Our heroes invade yet another sewer lair, almost die, pick up a new player, and fail to advance the plot. Again.
When last we left our heroes, they had been diligently following the trail of breadcrumbs that will lead to the Stone of Golor, which will eventually lead them to a vast horde of gold, and somehow, maybe, an actual evil plot to thwart. Last session, they finally caught up with the “man” they’ve been hunting. They destroyed it; but of course, it had passed on the Stone leaving only a vague clue to the next location. They solved that too, only to find that the next man they need to hunt down has also gone missing with no way to find him.
Fortunately, a deus ex machina shows up in the form of the 2nd most powerful NPC of the game, Lareal Silverhand; the Open Lord of Waterdeep, leader of the Lord’s Alliance, ex-member of the Harpers, founder of the Moonstars, Witch-Queen of Stronanter, one of the Seven Sisters, Chosen of Mystra, and the wife of the original Blackstaff, Khelben Arunsun, who died over 120 years ago! She is a very important person. Thank the gods she showed up to set the players on the right path.
Except this isn’t Ms. Silverhand. This is Jarlaxle Baenre, the main “villain” of this season, in one of his many impenetrable disguises. Now, I have purposely had all of my Jarlaxle-in-disguise characters speak in an exaggerated Jack Sparrow accent, including this one, which is supposed to make my players suspicious. Of course, my players failed to catch on, although they did comment, “What, is this one a pirate too?” They’ll get it eventually.
Anywho, Jarlaxle/Silverhand tells the players that the man they now seek, Fenerus Storm-something-or-other, has been captured by members of the Xanathar Guild. This group has been a constant thorn in the side of the players, so they will take every opportunity to kill more of them. The info is incorrect, but the players don’t know that yet, so off they trot to another sewer lair.
According to the book, this lair is populated by a couple of goblins and a few duergar, (grey dwarves from deep underground) plus a higher hit point duergar boss, a half-ogre, and an out-of-left-field gibbering mouther! My players are way too powerful for these monsters, and I want to save the gibbering mouther for another dungeon, so I had to do some major changes to the bad guy roster, then I had to change it again after we stopped the session mid-combat, then I had to change it again when the party was about to be overrun by all my modifications. But we’ll get to that.
In the sewer, the party misses the secret door because their passive perception sucks and they never mention that they are ever looking for anything. But at the main door, they actually think tactically and don’t just bash in the door and run in with swords blazing. Instead, they send in Riandon’s scorpion familiar, whom has presumably been living in Riandon’s pocket unused for the past 12 months, to do a little recon.
They learn that the door opens to a short hallway with guarded arrow slits. The hallway leads straight to the guard room where a few kuo-toa (creepy Underdark fish-men, I’m sick of goblins) are manning the arrow slits. When they are unable to come up with a better plan, they bash in the door and run in with swords blazing.
Regizar leads the charge and all of the kuo-toa miss their attack rolls. So far, so good. There are just a few of these wet, slimy goblin wannabes, so the group makes short work of them; except for the one that ran away into the other room, screaming. The players panicked. Our group has had enemies run away before, but this is the first time an enemy actually sounded an alarm and alerted others to the heroes’ presence. Oh my god, I’d forgotten how much fun this type of event can be.
As a DM, make sure that you spring this scenario on your players at least once. Players would love nothing more than slowly clearing out a dungeon, room by room, choosing where and when to have each battle. And since most monsters just sit in their assigned room waiting to die, this is easy. But if just one monster has even the slightest chance to alert more bad guys, your players will lose their minds. Or at least mine did.
There was a lot of screaming, cries of “kill that fish-thing”, frantic switches from melee weapons to ranged, subsequent missing of said range weapons, followed by more screaming, and cries of “I chase that fish-thing”, right into the next room, where 8 nasty duergar and 1 shocked gazer are patiently waiting for them. I begin to cackle like the evil DM that I am, since they have fallen into my nefarious and unplanned trap. Without missing a beat, Riandon says, “I throw a fireball at them.” In a bit of DM theater, my cackle dies in silence and I abruptly end the session on this cliffhanger. It was perfect.
