The Saviors settle into life in the big city. They open a tavern, invent popcorn, fall into the Thieves’ Guild, and meet a strange man with an unusual hamster.
When last we left our heroes, they had completed a quest to rescue a man from a band of thugs that were hiding in the sewers. Along the way, they saved the Lord’s son, Renaer Neverember, got caught in the middle of a gang war, and incurred the wrath of a nightmarish monster called a Mind Flayer, but let’s skip all that for now.
Today’s session is a “Downtime” session that occurs in between big adventures. There are no dungeons to delve or villains to vanquish. Downtime is an important part of D&D. Always running from one big quest to the next has its problems; it is exhausting, it actually decreases immersion in the fantasy world, and ultimately it becomes quite boring. Some downtime activities can be completed by simply telling the DM what your character did; bought some equipment, learned a new spell, leveled up, etc. But sometimes “downtime” can involve the whole party and become a session all its own, where you resolve minor side quests, such as the faction specific ones in Dragon Heist, deal with a player’s individual plans, or set up the scenario for the next big quest. There is usually a little role play, even less dice rolling, and a whole lot of talking. Today, as any great adventure does, we start in a tavern, sort of.
As a reward for finishing their last quest they receive the deed to a magnificent mansion called Trollskull Manor. They are ecstatic until they actually see the “mansion” and learn that it is less of a manor house and more of ruin that should be condemned and torn down. One of my players, Jack, said, “And it’s probably haunted, too!” Shut up, Jack!
I give my players a handout that includes a local area map, a view of the house, and a map of the interior. This is one of those only-in-an-RPG moments where the players are having a great time, even though nothing is going on and there is zero “adventure”. They spent 20 minutes, making plans, picking out bedrooms, and claiming eminent domain on the building next door to use as a garage and temporary monster shelter for James’s “pets”. I made sure to ask them where they keep their gold, because I can pretty much guarantee that someone will try to rob them in the near future.
My guys are most excited about the prospect of opening the tavern located on the ground floor of the Manor, conveniently called Trollskull Tavern. It was like this entire section was written just for 14-year-old boys. As soon as I mentioned the dilapidated saloon, they let out a whoop of joy.
In fact, almost everything these guys have done up to now has played perfectly into this very outcome. Back in Phandelver Session 9 of the Lost Mine of Phandelver, they saved the life of the barmaid at the local Inn, who then followed them from the village and was to become their housekeeper, but will now be their Tavern Manager.
Later, while on the Road to Waterdeep, the players discussed, with zero input from me, about what they would do as a business in the city. They came up with the idea of inventing popcorn, and even worked out a fantasy magical way for it to happen. They call it Phan’s Prestidious Popped Corn and it has just become the Trollskull Tavern’s unique signature snack.
And since starting all the way back in Phandelver Session 2, James has been collecting every single chair owned by every boss villain. From glass seats to spider thrones and even a rock owned by an Ogre named Gog; they saved them all. Those, along with every mug, bowl, platter, and accoutrement that they scavenged yet never pawned, have all become the assets of this new endeavor.
Even when the Jack-predicted poltergeist named Lif showed up, smashing plates and yelling, “Closing Time, Get Out,” the players immediately wanted to give him a job tending bar, which is exactly what the book suggests as the perfect solution.
Then, a few days after moving in, they received a knock on the door. Benny Carter, the innocent(?) driver whom the players saved from a life in prison for his role in the Trollgate Fiasco in Waterdeep Session 3, had a present for them. He gave them the mounted Skull of the Troll King that they killed during that encounter. The boys thought this was perfect; a giant troll skull to sit over the bar of Trollskull Tavern. They thought that I had planned all of it, but I assure you it was quite accidental. I came up with it in the moment.
These are my favorite moments as a DM. When you can take a whole bunch of diverse and disparate bits of roleplay and combine them into a cohesive narrative whole. You can’t plan for these moments; you just have to be aware and be ready to improvise when you get that the flash of inspiration. There was a little more conversation with Benny that made him sound a little less innocent than he initially claimed, (and the players still failed to notice that he repeatedly tells a different lie about how many kids he has.)
Moving on, another element that I wanted to impress upon my players is the vast breadth of the city. Over 100,000 potential NPCs live in the city, but how do you role play that quickly, in an entertaining way, that does not overwhelm your players?
I wrote a post about How To Run A Fantasy City that outlines some tips and hints that will help you manage a large metropolis. Much of this involved handouts such as business directories and newspapers. But there are some role play suggestions such as describing travel within the city, group NPC encounters, and handling factions.
