. It shows that D&D is not all about powerful abilities and leveling up but about presenting interesting problem and dilemmas for the players (and not their character sheets) to solve.

They spent several minutes working out a plan. It involved teleportation, darkness spells, the halfling’s uncanny luck and skill with a bow, and a few good dice rolls.

Map DH1.2 Xan Hideout PC web
Xanathar Hideout (PC version) My players never looked for any secret doors, but since none of them lead to anything important, they remained secret.

With the goblins vanquished the next good moment came when they found several men and an enormous grey dwarf attempting to barricade a door on the opposite side of the room. One of the men the players recognized as the bald goon with the tattoo on his head from the Yawning Portal. The party was expecting to fight only to be ordered, “Don’t just stand there! Grab that table and block this door.” Something on the other side is pounding to get in, then the door is pushed inward straining at the hinges. It takes all the strength of the party and the thugs combined to keep the door closed. There is an odd moment of calm; the good guys and the bad guys sharing an awkward smile until tattoo boy realizes, “These guys aren’t our gang. Kill ‘em, boys!”

This was a great way to subvert the usual expectations of combat. There is always a scene in the Indiana Jones movives where Indy and the bad guys are forced to breifly band together to stop a greater threat. They share a sigh of relief and then start punching each other. It also disrupts the usual marching order of the party. Now all the players and all the bad guys are intermingled together, creating a difficult challenge for the “rear line” party members.

Meanwhile, strange goo begins to pool under the door. The door begins to smoke and dissolve, until it finally shatters inward and an enormous Green Slime (which was really a green Black Pudding) undulates its way into the room. It immediately grabs a bad guy, pulls him into its viscous body and begins to digest its victim.

Green Slime Battle
Play-doh makes for awesome Ooze minis.

What started as an already unpredictable brawl, turned into a gloriously chaotic fight for survival. Both sides were evenly matched with lots of misses on both sides all while they tried to avoid the slime, which indiscriminately attacked everyone. Whenever a bad guy died, he would be absorbed by the slime. It was also their first exposure to the Duergar (whose name was Zemk, but who cares, he’s dead) which they will meet again in the Forge of Fury. I only wish that there was more to the story of Krentz (the thug with the tattoo). But since they avoided him at the Yawning Portal, they didn’t care about him here either.

One last note about this fight; I moved the encounter from Room Q5 to Room Q4. This gave me more space to have the encounter and since they were now barricading the only way forward, the party would have to deal with this before moving on.

Map DH1.2 Xan Hideout DM web
Xanathar Hideout (DM version). Again, my player ignored over half this map. They bee-lined stright to the bad guy and Done! We’re out!

After everything was dead, it is a straight shot to the final fight of the dungeon, an encounter that if played as written, comes off as flat and dull, but if played legit, would immediately kill the party. And there are only two bad guys in the room.

The first is an inconsequential Half-Orc named Grum’shar, who thinks he’s a wizard. But the second is the stuff of nightmares, destroyers of worlds, capable of tearing a man’s psyche apart to feed on his very mind and soul, and the closest D&D ever got to Call of Cthulhu; the dreaded Illithid, a Mind Flayer, with a challenge rating of 7! Oh, and he’s also holding an Intellect Devourer, the deadliest “low-level” monster in the game. Wait. This is a first level adventure, right?

Mind Flayer
“I can’t actually do anything here, cause I’d insta-kill you all, but trust me, I’m real scary. Booga-Booga”

And here we are with wildly fluctuating power levels again. I am all for adventures that throw a very powerful foe at the party right at the start, even if you need to minimize the danger “behind the screen” for the party. It’s an exciting way to build anticipation as the heroes quest to gain strength and take on “that jerk who crushed us at level 1.” Lost Mine of Phandelver doesn’t do this at all. Dragon of Icespire Peak does this very well. But Waterdeep Dragon Heist does this, “meh.”In the book, the Mind Flayer just looks scary, abandons his “pet”, and silently glides out of the room without doing anything, never to be seen until Chapter 5. But the party is still left to fight a disproportionally wimpy wizard, and a ridiculously over-powered monster that can control and kill any player in two rounds. And the only thing that can save the player after that is a Wish spell. Riiight.

I would run the encounter like this. As the party approaches the room, they hear a voice that sounds like it comes from the bottom of a tomb, “You fool, Grum’shar. This isn’t the Neverember spawn. This one is useless to our plans. I should let my pet devour you. It might make you smarter.”

Renaer Neverember
“Here I am to save the day!”

As the party enters the room, add, “And now you’ve led this rabble to our door. If you survive, we will need to reconsider your service to the Master. Come my pet, let us find someone worthy for you to feed on.” As the Mind Flayer leaves the room, he hits the party with a Mind Blast, stunning everyone who fails their save. But reduce the physical damage taken to an appropriate level (zero hit points for 1st level, full strength for my 5th level players).

Presumably, Renaer is with the party. He should make his save and protect the group if they all go down. Mind Blast stuns for a full minute, but since the Mind Flayer leaves the area, have it last only 1 or 2 rounds. Once the players revive, resume combat normally. Add a few goblins if you must to hinder Renaer, (remember he is 12th level in the book. ‘sigh’)

And if you insist on using the Intellect Devourer in the battle, give your players a Scroll of Mass Protection from Evil and Good in a previous room, like the in Barracks with the slime. This won’t protect from being stunned but will protect from being possessed. Hint that they feel a strong sense of evil before they enter the final room. If the players are smart and use the scroll, and if the Devourer attempts to use its steal mind ability, describe how it feels like the player’s brain is being ripped from the body, but the magic of the spell protects them. I have no problem punishing players who are willfully unprepared, but this adventure gives the players no forewarning, no knowledge, and no ability to be prepared for this encounter. Not fair or fun.

In our playthrough, I made Grum’shar a 4th level mage and a 3rd level fighter with all the cool spells and whatnot. The party had done a good job of sneaking around and the thief was even hidden behind one of the curtains in a side room, but it was all for naught. As soon as the Illithid hit them with the Mind Blast, everyone went down except Renaer and the cleric, Clarissa. The players instantly knew that they were over their heads and this could be a very deadly encounter.

Half Orc Battle
Three things: My players suck at rolling saving throws. I always add a chest because one day, it will be a mimic. And pay no attention to the unconscious halfling behind the curtain.

I had forgotten to give them the scroll, so the Mind Flayer took his pet with him. It took everything that Renaer and Clarissa had to keep the party alive while they failed save after save. At long last, the other players regained their senses and put Grum’shar six feet under. They had finally rescued the right Floon. But the Mind Flayer had escaped and nobody was looking for a rematch.

Floon was reunited with a relieved Volo, but as expected, he did not have the gold he promised them. Instead, he offered the party the deed to a lovely Manor home in the posh North Ward that he had somehow acquired. I was surprised at how delighted my players were at this development. But it was Jack who exclaimed, “Awesome! I bet you it’s haunted.” Spoil Sport! No more Scooby-Doo for you.

Trollskull Manor 2
Granted, the house does look like it came straight out of a Scooby-Doo cartoon.

Next Week, our heroes explore their new haunted house as they settle into city life and wrap up a few personal quest lines before they meet a new friend with a familiar hamster as they begin The Sunless Citadel in Tales from the Yawning Portal.

Check out my Waterdeep Campaign Resources page for a complete listing of all of the maps, handouts, and accessories I used while playing Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.

As always, subvert expectations, and Game On!

Who’s my cuddly, wittle devourer? Yes, you are! Does my slimy-whimy want to suck on some brains? – Nihiloor, with his “pet”

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