Review: Waterdeep: Dragon Heist

Friday last week was the early release date for Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, the latest Dungeons & Dragons hardcover adventure from Wizards of the Coast. (The official release is on September 18.) While previous 5th Edition D&D adventures have focused on the large-scale apocalyptic plots of dragons, giants and demons, Dragon Heist is much more small-scale and down-to-earth. Adventurers explore Waterdeep, the city of splendours, racing against underworld rivals to find a stash of 500 000 gold pieces. (In Waterdeep, gold coins are known as ‘dragons’.)

As well as being a much more localized adventure, Dragon Heist isn’t designed to be used a long campaign. Unlike previous 5th Edition hardcovers, Dragon Heist is only designed to progress player characters from first to fifth level. For this reason, I think Dragon Heist will serve well as a new introductory adventure – an alternative to Lost Mine of Phandelver or In Volo’s Wake. Those who are keen to continue on all the way to level twenty will be able to, with Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage dropping soon after, in November.

Because this adventure only spans levels one to five, WotC have been able to use the extra space to provide four different ways of running the adventure. Each version of the adventure is set in a different season and features different villains, so it has a lot of replay value.

I think this adventure also has a greater emphasis on roleplay and diplomacy than previous 5th Edition hardcovers – in fact, adventurers who try to fight their way through the adventure will probably find themselves in trouble with the law or being hunted down by one of the city’s underworld factions.

Early on in the adventure there is an opportunity for the party to begin running their own Waterdeep tavern, which I expect will be of interest to those players who enjoy the social side of D&D.

The five Sword Coast factions (as well as some local groups like Force Grey) are well integrated into the adventure. There are a lot of ways for adventurers pursue renown within their faction, and there are lots of opportunities for faction members to call in favors from their faction, particularly toward the end of the adventure.

I’m not planning to run this adventure as it is written straight away, but my Thursday night D&D group is currently not far from Waterdeep, and I’m looking forward to using some of the content from this book if they end up in the city of splendors. There’s one chapter where Volo gives an overview of each area of the city, and the adventure proper gives a lot of detail about the lairs of a number of Waterdeep operatives that adventurers could cross paths with. The bestiary provides stats for a lot of powerful non-player characters, presented like the superheroes and criminal masterminds of a renaissance city.


We’re playing through Waterdeep: Dragon Heist on our Twitch stream this season from 5pm Mondays US Eastern Standard Time. You can watch session zero here.

You can preorder a copy of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist via Amazon here.

Call to Adventure: “Betrayal at Death House”

An Adventure Hook Written By: Dice Prophet

Introduction

Can your players survive a night trapped within a haunted mansion? Will they check out in the morning or will they extend their stay indefinitely? Test their fledgling ghost-busting skills in this macabre mystery for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition!

This unpredictable dungeon crawl is intended for a party of four to five 3rd level adventurers and can serve as an alternative to the introductory “Appendix B: Death House” mission from the “Curse of Strahd” (page 211 or this link) official campaign. It can also be adapted to any horror-themed setting.

Setup

The main premise of this haunted house is that the layout is created as the party explores it. In order to implement the map auto-generation mechanic you will need map tiles from a board game called “Betrayal at House on the Hill.” To keep things simple, you will only need the following sets (see image below):

  1. Starting Area → contains the Entrance Hall, Foyer, and Grand Staircase
  2. Upper Landing
  3. Stack of universal tiles (can be a Basement, Ground, or Upper tile)
  4. Basement Landing
  5. Stack of Upper tiles
  6. Stack of Ground tiles
  7. Stack of Basement tiles

All the PCs begin at the Entrance Hall in the Starting Area (example of a four-person party shown below).

Development

Whenever a character explores a new room (i.e. they pass through a door for the first time), draw the first tile from the appropriate stack and place it in a way that connects adjacent passageways. Sometimes a door will lead into a wall, but that’s okay. It’s a haunted house; it doesn’t need to make 100% sense. To handle movement and exploration, treat each room as a 15ft x 15ft chamber (see diagram below), and any additional terrain modifications (low/high ceiling, difficult terrain, obstacles, etc.) are at the Dungeon Master’s discretion.


After a few turns the game board could look something like this (consult the configuration example below).

  1. The elf rogue stayed on the ground level and found the Dining Room. Judging by the putrid scent and gore stains on the tablecloths, she discerns that something horrific happened here.
  2. The human fighter hit a dead end at the Graveyard and plans to regroup with the rogue.
  3. The gnome druid rummaged the upstairs area and found the Mystic Elevator! Now she can travel to and from any room using its teleporting abilities!
  4. After accidentally falling down a Coal Chute and into the basement, the halfling wizard found a room strewn with junk. Maybe he can find something useful in this mess.

