DM’s Notes: Episode 9 – Loan Sharks

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.

Luckily for me, Cami gave me the perfect backstory tie in for the Cassalanters. Her character, Kyva, is struggling to pay off exorbitant student loan debt. I modified that a little bit in that the money she “borrowed” to pay for Neverwinter Academy was originally offered as a grant by the philanthropist Cassalanter family, but when they fell on hard times a few years ago, they changed that into a loan. This gave clues to the Cassalanter’s backstory.

The party tried to use this grant/loan discrepancy to get the law on their side, but I kind of just crushed that idea by DMs fiat by having Mirt read the contract and declaring it rock solid. I’m OK, doing that to Cami in this case because she originally wanted the loans to be part of Kyva’s backstory, so I don’t feel like I am forcing that choice on her. Again, as with Hal’s fugue states, I don’t recommend forcing negative backstory elements on your players, but these wonderful people are glutton for punishment and asked for these things themselves.

The party really didn’t want to deal with the Cassalanters, so they turned to Mirt for a loan to fund the tavern and get Kyva out of debt. This didn’t play out at all how I wanted it to, as I was hoping to use the Cassalanter’s leverage to force Kyva to spy on the party for them. But not all your plans work out and when a plan falls through you have to adapt, rather than just trying to force the issue.

The good news though is that I managed to get the important backstory elements across to the party and they thoroughly hate the Cassalanters, so this sets up good story elements for the future.

The only information that the module provides about loans in Waterdeep is in the description of Istrid Horn. She offers loans up to 2500 gp at a rate of 10% per tenday. My players balked at these rates which are ridiculous in modern terms but probably not too crazy for medieval society. Ultimately, the terms don’t matter very much. They can earn enough from the faction quests to pay the interest and they should get their share of the Horde of Dragons within a few tenday.

I cut a very generous deal for them through Mirt giving him a silent stake in Trollskull, because of their renown with the Harpers and frankly because I’d rather see them deck Trollskull Manor out according to their wishes rather than let money be a limiting factor.

The following articles appeared in The High Road Herald this session:

Daring Jailbreak at Piergeiron’s Palace

The city’s justice was interrupted yesterday by a daring raid on Piergeiron’sPalace. The death sentence on the Elf Executioner was being carried out. The noose was around the dark elf’s neck. When suddenly a contingent of 6 drow swashbucklers bearing strange wands swung in and rescued the condemned elf. 

Several guards were injured in the ensuing battle but as quickly as they swept in, the dastardly party swept back out again. Anyone having information about the whereabouts of the Elf Executioner, Soluun Xibrindas is encouraged to let the City Watch know at once!

Reign of Misrule

On Marponeth the 10th comes the Reign of Misrule. This day honors Beshaba, goddess of misfortune. People of Waterdeep are expected to break trust, belie oaths, and disobey the normal order as long as no laws are actually broken and no rift is made that can’t be later bridged. 

During the Reign of Misrule, nobles serve meals to their servants, children take control of schools, priests give worship to their god’s foes, and any who wish to may participate in a guild’s trade. Pranks are played by and on many, from simple tricks to those requiring elaborate planning.

DM’s Notes: Episode 7 – Dream a Little Dream

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.

One very important dream sequence for the gameplay in this episode and one that’s more important for the background. For gameplay, Hal progressed to 3rd level and gained a new ability from his Aasimar heritage which comes from his dead mother. In addition to the ability in the book, I decided to allow him advantage on his saving throws to break out of his fugue state after fights (which I have to point out once again, is the players’s choice, not mine. I’m, happy to support players who make role playing choices like this, but I wouldn’t force it on them as a DM.)

The other dream may seem a little bit weird but that’s because it’s supposed to. I’m still working out how to play the relationship between Icky and the thing that’s living in his head, but I feel that these dreams are a great chance for Brett and I to flesh out her personality through role play.

The following articles appeared in The High Road Herald for this episode:

Strange Sightings down by the Docks

The old salts that earn their living in Waterdeep Harbour have many a strange tale to tell, but none so strange as recent tales of a mysterious beast they claim has been disturbing the orderly operations of the harbour. “It came out of the depths, it did!” reports Jebediah Scrubtoe a local oyster raker. “With a head like a copper horse and a large scaled frill.It’s green glowing eye stared through me as if it was going to eat my very soul.” 

Sightings of the beast have been reported from all corners of the harbour but as of yet it hasn’t been confirmed if the rumors are true or if something bad has gotten into the local grog supply.

Stoneshar Coming!

Tomorrow, the 7th is Stoneshar, an all-faiths day during which folk strive not to be idle. Even children at play are encouraged to dig holes, build sand castles, or construct 

crude models.

If you’ve been putting off a big construction project what are you waiting for? Projects started on this sacred day are believed to be blessed by the gods. Furthermore, folk who undertake new projects on Stoneshar can expect blessings upon their works in the coming year, whereas individuals who do nothing constructive on this day can expect all manner of misfortune to rain down on them in the year ahead.

DM’s Notes: Episode 6 – All the Seamen in Waterdeep

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.

