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.