While still hunting a metallic murderer, our heroes blow up a warehouse, watch a parade, and almost miss the grand opening of their new tavern.
When last we left our heroes, they had tracked down the murderous metal man they’ve been hunting to a noble family villa. The villa is owned by the Gralhund family, a family with plenty of skeletons in the closet, and even a few in the backyard. Inside they came upon a scene of carnage and mayhem. They used the confusion to loot the place looking for clues, and to pilfer a few baubles.
They eventually saved the undeserving owners, if only to get some answers out of them. Instead, they just got more lies and deception. And of course, the metal man has mysteriously disappeared. Again. The next morning, back at their home base in Trollskull Manor, the party attempts to open a mysterious tome liberated from the Gralhund library. However, as soon as the lock is picked, three shadows burst forth from the pages and attack.
Now three shadows are no match for these players, since they are all 4th – 6th level, but they are still freaked out by the drain strength ability. They fear (correctly) that if it drops to zero, then it means instant death with no save and that fear really keeps them engaged in the fight. I love monsters with the ability to cause death outside of hit points. It gives these battles a real sense of unpredictability. I wish more monsters had this ability but I wish that they weren’t all undead.
The highlight of the fight came when Andrew’s Regizar rolled his second-ever Natural 20 followed by a 100 on the Critical Hit Table rewarding him with an instant kill. I don’t know how plausible it is, but I’d never seen a ghost get decapitated like that before; with his ephemeral head rolling along the floor, as it slowly evaporated into nothingness along with the rest of its body. In the end, the three restless souls were vanquished, and the group was allowed to peruse this clearly important book…
That doesn’t have anything important in it. Oh sure, it has a lot of great flavor details; births, deaths, marriages, pacts made with devils, the usual stuff, but it doesn’t have any real evidence against the Gralhunds and it doesn’t have anything pertaining to the Stone of Golor, the murderous nimblewright, or the adventure at hand. It is yet another dead end.
So, I created a tome handout that added a few more details and specifically added some evidence about their involvement with the Zhentarim and some villainous groups in town. The players can turn this over to the law, with a few uncomfortable questions about how they obtained it, or they can use it to blackmail and extort this nefarious family. Or they can even turn it over to some of the families they’ve ruined and watch the world burn. The choice is theirs. I’ve included a PDF of Gralhund Tome here is you really want to read all the details. Gralhund Family Tome
During the spectral combat, the group destroyed the grand dining table in the tavern. Lif, the polteregeist, who is now the chief bartender of the Tavern, comes out and he is not happy. Over time, this character has morphed into a weird parody of the bumbling Taggart from Blazing Saddles. “What in the wide world of sports is-a going on in here? Who wrecked this-a table? Ghosts?! Well, where are they? I don’t see any high-faluting ghosts. Are you saying I did it? I’m the only ghost here! Do you think tables grow on trees? You do realize that our Grand Opening is-a tonight, right? Now I gotta go to the basement and get a new one. Do you know how hard it is for me to move a table? I’m in…cor…poreal! No, no, don’t offer to help or nothing, I’ll get it.” As much as a ghost can, Lif stomps away to the basement, using an imaginary set of stairs to walk right through the floor of the tavern, complaining the whole time. “Sure, blame the ghost. He don’t care, he’s dead. Make the ghost do all the work. He don’t care, he doesn’t have a soul! Why I oughta…”
While our heroes struggle to contain their laughter, a new issue of the Waterdeep Wazoo arrives on the doorstep. Now it was my turn to maintain my composure as my players read all about their exploits during the Gralhund Villa Massacre as it came to be known. The article was filled with half-truths and outright lies. The players are not mentioned at all and the hero of the day was Lord Orond, despite the fact that he is a sniveling coward who ran into the player’s arms and begged them to save his life. The players read it and complained, “That’s not what happened,” and “This isn’t right!” My favorite line was, “We didn’t steal this stuff. Okay, we took the falcon, but we didn’t find any gold. These guys are liars!” Waterdeep Wazoo Ch 3 Fireball 1479
There were additional articles about the Trollskull explosion, plus another mention of the Sea Maiden’s Faire with a particularly odd phrasing about only being active at night. There’s also a brief note about the political vacuum created by the current Open Lord. Our campaign occurs in the year 1479 DR, not 1492 as written in the book. In 1479, Dagault Neverember is still technically the Lord, but he has basically abandoned Waterdeep for the city of Neverwinter to the north. My players will be integral to the change in power from Neverember to Laeral Silverhand, the 1492 Lord, and Neverember still gets to be the jerk who embezzled half a million in gold. But the thing my players most like is the advertisement for the Grand Opening of their very own Trollskull Tavern, complete with the world’s only poltergeist publican (ghostly bartender) and serving their new culinary invention, popcorn, which the players devised way back in Waterdeep Session 2. As the party searches for a pair of scissors to start a scrapbook, there is a knock at the door.
