DM’s Notes: Special Episode – Echoes of the Past

WARNING: SPOILERS for both Waterdeep: Dragon Heist the module in general and the story arc for this campaign in particular. If you just want to follow along the campaign but don’t want to have the plot spoiled for you, read no further.

Link to this episode’s podcast.

This was an unusual episode which is why it is separate from the others. I don’t think we roll the dice once in this entire episode. It is just the players sharing a tragic memory from their backstory and then exploring that memory in more depth.

The inspiration for this episode came from a Rivals of Waterdeep episode in which they delved into the memories of their characters in a similar manner. I found the story to be compelling and a great way to learn more about the characters’ backstories. But the way they got into this setup was by convincing the players to put these mind worms into their brains (think Wrath of Kahn) and I didn’t see myself convincing this group to do that. So I used a different setup where they found a secret door in the basement of Trollskull Manor which led to a room that was once part of The University of High Magics and Wizardry of the Eastern Netherese Empire.

The idea is that the whole scenario is a test powered by high level magic. But it is left over from an ancient University that no longer exists. The original intent is to have those entering the University relive their worst memory and then offer them the chance to go back and change it. If they do go back and change it then that means that they have not come to accept that memory is a part of them and someone who cannot accept their past cannot be trusted with powerful magic secrets which may include the ability to go back and alter time itself.

But of course, the real purpose was to give them each an excuse to delve into their backstories. It was never my intent to remove one of the characters from the game with this. I just felt that would be too much. This is a game after all. So it went very well with Drex, he had a great story and a great reaction. He accepted that his past had made him what he is today. Hal also had a good story but one that didn’t really present a choice. What is he supposed to do, choose for his character to die so his mother can live? Dalia had a terrible cold this week and she struggled through but ultimately chose to leave her past the same. Kyva had to miss the episode unfortunately. And Icky, well Icky decided to change his past and sacrifice himself to save his friends. I think it shows a self loathing that is core to his character. But it did put me in a tough spot. Do I stick to the rules of the test that I originally came up with or do I make an exception? After seeing that Icky wasn’t budging, Tanathras decided that he had learned some kind of a lesson. Because, again, the point of this was to delve into backstory. It would have been stupid to force a player to roll a new character and start a new backstory because they didn’t react the way I expected.

I ran this same scenario later in a different game and I decided to modify it so that it is less railroady. The memories are shared but they don’t get the chance to go back and change them. That worked just as well really, and if it wasn’t entirely clear what the point of the test was, I don’t think it mattered too much. It is an ancient malfunctioning magical test. It follows its own mysterious logic.

I also decided to give out a special magic item to each of the party members as a reward for passing the test. I big part of the reason I did this is because frankly, I am underwhelmed by the magic items given out as treasure in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. So I asked each of the players what cool magic items they would want. Of course Dalia said, an Instrument of the Bards. There are some uncommon Instruments of the Bards so this is not a crazy request even at level 2. But they are a little bit overpowered, so I made a homebrew instrument that is significantly scaled back in power. But once I decided to give that out to Dalia, how to I just give out simple Bracers of Defense to Icky?

So I’ll admit, I went a bit nuts with these items; an instrument of the bards, a sentient broadsword, and two custom magic items that are just about as powerful as an instrument of the bards. But honestly, I don’t think you can really break Dragon heist by giving out certain magic items or over leveling the characters. There are certain low level dungeons where some spells or abilities make certain challenges trivial. Flying is often a culprit. If you can fly then you can simply bypass a certain trap or puzzle. There’s not a lot of situations like that in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.

This was an interesting experiment. One that made me mist up a few times listening to people’s stories. It highlights the role playing abilities of this amazing group of people I am lucky enough game with. I hope that people enjoy it.

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