I sometimes listen to podcasts that have a warning “Adult language is used, because we’re all adults.” I feel like we should slap a warning on this podcast. “Warning, this podcast is full of adolescent humor, because we all talk and think like 13 year olds.” 🙂

Well, this episode was kind of a doozy! The adventurers finished the Sea Maiden’s Faire and found out that Drex’s Greatsword, Rhyrika had awakened as part of the fight against the Nimblewright. I had already set the condition for Rhyrika to awaken as Drex defeating a CR 3 or higher creature that had injured one of his friends. The mechanism for Vestiges (powerful magic items that can level up with the characters) are given in the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting book by Matthew Mercer. Rhyrika was given to Drex after he completed the Worst Memory challenge in the Special Episode: Echoes of the Past. Basically, I really wanted to give an Instrument of the Bards to Dalia, but when I looked at even the most basic Instruments of the Bards, they were way too powerful for 2nd level characters. So, I made the Lute of Escayere using the Vestige mechanics. I then realized that I couldn’t give this super cool Vestige to Dalia and give Drex a crummy +1 Broadsword so I went about making Vestiges for each of them giving them similar powers to the Instrument of the Bards. It’s all probably terribly broken and overpowered, but the nice thing about this campaign is that many of the things they go up against are such that even if they are broken and overpowered it won’t make a big difference. No sword is going to save them if they go crazy and decide to attack The Xanathar before they are level 8 or so.

They also came across Madame Ursula Underhill, a friendly halfling fortune teller. Madame Ursula is (of course) actually a Hag and a pretty canny one at that. She has attached herself to the Sea Maidens Faire as a good cover for her general hijinks in fortune telling and trinket trading. I’m not sure if the party picked up on it, but even Jarlaxle seems a bit frightened by her, choosing not to chase her off for fear of raising her ire. If the leader of Bregan D’Aerthe is afraid of this little old hag, I wonder what the Backdoor Bandits have gotten themselves into, especially Kyva, trading a lock of her hair!

You can purchase the Taroka Deck out of The Curse of Strahd module on Roll20, but you’re probably going to want to just buy the whole module because of course you will get around to playing it someday. A lot of people think it is the best D&D module ever! Using the Taroka deck, doing a reading is pretty straightforward. The deck comes with an explanation of each card that you can read off when you deal it. I used a modified Celtic Cross layout explained here. You’ll notice that some of the wording was read verbatim from that site. I stopped with the 6th card as the future “That which lays before you.” Because, well the readings already take too long. It is tempting to cut out more cards, but honestly unless you stack the deck you need a good 6 cards. You could draw 2-3 cards that are completely irrelevant to the character’s backstory and then that’s a really bad reading. As it is, I dealt 6 cards randomly to myself and then chose the order in which to lay the cards down.

As, you might be able to tell, I’m a skeptic about Taroka card readings. But I do think they are fun for D&D games, especially when the DM knows more about the character’s past and possible future than they do!

Bringing the party and Jarlaxle together this early is definitely going way off script from the module. However, I think it is more fun to have the players aware of Jarlaxle and his machinations then to reveal him Scooby Doo style in the 4th or last chapter (if at all). “Jinkies kids, the ghost was old man Banrae the whole time!” The Nimblewrights, Jarlaxle, the Stone of Golorr. What we are doing right now is introducing the various players on the stage so that later when the party sees them again they will have some context.The last major piece of the puzzle for us to introduce is Dalakhar and maybe a little bit more background on the Cassalanters.

The argument between Jarlaxle and the party over Soluun certainly didn’t go the way I expected it to. Well, it did and it didn’t. I thought it ended on a strong point as Jarlaxle emphasized loyalty, which is really the whole point. I also had Jarlaxle try to talk about the rehabilitation angle. Although this might sound kind of silly at first for a stone cold killer like Jarlaxle, I think that it is a reasonable line of thinking for Drow. They are notorious slavers. So criminals would either be sacrificed to Lolth (a practice I think Jarlaxle and Bregan D’Aerthe would be decidedly against given their history as targets of sacrifice) or most of them would be enslaved. No reason not to put those criminals to good use and in the end allow them to become productive members of society. However I kind of guessed that an argument based on slavery would have been a non-starter.

The challenge here is to make an argument against capital punishment while still allowing our plucky Pirate King to sound like Jarlaxle Banrae and not Bernie Sanders. Obviously, that didn’t work. I should have seen this coming. Soluun as a serial killer is really hard to defend for the Bregan D’Aerthe. Good aligned parties just absolutely nope out of any interaction with Jarlaxle when they find out that he has a serial killer in his organization. I’m thinking in any future iterations of W:DH I DM I might just give Soluun a really good reason for killing the elves, like they were members of a pirate crew that killed his son or something like that. That would certainly make it easier.

However, the good news is that Dalia is considering joining the Bregan D’Aerthe and has a difficult decision to make. That’s really the best thing you can hope for as a DM is to force your players to make difficult decisions. That’s where the drama and the fun of this game comes from!

The following article appeared in The High Road Herald this session:

Fall of Tiamat Fetches Boffo Reviews

   Last night, the Fall of Tiamat a new Opera written by Blagothkus the Cloud Giant King of Skyreach Castle opened at Lightsinger Castle in the Castle Ward.

The opening scene featuring 5 illusory dragons laying waste to locations along the sword coast represents a new high point in special effects for the opera community.