One thing that is unique to Waterdeep is its use of factions. 5th Edition D&D already makes heavy use of a number of factions, such as the Harpers and the Lord’s Alliance, primarily as a source of quest giving, as we’ll see a little bit later. But Waterdeep, in addition to the traditional ones, has hundreds of factions, any of which might be a potential ally or enemy or employer. All of these factions can be divided into three groups, The Lords, The Nobles, and The Guilds. Today, I start by introducing the players to these Guilds.
There are over 40 Guilds in the city, ranging from the lofty Mages or Jewelers Guild, to the middle class Tradesmen and Builders, down to the street urchin Lamplighters Guild and the Sewer Workers. And trying to open a tavern is an excellent opportunity to interact with almost half of them.
The written adventure does a good job discussing a few of the major ones, but I took it even further, adding even more guilds until the players were dizzy. Have the players’ characters spend a few days of “downtime” fixing up the tavern and dealing with Lif. Then hit ‘em with the guilds.
“While you are cleaning up the tavern, there is a knock at the door. “’Allo, and well met friends. It appears that you’re fixin’ up ol’ Trollskull. Well, bein’ new ta town, I’m sure ya didn’t realize that youse need a license fer such tings. Lucky fer youse, I’m da guy ya need ta talk ta. I’m Broxley Fairkettle, Fellowship of Innkeepers.”” A few more lines of dialog, and Broxley closes with, “I’ll send my boy around ta work out the fees and the particulars.”
As soon as that’s done, there’s a new knock. “Opening a tavern, are you? The name’s Hammond Kraddoc, Vintners’, Distillers’, and Brewers’ Guild at your service. You’re gonna need beer, booze and zzar and lots of it. I’ll send my boy around for all the particulars.”
But don’t stop there, keep it up. “Justyn Rassk, Guild of Butchers. You planning on serving food here?” “Elemost Dunblast, Carpenters’, Roofers’, and Plasterers’ Guild. Looks like you got a pretty big hole in your roof.” “Ormbras Delzord, Guild of Chandlers and Lamplighters. It sure gets dark in this alley at night. We can fix that for you.” “Baerhar Surtlan, Pewterer and Casters Guild. You serving ale in mugs or are you planning on drinking it out of your hands?” “JhalossanTurnstone, Cellarers’ and Plumbers’ Guild. I’d sure hate to see them sewers back up into your establishment.” “Zulgoss Helbeard, Dungsweepers Guild. Be a real shame if someone accidentally left all their garbage out in front of your tavern.”
Now I ran all these guys like tiny, little mobsters. And don’t let the players write anything down. They can ask later if they really need a name. You want the players to feel slightly overwhelmed after all this. They are part of a huge, bustling metropolis, and it’s not going to stop to let them catch their breath. Later on, if the players have another interaction with these same guilds, and they should, the players will feel like a real part of this bigger world that exists without them.
Next, I wanted to include some action involving the “official” factions. In Dragon Heist, these factions each provide a number of side quests (usually 4) based upon the party’s level and are used to give more atmosphere to life in Waterdeep. I also like to run these little missions as a solo quest involving just the player who is a member of that particular faction. It gives more depth to the world when the players get to have a private adventure, even if is just a few lines of dialog.
The module devotes a considerable amount of space toward developing each group and their interaction with the party, but not their integration. They feel very heavy handed and DM orchestrated. “Oh look, we got another message from The ‘insert faction name here’, I guess this is the mission we’re doing today.” It doesn’t help that most of these missions are delivered in the form of a Paper Bird or Flying Snake, the magical D&D equivalent of a carrier pigeon, so there isn’t even any role playing to act out. As good as all this minor adventuring is; this section needs a lot of work from the DM to flesh out and feel like a part of the story and not just some random stuff added in at the last minute. So, here are my thoughts about all the factions in the adventure:
The Lord’s Alliance – This is the most political faction as it represents the governments of 11 neighboring city-states, including Waterdeep. All the members of the party were inducted into the Alliance by Sildar following the events of the Lost Mine of Phandelver. I intend to use this group to dole out my major quest hooks, but I’ve had to change all the city’s faction members.
In my campaign Dagualt Neverember is still the Open Lord and thus the top man of the Alliance in Waterdeep, not Lareal Silverhand, but he has largely abandoned Waterdeep to gain control of Neverwinter to the north. Jalester Silvermane (too many similar names) is not the faction contact yet; he won’t be introduced until I run my homebrew Death Masks storyline. I think I’ll use Captain Hwil Wheaton from Session 3 as the point man. But for now, no quests from this group.