Now I did not end this session out of spite. One of the kids had to go do something stupid, like soccer, or the dentist, or something with mom, who cares; so I had to end the session anyway. But by ending a session in the middle of combat like this, it really felt like one of those old radio or TV serials, such as the 60’s Batman show. Will Batman and Robin escape the Joker’s laughing gas trap? Will our heroes be able to save City Hall in time? Tune in next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel. I should really do this more often.
Before I get into our next session, I want to talk about acting and the DM’s performance. Now I’m not talking about the guys over at Critical Role. They are great, but they are professional actors; we are not. But you should still practice the art of performing as a DM.
Here was a perfect example. When James threw that fireball, I acted like I was crestfallen and disappointed. The players were ecstatic that they had foiled my supposed plans to kill them. I wasn’t upset that he threw that fireball. I wasn’t even surprised. In fact, I expected him to do that. But by acting shocked and saddened, it made my players feel awesome. Your job is to set up scenarios that allow your players to do awesome things. And when they do something awesome, let them relish in it. You are Hans Gruber. You have to act surprised when your player’s John McClane shoots you with the gun taped to his back. And then you have to die and fall out of a 30-story window. Figuratively.
Back to adventure! Between the sessions, we picked up another player. Andrew’s friend, Owen, really wants to play. Incredibly, he really wants to play a dwarven cleric. Great! Now, I should add that he only wants to play a dwarf because he wants his character to be drunk all the time, and he only wants to play a cleric because he happens to own the set of cleric spell cards that WotC puts out. Fine. I don’t care. So long as someone can keep these other three alive, I’m good. Now I just have to rearrange everything so that he can join the group as quickly and plausibly as possible.
So, I put this new character in the next room after the duergar, as a captive of this hideout’s boss. The other players only need to kill these 8 duergar, 1 gazer, and 1 panicked fish-thing first. Oh, and about 6 troglodytes, 1 boss, 1 important named henchman, and maybe, 1 extra nasty surprise if the players are dumb. But the wizard had just thrown a fireball into the room, this should be easy. Wrong! This fight was way harder, way longer, and almost turned into a TPK. In hindsight, I should have just had Owen’s character run into the room and say, “Hey, I’m a new hero in town. I heard the commotion out in the sewers. Do you need a hand fighting these guys?” But then we would have missed one of the most tense and nerve-wracking battles of the campaign, so who’s to say?
First, James specifically states that Riandon targets the fireball directly on the gazer, who was in the back of the room. I love it when players do the sub-optimal thing that has an actual character motivation. The smart play is to target the center of the room, such that the gazer would still be hit by the edge of the blast. But James suspects (correctly) that the Xanathar uses these gazers as his spies and he wants him dead before he can report back. One Inspiration token to that guy.
I allow that this attack also catches two of the duergar in its radius. Everyone fails their saves and James rolls really high on the damage. The gazer is obliterated and the two duergar are killed. The players cheer knowing that the Xanathar won’t be getting any intel outta that guy. They stop cheering when the other 6 duergar all go invisible.
This is an ability of the duregar that is easy to miss. They can also grow to twice their size, along with extra damage and such. Be sure to include these elements, to give this encounter its unique flavor. Just beware that this flavor may end up killing your party.
James panics and has Riandon use his Wand of Fire and throw another fireball into the room. I ask, “Do you have a target or just throw it on the floor?”
Having only one target, he cries, “I hit the fish-thing.” The kua-toa was still running to the doorway on the other side of the room. More dice rolling.
“The kua-toa is instantly grilled alive. Is anyone hungry for some oily salmon? Also one of the dwarves turns visible again, dead. But he is now at least two times larger than he was when he went invisible.”
“What the hell does that mean?” the new player, Owen (who is technically not in the room) asks.
“It means we’re screwed,” says the more savvy Andrew.
Unbeknownst to them, I rule that these dwarfs can change size while still invisible. Three of them move into position to attack from the front, while the last two run through the unfound secret entrance, and back through the front door to attack from behind. I want my players to start thinking more about combat beyond just “I hit it with my sword.” But this requires me to start playing the bad guys more tactically as well. Today, this almost proved to be our undoing.