The one sour note of the evening was the decision to cast Vasel Shon in greyface as the Goliath Hero, Ghagan Bravewanderer. There are so many excellent Goliath contrabasses that in this day in age there’s no excuse for whitewashing.

DM’s Notes: Episode 5 – The Sea Maidens Faire

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 episode opens with the interrogation of Soluun Xibrindas for the murders of 3 elven or half elven sailors in the Dock Ward of Waterdeep. Soluun (as only we know at this point) is a member of the Bregan D’Aerthe an elite, all male, Drow, mercenary company with Jarlaxle Banrae at its head. You should note, that I downplay Bregan D’Aerthe’s connections to Lolth and Drow society in general compared to cannon. In part, this is an attempt to make Jarlaxle a little bit less black and white evil because moral quandaries are more fun. Soluun, however is pretty much all bad. He has been sneaking around behind his brothers’ backs and committing murder against elves and half elves. He’s a racist and a bad person. Jarlaxle would be opposed to his actions if he knew about them because at the very least, his activities endanger Jarlaxle’s mission in Waterdeep. But also, Jarlaxle might not be so bad as to lightly brush aside a serial killer in his own organization. Hopefully that can be developed later.

To develop interesting conflicts like this I feel that you have to go beyond the cannon Forgotten Realms materials. Soluun in the books openly worships Lolth (there is a shrine located in his quarters on the Scarlet Marpenoth) and Jarlaxle does as well. I guess in Forgotten Realms cannon players are supposed to look at Jarlaxle and say “Well, he may worship the Demon Queen of Spiders but he’s just soooo sexy. Let’s hear what he has to say.” In my experience, players don’t often do this. They see Jarlaxle and they immediately identify this sneaky Drow as the villain. In this play through I have tamed him down a bit to make dealing with him somewhat less black and white.

I debated having Soluun break easier under interrogation and give some stuff away. But I wanted him and the Bregan D’Aerthe to come off as pretty bad ass, because he is and they are. Plus, the rolls didn’t really go that way. I had already come up with the idea of JB Killington as another alter-ego of Jarlaxle. JB Nevercott is a representative of the Bregan D’Aerthe to the party and I wanted to keep Killington and Nevercott separate. So, when the party asked Soluun about his ship and he thought he couldn’t lie, he went to the fallback which was to ask for his lawyer, JB Killington.

I did not expect this to lead to the party breaking into Killington’s offices and going through his papers. I like to reward the players for clever plans and good rolls. That is why, even though I had no plan to introduce the Nimblewright scrying devices from The Alexandrian Remix, when Kyva rolled really well on her investigation check I wanted to give her something more than just the connection to the Sea Maiden’s Faire. So now, they have a list of Nimblewright owners in Waterdeep which will come in handy when they need to investigate the Fireball incident of chapter 3.

The investigation of the crime scene went well and yielded pretty convincing evidence (I’m surprised that Drex seems less than 100% convinced). A remnant from the use of a pretty unusual weapon makes this “case closed” in my opinion. And with the evidence from the office pointing to the Sea Maidens Faire it’s off to the circus!

Note that in the module, the Sea Maidens Faire is not necessarily a circus. It is just a parade. However, when I looked at that several questions come to mind. How does a parade make money? How does a parade justify spending multiple tendays in Waterdeep after the parade is over? I suppose you could make the parade into a Mardi Gras situation and have the various wards each pay Jarlaxle to stage parades on different days across several tendays but in the end, I like circuses so that’s what I went with. BTW, if you are interested in learning more about circuses, their history, how they have worked over the years and what daily life in a circus was like, I highly recommend the Circus Museum at The Ringling Estate in Sarasota, Florida. To some extent, there is also the movie, The Greatest Show on Earth.

Here is a link to an expanded description of the Sea Maidens Faire. In this case, I didn’t blatantly copy this from somebody on Reddit, since I am the original author of the posts. However, as with everything there were many inspirations some of which I’m sure I’m forgetting. Inspirations that come to mind are Critical Role Season 2’s Harvest Close Festival as well as The Rennasiance Pleasure Faire of Southern California (highly recommended by both me and the cast of Critical Role).

The Nimblewright fight at the end is not in the module but we had a long episode of talking and sneaking without any fighting so it seemed appropriate. Plus it gives Zardoz Zord an excuse to invite the Backdoor Bandits to a party on The Eyecatcher. I was very gratified that Drex made the connection to the movie Zardoz which is just another of the crazy, campy things in this module. If you are interested in a picture that captures the whole Zardoz Zord experience, I recommend this one.

DM’s Notes: Episode 4 – The Opera

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 episode starts with some fun role playing to prepare for the Opera. This type of role play may not be for everyone, but we amuse ourselves 🙂 Also, I think we were at least a little bit delaying while waiting for Brett (Icky) who was caught up commuting from work. By the way, the scene where Hal applies makeup to Icky was a direct response to Brett (Icky) sending a message on Discord that Icky wanted purple eye makeup. Well, you asked for it, buddy!

I found a great post online that summarizes the plot of The Fall of Tiamat and parts of my narrative were read word for word from that. I reorganized it a little bit and reproduce it here. But I must warn you, much of this comes from that Reddit post and is not my original work.

