Dragon Heist Diary: Part Two
Running a D&D 5E game at first level can be a stressful experience, especially when the campaign you’ve picked up isn’t afraid to shake things up with a few deadly encounters.
After all, no matter how grand their backstories may be, oven-fresh heroes are fragile creatures and you really don’t need too much bad luck to head their way before you rip up the character sheet and start afresh. For some folks this is doubtlessly a positive – a chance to show people their characters are mere mortals before the levels start piling on – but after watching my players put so much enthusiasm into their creations I wasn’t keen on crushing them before they even got a Long Rest in.
As I scanned over the notes for the session, which would take in the second half of Dragon Heist’s first chapter, I began to feel particularly about the presence of an Intellect Devourer towards the finale. The monstrous brain-on-legs had a move that could plop a hero’s grey matter right out of their skulls that had me rather concerned.
Would I intentionally misplay or power-down the creatures, or would I trust in the campaign as it came?
Of course, when the session started the heroes had no idea that anything as monstrous as an Intellect Devourer awaited them. As far as they knew, they were hunting down Floon Blagmar – a drinking buddy of Volo who had gone missing the day before.
Their quest soon took them to the seedy side of town, where a nice bit of foreshadowing had them run into the Old Xobalob shop. When I first ran this section I didn’t know that this weird little curiosity shop wasn’t actually created for Dragon Heist, but actually had a long, beholder-filled history stretching back more than 100 years and a couple of editions.
The strange little business is recognisable for the stuffed beholder hanging in the window, the sight of which is the first clue that the party might soon find themselves tangling with Waterdeep’s very own eye-stalked crime lord, the Xanathar. Conveniently, the owner also had a few clues as to Floon’s whereabouts and happily pointed the heroes on their way (once they’d dropped a few coins on his rather weird wares, of course).
The directions ended up leading them to a dark and dirty warehouse by the docks, where they found a band of kenku thieves watching guard over a whole load of slaughtered Zhentarim, on the orders of the Xanathar Guild.
If that last sentence sounds a little confusing, just imagine how the players felt.
This conflict between the rival gangs of Waterdeep – the organised, public-facing crooks of the Zhentarim versus the underground thugs of the Xanathar Guild – is a major theme of Dragon Heist so it was vital to get established as soon as possible, but it’s fair to say it can be a little mystifying for those of us fresh to the City of Splendours.
Once we’d gotten the distinction between the two groups of black-clad bad guys sorted out, the group’s first real combat proceeded pretty swiftly and brutally, with our heroes emerging wholly victorious. Soon they found a pile of stolen silver, a few weapons and, hiding in a fish-soaked cupboard, a man who matched the description of Floon.
Cops & Robbers
It wasn’t Floon.
Rather, the man before the party was Ranaer Neverember, the son of one of Waterdeep’s former rulers. He was a friend of Floon’s and the two of them had been kidnapped at the same time. Unsure of which of the young blonde men was which, the Xanathar Guild thugs had accidently taken Floon to be interrogated at another secret location.
Again, this section of the adventure was an important piece of foreshadowing for later, as a chat with Ranaer provided the first hint of Dragon Heist’s main plot thread – a vault stuffed with stolen cash. The young noble had been targeted because the gangs though he knew its secrets, though in reality Ranaer remained entirely ignorant.
Regardless of all this, the discussion in the blood-soaked warehouse was soon drawn to a close by an interruption from the city watch. Rather than the names watch captain listed in the book, the party was greeted by Sargent Stoutkeg – the burly dwarf they’d conjured into existence during our first session.
Luckily Ranaer was able to talk the party out of trouble, a subtle demonstration of how much influence the nobility still holds in Waterdeep, while young Barric Strongarm, the party’s halfling fighter, showed his trustworthiness by handing over all the stolen goods they found in a warehouse.
Barric gained a point of inspiration for this, and proudly added the words ‘GOOD BOY’ to the top of his character sheet.
Flash forward a couple of hours. The party were somewhere beneath the city, sneaking about a Xanathar Guild hideout with Ranaer in tow. Their hit-points were shaky, but most of their once-per-short-rest abilities were up and Vigil, the party’s warlock-cum-healer had a couple of spell-slots left.
Through the doorway they could hear Floon being tortured, but weren’t sure of how many bad guys they were. As the yells reverberated through the stone corridors, they looked at one another and kicked the door in.
As battle started, I took one last look at the monster stats and decided that what the hell, they could probably handle this. And they did. But only just.
At the climac of the struggle the life of Barric, who’d so recently ascended to the ranks of GOOD BOY, lay in his ability to beat the Intellect Devourer, which is a walking brain, in an intelligence content. And while Barric may have been good, he wasn’t exactly the brightest sword in the sheath.
In the end he won by just one point.
Once the violence was over the party, now rather bruised and battered, returned to The Yawning Portal, where they met up with their erstwhile employer. It was around this point that Volo revealed that he might not actually have all the cash he had promised.
With the blood-soaked adventures glowering at him, the author quickly explained that he had something better than cash. Something that would ground them in the city and provide them a wealth of opportunities in the future.
And that’s the story of how this band of first-level adventurers acquired themselves a tavern.