The Harpers – Historically the Forgotten Realms’ most-utilized “good” group. Almost every Realms novel, module, and RPG video game has someone from the Harpers, affecting the outcome somehow. In my campaign, I want this group to suffer a catastrophic internal breakdown, so I had my most adept role player, Andrew, become a member. And… he might also be the cause of said failure, we’ll see.
Because this is a network of spies, I have kept its contacts hidden from the players and use the aforementioned paper birds as messengers. Sadly, the first missions of this group are weak, but I’m trying to stick to the source material, so here goes:
The player is tasked with finding a talking horse named Maxeene somewhere in the city and asking it about any Zhetarim it might have seen. It’s poorly written with no role play; just an Investigation Check and a Persuasion Check and you’re done. Boring but at least it’s short.
I always like to play with my player’s expectations, so I added an extra instruction to be discreet and to send his reply with the same paper bird. Also, I don’t tell him where to find this talking horse. Andrew is able to figure out to start his search at The Road House, home of the Fellowship of Coachmen (another Guild), and looks up the address in my Directory.
At The Road House, Regizar tried to be discrete and quietly asked a stable hand if he’s heard tales of a talking horse. Andrew is shocked at how quickly his discretion went out the window. “Oh, you mean Maxeene!” the groom yells, “She’s at the back of the stables. Good luck getting her to shut up!” After a conversation with the Won’t Stop Talking Horse, Regizar has his intel and sends his reply via the magic bird. Then, after the bird flew away, I let it slip to Andrew that it was too bad he didn’t follow the bird; he might have discovered the source. “Accidentally” giving ideas to the player is a great way to help newer players think about expanding their character’s options.
The Order of the Gauntlet – This is another law & order quest giver that I had Jim’s cleric, Clarissa, join since he will always just play his character straight and true. I like the contact, Savra Belabranta, and the individual missions, so I made no changes to this faction.
Clarissa is given an order to report to the Halls of Justice and then told to clear out some thugs harassing citizens in the Field Ward. Short and sweet, Clarissa passes her Intimidation checks, the gang disperses, and the players learns a little more about the Xanathar Guild.
The Emerald Enclave – This was the easiest faction to assign. My son James, IRL a future park ranger, plays his wizard like a druid with a special affinity for animals. He was inducted into the Enclave by the druid in the Lost Mine of Phandelver campaign, whom I retooled to be Edoith of Greenwood, the avatar of the author of the Forgotten Realms.
In Waterdeep, the Enclave contact is Melannor Fellbranch. First, I made him a her, and made her the head groundkeeper at the Heroes Garden, a large public park with statues of venerated heroes that plays better with my themes of past events coming back to affect the present.
James’ first assignment is to investigate the strange occurrences and missing livestock outside the city in the Undercliff farmlands. This will be the only combat of the day, so I allow Riandon to “bring his friends.” Once there, it is a simple matter to find the monsters terrorizing the area. To reflect my player’s level, I changed the encounters from 3 scarecrows to 3 ankhegs. This was a good challenge and, of course, James insisted on capturing one alive, which he did by casting Sleep as a 3rd level spell. Now we just have to smuggle a living, huge and angry, predatory monster back into the city.
The Zhentarim – These were always the “bad guys” in D&D when I was growing up with 2nd edition, but now they’ve become just a morally ambiguous band of mercenaries. This group did not fit any of my characters but some of the missions are cool, so I might have to repurpose them.
Bregan D’aerthe – This is one of the unique factions in the adventure. It is run by Jarlaxle Baenre, one of the adventure’s potential villains and open only to drow characters. Depending on your campaign, this faction may be impossible to play, but the missions are awesome. I will definitely use these missions in some fashion, probably via the Halfling Thieves Guild (see below).
Force Grey – The other unique faction in Waterdeep. This one is run by the current arch-mage of the city, The Blackstaff. But one of my homebrew adventures in this campaign will actually be my version of the novel, Blackstaff Tower, in which this faction is created and I want my players to become founding members. So, we will hold off on using this group for now.
Last but not least, I finally created an encounter for Jack’s faction. Except that Jack’s faction doesn’t exist. Of all the presented factions, none fit his character. The closest would be the Harpers, but Jack, the player, doesn’t like subterfuge, and Andrew was already a member. I considered allowing him to join the Xanathar Guild of thieves, but there are too many incompatibility issues. So, I invented a new Thieves Guild that was slightly less evil.