Summary of The Fall of Tiamat: (Opera sung in Giant)

Bad Guys: Severin the Red, Members of the Dragon Cult, Tiamat

Good Guys: Party of plucky adventurers, Talis the White (turned against the cult), The Council of Waterdeep, Dagault Neverember (turned away), Laerel Silverhand.

Places: Greenest, Mere of Dead Men, A Storm Giant’s Flying Castle (destroyed), Well of Dragons.

Opening Scene: The music swells as the curtain draws back five singers in green, white, blue, black and red dragon masks are on a deis above the stage they look down upon a man called Severin who wears the mask of a dragon cultist. The first song is catalogue aria as they command him to reestablish the Cult of the Dragon and then describes the myriad evil deeds he is to perform. As the song ends, Severin pledges his undying loyalty to his queen and vows to gather the dragon masks in a rising crescendo as from the back of the theatre massive dragons fly towards the stage one by one. A stagehand holds up facades of different cities as each dragon tears up to the stage, releases a massive breath weapon at the city and then disappears into the wings.

Final Scene: An army of heroes, marches towards the dragon cultists and slay Severin but not before Tiamat is summed. The heroes sing in unison of sacrifice and honour as they turn her away from Toril.


The chromatic dragon goddess Tiamat commanded her fell servant Severin to reestablish the Cult of the Dragon and to use the might of his followers to gather the Dragon Masks with the purpose of performing a ritual that would bring Tiamat back into Toril.

The Cult’s Raiding parties ravaged the land far and wide, gathering a Hoard of treasure worthy of the Dragon Queen. Chance set the noble adventurers on the trail of the Cult’s Horde. Across the Sword Coast they tracked the treasure, from Greenest to the Mere of Dead Men.

In the midst of that swamp, a castle housed the gateway to the final leg of the Horde’s Journey. The cunning adventurers seized upon the Tension between the Castle-dwellers and the Swamp’s Denizens. Lizardfolk fought Bullywug and cultist that night, and in the Chaos, the adventurers reached and passed through the gateway, following the Horde.

Far to the East, near a hunting lodge in the mountains, the adventurers received some aid. A disgruntled Cultist, blocked from promotion within the cult, threw her support behind the adventurers. With Talis the White’s aid, the heroes were able to infiltrate the last-but-one stop of the Horde: a Storm Giant’s Flying Castle.

Double-dealings, treachery, and valiant combat marked their visit to the castle. In the end, the horde was spilled all over the countryside as the Castle was cast out of the sky. The Ghost of an angry storm giant failed to slay the heroes: but his castle lay in pieces as the heroes escaped upon stolen Wyvern mounts.

Hearing of their heroic deeds, a council was formed to give Authority to their fight against the madness of the Cult. Many trials did the heroes face under order of the council: a journey by sea to the Far North to rescue a mage from a Dragon’s Lair. They delved deep into the Tomb of a great wizard, in pursuit of the White Wyrmspeaker. They journeyed to the north, representing their cause to a council of Metallic Dragons. They hunted the Green Wyrmspeaker through the misty Forest. They even met with the Red Wizards of Thay, and cleansed a Wizard’s Tower of Tiamat’s Taint. All the while the Cult grew increasingly desperate in their attempts to stop the Heroes.

Eventually all was concluded. The army raised by the Heroes faced that of the Cult of the Dragon in a final battle, With Severin The Red summoning his mistress in the background. The Heroes Penetrated the Cult’s Defences and arrived to slay Severin and end his mad ambition. But lo! The heroes were too late: the Cultist had succeeded in opening the door to Tiamat’s Prison.

With the disruption of the Ritual, the Dark Dragon Queen was not at her full strength. But even weakened, a God is not someone to trifle with lightly. Nevertheless, the Heroes stood their ground, and with great sacrifice managed to drive the Dragon Queen back to the hells, saving the world from her Dark Tyranny.

Obviously, I did not go into that kind of detail (I probably went into too much detail as it is) but it helps when the material is freely available for you to draw on in case your players start to get curious about the rest of the story.

The mission to find the Elf serial killer in the dock wards, did not go at all how I had hoped it would. A combination of Faerie Fire and bad rolls on Soluun Xibrindas’ part led to the decision for him to run early on. And running in D&D is almost never a good move. Unless you drop into a contrived set of chase rules (which we will use later in the module) It’s nearly impossible for NPCs to run away from a fight. I messed up in not realizing that his Darkness spell would end the Faerie Fire until late in the chase. Then he rolled a terrible stealth trying to slip away after he finally did pop darkness. But all in all, I’m not too disappointed in the result. It sets up a fun dilemma where now that they’ve beaten someone unconscious, they have to ask themselves “How sure are we that he is actually guilty?”

I really do think that given that they shot first, it’s hard for them to be confident of his guilt and even harder to convince a magistrate of that. Obviously, the party disagrees with me! Also I do have to point out that this is pretty much how it’s supposed to play out in the module. They set up a decoy situation and wait for someone shady to show up and then fight them. The party didn’t do anything wrong according to the rules of D&D and the authors of the module. But I’m having some fun with the situation for now.