This melee was particularly deadly. I keep forgetting that Jack’s thief is 2 levels lower than the others. He quickly dropped down to single digits and spent much of the fight chugging healing potions. Andrew’s fighter is a pure tank, but he foolishly depends entirely on his massive health to soak up any damage I throw at him. He’s down to about 25 hp, and his reaction is, “Phfft, I’ll be fine.” Even James got knocked down to half hit points when the two enlarged duergar attacked from the rear. He normally takes zero damage in combat, and he is not happy.
During this fight, Owen is waiting impatiently to be rescued. And like any bored teen, he keeps offering more and more ridiculous and violent suggestions. Stab that guy. Chop off his head. Cut off all their ears, I wanna keep ‘em in a jar. Sigh.
After several rounds of pure hack and slash, the engorged dwarfs lay dead. Jack’s Eragon want to take his ball and go home to heal, but he knows that his real-life friend is waiting to be rescued, so he quaffs his last healing draught and trudges on. Now, I am not a particular fan of this particular dungeon design. The rooms are so close together that naturally any noise in any room would lead to all the inhabitants to investigate and overwhelm the party. So I added a very thick door on the far wall which leads to the boss’s lair. This allowed the players a brief reprieve and gave them a moment to think of a plan. I also locked this door to give the thief something to do.
The doorway leading south is open. I describe that the air in the doorway is damp, it smells like a swamp, and you can hear splashing, teeth gnashing, and low guttural grunts. The players want nothing to do with this room. When they listen at the thick door to the west, they hear the shuffling of several feet, and one man with a deep, gravelly voice barking orders to another, “Get that thing working, you stupid dwarf, before I truss you up like your friend here.” Then they hear a muffled sound followed by a thump and a groan. I always enjoy describing rooms using senses other than sight. But the players don’t care. They wanna see.
They forget all about their scorpion scout. I guess he’s back in Riandon’s pocket for another year long nap. I allow them a chance to crack open the door to take a peak, since I’m a nice guy. They pass the needed rolls and they glimpse a few lizard-like things called troglodytes, which they haven’t encountered yet, but are totally different from lizard-men, which they have. (Even though I used the same minis because I’m cheap.) They also see the deep voiced boss sitting on a iron throne, yelling at someone around the corner.
This man is covered, head to toe, in metal, but it doesn’t look like a suit of armor. It looks like it is directly attached to his skin. This is another member of my ill-defined Amalgamation. This is a cult-like group that I stole from the Waterdeep novel, City of Splendors. Their belief is that perfection is gained by conducting creepy body experiments such as replacing body parts with that of stronger monsters, or in this case, fusing your body with armor. Now, I love D&D, but it could stand to be a little more macabre. I have it that this group works for the Xanathar, but I haven’t worked out what their real purpose or point in the story is.
Anyway, my players don’t care about him. They only care about the dwarf that is trussed up and gagged by the boss’s feet. This jerk is using their captive friend as a footstool! Of course, the players know this is Owen’s character waiting to be rescued, even though their characters should have no idea who this is. Metagame all you want kids,whatever moves this along.
After a long debate, they come up with a good plan. The wizard, Riandon, will run into the room, hopefully with a little surprise, grab the bound dwarf, use Misty Step (as a rules-allowed bonus action) to teleport back to the group, and then they’ll run like hell out of the area. Ah, the best-laid plans of mice and men and D&D players.
The first three parts went off just fine. Riandon runs into the room past two Trogs, whom I allow to have an opportunity attack with disadvantage. One hits for a little damage; manageable. The wizard grabs the captive dwarf, Nightcrawlers his way out of the room, and then… Regizar says that he runs into the room with the damp air and gnashing teeth.
Jack screams, “No! You idiot. The exit is out this door.” He is very afraid for his character’s imminent death.
Not to be deterred, Andrew blithely replies, “I’m still going in this door.”