It’s Captain Hwil Wheaton of the City Guard. He was last seen in Waterdeep Session 3, marveling at the party’s skill and prowess when they saved the northern villages from some possessed lizard-folk and defeated a particularly nasty wyvern. Of course, Hwil Wheaton is played (in my head) by my Celebrity Bro-Crush and God of all thing Geek, Wil Wheaton. I wanted to give Captain Hwil a bigger role in the adventure, so I made him the contact for the Lord’s Alliance, another faction that the party belongs to, for when they run short of missions and chores to do. And it just so happens, that he has a job that would be perfect for a group of morally ambiguous mercenaries.
Let’s step outside the story for a moment and discuss running the plethora of faction-based side quests. The first thing you have to realize is that you will not be able to run all of them, no matter how much you or I might want to.
There are eight listed factions that can present the players with 28 missions. The Xanathar Guild faction has no missions nor a viable way of joining the Guild, which is a shame because those missions could have been wild. Evil as hell, but wild. Two of the factions might also involve the main villain, but we’ll deal with that issue separately. Suffice it to say that if the main villain is Xanathar or Bregan D’aerthe then it will be easier if your players are not a member of those group.
At the conclusion of our adventures in The Lost Mine of Phandelver, I thought it would be cool to have each player belong to a different faction. This way they would have something special that only applied to their character.
As a group they belonged to the Lord’s Alliance, whom I would use to send the players on the major missions. Individually, the fighter was in The Harpers, because that player likes secrets. The wizard was inducted into the Emerald Enclave, because the player loves animals. The cleric joined the Order of the Gauntlet since that player’s character was the self-righteous goody-two-shoes of the group.
The thief was the hardest. I didn’t want him to join the Zhentarim because I wanted to avoid any conflict should Manshoon be the main villain. Plus, the thief was a playful neer-do-well, not a hardened mercenary, so the Zhentarim was not a good fit. Ultimately, I created an alternative halfling Thieves’ Guild, called D’weigh, for my thief to join and I planned to use modified versions of the Zhentarim and Bregan D’aerthe missions.
One last note about the Zhentarim. Don’t fear using them as a player faction, even if Manshoon is a villain. Although not made clear in the book, the Zhentarim are a split into two groups. The villainous group run by Manshoon and Urstul Floxin are in opposition to the recognized body of the Zhentarim, of which the PCs would belong to. The Zhentarim that the players would side with includes Yagra Stonefist, Davil Starsong and the Doom Raiders; and it is from this group that the players receive their instructions. An interesting complication could arise should the players receive, unbeknownst to them, new instructions from the Manshoon group, which could lead to the players into accidentally betraying the other Zhentarim group.
Sadly, my work setting up all these factions proved to be for naught. It bogged down the story and served as more of a distraction. In Waterdeep Session 7, I tried to incorporate a different faction missions for each player, but when they were played back-to-back, they came off as boring. Even worse, when the cleric and the thief left the campaign (we miss you Jack & Jim), it made their factions basically unusable.
First, I would limit the maximum number of factions to three, and make all of your players members of those same factions, so that if you lose a player you don’t lose a whole faction. Then pick and choose a few good missions to send your players on them when there is a lull in the action or use it to lead them into the next part of the story. If there is a cool mission that is written for a faction that the players don’t belong to. It can probably still be applied to a different faction. Check out the PDF below for more details.
If you are really willing to put in extra work, you can have one player, one who can handle an extra role-playing challenge, be an unknown member of a different faction. This can present a unique roleplaying scenario with a little tweaking for a few of the missions. For example, perhaps your Harper group is tasked with recruiting “Bonnie” and her group of doppelgangers, but one PC is also a member of the Emerald Enclave who is tasked with running them out of town. Or you could add a mission for the Lords’ Alliance to capture Skeemo Weirdbottle for questioning, while the secret PC member of the Zhentarim is tasked with killing him.