Hal’s attacks on Kyva and his terminator mode interpretation of the Hexblade subclass are character choices that probably wouldn’t fly at some other tables. I would encourage any DM starting up a game to expressly address what level of player versus player (PVP) the group is comfortable with in a session zero. Although we did not explicitly have a session zero for this game, this group has been playing together for a while and as you can see from our other games, we are comfortable with a rather extreme level of PVP. It’s not for everybody and be sure to have an out of game conversation with your players before allowing this level of PVP.

Needless to say, Hal will have some things to work through with the rest of the party in the coming sessions. But that’s just part of the fun and drama here at Black Project Gaming.

DM’s Notes: Episode 3 – Sparring

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 episode saw the party fulfilling a couple of faction missions from the module. The way these are written up in the book, they could be pretty straightforward. The mission to visit Hlam could just consist of making a Constitution saving throw to see if you get any points of exhaustion, then a quick dialogue with Hlam and a DC 12 Persuasion check to see if they convince him to give them the prophecy and accomplish the mission. But DMs are certainly within their bounds to do a little bit extra. In this case, I stretched the mission out quite a bit more with some silly riddles, nonsense from Hlam and some sparring practice with the old monk to “prove they are worthy”. I have to give credit to Adam Koebel for his portrayal of Hlam from which I borrow heavily, especially the riddle idea.

I have to say, I’ve run this challenge with 2 different groups and neither of them were particularly interested in fighting him. I find this a bit perplexing as I think most people were fans of the Earthbreaker Groon sparring matches from Critical Role. Perhaps I make him out to be a bit too silly, or maybe it is because he is clearly much more powerful than the group (although Groon was also the first time they challenged him). Perhaps toning these aspects of him down would make the party more eager to engage him.

However, one of the things that I love about Hlam is that he clearly demonstrates to the party that there are people in Waterdeep who can easily kick their butts and they can’t always predict who they might be. This puts them on notice that they aren’t expected to win every fight and they should be a little more cautious when dealing with NPCs.

The 1d4 of exhaustion that the players can get if they fail their Con check when hiking up Mount Waterdeep is really harsh! I especially feel bad for Dalia who rolled a 4! But at this point in the game it isn’t going to ruin anything and makes for fun roleplay. I definitely would consider toning it down to 1d2, though.

The mission to break up gang violence in the Field Ward was a fight that was balanced such that they could win. I figured that they would either engage in a 3 way fight with both gangs, or as you can tell, I did my best to at least get the group of Xanathar thugs to engage with them. But they role played well and made their skill checks. It’s a good thing they did, because that big guy was a Half Ogre and he would have wrecked the bar they were in if they didn’t find a way to lure the fight out into the street.

It’s not too surprising that nobody wanted to join the Zhentarim considering that Kyva is kind of a lone wolf and everybody else in the party are pretty good in nature (at least on the surface). But I think it was interesting to offer.

In addition to the advertisement for the Sea Maiden’s Faire, this new articel appeared in the Broadsheet that makes up the Home Page:

Mysterious Murders Menace Dock Ward

The Dock Ward has been beset by a series of mysterious murders in recent
weeks. The headless bodies of elven sailors have turned up with disturbing
regularity, at least 3 in the last 2 weeks!

But all of that is soon to come to an end as Captain Hyustus Staget is rumored to be forming a task force to track down this nefarious killer and bring them to justice.

In the meantime, tavern keepers in the Dock Ward are cautioning their pointy eared patrons not to go out alone. We should all do our part to help out our elven friends!

DM’s Notes: Resource – An Encounter with Urchins

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.

Jenks, Nat and Squiddly

You see three urchins at the entrance to an alley. They all appear between the ages of 9-11. There is a pale, taller human girl with a toy sword at her side, a short, tubby dark skinned human boy with a toy wand tucked into his belt and a bedraggled stuffed owlbear under his arm and a red skinned tiefling boy wearing a battered captain’s hat with a dirty once red plume sticking out of it and a leather eyepatch over his left eye.

As the days are growing shorter and the cold Autumn winds begin to blow you ask yourself, “Do they have any safe place to go?”

This is an encounter that I wrote up to be inserted at a time when the party was in Candle Alley looking for the sewer grates, but it could be used at almost any time your party is on the streets.

As you look around Candle Lane for a portal to the sewers, you see three urchins at the entrance to the lane from The Way of the Dragon. They all appear between the ages of 9-11. There is a pale, taller human girl with a toy sword at her side, a short, tubby dark skinned human boy with a toy wand tucked into his belt and a bedraggled stuffed owlbear under his arm and a red skinned tiefling boy wearing a battered captain’s hat with a dirty once red plume sticking out of it and a leather eyepatch over his left eye.

There are two crates piled on top of each other in front of the tiefling with three playing cards set face down upon them. He is talking quickly and loudly, calling out to the crowd as he picks up the cards and tosses them from one side of the box to the other. “Follow the lady. Around she goes. Where she stops. Nobody knows! One thin shard, that’s all it takes. Follow the Lady and you could win a small fortune. You there. Yes you, sir. Would you like to try your luck?”

People are walking past, ignoring the young tiefling, when the short boy steps up to the crates opposite him and calls out loudly. “I’ll try my luck good sir. What an entertaining and potentially profitable game you have there.” He puts a nib down on the crate and the Tiefling scoops it up deftly. 

