We finally reveal the main villain, but the players don’t know it. And one character takes a really dark turn, but the players don’t know that either.
Today’s post covers a lot of topics and reveals many secrets, so I hope you will bear with me. I will discuss the secretive interparty conflict that one of my players and I have been concocting for some time. I will discuss the four major villain candidates and their evil schemes. And I will begin to discuss how to play the most difficult and deceptive villain of the lot, Jaraxle Baenre. And I will reveal the first main villain our heroes will face in the adventure. Now, if any of my players are reading this, STOP READING NOW. Serious spoilers ahead. Are they gone? Okay, it’s Jaraxle. On with the usual intro.
When last we left our heroes, they had blown up a warehouse while looking into the Xanathar Guild. Afterwards, they got caught up in a parade celebrating the holiday of Dragondown. Later, they had the grand re-opening of their Trollskull Tavern, which turned into a rousing success after Zardoz Zord, the enigmatic leader of the Sea Maidens’ Faire, led the entire parade to their front door.
The morning after, our heroes are sitting in the tavern figuring out what to do today. The only thing on the agenda is that they are supposed to have dinner with Zardoz Zord aboard his boat tonight. And here is a perfect segue into discussing the four potential main villains in the adventure.
As you probably know by now, there are four options for choosing a main villain in this adventure. Your choice of villain also determines the season of the year the adventure occurs in. And although never mentioned in the book, your choice of villain also dictates the atmosphere of the adventure, from light and breezy to dark and grim. Up to this point, the main villain could be anyone of the four, and you could hold off having to pick one, although it would be more satisfying if you had a little foreshadowing, either through rumors, the newspapers, or a random encounter. But shortly after the Gralhund Bloodbath you will have to decide upon your villain.
Check out my post Waterdeep: Dragon Heist – The Villains for an in-depth look at all four villains. I discuss each villain, their plan, and their season. I discuss some ideas to make their evil (and not-so-evil) plans even more villainous. I discuss changing the season to best suit your game. And I discuss how you can incorporate all four villains into one giant year-long campaign that will truly turn your players into true Heroes of the North.
I plan to run the adventure this way with each villain taking their turn as the main antagonist throughout the year. The trick is to keep the players aware of the other villains, but not confusing them and pulling their attention away from the primary villain for the season. As far as the seasons go, I swapped Jaraxle and the Cassalanters. And as the year progresses, the stakes of the evil plan and the threat level of the main villain increases.
My adventure starts in summer, which best matched Jaraxle’s fun romp through the city. He doesn’t want to kill the players and his plan, as written, isn’t evil. I moved the Cassalanters to autumn. With a devil-worshipping cult and human sacrifices, their evil scheme is a perfect Halloween event. The grim nature of Manshoon and his plan matches the gloomy nature of the winter season. Finally, it is only fitting to have Waterdeep’s greatest villain be the final villain and I love juxtaposing the season of hope and rebirth with the chaos and calamity of a deranged beholder. I will discuss each villain’s evil plan as they come up, but for now, on with the campaign diary.
Our heroes have several hours to kill before dinner with Zardoz, so they each decide to do a few personal errands. There’s just one problem, none of us are at the table yet; the session is still days away. I always enjoy having a private one-on-one with my players in between sessions. Just a short little bit a story that delves into each player’s private goals. No heavy combat, very few dice rolls, something that I can even do via text.
When we do meet at the table, the players can choose how much, if any, of their private story that they want to share with the group. This is basically the same thing as saying that, between sessions, my character bought some equipment, brewed a potion, or did a little gambling, but with more story and structure.
First up is James’ wizard, Riandon. For months now, Riandon has been keeping a “borrowed” Green Dragon egg that he obtained back in Lost Mine of Phandelver, session 7. He kept it warm in a box, and every day he cast Poison Spray into it to incubate the egg. Today, Riandon receives a message in his head, “Sir, its Meepo. Come to the tower quick! She’s hatching.”
Meepo is the kobold servant that Riandon gained following the events of The Sunless Citadel. The tower is the fabled Dragon Tower, which Riandon gained following a previously never-mentioned private adventure. I have yet to mention it, because I plan to write it up proper as a full adventure, so stay tuned. And the telepathy message is a magic item in the tower that casts the spell, Sending.
Racing to the Tower, Riandon enters just as the first claw pokes a hole out of the egg shell. Soon, a tiny little green dragon emerges from the egg wearing a small piece of shell for a hat. It immediately starts making a sound like a bleating goat. Riandon makes a few Animal Handling checks to discover that it is hungry; but what to feed it. Riandon casts Poison Spray on it again to no avail. Finally, he has the idea to give it a flask of straight poison and that seems to work. Naturally, Riandon names his new pet Norbert and Meepo promises to make him/her/it (?) a comfortable crib.
