The Saviors hunt for the Man with the Golden Arm, they fly a griffon, and meet the most colorful rogue of the Realms. Sort of.
When last we left our heroes, they had just returned to Waterdeep, and we nearly blew up the whole campaign, both literally and figuratively. First, there was an explosion outside their tavern, several people were killed, and of course, the players are gonna be involved somehow. Several characters made some really poor in-game decisions which put them at odds with the law. Then those same players made some really poor out-of-game decisions which put them at odds with the DM. Which do you think is worse?
We had a long talk about player etiquette and the RPG Social Contract (Thanks, Seth). We are all still friends (granted, two are my sons and they had no choice) and I gave them a few days to think about what kind of campaign they want to play in.
What a difference a few days make. Everyone still wants to play and agrees to behave. Everyone wants to continue with Dragon Heist and our next session (this one) was awesome! Everyone was engaged and they started having some great ideas that focused on the actual adventure. Jack wanted to know if they could hire the detective from Tiger’s Eye (I was shocked he remembered this detail) to follow someone if needed. Andrew wants to know if he can use his minion Droop for similar missions (mostly to kill people). James wants to know if he can use his contact with the Emerald Enclave or the other factions to help. Yes, yes, and yes. These things all exist solely for the players to utilize.
We pick up with Riandon (James) attempting to follow the bloody tracks from the crime scene. Heading east, he follows them to sewer grate that has been opened and is still ajar. But inside the sewer he can’t find the trail and at the first intersection, he has no idea which way the suspect went. Although not mentioned in the book, it should be possible to track this suspect back to his lair, but this would bypass some really cool encounters, so I’m glad that James failed his dice rolls on his own without me having to force the issue.
Once they’re all back together, they want to go where the bodies were taken. It is a simple matter to just ask where the guards took them, which would have avoided a ton of problems last week. In fact, it is Martem, the child who vouched for them last session and kept them out of jail, who points them toward the North Ward Barracks. At the barracks, I let them try to role play their way into the building. The guard at the desk stops them. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“Uhm, we’re related to the victims, and we want to see them?”
“What’s the victim’s name?”
They have no response, so they immediately switch to a different lie. “I mean, we were asked by the detective to come by and help out.”
“Oh really, what’s his name?
“Uhm, Sherlock Gnomes?” Now the detective’s name is actually Barnibus Blastwind, but since they can’t be bothered to remember that and I made the mistake of using a gnome mini for this guy, they have rechristened him Sherlock Gnomes.
I have the players roll an undeserved DC12 Persuasion check, which they still fail, but then I throw them a huge bone. Savra Belabranta shows up and asks the guard to see Barnibus Blastwind. Andrew blurts out, “I know that name,” and quickly looks through his faction cards that I lovingly created for them. “Here she is. She runs the Order of the Gauntlet. We’ve done work for her!”
Savra sees the players. “What are you doing here?”
For the first time, they tell the truth. Halleluiah! “We’re trying to help out with the explosion. But this guy won’t let us in.”
My flustered guard chimes in, “They don’t have the authorization to be here.”
Savra vouches for them, “I’ll take responsibility for them. They may be idiots, but they can be quite useful.”
As the group is escorted to the basement, Savra explains that she’s been asked to cast Speak with the Dead upon the victims. Andrew exclaims, “That’s a thing? We can do that?” After two years, I forget that these kids are still beginners. Savra continues, “Yes, that is a thing. But I only have two scrolls, so we’ll have to choose our subjects carefully.” It’s important to put a limit on this ability to make the players think critically.
In the makeshift morgue, Blastwind and several guards are there. Blastwind rolls his eyes when he sees the players but doesn’t say anything; he knows when decisions get made that are over his head. Let the players take the lead here. I tell them that the spell is good for about three questions (one for each player). They choose the bar-b-qued gnome first and one of the black-leather clad thugs second. They are both brought out and placed on tables.
Make sure that you give good, leading answers to your player’s questions. If the players don’t ask the exact right questions, give them an answer that will help them along. Keep this “investigation” short and simple, don’t drag it out.