“All right then. Here we go. Follow the lady.” The red boy flips each of the cards over in turn. You see a black Ace, another black Ace and the Lady. The he picks up the cards and begins throwing them from one side of the crate to the other almost juggling them. As he does he calls out. “Follow the lady. Around she goes. Where she stops. Nobody knows.” He stops. “Alright then, where’s the lady?” 

The boy takes out his wand (and by wand, I really mean stick. it looks like a stick he just found somewhere) he takes out his wand and points it at the middle card.

“And winner, winner chicken dinner! We’ve got a winner over here.” The tiefling turns over the Lady and pulls out two nibs and hands them to the boy who is beaming with pride. “You see folks, it’s an easy game. Anybody could win. You’ve just got to keep your eyes open.”

A few people from the crowd begin to notice. They stop and watch from about 5-10 feet away. Then he calls out to Halvlys. “How about you. Would you like to give it a try friend?”

While the characters are focused on the game, Jenks will try to pick their pockets. Anyone not focused on the game can make a perception check (or use passive perception) against his Sleight of Hand check (at advantage because Squiddly is aiding him by distracting the party members) to see what he’s doing.

The player makes a perception check to see if they follow the Lady. If they succeed on a DC 13 then they are able to successfully follow the card where the Lady should be, but it’s not actually there. If they fail then they can’t even follow where the Lady should be and they can guess.

The way the trick works is Squiddly scoops up the the Lady card and another in his hand and then when it looks like he is throwing the Lady card, he actually throws the other card instead. A perception check competing with Squiddly’s Sleight of hand check can reveal what he is doing. If you wish a visual explanation of what he’s doing, check out this you-tube video.

If any of them are discovered, Squiddly will scoop up the cards, push the boxes in the direction of the party and run.

If caught The urchins will bargain with the players. “You look new to the city,  you don’t know as much about these streets as we do. You tell us where you were headed and we’ll point you in the right direction.”

DM’s Notes: Episode 2 – Pipeweed

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.

We started off this episode with the fight against the Doll Monster that was introduced last session. As I said in the notes for episode 1, I searched for creepy doll images and found this one and I decided to build the “Boss Fight” for Trollskull Manor around it. Advice from me to you, I already Googled “Centipede Doll” so you don’t have to. Trust me on this one. There is not supposed to be a “Boss Fight” in this part according to the book, or any combat really. But I decided to add it because I was already running the exploration of Trollskull Manor according to The Trajectory of Fear outline and without a final conflict, there is no real “horror” element to complete the final pillar of the trajectory. So, I just added a new monster to complete the trajectory and add a moment of catharsis. You’ll notice that I added one last message from Lif as they left the manor to inject the feeling of unease once again which is just exactly what the Trajectory of Fear suggests you should do.

If anybody’s confused about where the doll monster came from, let me clarify. The doll monster is not in the book, but it is comprised of the souls of dozens of orphans left behind by a loathsome Hag who ran an orphanage out of Trollskull Manor before Lif owned it. This story is from the book as part of the description of Ulkoria Stonemarrow in the “Open for Business?” section. Now that the party has killed the doll monster, those children’s souls are released. Lif, however still remains as a spectre haunting the manor that will have to be dealt with.

Now, you may be wondering how I invented a new monster, gave it a bunch of attacks, defenses, etc. all in a way that I could be sure was balanced for my party. That’s easy! I simply reskinned a Black Dragon Wyrmling as a Doll Monster. It is CR 2 which makes it an easy to medium encounter for 5 level 2 characters. As a side note, if you have trouble balancing encounters for your party, I suggest you check out the excellent tool Kobold Fight Club. You’ll notice that the Black Dragon Wyrmling even has an acid based breath weapon which worked out perfectly for a gross baby doll monster. Reskinning is an excellent way for beginning DMs to add flavor and variety to their encounters without risking creating a homebrew that is completely overwhelming for your party.

Following their adventures with Trollskull Manor, the party headed off to Dalia’s Aunt’s Bakery with a short stop at a magic shop. I was caught a little bit flat footed by the request to visit a magic shop, so I rolled on a random table for it. Unfortunately between some mic problems and other distractions I wound up with a magic shop that only sold scrolls from Pathfinder. I didn’t realize this until I started reading items off the list for the party and encountered scrolls that I was pretty sure weren’t 5e. So, that part was a bit uneven. Hopefully I’ve learned from that and I have a nice link prepared for the next time they decide to duck into a magic item shop really quick. That link still defaults to a random shop, but you can change that to general magic items by selecting “Trader” from the drop down menu. My advice to anyone running this module is to have some good generators handy for generating treasure, magic items, shops, inns, taverns, NPCs and NPC names and just about anything else. Because your players will ask for them. But also, try and direct the party back to the shops on Trollskull Alley as much as possible. It builds a sense of community as they visit these shops multiple times rather than a different shop each time they want to buy something.

The Upper Crust bakery is a piece from Dalia’s backstory as well as an insertion from a PC of mine from another game. Ozzie, was a bard I played in a game a couple of years ago, Belladonna and Django Lightheart are his parents. When I found out that Dalia wanted to have two halfling moms as part of her backstory I made her related to Ozzie by having one of her adoptive moms, Yesla Alderleaf, be the youngest sister of Belladonna Lightheart (nee Alderleaf). Ozzie was originally related to the middle sister, Qelline Alderleaf because (you guessed it) Lost Mines of Phandelver. I’m not sure if that part ofDalia’s backstory will have any in game consequences, but Pip and Kip are likely to be able to pass on information about The Shard Shunners being halflings in a rival gang. Another big part of my motivation is that I don’t want everything from everybody’s backstory to be tragic and depressing. I hope that the party gets the feeling that Waterdeep is a rich and varied city where they have good friends and family and not just powerful enemies.

