Our heroes meet a new shady contact, plan a reverse prison break, and worse, it’s all roleplay. Eww.
When last we left our heroes, they had nearly perished in a foul sewer dungeon, where one player was determined to get his hands on the Stone of Golorr or die trying, and he dragged the rest of the team down with him. Incredibly, they survived and finally took possession of this stupid Stone which they have been chasing for months now. Or did they?
Back at the Trollskull Tavern, the Saviors of Phandalin spent a few days (i.e. 5 minutes in game) doing some mundane things. The thief, Eragon, spent his time healing and leveling up. The party’s new cleric, Geraldine, celebrated his freedom by getting blackout drunk and waking up at the top of Mount Waterdeep. The wizard, Riandon, delegated the task of fixing the broken metallic beholder thing to his kobold inventor minion, Meepo. And the fighter, Regizar, desperately tried to attune with the Stone of Golorr. Unbeknownst to him, the thing he has is just a rock. So, where is the real Stone?
According to the Autumn adventure, which we are technically, mostly playing through, the next link in the chain, Fenerus Stormcastle, hid the Stone before being arrested by the City Watch and incarcerated in a Castle Ward jail. What led everyone to believe that the Xanathar had any involvement in Fenerus’s disappearance, or why this gang had a fake copy of the Stone is never explained nor has any bearing on the story. Now, I reasoned that in an attempt to regain the Stone, the Xanathar gang ransacked Fenerus’s place after he was arrested. This group was seen by Jarlaxle’s drow agents who assumed they had Fenerus and tracked them back to the sewers where the party encountered them. As for the fake Stone; having failed to acquire it and fearing the Xanathar’s wrath, they made this fake stone to give to the boss and buy some time. Feel free to ignore any of these reasons and explanations. My players certainly did.
Even worse than ignoring my brilliant backstories, my players were completely lost. At the very least they had the wizard cast Detect Magic and learn that the stone is a fake. Which just pissed them off, because this is yet another disappointment in a string of dead ends, false leads, and misdirection designed to drag out this Hunt for the Green Rock as long as possible. Well, buckle in kids, cause there’s at least 5 more of these to go.
In retrospect, The Dragon Season chapter is the weakest in the adventure. It looks great on paper: A mix & match batch of quick encounters as the players track down the elusive Stone; some have a little combat, some have a madcap chase through the city, maybe a little roleplay. Perfect. Except that they’re not.
First off, none of them are quick. They may seem that way when you read them, but once players start getting involved, time goes right out the window. In today’s session, the players spent over 15 minutes trying to figure out a way to get through the locked front door of a theater without being seen, when all they had to do is go around back to the unlocked stage door. The book mentions things like this as a bit of realism or flavor. It makes sense that the theater doors would be locked during the day when it isn’t show time. But players immediately think this is an obstacle to be overcome and start making “plans”. These plans got more and more impractical, until I was finally fed up and asked if anyone thought to try around back.
Secondly, there are too many of them. There are eight different links in each chain, regardless of which season you play through. And the highlight of each one is the frustration that you failed to get the Stone. Again. Try harder next time. Yeah, constant failure, that sounds like fun. And each time this happens feels cheaper and more manipulative than the last. Did I mention that the players get to do this 7 times? Maybe a party of adults can be mature and stoic about this much aggravation, but a gaggle of teenagers who just want to kill things and collect stuff? Forget it.
Finally, when you combine how long each takes with how many there are, this chapter just stops the whole adventure dead in its tracks. Counting today’s diary entry, it has been 4 sessions since the party killed the nimblewright and starting hunting down the Stone in earnest. And we’re only halfway there! If you add in all the side quests, villain introductions, faction missions and other “stuff”, it has been 14 sessions since the players first heard about the “Dragon Heist”. That’s over 7 months for us! That’s way too long, and meanwhile the story runs out of steam or any sense of direction.
But the question remains, where is the real Stone and how do I get the players back on track? I created the Waterdeep Faction Missions chart, and in it, I included a section on each season’s Encounter Chain, to better guide the DM as he helps lost players find the trail again. Using the chart, perhaps I could have the players kill some grells for the Emerald Enclave, or search for the dragon in the harbor for Force Grey, or delve into the Shard Shunner wererat storyline. All of these side quests take place in the Dock Ward where the next link in our chain is located.
Or, I could just cut right to the chase and remind the players of options and clues that their characters would know but the players forgot. Yes, it’s more satisfying when the players remember this stuff on their own, but you shouldn’t penalize and persecute them when they don’t. Especially in a convoluted storyline such as this. Plus, any added delay watching the players flounder here actually ruins your enjoyment too. But be sure give them multiple options, not just the correct one.
I remind them about the tentative meeting with the mysterious new contact, Rongquon Mystere (subtle), at the Seven Masks Theater (even more subtle), which is the “official” path. Or they can seek an audience with Larael Silverhand who allegedly sent them on this quest over a month ago. Or they could approach any of the faction leaders for advice. Or talk to the private investigator who lives next door like they keep saying they will do. Or they can check for clues in the morass of handouts I’ve given them.