Ever since the Lost Mine of Phandelver, I’d been dropping hints about a secret Halfling Thieves Guild. They communicate only in the Halfling language, which is really just Scottish Gaelic because it sounds cool. The Guild is called Dweygh, which translates to “The Way”, as in Thieving is “the only way” for a Halfling to live. Jack knows that the Guild is identified by two crossed torches and he has told me repeatedly that his character is always on the lookout for this signal. Now at long last, Jack finally has a personal storyline.
One morning, a note is slipped under Callan’s bedroom door at Trollskull Manor. Callan quickly opens the door, but no one is there. The mystery messenger is gone. The note reads “Speak to the Sword Maiden” and has the Guild’s crossed torch mark on it. Now he just has to find it. Jack pours over the Waterdeep Directory, but can’t find any reference to it. Finally, he found it on the map and it was only a couple of blocks away. Callan goes off on this adventure alone, but the other players listen on intently. And even though they didn’t play, no one was bored.
The Sword Maiden is one of the infamous Walking Statues of the city. Designed as protectors of the city, during the Spellplague they went berserk, damaging much of the city until taken down by a group of wizards. As she fell, the Sword Maiden broke into a dozen pieces, with her stone head landing in a little park.
At the statue, Callan finds that the mouth is actually a hole just big enough for a halfling to crawl through. Carved on the cheek is a little birthmark in the shape of two crossed sword. Squeezing inside, Callan finds a tiny locked door. The lock is hard, but Callan manages to pick it. As Callan enters the doorway, the door closes behind him and relocks itself with a ‘click’, and there is no lock or handle on this side.
Continuing on, Callan misses a Perception check and doesn’t realize when the hallway turns into a steep slide. Callan takes some slight damage as he tumbles into a small room, landing in a pile of hay. The room has one door against the far wall and a plaque is beside the door. The plaque reads, “Welcome, my devious little hin. You have done well to make it this far. But do you have what it takes to make it even farther? Beyond we will test your skill, your intellect, and your loyalty to see if we shall call you family.”
Picking the even harder lock on the door, Callan enters a long, tall hallway. Callan can just barely see a doorway on the far side. Three beams of light sweep back and forth across the hall in irregular patterns. He has to pass three stealth checks to get across. Fortunately, Callan skill is so high, he passes easily.
In the next room are 6 doors, each with a number on it. The numbers are: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, & 13. A sign over the door reads. “Do not choose the primary target.” This puzzle stumped Jack for a while. Not because it was hard, but because Jack often gets nervous about guessing the wrong answer. Eventually, his first guess is the correct one; Door 8 is the only door that is not a prime number, so Callan moves on.
The next room is a dead end. There are no other exits and Callan can find no secret doors. In the center of the room is a small dias with an open strongbox on top. Inside the box, on a velvet cloth, is an enormous and exquisite ruby worth several thousand in gold. On the box is written “Property of Dweygh”. Nothing is effective until Callan leaves the gem inside the box and closes the lid, proving his loyalty to the guild. Doing that, a secret panel opens up into the Thieves Guild proper.
Callan is met by M’Haigh Stir (Master), the master thief. I didn’t have any real content planned beyond this, so after some congratulations and a brief tour, M’Haigh promises that Callan’s future will be filled with adventure, excitement, and a little larceny. Going out the front door, Callan finds himself over a block away from the statue in the back alley of a small Florist shop called Hin’s Flur’oir (Halfling’s Golden Flowers). Needless to say, Jack loved this. And even the other boys enjoyed watching and playing along, even though they couldn’t say anything. Andrew almost did, once.
The last of the factions we dealt with today were the nobles. (We’ll save the Lords for another day.) And what better way is there to throw a bunch of nobles at the players than to have a party? I also wanted to give them a little Wardhavian Festival flavor, and lore, and foreshadowing, so I had all these entire events occur on Trolltide.
Trolltide is an important Waterdeep Holiday. It takes place on the first day of Kythorn (June) and commemorates the victory of the city over an invasion of Trolls over 500 years ago, called surprisingly enough, the Trollwars. The events of these Trollwars have a large impact on my present day story, so I will continue to drop hints and lore like this. The city celebrates this holiday by burning effigies of trolls, and the kids dress up like trolls demanding treats. It’s basically the D&D version of Halloween.