Up next is Andrew’s fighter, Regizar. And if any of my players other than Andrew are still reading this, STOP READING NOW! Did you not see my previous warning? Do not read another word! Anyway, where was I?
Regizar has decided to speak with a local wine merchant about supplying their Trollskull Tavern with some exclusive brews. At least that is what he told the rest of the party that’s what he’s doing. In reality, he is following up a lead on his quest to regain his noble title.
Last session, one of the quick encounters during the tavern opening was Oszbur Malanka, who introduced himself as a wine merchant with a shop a few blocks away on Delzorin Street. This was a follow-up to some rumors my players overheard while attending a noble party back in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist Session 7.
I had told Regizar’s player, Andrew, that all these rumors could be used to convince, coerce, bribe, or extort aid from the various nobles to help Regizar regain his title. Oszbur Malanka is rumored to be a secret Masked Lord, one of the anonymous rulers of the city. En route to this merchant, Regizar bumps into Garrick Agundar, their friend, noble, occasional bard companion, and in this case, alibi. Garrick seems slightly confused, “Didn’t we just talk a few seconds ago? You just went that way to talk to some wine merchant.”
Regizar ignores Garrick’s bewilderment, “That’s right; I am going to a wine merchant. Do you mind coming along? I could use your noble art of persuasion to get a better price. Then we can go back to The Skull together, and you can flirt with Elsa.”
Together they go off to the merchant. They arrive at the wine shop about ten minutes later. There is a huge crowd out front, trying to peek into the windows, while several of the Watch are keeping them all out. Regizar asks, “What’s going on?”
“Some guy got murdered in his own shop. But the killer just vanished.”
Inspector Barnibus Blastwind exits the shop. Seriously, when does this guy sleep? Barnibus asked the crowd, “Did anyone here see anything?”
An old man steps up, “I was across the street. I saw a man go in about five minutes ago, but he never came out. He was white, about six feet tall, with blond or maybe brown hair. Or maybe it was red hair.”
“That’s great, sir. You’ve just described over half of Waterdeep. Did anyone else see anything?” Then Blastwind notices Regizar. “Not you again. I’m in enough trouble over all that Gralhund business. What are you doing here?”
“We were going to buy some wine from this merchant.”
“Yeah, well the only spirit in there now is his corpse. (Great joke, Andrew didn’t get it.) Somebody stabbed him in the back with a sword. But he still had his gold purse on him, so robbery isn’t a motive. Now look. I don’t want you Saviors or Defenders, or whatever you’re calling yourselves these days, poking your nose into this. This doesn’t concern you, so stay out of it.”
Just then another voice rings out. “Inspector, Inspector! Gaxly Rudderblast here, Waterdeep Wazoo. Can we get a statement? What’s the story here?”
“Oh, no. Not you too! Cromley, get all these people out of here!”
If only Blastwind knew the true story here. The story is so devastating that I cannot even write about it in this blog yet. But for those of you who can’t wait, I’ve written a PDF about the tragic tale of The Ageless One. It is a story of madness, betrayal, and possibly redemption, and he is the secret 5th villain of this adventure. You can read the link below. Unless you are one of my players. I forbid you to read it! Clearly, you’ve ignored my prior two warnings, but I mean it, DO NOT READ THIS PDF! You are breaking my heart. Here’s the link. The Ageless One – Part 1
Last of the private missions is Jack’s thief, Eragon. We actually did this bit at the table, while the other players watched, but they still had fun, since stealth encounters are still exciting even when only one person is playing. Eragon wants to go rob some houses, so I suggest that he go back to the Gralhund Villa and steal what they missed the first time. Jack loves this idea, and so do I because I’m lazy.
Returning to the scene of the crime (the bloodbath scene, not the explosion scene or merchant murder scene), Jack sees that the Gralhunds haven’t fixed the window that Urstul Floxin smashed through when he escaped the players a few days ago. Jack asks if he can climb up to the window. “You are a dragonborn thief with claws, of course you can. Give me a Dexterity check and a Stealth Check.” Two easy successes later and he’s in.
Sneaking around the upper story, listening carefully, Eragon overhears that the Gralhunds have left town for a while and all that’s left are a few guards and maids to clean up all the blood and fix up the place. Eragon is able to visit all the rooms that they were unable to enter earlier.
First, he checks out Urstul’s old guest bedroom, where they found Lord Orond barricaded inside the last time they were here. Now, Eragon discovers the Teleportation Circle in the floor, but he doesn’t recognize what it is. He also finds another birdcage with three flying snakes in it, which he takes. (Riandon ended up stealing one of these.) Later in the adventure, when the players struggle to find Manshoon, I will remind them that these snakes act like homing pigeons and always fly home to their master.