Personally, I really wanted them to seek out Silverhand, just to see if they could pick up on the differences between the real Lord of Waterdeep and the fake one they met earlier. But they wanted nothing to do with anyone who might prevent them from keeping all the gold (i.e. the government), so they chose to go to the theater. There as I said, after fumbling around with the front door, they finally went in through the back.
To save time and confusion, I ignored the wonderfully detailed, irrelevant and distracting backstory about the theater, its marquee play, Sapphiria’s Booty, which lacks any foreshadowing, and its leading lady, Westra Moltimmur, who has a full stats listing for no apparent reason. I simply tell them that they are backstage during a rehearsal for some show about pirates and a love triangle, involving mistaken identities and a lost son (which does foreshadow my story).
One fumbled conversation with the stage manager later, and they are brought to meet yet another new one-shot NPC, the burly and jovial Shou rogue with a braided goatee, Rongquan Mystere, who purports to be a member of the Lord’s Alliance. The Shou, as a people, are the Forgotten Realms counterpart of mainland China, to give you some idea of his appearance. As for his personality, well, since this is yet another Jarlaxle disguise, he speaks in the same exaggerated Jack Sparrow accent, all while also gesticulating wildly with his hands as he talks. I have done this with every Jarlaxle disguise, just waiting for the moment one of my players to see through the ruse. I’m still waiting.
I’m a little disappointed that no one pieced this together. Granted, it is a nigh-impossible task to strike the right balance of obscure clues and overt actions for your players to see through the deception. The exaggerated and identical mannerisms of these “different” characters. Barely a mention. The fact that Rongquon’s knowledge of the players is verbatim to that of Zardoz Zord and the “fake” Larael. No one noticed. Telling them directly that Rongquon seems rather “grimy” and totally unlike every other clean-cut and upstanding member of the Lord’s Alliance they’ve met so far. Nothing. Trying a different tact, I informed two players that they notice several shadowy elves lurking in the back of the theater and neither one expressed any interest in investigating that further. It just goes to show you that you can be as over the top as you want without worrying about the players catching on too soon.
To be fair, the players were solely focused on the Stone of Golorr. Everything they asked was about uncovering the stone. Like the book predicts, they even questioned why the powerful members of the Alliance aren’t more involved in getting the Stone. Because they aren’t the heroes of the story, duh. In the end, they are resigned to the fact that they have to do all the grunt work and learn that Fenerus is currently wallowing in one of the city’s local courthouses/guard post/jails. At least it is one of the nicer ones in the Castle Ward and not the filthy cesspools down in the Dock Ward. Onto Chain #4.
Now, I want to preface that I was really proud of all my boys (even the ones not related to me) during this chain of the adventure. They have to figure out a way to infiltrate a guarded building and interrogate Fenerus who is currently behind bars. The area is patrolled and protected and a frontal assault would be a foolish and suicidal. But these kids really tried every avenue to role play through this scenario. For a bunch of murder hobo wannabes, this was a big step.
They tried the direct route. They entered the courthouse up to the front desk and tried the old Terminator line, “I’m a friend of Sarah Connor, er, Fenerus Stormcastle. I was told he was here. May I see him?”
“No, you can’t see him. He’s a hardened criminal. You’ll need to have permission of the magister to see him. You say your a friend of this scum. What’s your name?”
“Uhm, Eileen Dover.” And they beat a hasty retreat. They considered going the full Terminator route, but decided instead to sweet talk the magister.
Things didn’t go very well at the home of the magister, Hester Barch, either. She also has a full stat block, although I suppose it is conceivable that a deranged party might attack this frail woman in her 70’s. She is described as a woman from Turami, which is a land to the east (Mulan), but not quite as far as the Shou. I compare the Turami to the people of the Eastern Mediterranean. In my Waterdeep Resource Guide there is a section with more information on the various human races of the Forgotten Realms, if you’re interested.
Anywho, the chat with Magister Barch went less than ideally. In fact, it was abysmal. They refused to tell her the truth about the treasure hunt. They are convinced that everyone is going to try and take a piece of the pie, if not the whole thing. The fewer people who know about this dragon heist, the better. They’re not wrong, but it does slow down the story. Instead, after 15 minutes of whispered discussion, they came up with a not too terrible story involving a fictitious sister, who was wooed and swindled by Fenerus, who then stole a family heirloom. Playing the role of Miss Barch, I innocently asked what the heirloom was, to which all 4 kids blurted out different answers: A sword, a table, a bird, a rock!
“Don’t tell her it’s a rock! What’s an heirloom bird? Who steals a table? Why would our sister have a sword?” they yell at each other.