Both Jack and James are miffed with Andrew. They think that Andrew is being a tool. Owen is loving it. He thinks Andrew is insane. But I could tell that Andrew knew exactly what he was doing. It’s his character that’s the crazy wainrod. He told me afterwards that he was convinced that the Stone of Golor was here and being guarded by whatever was in that room (incorrect on both counts). And he refused to let the Stone slip through his fingers again. And yet, the dickish way that he dragged the rest of the group along with his plan is actually “what his character would do.” Begrudgingly, one inspiration token to that guy. For more info on why this is now part of his character read The Ageless One – Part 1.
Needless to say, as soon as Regizar enters this sunken room with a pool in it, he is attacked by a giant crocodile. Even worse, I roll a crit for 22 points of damage, knocking him down to 3, and it disarmed the fighter of his prized sword, Talon. His reaction? “Phfft, I’ll be fine.” Jack’s reaction? “We’re all gonna die!” James’s (Andrew’s brother) reaction? Just a shaking of his head and a sigh of unsurprised resignation. Owen’s reaction? “This is awesome!” Which I found surprising since he is still trussed up like a pig and is likely to die before he can even do one thing.
Does Andrew have Regizar search the pool for his lost sword? No. Does he abandon his selfish, unknown motivations and run away? No. Does he have any sense of self-preservation and swallow a healing potion? No. He uses his magic electric ring and punches the crocodile in the head. Owen thinks this is hilarious. I’m really digging this kid’s energy. And to their credit, both Riandon and Eragon stand their ground, instead of abandoning their comrade to his fate. I would have.
Instead, Riandon burns his last leveled spell to throw a lightning bolt back into the boss room. This takes out two Trogs and does a fair amount to the big boss, but he is even more of a tank than Regizar. Eragon spends the entire battle hiding in shadows, stabbing whatever comes through the door and hiding again. A solid strategy. Owen’s character spends most of the fight on the floor, flopping like a fish, but he’s having a great time.
In Round 2 of the boxing match between man vs. croc, two troglodytes run into the room from a side room, attempting to cut the party off. Unfortunately for these two geckos, they have to wade through the pool to do this. At Andrew’s suggestion which I concurred with, when Regizar connects with another punch, the lightning courses through the crocodile, radiates out into the water and zaps the trogs too. This kills the lizard things but the croc still lives. He’s got even more hit points than the boss.
I know I’ve said this before in other battles, but this was one of the best fights we’ve ever had. Every player was on their feet, looking over the battle mat, trying to get any sort of advantage, rolling dice with bated breath. Every roll brought cries of joy or groans of frustration. Every spell, special ability and inspiration token was used to sway the battle.
When the boss finally joined the fight wielding the most enormous club ever seen, he was immediately stabbed in the back by the thief, Eragon, who was then immediately knocked unconscious and dying. This compelled Riandon to waste a round, dodging the giant club while forcing another healing potion down Eragon’s throat. Meanwhile Regizar went several rounds going toe to claw with the crocodile with neither side landing a blow.
In times like these, I often come from behind the screen and roll the dice in full view of the players. This adds even more tension, since they know (incorrectly) that I can’t pull any punches and the dice can be a cruel master. But I can still fudge a few things. They don’t know exactly what the bad guys’ AC is, or their To-Hit modifier, or their total hit points. But I have to be careful. The players are always keeping track and I have to be sure that I don’t make a previous successful hit suddenly be a miss, and vice versa.
Plus, I have one extra trick up my sleeve. I use three sets of dice behind my screen. Of the d20s, one tends to roll randomly, one tends to roll high, and one tends to roll really low. Today I used the low one, and it worked to my player’s advantage. My rolls were absolute rubbish. I know that there is no basis for this superstition, but it worked, and I generally want the players to survive, especially since I don’t like killing characters due to the stupid actions of a different player. Besides, surviving a battle of impossible odds makes the players feel awesome. And who doesn’t like feeling awesome?
In the end, I allowed that the bound dwarf was able to get his feet free. His response? “I run full speed into that metal jerk and knock him over!” One contested strength check later, the big boss is proned out like a big metal turtle on his back, unable to right himself. The others went to town on him, killing him where he lay.