Fortunately, my players asked really good questions. They learned about the Stone of Golor and the half million in gold (this perked their interest.) They learned that the gnome, Dalakhar, was coming to ask the players for help and that both the Zhentarim and the Xanathar gangs want to get the gold first. When asked about the golden man, I added that one of the thugs saw it just before he died. He did not recognize it, but he claimed, “it looked like one of those things in that silly Gond Festival.” Jack, got an inspiration token for moving the adventure along.
The only answer I evaded was where the Zhentarim thugs’ hideout is. If the police learn about Gralhund Villa at this time, they would just go there right away, cutting the players out of all the action. And if the players learn of it privately somehow, they would also just run to the villa, bypassing the search for the mysterious golden man which is one of the best parts of the adventure. When asked, the thug told them that they got hired down at the docks, but I gave the player who asked (Andrew) an inspiration token anyway, for technically asking the right question.
Suddenly, there is a huge commotion of fighting on the floor above, and a pack of gnolls burst into the room. “Give us the dead gnome and no one gets hurt!” James immediately chimes in, “We’re done with him anyway. You can have him.” One token of inspiration to the wizard. But Blastwind ruins everything, “You foul, heathen beast. You’ll get nothing but the end of my sword. Lay down your arms and surrender.” Roll initiative.
I added combat here, because there’s been too much talking and not enough fighting in the chapter. Plus, Jack has yet to have his first fight with his new character, and he’s getting a little antsy. And since I want the players to have a mostly good relationship with the guards, saving their lives here should smooth out a few ruffled feathers. The battle is exciting and surprisingly challenging (one gnoll was a Pack Lord). The first highlight was when James’ Riandon blew his Night Caller Whistle and the two burnt, just interrogated corpses rose up off the tables and attacked the gnolls! I still hate this magic item, but it was really funny (and useful) here.
The second highlight occurred when Andrew rolled a fumble and dropped his sword. Rather than picking it up, he just had Regizar go all Rocky Balboa on the Gnolls. At the end of the Sunless Citadel, I gave Regizar a magic ring that can cast Shocking Grasp to get past a special trap. Now, he uses it to go around randomly punching people. But here he rolls to hit the Gnoll Pack Lord and rolls two Natural 20’s! Using our custom Critical Hit Table found in our Rules FOUR PAGE (thanks again, Seth), the first punch hit for over 40 hit points and the second one severed a limb! Since the damage done was enough to kill it, I decreed that with his electrified one-two punch, Regizar decapitated the Gnoll. Now, I generally don’t bother with morale checks but this was so abrupt and unexpected that the Gnolls panicked and tried to flee but were quickly cut down by the heroes, guards, and zombies.
Since Blastwind likes the heroes now, I just make the players part of the investigation. These kids seem to have no concept of subterfuge, and I don’t want to deal with the headache of them constantly smashing into the bureaucracy of the police force. So from now on, I’ll play Blastwind like the one friendly cop in the film noir movies such as Casablanca. He views the player’s actions with a mix of contempt and jealousy, but he can’t help but like them and tries to keep them out of trouble. Blastwind also gives them a friendly reminder against any future necromancy within the city limits.
The investigation seems to be at a dead end, but what about the Man of Gold? I love this part of the adventure, but it does have problems. The first is how to connect the golden man to the House of Gond, a temple in the Sea Ward? This is the biggest challenge to running a sandbox mystery; how to get your players to follow the trail of breadcrumb clues without making it seem like you are just feeding them the story. The book only offers one measly line of advice. “It (the golden man) bears a striking resemblance to the automatons that sometimes march in the Day of Wonders parade, sponsored by the temple of Gond, as anyone who has lived in Waterdeep during the fall season knows.”
I really dislike “common knowledge” clues. Your players, in real life, do not possess this knowledge, nor do they have any means of figuring it out, and will result in you just telling them everything they need to know to proceed. The first mention of this metallic figure is deliberately vague to make him mysterious but then the trail goes cold. There is no means to follow anyone, even though this nimblewright was at the scene of the explosion mere moments before the characters got involved. In the book, there is only one witness to the automaton, and she makes no mention of recognizing this thing. But by having one of the explosion victims see this automaton and mention Gond to the players during questioning, that gives them the clue they need to proceed, and they will feel that they earned it on their own.