Regardless of how many factions you use or whatever complications you want to add to them, you will still need to work out which missions actually best fit your campaign. Most of the mission feel incomplete and need to be fleshed out to feel like a part of the adventure and not just an excuse to have a few extra dice rolls.
And due to all of the other options presented in the campaign, from the time of year to the main villains, you will need to pick which missions best move the story forward. Especially, once the adventure moves into Chapter 4, with all the multiple story branches, it’s easy to forget about the faction missions. But if properly utilized, these faction missions can add some much needed action to a role-play heavy adventure, and they add a lot of depth and detail to a vibrant, living city, and maybe even keep the players from getting too lost in this convoluted adventure.
To help with all these interlocking threads, I made a PDF that lists all of the faction missions on one page. I included alternate faction options who might also give out each mission, and which faction(s) is adversely affected by that mission’s success. Plus, I included the Location where each mission visits, should you need to direct the players to a particular part of town, and alternative Locations in case you need to move a mission. Finally, I added of all the Locations of the different Encounter Chains in Chapter 4, so you can best assign a Faction Mission should the players get completely off track in that chapter. Here is the link to that PDF. Waterdeep Faction Missions. Back to the adventure.
Today, I want to use these missions to bring the focus back onto the Xanathar Guild. Whether or not he is the main villain, many of the faction storylines end with the players infiltrating his hideout. So, it is important to keep the threat of this Guild active in the player’s mind. Captain Hwil needs the players to track down and straight up murder an exiled adventurer, named Harko Swornhold. But it’s okay, he’s evil, up to no good, and he’s a non-essential NPC whose death doesn’t affect any other storylines. The rumor is he’s working with the Xanathar Guild somewhere in the Dock Ward. So, trot along now, go kill.
Now the player’s can do some lame, no role-play “Investigation” dice rolls or the can just use their brains, and use the handout that I gave them way back in Session 3, that they never followed up on. Well, they get to follow up on it now.
The note says to check out Round Again Alley, which I chose because the whole area looks like a giant eye. I am very subtle. Once they arrive at the alley, it is a simple perception check to find the one warehouse that sports the even more subtle Xanathar Guild symbol that looks suspiciously like a certain narcissistic gas bag. Completely throwing subtlety out the window, our heroes kick open the front door and yell out, “Yo Harko, where you at? We’re here to kill you!
One of these days, I will set my players up so that they kick in the wrong door and murder a bunch of innocent people, but today they lucked out and picked the right warehouse. Suddenly, four kenku spring up from their various perches around the main room and attack. I’d doubled the number of malicious birds and made them all adventurer classed thieves and one of them is a wizard. Then I proceeded to kick my players’ asses with these guys.
Unlike their previous kenku fight in an open warehouse with no place to hide, I made this one a veritable maze of crates and boxes with lots of places to hide and scurry. And these kenku knew all the hidey-holes while my players knew nothing! The kenku took turns, with two birds popping up to take pot shots at the players while the other two ran and hid in a new spot. Our heroes were unprepared for this, as they always are when I play tactically, and were quickly losing a lot of hit points. Meanwhile, from the back room they could hear someone yelling at the crows, “What is taking so long? Kill these stupid fools already! And don’t use the scroll. That’s for tonight.”
Finally, Jack asks if he can detect any sort of pattern that the crows are using to hide. I have him roll an intuition check with advantage since he stated what he is actively looking for. He passes and I tell him that yes, he can predict where a crow will appear next. Jack’s Eragon runs to that general area and as soon as the kenku pokes out his head, Eragon obliterates it with his acid breath.
Andrew’s Regizar manages the same intuition trick and hammers away at another kenku, but fails to kill him. Meanwhile James’s Riandon chooses to delay his turn until he can see the wizard kenku and then hits it with a Magic Missile cast at 3rd level. That’s 5d4 +5 damage! The kenku wizard is mortally wounded.
From the back room, Harko storms out and he is not happy. “I hate you stupid birds, so much! Why aren’t these fools dead yet? Do I have to do everything myself? Shut up! I don’t want to hear your stupid fake voice.” At that moment, with his last dying squawk, the wizard kenku takes out a scroll and reads it. Harko, panicked, runs to tackle him. “No! Don’t read it inside!”