This only left the nasty crocodile. Andrew failed to land another hit, and then my unlucky dice failed me. I rolled a critical hit with enough damage to kill the player. I describe to the players that just as they are on the verge of victory, the crocodile makes a quick lunge at Regizar and swallows him whole. Their fighter is no more. Andrew merely nods and says, “I use it here.”
“Okay,” I say, “Roll to hit.” Natural 20! With quadruple damage! I continue, “In the same moment that you watch your fighter get swallowed whole by the crocodile, you also see the fighter make one mighty uppercut with his ringed fist. Using its last charge, the punch explodes with electricity as the giant crocodile is blasted up into the air only to come splashing down on its back, dead, in a pool of its own blood. Regizar stands victorious over the beast’s scaly corpse.” To see why Critical Hits are more dramatic in our game check out our home-brew Critical Hit-Fumble Table.
Owen lost his mind. “What! What the hell is going on?” The others tried to explain what just happened. Jack says it’s this luck power that Andrew has. James, who has more experience with this, says it’s some power he gets from his goggles and I think it’s turning him evil. They are so close to getting it! Here the “it” is that his character can change any one moment in time, and redo a single action (even someone else’s action) once per long rest. Kinda like the Omega 13 on steroids. Again, read The Ageless One – Part 1 for more details.
In the aftermath, I put in a bunch of treasure that was being “guarded” by the crocodile. This made everyone feel a little more justified in fighting this easily avoidable fight. I put the Stone of Golor on the big boss’s person. Andrew felt vindicated. “Ha! I knew it was here.” (It’s not. This is a fake.) James collected another unique chair to put in the tavern. And they now own a broken beholder machine as written in the book. What will they do with it? Who knows? Will they forget about it by next week? Probably.
They finally remove the gag from the dawrf’s mouth. He introduces himself as Geraldine “Don’t make fun of my name” Stevenson. He is in town searching for the perfect pint of ale when he was kidnapped by this group. Why was he kidnapped? What was he doing in the sewer? Don’t know. We’re making up this backstory as we go. Hopefully, we’ll know more next week.
Geraldine adds that there was another dwarf in the hideout, some sort of inventor named Twinbeard who was working to fix the metallic beholder for reasons unknown. They discover that he escaped up the stairs in the back of the hideout. On the stairs, they find a Harper pin, the same kind that the players own to signify their involvement with that organization. Twinbeard is also a member of this good-aligned group, but there is no way for the players to learn of this in the book, so I gave them this clue, which they promptly ignored.
The stairs lead to a barred door that has just been smashed open by Twinbeard. In my story, the door leads to an orphanage, Helm’s Hall. The nuns confirm that a wild-eyed dwarf just burst through here and ran out the front door. This orphanage plays a part in my Jarlaxle storyline and is where the 4 street urchins actually live. The published story has three urchins, but I added a fourth, Aeluss, a grey elf whose name means “No one’s son” in the drow language. Can you guess who son this is? That’s great, cause my players have ignored every clue about this mystery too.
Geraldine, the new party cleric, says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s great. Now where can a dwarf can a good drink around here?” Holy crap, we forgot to tell him that he is now a partner in best new saloon in all of Waterdeep, the Trollskull Tavern. Owen is very happy. Riandon has a new chair and a big metal beholder. James is very happy. Eragon is still alive. Jack is very happy. And Regizar finally has the Stone of Golor. Andrew is very happy.
Next week, no one is happy when our heroes realize that the Stone is a fake and they have to actually roleplay to get the next clue with zero combat! Wah, wahhhh.
Until then, Check out my Waterdeep Campaign Resources page for a complete guide to running this adventure, including articles on all the villains, factions, and NPCs in the greatest city of the Forgotten Realms. Plus, of all of the maps, handouts, and accessories I used while playing Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.
As always, nothing ruins a perfect plan between three player faster than having a fourth player, and Game On!
Do I really look like a guy with a plan?… I just do things. – The Joker