Blastwind thanks our heroes again for saving his life and asks if they have any questions for him. Now the players can ask about what the Gond Festival is. Blastwind tells them about the Parade of Wonders and the priests of Gond who run it. He continues, “Eventually, I’ll have to have a chat with those lunatics down at the Temple of Gond, but I’m gonna be swamped here in paperwork over this Gnoll attack. I sure hope no nosy civilians beat me to it.”
Upon leaving the jail, my players inform me that they would like to go to the House of Inspired Hands. They are good, obedient boys. Looking it up in my Waterdeep Directory, it is an easy stroll over to Sea Ward and the strange, metallic temple dedicated to the fantastical merging of magic and machinery. And they didn’t even jump across any rooftops to get there.
At the temple, our heroes are immediately “attacked” by a harmless metal bird. The intent here is to scare the players into thinking they are about to become the victim of another fireball, but the narrative text is weak. I described it thus: “Arriving at the House of Inspired Hands, you are struck by the bizarre and alien architecture; sheer metal walls adorned with dozens of enormous, interconnected and moving gears and cogs. It looks like the inner workings of an enormous clock. As you gaze upward toward the minarets, you see a mysterious figure on top of the roof; a mysterious figure made entirely of metal. He throws something from the roof. It appears to hover for a moment and then it plummets straight towards you. After the metal man throws the item he ducks back into the tower through an open window.” This puts things in a much clearer context.
While everyone else dives out of the way, the wizard who thinks he’s a cowboy says, “I pull out my net, and rope the varmint.” Yes, this is a thing I’ve allowed this character to do to facilitate capturing animals for his “zoo”. He rolls stupidly high, and captures the little metal birds and adds it to his collection. The fighter and the rogue take the conventional route through the tower lobby, while the wizard, who is on a roll today, casts Spider Climb, climbs up the outside wall, to the roof, into the window, and unlocks the door just as the others arrive, avoiding a whole lot of tedious roll play with the timid metal man that lives in the tower.
Although this nimblewright is responsible for creating the rogue robot, he is innocent of any wrong doing, but your players will be very suspicious of this one. They are looking for a golden metal man. I stressed this one that lives in the tower is constructed entirely of silver and that these things are usually bound to a particular place, like a golem. To have one that is unbound is a very dangerous thing, which also gives a reason why the priestess is so willing to place a bounty on the rogue nimblewright’s destruction.
The book mentions that this construct came from a Lantanese wizard, but never explains what that means. Lantan is an island nation far to the south beyond the boundary of the Sword Coast. It is a nation populated almost entirely by gnome wizards/inventors. Also, when the players go through the temple lobby, I added a Lantanese firearm (non-functioning) to the display cases. When the Drow Gunslingers start showing up, hopefully the players will remember these connections.
While this is not the droid they are looking for, conveniently, he has a thing that will help them find the other one. It’s dumb, but whatever. Plus, it leads to one of the cooler moments of the adventure, although it too is rife with illogical inconsistencies and dubious actions.
The Griffon Cavalry. This is one of those awesome details that illustrate just how fantastical and unique Waterdeep is. And this is the first time in any adventure set in this city that I’ve ever seen it actually used. But there are so many questions. Why are the griffons being trained by someone (the player) who has never ridden one? Why train with someone who will never ride a griffon again? Why would any cavalry rider entrust the well-being of their personal mount to anyone else? Why is only one griffon present? What do the other characters do, walk slowly behind the flying beast and pick up its poop? What’s to prevent a player rider from landing in the middle of Gralhund Villa? Or a crowd of people? Or Castle Waterdeep? On and on.
I solved all this by having the qualified cavalry rider stay with her griffon (in my game, they are all female riders) the whole time. The griffons are being trained to carry two riders and the PCs are the volunteers. You can still have the animal handling checks which I’ll talk about in a minute. If the players need to land, the rider will set them down at a safe spot not directly on top of the action. I also had one griffon (and rider) for each player. Almost.