Despite this setback, I still want them to succeed. I even lower their Deception challenge to a DC10. “Gimme a roll.” A “2″. I take pity on them, “Your story was kinda good. I should have had you roll with Advantage. Gimme another roll.” A “1″, c’mon! Well, sometimes you just gotta roll with the punches or crappy dice rolls. Miss Barch continues, “Something’s not right here. What was your name again?”
“Uhm, Seymour Buttz.” And they beat another hasty retreat. That terminator option is looking better and better.
Yet they continue to weigh their non-combat options. But they won’t go to any of their contacts in any alliances for fear of losing a single coin. They won’t go to any NPC allies like Garrick Agundar and Raenar Neverember, even though both are bored ne’er-do-well nobles who would probably love a dust up with the Watch. They even consider getting arrested. Ultimately, they decide there must be a way to break into the prison. As a career correctional officer, I can tell them that getting into prison is easy. It’s getting out that’s hard.
After scouting the area and about 45 minutes of real-time discussion, this is the plan: The fighter, thief, and cleric will cause a disturbance outside the courthouse, which involves a crashing wagon, a fistfight, and another to throw tomatoes from a rooftop to cover the other two’s escape. Meanwhile, the wizard will cast invisibility, and while the guards are distracted, he will find his way to Fenerus and get him to tell them the location of the stone. Exactly how the wizard is supposed to find Fenerus, get him to talk, and get out again, that’s James’s problem.
The first part goes off just fine. The distraction is perfect and ridiculous and James slips unseen into the courthouse. This whole encounter is awesomely tense as James is very aware he is not silent and that anyone can see whenever he opens any doors. I take great care to describe each room only by what he can see, hear, and feel from outside the door. For example, the door that leads to the cellar dungeon feels cooler than the others. Back in the real world, everyone feels this tension and no one breaks the mood or the silence. This was a great D&D moment.
Because the others were “helping” the wizard, I decree that Riandon gets to roll his stealth checks at DC10 with Advantage. One particularly tense moment came when he stumbled upon two guards, failed his stealth check, and had to roll another DC15 stealth check without advantage just to get out of the way as the guards investigated. But by carefully picking his path, waiting for doors to be opened by others, and passing the rest of his stealth rolls, Riandon is now standing outside Fenerus’s cell.
Then the plan almost fell apart. Fenerus is an obstinate jerk. He refused to talk to a clearly invisible person; forcing Riadon to reveal himself. As written in the story, Fenerus would only give up the location of the stone after he received a full pardon, which of course, Riandon couldn’t do. Fenerus demanded that Riandon break him out of jail, which of course, Riandon didn’t want to do. When Riandon refused, Fenerus threatened to call the guard. Riandon was stuck. The player, James, was desperately trying to think of a way out of this. The others were on the edge of their seats.
Frantically flipping through his spell book, Riandon finds a spell he learned way back in the Lost Mines of Phandelver, from the mad drow, Nezzar. “I cast Suggestion.” Now, I know that a wizard character is supposed to have his list of prepared spells planned out during his long rest and that he can’t just choose to cast whatever he wants unless it is a ritual spell, which suggestion is not. But my options here are to tell him “No”, let the mission fail, force them to retreat and plan again, dragging this whole thing out even further; or I can pretend that this was his backup plan the whole time and let my players win and feel awesome. Without hesitation, I ask Riandon for his Spell DC, roll a Wisdom save and fail. “What is your suggestion?”
“I suggest you tell me the location of the Stone of Golorr.”
“It is located in an old tower on Sea Lion Street in Dock Ward. You can’t miss it. It’s the only tower with a purple door. The stone is hidden in a cauldron in the fireplace on the top floor.” The other players cheer. James is very pleased. I am very proud.
“Thank you. That wasn’t so hard now, was it?” Riandon gloats.
Fenerus snaps out of his trance. “Wait! What just happened? You tricked me! I’m going to kill you. What’s your name?”
“Uhm, Phil McCracken.” And Riandon beats a hasty retreat.
Riandon forgets that he is now visible and runs around the corner just as two guards are coming down the hall. After confirming their positions in the hall, James decides, “I use my Misty Step and teleport 30 feet to the next corner behind them. After I turn the corner, I cast my last 2nd level Invisibility and run full speed out of the jail, not stopping for any doors or anything.”
Chaos erupts in the upper hallway as people are shocked and alarmed as the “ghost” runs through the courthouse, knocking people over and causing papers and such to go flying through the air. The front doors burst open to several confused guards trying to control the street where a smashed wagon lies on its side and several guards are covered in tomato bits, but no one is under arrest and the perpetrators (other players) are long gone. Riandon, still invisible, also successfully escapes. I stand corrected, breaking out of prison when magic is involved is easy.
Next week, the Stone is within their grasp when their old drow nemesis runs away with it, then despite my best efforts, the players beat me at my own game!
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, I suggest you ignore any rule when it makes your game better, and Game On!
A Prison break? That’s illegal, you know.
Only if you get caught. – Quicksilver & Wolverine, Days of Future Past