 

Special Events

Some of these rooms have special text on them that can be either incorporated into gameplay or ignored entirely at the Dungeon Master’s behest. For example, if a player draws a tile with the words “You can attempt a Speed Roll of 3+ to cross. If you fall, stop moving.” consider forcing the player character to roll an Athletics (Strength) Check DC 20 or take fall damage.

Another set of special events are: Items, Events, and Haunts. These are denoted by a Ram Skull, Spiral, and Raven icon respectively (see example set below) in the bottom right-hand corner. The general rule for resolving these special situations are thus:

  • ITEM (Ram Skull)
    • The first player to enter this room finds a special item that is relevant to the plot.
    • This can be a powerful magic weapon, plot-critical MacGuffin, or something that explains more of the background and histories of the paranormal event.
    • For example, in an alternative Death House scenario, an Item room may contain the cultists robes, along with the letter from Strahd voicing his displeasure with their activities.
  • EVENT (Spiral)
    • These are random occurrences and challenges that allow for a sense of spontaneity and unpredictability.
    • These can include random combat encounters with undead, conversations with angry spirits, sudden environmental dangers, or horrific visions.
    • For example, in an altered Death House scenario, an Event can bring the party into contact with the midwife’s specter, whose soul was unable to find rest after she was stabbed to death.
  • HAUNT (Raven)
    • Use this moment to progress the plot. These are the story beats that represent an escalation of tension and urgency. Each one makes the situation more intense and dire.
    • For example, in a modified Death House scenario, each Haunt triggers an encounter with the remnants of the cultists, and reveals more of the mansion’s bloody past. After an arbitrary amount of Haunts (DM’s decision) occur, allow the party in finally meet Rose and Thorn’s spirits.

Call to Adventure: “The Bookkeepers”

An Adventure Hook Written By: Dice Prophet

Type: Mystery, Investigation

System: D&D 5th Edition or Pathfinder

Ideal Party Size: 4-5

Recommended Levels: 1-2

Introduction

This adventure begins as a macabre paranormal investigation of a purportedly haunted library. Upon closer examination, the player characters learn that this phenomenon is merely the machinations of a mischievous pair of faerie dragons who have become trapped in the prime material plane. True to their nature, they have taken to terrorizing the locals with trickery as they attempt to find their way back home.

Read the following flavor text to the PCs at the beginning of the quest:

“Rumors have circulated that Arnost Library is under siege by angry spirits. A week ago, a sudden flash of green light from the East Wing heralded a series of ghastly sightings! Ever since then, the building has been plagued by the restless undead.

Locals reported seeing a chain-bound specter with empty black eyes roaming among the shelves. The Head Librarian claimed that the books are constantly rearranging themselves and floating in midair. A guttural incorporeal voice constantly demands tribute with an insatiable zeal. And just yesterday, a precision of trained and armed city watch members ran screaming from the building after just an hour of investigation; they have inconsolable ever since. For public safety, the library is now under quarantine.

We beseech the aid of brave adventurers to help cleanse this blight from our beloved town! We offer 400 gold pieces and access to the library’s restricted texts for anyone who succeeds in this task!”

Setup

The adventure revolves around a faerie dragon duo with the names Aya and Waska. For their 5th Edition stats, consult page 133 of the Monster’s Manual. If you’re running Pathfinder, the monster details are located at page 91 of Bestiary 3 or at this link. These creatures are the size of cats (tiny) and sprout translucent, butterfly-like wings in lieu of the bat-like structures of “true” dragons.

Aya’s body is covered with shimmering interlocked blue scales, indicating that she is 31-40 years of age, and can cast spells up to Major Image (D&D/Pathfinder) to assist in her façade. Her younger brother Waska is armored in glistening emerald plates and has lesser combat and spellcasting ability.

Development

Tactics

The dragon siblings to not wish to kill anybody, but they will harm anyone they deem to be a threat. They will only resort to direct attacks when cornered. Otherwise, they prefer to drop objects from the environment onto their enemies, ranging from small knick-knacks to entire bookshelves, depending on the situation.

Investigation

Aya and Waska are using combinations of their invisibility, illusions, spells, deceptions, and environmental assets to create the appearance of a haunting. Below are some examples of checks that the players can attempt to discern the true nature of their enemy.