During our animal handling check, Andrew’s Regizar failed his role and immediately enacted his magical déjà vu effect that he gets from the Zeitbrille goggles. The players see and remember Regizar getting his hand bitten by the griffon but in the same instant he is petting the beast calmly. New player Jack had never seen this before and was confused. James explained that this was some “thing” that Andrew can do but nobody quite understands it. I love that this is playing out so well. These goggles and their effect on Andrew are integral to my end game adventure and I’m really happy that they are continuously coming up as something weird and mysterious, but not something to act upon. Yet.
As I said, there were two griffons here (I named the second one Buckbeak, naturally). Both Regizar and Eragon passed their skill checks and were allowed to ride. The cavalry guard turns to Riandon, “I’m sorry that we don’t have a mount for you.” James’ Riandon (who rarely misses a beat) says, “That’s alright, I have my own,” and he throws his Figurine of Wondrous Power to the ground. A winged leopard springs forth, allowing Riadon to fly alongside the others. Whenever a player does a cool moment like this, I always try to have an NPC react with shock and awe. Fortunately, I had Savra on hand to be the one to be amazed by the player’s awesomeness. Also, this ability is only supposed to last one hour, but since “Cool always trumps Rules”, I’ll let this slide, and he can fly all day. Almost.
With no real clue about where to search, the group chose the Dock Ward because that’s where the dead Zhentarim thugs said they were hired. Since I wanted them to search the docks before finding the villa, I had no objections. This might be the only time your players will experience this view of the city, so describe it in as much detail as you can.
“The griffon unfurls its wings and with a mighty heave the city falls away at your feet. As you soar higher and higher, the utter majesty of the City of Splendors can be fully appreciated. The city is truly enormous. A massive sea of timber, rock, clay and thatch, the magnitude of this pinnacle of human achievement is overwhelming.
As you glide above the rooftops, your rider/guide points out a few of the more spectacular sights. “To the north in the Trades Ward you can see the towering four-cornered monolith call The Plinth, the only non-denominational temple in the city. There’s also the multi-turreted conical tower of Mhair, the greatest master the Magist Guild ever had; far better than that hack, Ten-Rings that runs it now. Just to the west, you can see the back of one of Waterdeep’s Walking Statues. This one is called The Honorable Knight, you can see that the statue is carved to depict a warrior in full plate armor. Beyond that you can see the majestic Mount Waterdeep and its Castle; built as if it sprang from the very slope of the mountain. If you look toward the peak you can just see the Aerie where we keep these very griffons. In fact, there is another seldom seen statue of a giant griffon up there as well.
Looking south, you can see the spectacular South Gate, which has never been breached. But just ignore the hideous blight that is Kolat Towers. It’s a shame that the only towers in South Ward are those dilapidated eyesores. And don’t be fooled by the Continuous Light spells cast in the upper levels; they’ve been abandoned for years.”” Of course, your players will have no idea that these towers just might be the locale of the finale, but hopefully one of them will remember that they first became aware of it right here.
As the group flies over Dock Ward, the nimblewright detector is silent. But when they head toward the massive harbor, it begins to spin, indicating that an automaton is nearby. It appears to be coming from two colorful ships anchored side by side. And apparently a carnival has sprung up on the very dock. Dozens of acrobats, jugglers, dancers, and jesters are performing to the delight of about a hundred grime-covered fishermen, stokers, and porters. This is the roughest group of poor laborers you’ll ever see, but you’d never know it from the joy evident from their smiles. They seem as happy as school children on holiday.
The riders land the griffons on a nearby empty pier, and our heroes make their way through the throng of people looking for the one in charge. Frankly, I’m in a bind. I really want them to meet this NPC, but I haven’t fully read this section, and I don’t want to get bogged down here when the real story is all the way across town. So, I truncated everything by having the captain and all three automatons here on the dock. “There, on a crate in the middle of all these festivities, clearly enjoying all the attention and yet somehow detached from it, stands the owner/proprietor/ringleader/captain of the Sea Maidens Faire. This is Zardoz Zord.”
Who? One of the biggest mysteries of the adventure is figuring out who is Zardoz Zord; or more accurately, discovering his true identity. A lot of detail is spent describing this true identity, but there is no information about his alter-ego, except that he wears skimpy red clothes and has ample chest hair.