I give them the first (of many to come) newspapers called the Waterdeep Wazoo. There are two papers in Waterdeep, but I like the Wazoo because it is more like The National Enquirer than a paper and the players will even have a side mission involving them. You can find a PDF of this newspaper here, Waterdeep Wazoo
I love giving my players some sort of broadsheet even though papers like this never existed in Medieval Times, which would also be a great name for a fantasy paper. This particular issue has numerous references to escapades involving the adventuring party, and an article about the theft of Whelm, one of the three magical weapons pivotal to the White Plume Mountain adventure. Of course, these papers drop subtle hints that could lead to further adventure or the players can just ignore them, like mine do.
Along with the paper, the group receives an invitation to some hoity-toity high society party being thrown by one of the noble families in town. Their friend Garrick, whom they rescued back in Phandelver Session 6, is noble born and got them invited. Plus the group has become rather famous in town after the Terror at Trollgate incident and everyone likes to gawk at new celebrities.
I make the players buy nice clothes for the party. This is the first time I’d made them spend any of their money beyond a few coppers for beer, and they complained incessantly. They are so cheap! They have thousands in gold but are convinced they are one silver away from the poor house.
I don’t get it; before I was a forever DM, I used to spend all my player-acquired gold immediately. I was always pouring over the Player’s Handbook, updating my inventory, trying out new gear. Now as a DM, I don’t worry about equipment. I care more about story and action, but I’m a little disappointed that none of my players really care about their character’s stuff like I did mine.
But I digress, here’s how I ran this party encounter. Our heroes arrive and are immediately insulted by the prim major domo as he mangles the pronunciation of their names. A few opulent descriptions of the villa, the guests and the party follow, making sure to point out the major NPC nobles, like the Cassalanters and the Gralhunds, along with a few red herring nobles like the Hawkwinters or the Belbrantas.
Then I ask the each player how they want to mingle with the party. Will they use charm and persuasion, or deceit, or stealth and perception to “overhear” conversations? I also ask Jack if his thief will be conducting any extra-curricular activities. He said that he would behave which was unfortunate because the notorious thief, The Black Viper, was there in disguise and it would have been an interesting development.
Throughout the party, the nobles all react differently to the players. They all flock to Regizar once they realize he is Sir Regizar of Neverwinter. They treat the Elf, Riandon, like a pet who can perform magic tricks for them. They ignore the Halfling except to hand him coats and empty glasses because they are convinced he is a servant. And they shun the dwarf all together; only a young woman, Esvele, talks with him, mocking these self-righteous and snobby “nobles” who have nothing noble about them. She makes some vague allusions to “crashing the whole system upon their heads”, and then vanishes amongst the festivities.
I have the players make a few skill checks based upon their choice of mingling. The rolls are irrelevant; I just want them to feel like they earned the information. I hand them each an envelope filled with rumors that they gathered throughout the night. Then I make each player read out loud their rumors.
Every one of these rumors is relevant to at least one of the stories that the players will eventually play through. Some relate to Dragon Heist, some to the various adventures in Tales From the Yawning Portal. A few relate to my homebrew Blackstaff and Masked Lords plots, and a couple refer to the end game campaign. Not all of them are true, but each one is significant.
As it is, this isn’t a role-playing encounter per se, but I ask my players if they would care to follow up and expand upon any rumor they heard. If there was anything they were interested in, that would have led to a proper role play encounter with the NPC involved and, of course, further adventure of their own choosing rather than me leading them by a leash. But whether from uncertainty, or timidity, or confusion, my players like the leash and say, “Nope. We’re good.” So, cue the Deus ex machina.
The front doors of the manor are kicked open by a large bald man with a purple tattoo on his head and very large boots on his feet. In loud, booming, slightly dim-witted voice, he cries out, “Out of my way you silly servant. I’m on a mission of goodness and will not be deterred by the likes of you and your puny boots. I am seeking the Defenders of Trollgate. A man in a floppy hat said they were here. My hamster, Boo, and I need your aid. Evil has struck, and we must strike second, before this evil strikes back. Right, Boo?” A hamster sitting on his shoulder squeaks in approval.
Next week, our heroes venture to The Sunless Citadel in Tales From the Yawning Portal, accompanied by this strangely familiar man and his miniature giant space hamster. However if you only want to continue with the Dragon Heist story, you can skip ahead to Dragon Heist – Session 8.
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, some of the best adventures come from downtime activities, and Game On!
Boo, meet evil. Evil, meet my boot! – Minsc, the greatest NPC ever created.