With an ungodly crack of thunder, over a dozen lightning bolts crash through the roof of the warehouse destroying everything in their path. Stacks of boxes explode as the lightning rips through them. Everyone rolls a Dexterity save to avoid taking the full brunt of the electrical assault. Only one kenku makes his save, but he is still struck down with only a few hit points remaining. The other birds are cooked into Kenku Fried Chicken, extra crispy. Harko failed his save as well, bringing him down to about a third of his hit points.
Eragon and Riandon make their saves and are able to survive the blast, although Eragon would have been killed had he not made his save. Andrew has yet to roll his dice yet. He asks, “Would this lightning recharge my Ring of Shocking Grasp, giving it extra power?” Probably, Yeah. “Then, I take it. I take it all!”
Regizar stands his ground, holding his fist to the air, like He-Man atop Castle Grayskull or Bender at the end of The Breakfast Club. A bolt of lightning courses through his body taking full damage, but Regizar is the party tank and survives. The magic ring on his finger crackles with energy. “Now, I punch the crap out of that guy!” With a right hook and an uppercut, Regizar pummels poor Harko, blasting the would-be bad-guy with even more electrical damage, one of which was a critical hit for even more damage. Needless to say, Harko lay dead, still twitching with residual energy.
The warehouse is in ruins with giant gaping holes in the roof and every wooden crate in splinters, but at least it’s not on fire. The party ties up the last kenku and questions him. The kenku tells them the plan in a perfect mimicry of Harko’s voice. “We’ll cast this scroll into the crowd during the Dragondown festival just like the Xanathar wants. Stop it! Stop copying me. I said, knock it off. Gods, I hate you blasted birds. Get out! Get out!”
As the group is questioning the kenku they don’t realize that a gazer has risen up out of the floor via a tiny pipe in the middle of the room. He is watching the party until the players realize that he is there. As soon as the players see it, the gazer shoots back down into the hole and they can’t tell how far down it goes. They kick a rock into it and they can hear it pinging off the side of the pipe until they can’t hear it anymore, but they never heard it hit the bottom.
Not wanting to deal with any reinforcements or worse, the annoyingly nosy City Watch, the players exit the warehouse. They left the living kenku tied up with a note “Courtesy of your friendly neighborhood Saviors.” (The kids have been playing Spider-Man on PS4 lately.)
As the heroes exit onto a main thoroughfare the street is completely blocked by a huge crowd of people. Just as they are about to ask what’s going on, they hear the music coming from the southern end of the street. Horns and flutes and drums create a wall of sound that carries down the street. From around a bend, a huge parade is making its way toward the player’s position. A cacophony of colors is rolling down the boulevard. The Sea Maiden’s Faire has come to Waterdeep.
Enormous floats are being pulled by a crash of rhinoceroses with two heads. The descriptions of these floats are found in Chapter 7: Maestro’s Fall. My players’ favorite was the very particular drow ranger riding a unicorn that farts confetti; it was a crowd favorite too. Dozens of performers are performing routines, acrobats, dancers, contortionists, jugglers, sword swallowers and a fire breather; although I think that was just a pyromancer and some sleight of hand. Animals of all shapes and sizes are on display as well. Some in cages, but many are being ridden. And at the head of it all is Zardoz Zord riding the largest elephant they’ve ever seen. It was over 20 feet high!
But this was nothing compared to the size of the dragons flying overhead. Dragons of every color floated in the sky over the parade and they were at least 30 feet long each. The fact that these were inflated effigies, controlled my men with ropes on the ground, made them no less impressive. The dragons had a strange effect on the crowd. They cheered and applauded at their magnificence, but at the same time jeered and booed at what they represent.
Today, Waterdeep celebrates Dragondown, a festival commemorating the city’s victories over various dragons throughout the years, before the famous mage, Ahghairon, cast the Dragonsward which magically compelled dragons to be unable to enter the city’s streets or airspace. Dragons are marched through the town to the site where they were defeated. Re-enactments of the battle are conducted ending with the burning of the dragon effigies.
Most famous among these is the Red dragon, Kistarianth, who was first killed at the gates of Castle Waterdeep and years later, the dragon arose as a draco-lich only to be killed again on the slopes of Mount Waterdeep.
As Zardoz Zord passes our heroes, he spots them in the crowd and tells them to get on one of the floats. The Defenders of Trollgate spent the rest of the afternoon, waving to the throngs of Wardhavians, as the parade wound its way through the city streets, to tumultuous applause. At the gates of the Castle, they witnessed the burning of the red dragon balloon, and as the dragon burned away, it revealed a skeletal dragon underneath, and the crowd went wild.