In the Gralhund Master Bedroom, Eragon opens a secret compartment in the chest and finds 200 gold which I added since gold is what he covets. He also discovers the two holy symbols and cultist robes which he also doesn’t recognize but will come in handy when they infiltrate the Cult of Asmodeus.
Then finally, he enters the Grand Ballroom and the jig is up. Every time Eragon did anything, move into a room, search something, or take anything, I had him roll a stealth check. The best part about stealth missions is that eventually they are doomed to fail. No matter how high a player’s stat is, inevitably he will roll low at least once. And the longer his success streak goes, the more nerve-wracking it becomes. The player knows it is only a matter of time before he fails, but how far can he push his luck? If he manages to succeed the whole way, he’ll breathe a sigh of relief and feel like a bad-ass. But when he fails, then the real excitement begins. Either way, both scenarios feel truly satisfying. Solo stealth missions in D&D are awesome! Group ones suck, because the fighter always blows it, but solo ones are great.
So, Eragon is trying to sneak through the ballroom, his clawed toes click-clacking across the marbled tiled floor like a pair of tap shoes. There above the mantle, he sees a gorgeous, mounted stag’s head made of blown glass and Eragon just has to have it. “Make a Stealth roll to walk across marble floor undetected.” Success. “Now make a Stealth roll to silently climb up onto the mantle.” Success. “Now make a Stealth roll to remove the mounted head quietly.” Success, whew. “That’s great. Now make a Strength roll to see if you can hold on to the bust.”
“The mounted head is way heavier than you expected and you are perched precariously on a narrow mantle. Roll please.”
“But my strength is only a 12!”
“I know. Roll please.”
“Okay. A 7?”
The heavy glass trophy slips out of your hands and time seems to slow to a crawl as you watch it fall inch by agonizing inch, inevitably to its doom. Suddenly, the whole thing smashes onto the hard floor, exploding into a million pieces with a thunderous sound like cannon blast echoing through the whole house. “There’s someone in the ballroom,” you hear someone cry from below. Followed by dozens of fast footsteps upon the stair.
“I run out the main door!”
You barely make it to the door when a half-dozen guards arrive on the landing, blocking your path. One yells, “There he is. And he’s got a birdcage!”
“I slam the door shut and block it with a chair!”
The chair cannot hold the door on the smooth tiles as the guards burst inside. “Get him!” they yell in unison.
“What’s here in the room?” Eragon asks.
“Well, there are two chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. A few dozen chairs are pushed up against the walls which have several heavy draperies. And there’s the fireplace.”
“I climb up the fireplace!”
Two frantic Dexterity successes later, Eragon is on the roof of Gralhund Villa. A half dozen guards run out the front door onto the grounds, pointing up at the roof. Several of them are already drawing arrows.
“Aggh! Where do I go?”
“Well, you are about 25 feet above the ground. The three streets that surround the house are all pretty wide and the nearest rooftop is over 30 feet away. A patrol of the City Watch is nearby, but not currently looking your way. You could climb down but that will take time and someone might see you. Wait, two house guards just fired arrows at you.” I roll two dice behind the screen, but I don’t even check the results. “They both missed but one whizzed close by your head. There is a wagon filled with produce coming down the street. It’s about 10 to 15 feet away.”
“I run and jump out off the roof aiming for the wagon!”
“Give me a Dex roll.” Success. “You land in the wagon and hide yourself beneath the heads of lettuce and ears of corn just as the guards come running out of the gate, looking for you. They pay no attention to the wagon as it rumbles away to freedom.” All three boys were on the edge of their seats.
Just as Eragon finally makes his way back to Trollskull, a garishly colored carriage pulls up in front of the Tavern. At the reins is a man dressed as a colorful court jester. Two alluring human females open the carriage door and introduce themselves, “I’m Khafeyta and this is Margo. We’re here to escort you to Zardoz. Hop aboard.” Without a second thought, our heroes jump in an unmarked vehicle being driven by unknown strangers wearing disguises and off they go to break bread with a guy they just met yesterday. Don’t our schools teach these kids Stranger Danger?
Whenever the players travel through town, I work out the route they will take and briefly describe the various sights and locations along the way. As they are travelling down The Street of the Sword, they come to the Elfstone Tavern, which caters to an elven clientele. As they are passing by, a cloaked figure comes bursting out one of the windows. As he is sailing through the air, he turns to face the tavern, pulls out two guns, yes guns, and begins firing back into the bar!
This causes a panic on the street. All the horses in the area bolt at the loud noises. An out-of-control wagon crashed into the one the players are riding in. Everyone rolls a DEX save or ends up in a pile on the floor of the wagon. No one is hurt, but it will take a few minutes to get the wagons untangled.