Arcana (Intelligence) DC 10 or any spell/ability that detects undead – There are no signs of undead activity or traces of necrotic energy on the premises.

Arcana (Intelligence) or Knowledge: Planes DC 16 – You can sense the remnants of planar magic in the vicinity. The “green flash” reported by the townsfolk may have been an side-effect of a portal spell.

Perception (Wisdom) DC 20 – The dragons let out a stifled giggle whenever they successfully pull off an amusing prank. This snicker can be detected by a keen ear in the aftermath of such an event.

Investigation vs. Deception or Knowledge: Local vs. Bluff – Many of these ghostly sightings are oddly familiar. You realize that they are ripped straight from local books and tales from this specific building.

Nature or Knowledge: Nature DC 10 – There has been a disembodied voice demanding “tribute” from the townsfolk. It has rejected everything from trinkets to jewels, but finally accepted offerings of food. In particular, the presence favors baked goods and sweets more than anything else.

Survival (Wisdom) DC 14 – You locate tiny tracks running along the bookshelves. They are composed on three clawed fingers and an opposable thumb. DC 20 – You find some loose powder clinging to some of the books. Upon closer inspection it shimmers like a prism when scattered.

Conclusion

Once the true nature of the “haunting” is revealed, Aya and Waska will make their presence known. They mean no harm, but they have no reason to trust anyone due to their unfamiliarity with their surroundings. Aya has been fastidiously studying books on magic in order to conjure up a portal to take them both back home. They were banished from their homelands for being too mischievous, and clearly haven’t learned their lesson at all. From here, the players can decide their fate. Do they exterminate them? Take them in as familiars? Or join them in their quest to return to the Feywild?

Call to Adventure: “Remnants”

An Adventure Hook Written By: Dice Prophet

System: D&D 5th Edition or Pathfinder

Ideal Party Size: 4-5

Recommended Level: 1

Concept

Most adventurers choose to take up a life of travel, survival, and discovery. In this situation, the PCs were given no choice, and thrust into a life of violence at the behest of their rulers. The party is brought together by happenstance during a frantic retreat and must band together to survive.

Introduction

Read the following flavor text to the PCs at the beginning of the scenario:

“You’ve been conscripted as a lowly foot-soldier for a war you barely understood. Your primary goal ever since you were whisked away from your peaceful former life is to survive. A few weeks of rigorous training passed like a blur as you became acquainted with your own battlefield abilities. And on your first day of true combat, you find yourself standing on the front lines and staring down the enigmatic enemy.

As instructed, you marched forward with weapons barred and clashed with your foe head-on. But no amount of training could have prepared you for the outcome. Within minutes, your commander is slain and the army around you is routed. You hear distant trumpets heralding retreat, and you flee as fast as possible away from the advancing enemy line. The battlefield is littered with the corpses of your allies, slowing your pace, but you trudge on, trampling over the dead.

You hear a violent crackling as a massive arc of white lighting streaks into a cluster of your fellow soldiers. A split-second later, a thunderous clap bellows out and a rain of blood-soaked earth coats your tattered uniform. The enemy continues its relentless assault upon the retreating army as the sounds of powerful evocation spells are punctuated by the screams of your fallen allies. After what felt like hours of hard sprinting, you arrive at the treeline that surrounded the open field. The forest is your best chance at evading your pursuers.”

Setup

The scenario begins with the party brought together as they are fleeing through the forest. Introductions are to be kept short, as all the party members are already on the same side, so their interests should align for the most part.

The following encounters can be used to represent the hazards they encounter during their escape attempt. This list includes wildlife as well as the enemy troops actively hunting down stragglers. If played intelligently, they can also cause the enemy to come into conflict with the local wildlife.

  • Wildlife (these can be modified to fit any natural setting)
    • Boar (MM pg. 319)
    • Brown Bear (MM. 319)
    • Swarm of Insects (MM pg. 338)
    • Wolf (MM pg. 341)
  • Enemy Troops (mix and match to form groups)
    • [OPTIONAL MOUNTS] Warhorse (MM pg. 340)
    • Scout (MM pg. 349)
    • Thug (MM pg. 350)

The party members can also attempt the following checks to improve their odds of escaping direct conflict. If they fail, they trigger a combat encounter. For each success they advance to a new location and are one step closer to escaping entirely.