Out of game, I reminded my players that they needed to go to the opening of their tavern. Then, in game, I had Zardoz motion for them to follow the parade up the mountain slope. In character, they made their excuses that they had to attend their tavern opening and it was great. It was just a simple line of dialog, but it was one of the very few times where they just spoke as their character and didn’t preface it with, “My character says…” I was so proud.
Shortly after, at Trollskull Tavern, the grand re-opening is going rather poorly. Lif the ghost is serving drinks; the popcorn is popping; the enormous troll skull, a gift from Benny Carter, from when they received the moniker Defenders of Trollgate, hangs over the fireplace. All of their close friends have turned out, Garrick Agundar, the noble they saved in Thundertree; Elsa the barmaid turned tavern manager they saved in Phandalin; Renaer Neverember, son of the Open Lord they saved here in Waterdeep. Even Volo and Floon were there and immediately started a long beer tab. But very few others came out to celebrate. The night was a bust. The players stepped outside to see if anyone else was coming.
There, on a corner, they saw the problem. A man was out front ringing a bell and loudly proclaiming, “Don’t go to the Trollskull Tavern. The Zzar is swill and the place is infested with rats! Go to Frewn’s Brews, around the corner. We got the best beer in town!” This is Emmek Frewn, a rival tavern owner who doesn’t play nice. When the players accosted him, he retorted, “I haven’t broken any laws. This is a free city. I can say whatever I want! And you can’t touch me, cause that would be assault.”
I expect the players to assault him anyway. While I watch Andrew and Jack thinking furiously about how they could kill him and get away with it, I see James furiously flipping through his spell book. Shortly, James cries out, “Aha! I knew I had something in here. I cast suggestion on this guy. I suggest that you walk up and down the alley for the next 8 hours, ringing your bell, telling everyone to come to the Trollskull Tavern.” Absolutely genius. I love that kid. Throughout the rest of the session, every so often, they could hear the guy ringing his bell and shouting, “Come to the Trollskull Tavern. Best beer in town!”
Finally, the night is starting to pick up. More patrons are arriving, but it still isn’t a huge success. Now is a perfect time to start a bar fight. Prior to getting suggested into advertising for the Tavern, Emmek arranged for some thugs to start some trouble. Suddenly a rough-looking character yells, “This beer tastes like pig piss! I want my money back, and I’m gonna take it out of your face!” Three of his buddies join this ill-fated brawl which ends as quickly as it started. 4 random thugs vs. 10 leveled PCs & NPCs are not good betting odds.
Suddenly, the players hear and enormous trumpet from outside. “Now what?” Going out to the porch, they see Zardoz Zord again, still riding his enormous elephant and there is a huge crowd of people are lined up behind him. Zardoz Zord has led the entire parade straight to the Trollskull Tavern. Zardoz speaks, “Pardon me. Do ye have some place where I can park me pachyderm?”
Entering the tavern, Zardoz is unpeturbed by the unconscious thugs on the floor. “Have we already missed the party?” He calls over a few of his carnival folk and points to the ruffians, “Don’t kill them, but put them somewhere uncomfortable and embarrassing.” Also during the melee, the 2nd brand new dining table is broken to pieces. Lif complains, “If you guys are gonna keep doing this, then I’m gonna quit bartending and become a carpenter. Don’t worry, I think there’s one more in the attic.” Yes, this whole saga of the broken tables has a point and an end, but I’m sure that it won’t play out as cool as I think it should.
Finally, the Trollskull Tavern Grand Re-Opening is a rousing success! As the evening comes to a close around 4 o’clock in the morning, a drunken Zardoz tells the players, “I really like ye guys, ye remind me of me ol’ ‘venturing days. ‘Morrow afternoon, I’ll send a carriage ‘round. Take ye to me ships, give ye a propers tour and we’ll have dinner aboard me ship, the Eyecatcher. An’ I won’t take no for an answer. Now where’d I park me elephant?”
Next week, still hung over from the night before, our heroes celebrate a birth, perpetrate a little larceny, and possibly commit cold-blooded murder; and this is all before the adventure even starts. Plus, we finally get to meet the villain of the adventure. Sort of.
As always, if one NPC tells another NPC to not do something, you can bet that thing is gonna get done, and Game On!