Taking inspiration from the Alexandrian Remix, I am incorporating the Cassalanters into Kyva’s backstory even though they are not necessarily the main villain. She wanted her character to be recently out of college dealing with crippling student loans (this may be a case of a player bringing aspects of their own life into their character design :-). So it seemed perfect to make the Cassalanters the ones who loaned her the money and to make good old boy, Willifort Crowelle her student loan collection officer. The Cassalanters are pursuing the Horde of Dragons just like the Xanathar, the Zhents and Jarlaxle. But I don’t plan to make them the main villain.

Speaking of tragic and depressing, we got some insight into Icky’s backstory. I’ll let the full story be a mystery for now, but suffice it to say that the creature after Icky (or rather after that thing in Icky’s head) is literally a nightmare come to life. So if they seemed creepy and over the top, then I’m glad because they were supposed to be.

The episode ends with the party receiving a quest from Vajra Safahr, the Blackstaff and leader of the Grey Hands. This is pretty straightforward out of the book. These factions missions do a lot to get the party out and let them explore the different parts of the city. I recommend doing your best to get your party to join 2 or 3 factions so that they can go on a few faction missions at each level.

The High Road Herald:

The High Road Herald for this episode features a new article for the “Sea Maiden’s Faire“.

The Sea Maiden’s Faire has been traveling up and down the Sword Coast, delivering quality entertainment to Ladies, Gentlemen and Children of all ages. Come and see the Faire, today.

The Faire is located on the beach in the Southeast most corner of the city. All manner of diverse entertainments await you at the Faire!

This year, the Faire parade will combine with the Day of Wonders parade from the priests of Gond. This parade will Feature exotic creatures, skilled acrobats and floats depicting the most amazing scenes in Faerun.

DM’s Notes: Episode 1 – The Haunted Manor

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.

The point of this session was to reveal Trollskull Manor to the party in a way that makes it feel like they are exploring someplace new. You could always just give the party the map of the place and let them look it over and start deciding who gets which room, but after watching DM Adam Koebel take his party through the manor in exploration mode on Roll20 Presents: Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, I really liked the way that it helped connect the party with the place by allowing them to discover it piece by piece. I augmented the mansion with many ideas from Adam’s stream.

I also used this writeup that was posted to the Reddit to help give more depth to the room descriptions. A lot of people have had the idea of incorporating the Manor’s past as a hag den and orphanage into its haunting, I’m sure that there are many other iterations of this idea that I haven’t linked to. I liked the idea that the souls of the orphans were still bound to the dolls and are waiting to take their revenge on any mortal who enters. Then while searching online for images for a final boss I found this which I just fell in love with. So I went back and placed the head and torsos of the dolls throughout the rooms.

The idea in this session was to use The Trajectory of Fear to create unease, dread, terror and horror in the party. I was only partially satisfied with the result. One of the problems with running a game as opposed to writing a novel or directing a show is that you have surprisingly little control over the pace of the narrative. Since the party were free to move from room to room, I sometimes had party members breezing through sections before I had a chance to describe the previous room. Descriptions of the terrible things they saw were interrupted as the party searched fireplaces and other things. One thing I definitely messed up is that I should have a had a table of random spooky things like a butcher’s knife stuck in the wall or the Mommy Dearest book. Every time they searched something I should have rolled on that table rather than just winging it and having them find random non-scary things.

I also think that in order to keep the party from wandering room to room ahead of the narrative, I should have revealed each room manually rather than using dynamic lighting. This could have given me more ability to control the narrative, unfolding the story at my own pace. However, there is a danger to trying to control the narrative too tightly. Your players can disengage. They came to play D&D not to listen to the DM tell ghost stories.

The High Road Herald articles for this session. I created a landing page to start the session with each week. In virtual table tops like Roll20 a landing page is a good idea for a lot of reasons. My landing page looks like the front page of a local broadsheet, The High Road Herald. I came up with the idea before I had read about The Waterdeep Wazoo or I would have used that instead. The landing page provides some basic information like the date and weather for the start of the session. It also provides articles that reflect on the party’s adventures or previews events to come. Despite the Day of Wonders being prominently featured for a few sessions, the party hasn’t showed any interest in attending the parade. You can lead your party to a parade, but you can’t make them stay and watch. The following are the articles on the landing page for this session.

Wererat Menace!

Rumors are coming to our attention of an uptick in assaults and vandalism attributed to a gang of halfling wererats in the North Ward. Several locations have been tagged with graffiti containing messages such as “Cheese Life” and “Shard Shunners”.

One shopkeeper who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation said, “It’s a shame really. One day they’re playing kick the pig on the corner and you turn around and they’re caught up in gangs and huffing Gouda.

Anyone with any information on the whereabouts of these miniature menaces should come forward to the City Watch.

The other article is basically the description of the Day of Wonders parade from the book. I won’t bother reproducing that since it is already available elsewhere.