There are so many questions that this dual identity shtick raises. How are the two characters different? Or the same? Are there any physical details or mannerisms that are shared? I will go into much greater detail in a later session, but for now I simply play Zardoz like your typical over-the-top circus ringleader, specifically I based him off of Harold Zidler from Moulin Rouge! except more dashing and debonaire. And more chest hair.
Zardoz is immediately intrigued by the group. “Oh hoo, ye are not the usual ilk for our little extravaganzas. What brings ye to our paltry celebration?” My kids are forthright about what they want (an unusual and welcome experience) and explain that they are looking for a golden metallic man that murdered some people. “Ye must mean the nimbles. This is horribly tragic news. When did ye say this event occurred? Yesterday. Well, I do own three nimbles, but it could not have been them. We were still at sea all day yesterday, and only just arrived in Waterdeep last night. Plus, ye said twas golden colored. None of mine are made of gold. But here, let me show ye.” BTW, Zardoz’s pronunciation of “ye” instead of “you” will be used with all of his disguises as an audio clue for the players to pick up on.
Zardoz brings them over to three metallic constructs (there are supposed to be four, but I misread this) that are currently performing a juggling act where the nimblewrights are throwing and catching numerous knives at each other at very high speed. All these nimblewrights receive their instructions in the drow language. This is another clue about Zardoz’s true origin, but I guarantee that your players will just think these are some sort of magic command words. I use the website The Chosen of Eilistaree to get all my translations.
Zardoz speaks, “Uss, Draa, Ilar. Vrine’winith. Doer Ghil.” This translates to “One, Two, Three (their names). Stop and come here.” Zardoz continues, “As ye can see, my nimbles are copper, bronze, and duergar iron (another clue that went over my player’s heads) but none of them are gold.”
Reasonably certain that these are not the usual suspects, the players thank Zardoz for his time and move on. I want to make sure that the players continue to have reasons to run into this guy, so that the revelation of his true identity will be more impactful. Before the player’s leave, Zardoz mentions that the Faire will be in Waterdeep for a month at various venues and parades culminating with the Midsummer Festival in the Field of Triumph. Zardoz even gives them three tickets to the show. The players thank him again to which Zardoz replies, “Don’t mention it. Tis my pleasure. I’m sure we’ll see plenty more of ye in the coming days. Maybe ye’ll even do me a favor in return.”
Returning to their flying mounts, I ask them where they would like to go next. I don’t remember which one had the idea of searching the area where the nimble was last scene, but this was the correct one so off to Trollskull Alley they fly.
Literally two blocks east of Trollskull Manor, the device chimes again. It appears to be coming from that manor house down there. The griffon riders say that down there is the home of the Gralhunds noble family and if they are mixed up in this then they should proceed carefully. The Gralhunds are a powerful, arrogant, and vindictive family.
As the riders begin to land in a nearby park, I decide that Chuy, the flying leopard has extended his activation time long enough. “Riandon, Chuy looks back at you with a worried look and immediately begins a steep dive toward earth. Make a DEX save to hang on. Chuy is clearly trying to make it to the line of trees along the boulevard. Do you try to stop him? (No.) Chuy is just above the tree tops when it suddenly winks out of existence, reverting back to his miniature form. Give me a DEX save with advantage to try and grab onto the branches or fall 30’ to the ground. (Success.) Very good. As you climb out of the tree, you see a little street urchin picking up Chuy’s miniature from the ground. What do you do?” One gold piece later, followed by a “Gee, thanks mister,” Chuy and Riandon are reunited. Crisis averted.
Next week, our heroes infiltrate the Gralhund villa during the middle of a bloody insurrection. (Gosh, that word sure is getting used a lot this week.) But will they side with the Imperials or the rebel scum? And aren’t both sides equally bad? And is this finally going to be the droid they’re searching for? We’ll find out.
Don’t forget to 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, don’t judge a book by its cover, or a man by his substantial chest hair and thigh high boots, and Game On.
Zardoz your God gave you the gift of the Gun. The Gun is good! The Penis is evil! The Penis shoots Seeds, and makes Life to poison the Earth with a plague of men. But the Gun shoot Death and purifies the Earth. Go forth, and kill! Zardoz has spoken! – Zardoz. Be warned, this movie is seriously freaking bizarre.