Meanwhile, the gunslinger hits the ground, goes into a roll, and regains his feet in an instant. As he stands, he quickly scans the area. He begins waving his arms and running towards the player’s wagon. During this, the hood falls away from his face, revealing smooth skin the color of midnight and long flowing hair of alabaster white. This is a drow elf, and he’s got firearms! My players want to kill him immediately.
The fighter, Regizar, is the first to act within the wagon and he flings open the door and gives chase. Apparently, his player did not realize that the dark elf was actually running toward him. Upon seeing Regizar come out of the wagon, the drow comes to a halt and runs the other way. The wizard, Riandon, and the thief, Eragon, also run after the gunslinger. He has about a 100-foot lead on the players. The chase is on!
The drow is running at full speed down the clogged street. He is deftly able to dodge all of the crashed wagons and debris in the avenue. He runs like a jackrabbit! Unfortunately for him, Regizar also makes his DEX rolls and his speed is faster than the dark elf. (This is another benefit of the Zietbrille) It is only a matter of time before Regizar catches him. The same cannot be said for the other two. They can only manage to keep pace with him.
After two rounds, Eragon gets frustrated and asks if he can fire his crossbow at the escaping drow. Yes! I was praying that someone would take a pot shot at this guy. I hope he hits. He does, and I specifically mention that the arrow hits him in the left shoulder, staggering him slightly and causing him to drop something. I rarely bother to describe the particular placement of injuries and my player picked up on this fact. This is another great tip. By changing, even just slightly, how you normally run your DM play style, your players will notice the difference and pay more attention. Plus, this injury will be utilized later during the adventure.
In retaliation, the gunslinger fires his weapon back at Eragon, and I accidentally killed my brand-new player! I keep forgetting that Eragon is actually 2 levels lower than the others. Plus, the guns did more damage that I thought and coupled with the fact that Eragon never healed his damage from jumping into the cart earlier, he dropped to zero hit points. Fortunately, death saves make it virtually impossible to truly kill a player.
Riandon has to stop and help his friend, and I know that the player, James, is not happy about it, since he’d been unable to affect this scene in any way (he missed his Ray of Frost spell.) But I’m about to end this chase anyway, so it doesn’t really matter. When the drow reaches the next intersection, he casts Darkness, enveloping the whole area in utter black. Regizar charges blindly through, but can’t tell where the dark elf disappeared to.
I had half expected the fighter to guess what the drow had done, since they had faced one previously back in the Lost Mine of Phandelver, Session 12. That drow used the cover of darkness to cast spider climb and crawl up to the ceiling, while this current one cast levitate to lift him up to the rooftops. But the player forgot and kept his search to the street level. I even gave him a perception check to maybe notice a few displaced roof shingles, or otherwise look up, but he failed this too.
From a story standpoint, it is better if this drow gunslinger is able to get away, like in the movies. But movies and RPGs are very different; failure is not the same between the two. In a movie, failure is used to develop the hero’s character arc and provide motivation. In an RPG, this just pisses the player off. All they care about is catching the guy. It will have the desired effect to compel the players to hunt the guy down, but they won’t be happy about it.
If the chase had continued, I would keep trying to let the bad guy get away. If they caught him, I would have run combat, but then let it get broken up by the guards. The drow would have been arrested and the players detained. Naturally, the drow would escape from jail later. This would have halted the flow of the story, but that’s okay. As always, the players tell the story, not the DM. But I am glad the dice were in my favor here.
Afterwards, the players find what the drow had dropped. It is a blueprint to an unmarked building that the players do not recognize. This blueprint will eventually lead the players to discover the villain’s evil plot, but I will discuss this new scheme next week. Back at the wagon, Margo healed the dragonborn thief, all while chastising him for chasing after that dangerous criminal. Khafeyta just laughed. Fortunately, the players did not share the found blueprint with these two. The players don’t know this yet, but the two girls know exactly who this drow is, so I’m glad that they did not share their discovery with them. Also, since no one bothered to enter the tavern to see what occurred there, they missed that opportunity too. Once they got the wagons settled, they continued on to their rendezvous with the main villain of this season, Zardoz Zord.
Wait a minute! Zardoz Zord isn’t one of the villain choices in the book. Zardoz is just a colorful background character. The book doesn’t even list any details about him; except that he runs the Sea Maiden’s Faire and is “scantily clad in scarlet clothes.” Plus, I said earlier that the villain was Jaraxle Baenre. Well, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret…
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.
Next Week, we find out what that secret is and take a deep dive into how to play the most complex of all four villains, Jaraxle Baenre.
I have two guns, one for each of ya. – Doc Holiday in Tombstone
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