Chapter 1 DM’s Notes

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.

The point of this podcast and the associated blog is to give other DMs and example of how to run the Waterdeep: Dragon Heist module. We played through Chapter 1 before we started recording sessions. So the podcast starts with Chapter 2 when the party explores Trollskull Manor. But I am still going to provide a write up with my thoughts on running chapter 1 and resources for DMs.

Chapter 1 is kind of railroady, but that’s OK. You are just starting out a new campaign and putting the adventure firmly on the rails helps to get the party together and off on an adventure rather than wandering around in the weeds. Not to mention that given the choice a lot of players are so timid about playing 1st level characters that they’d probably rather stay at the Yawning Portal and play it safe than get out into Waterdeep and explore.

I started out the adventure with the “dipping gone wrong ” scene I found on Reddit. It made for a funny moment when the fight was over and I just started an audio file with the faint sound of a ringing bell without mentioning it. It took a little while as the party was still excited about the fight with the Xanathar thugs but eventually they started questioning the bell and then it dawned them all at once what was going on .

The module seems to suggest that the entire 1st chapter can be run before the party takes a long rest. I definitely don’t recommend that. The party was nearly wiped out a couple of times. They spent all of their spells pretty much each day and that was allowing them 3 days to finish the mission. They are only 1st level after all. It’s OK to take it easy on them.

Along those lines, balancing the 1st chapter for a larger party is pretty easy. Most of the bad guys are present in the same number as the party in the module. There are 4 kenku in the hideout and 4 adventurers. So I just bumped the number of kenku up to 5 to match the number of people in the party and that worked out fine. Similarly I gave them each a stirge to fight against. I gave them an extra gazer to fight but it only shot 1 ray per round instead of 2. For the Xanathar’s Guild hideout, the only change I made was adding an extra Bandit to the encounter with Grum’shar. If the party is able to wipe out Grum’shar before he gets a chance to use his Burning Hands then that makes the encounter very easy. As it turns out the party was still able to get the jump on poor Grum’shar because they used a clever tactic to draw him back in to the room with them. So it worked out pretty well for them anyway.

A lot of people worry about the presence of Nihiloor the mind flayer and their Intellect Devourer pet in this adventure. As a DM you definitely should worry about this! But if you plan ahead for Nihiloor you can bring the encounter to a reasonable conclusion without a TPK. Keep in mind that Nihiloor’s sole motivation is to get out of there. They’re too important of a person to rub elbows with such riff raff. If somebody does come after them have them Control Person them and force them to act as a meat shield as they make their get away. Luckily for the party, they drew Grum’shar away from the room and Nihiloor just left without a fuss.

The Intellect Devourer is a monster famous for being deadly to adventurers much higher than 1st level. But in this context this is manageable. The Intellect Devourer can get in their Devour Intellect attack but it takes another full round to actually perform the Body Thief ability. If your players let the Intellect Devourer have that many attacks before they kill it, then they are doing something wrong. And you can always have the cute little brain puppy turn to other members of the party rather that trying to Body Thief the party member they’ve already incapacitated.

However, despite the distinct danger the Intellect Devourer poses to the party, I would keep it in this encounter for the roleplaying possibilities. The group had a blast as poor Drex followed Icky around like a puppy, reacted badly to simple encounters and chewed on the blocks that the wizard at the magic store supplied him to play with while he waited for Icky to copy the identify spell. In other games I’ve run, the parties have had a blast with this. I’d keep it in the module.

At the same time, I let the person who got their Intellect Devoured off of the hook pretty easily. If you don’t then there is little chance that they will be able to afford a Greater Restoration (what they need to restore their intelligence). This is a good chance for Volo to show that he still has friends in high places by pulling strings at the Hall of Justice to get them to cast the spell at cost (100 gp for components). Volo takes a pretty big hit to his reputation because he promises the party more than he can pay, so it’s nice to be able to show the party that he’s not a complete fool.

In the case of Drex, however, it made perfect sense to use this incident to introduce him to Daardendrien Cemruad the Cleric of the Platinum Cadre who will be giving him his faction missions. Basically, I just reskinned Savra Bellabranta as a Dragonborn and the Order of the Gauntlet missions as Platinum Cadre missions.

Some things that I did that are different from the way they run in the book: I went ahead and made Renaer Neverember and Floon Blagmar lovers. But there is a little side story that Renaer has been unable to be public about his affections for Floon because the nobles and especially Dagault Neverember are much more interested in forming political marriages than in their children’s happiness. This just gives us one more reason to hate Dagault which is fine by me. I introduced the urchins a lot earlier than they appear in the module because I like recurring characters and especially them. Here’s a more detailed write up of that encounter. They robbed the party blind, cheating Hal in a game of Follow the Lady, picking Dalia’s pocket and to add insult to injury, Icky liked them so much that he gave them a gold dragon. This was before they figured out that they had picked Dalia’s pocket. But even so, the party seems to have more affection than animosity for the Urchins, probably because they are fundamentally good people (sinister warlock patrons aside).

By the way, we are playing Fall but thus far that hasn’t had any repercussions for the game. But they have gotten some hints that The Sea Maiden’s Faire is in town, so some hints of the overarching villain will likely show up in chapter 2.