  • Survival (Wisdom) vs. Investigation (Intelligence) to cover up their tracks
  • Stealth (Dexterity) vs. Perception (Wisdom) to slip past patrols unnoticed
  • Survival (Wisdom) to maintain their bearings as they travel
  • Nature (Intelligence) to identify helpful plants, animals, and objects in their environment
  • Opposed Athletics (Strength) checks to march faster than their hunters

The party can also encounter powerful allies that will assist them in their attempts to survive. These are higher-ranking officers and will act accordingly. They may also be previously injured from the aforementioned battle and subsequent retreat.

  • Knight (MM pg. 347)
  • Veteran (MM pg. 350)

Development

As the party trudges through the forest, they are constantly being pursued by the enemy until they are captured or successfully escape. The retreat can take several days, depending on the outcomes of previously mentioned checks and encounters. Allow the scenario to unfold organically, and then bring it to a conclusion through the following options.

Surrender or Capture

If the party members willingly surrender or are defeated in combat, they are stabilized by their captors and brought to the enemy encampment in chains. From there, they have an opportunity to escape captivity, as well as learn more about their foes. Are the enemy as bloodthirsty and irredeemable as your superiors claimed? Why are the two sides even in conflict? This perilous situation is an excellent opportunity to unravel the mystery of the warring clans, and test where the PCs allegiances truly lie.

Regroup

The players may successfully regroup with a sizable portion of the fleeing army. In that case, they are promoted to higher ranks and given more freedom among the army for their efforts. The plot can progress accordingly as the war rages on.

Escape

If the PCs are alone and successfully escape, they will be presumed killed in action. If they were accompanied by an NPC, consult the next section regarding “Desertion.” In the former case, since they were essentially nameless foot soldiers, they will be quickly forgotten. From then on, they can pursue whatever newfound ambitions they acquire. Will they become bandit lords? Will they simply retire as farmers? Or will they take the first ship off the continent? Whatever happens next is entirely up to the players.

Desertion

Alternatively, the players can choose to desert. They were thrust into this war against their will anyways, so who can blame them? However, this may yield further consequences. If the players are accompanied by a Veteran or a Knight, they will have to convince their superior officer to desert as well. This can range from easy to impossible based on the specific NPC’s characteristics, which are at the DM’s discretion. Worse case scenario, they will have to either defeat or evade their temporary ally and will be branded as deserters and wanted fugitives by their own people.

Call to Adventure: “The Descent”

An Adventure Hook Written By: Dice Prophet

Type: Horror and suspense

System: D&D 5th Edition (requires Ravenloft setting)

Ideal Party Size: 4-6

Recommended Levels: 1

Concept

So you want to run the campaign: “Curse of Strahd?” But what if all of the player characters are from different locations on the world map and have little to no relation to one another? Here are some ideas on how to quickly get your PCs together and traveling within the Demiplane of Dread in a more cinematic way!

The following is an alteration and elaboration of the “Creeping Fog” section (CoS pg. 22) of the adventure book, and was inspired by countless horror games. The goal is to invoke a dreamlike atmosphere, establish a bleak and oppressive tone, and have the characters constantly questioning their own sanity and perceptions.

Spooky and somber background music is entirely optional, but highly recommended!

Introduction

At the very beginning, you have a number of PCs spread across a wide campaign world. The original adventure describes how the Barovian fog mysteriously whisks the characters away while you are out camping in the wilderness, but this can be easily adapted and tailored to a wide variety of unique settings for the individual PCs, allowing a more personalized introduction.

Setup

Refer to the “Mists of Ravenloft” (CoS pg. 23) for more information on the negative effects of traversing the fog. Hint at the adverse nature of the mist in order to dissuade the players from straying off the path. Once the players are introduced to one another, the fog becomes less of an active nuisance, but remains in place to serve as a barrier at the edges of the starting area, whichever that may be.

Development

The following are examples of how you can transport a character into Ravenloft in the middle of their typical day. The goal is to trick them into following the plot railroad, and then bring in the mist to seal off their escape. Keep this segment short and simple; you don’t want to spend too much time on a single player.

Urban Setting

If a player character starts off in an urban setting, give them someone to chase. Draw their focus away from the environment and upon a singular point by enticing their avarice, lust, or other base urges. Alternatively, flip the script around and create a scenario in which the PC is the object of pursuit. Perhaps they are wanted for a crime or attempting to flee a relationship that went sour. Below are some sample hooks.

  • The telltale jingle of coins from a wealthy merchant’s purse entices the character to tail them.
  • An attractive maid or coxswain catches the character’s eye with a reciprocated come-hither stare.
  • Provoke their wrath by having a nameless NPC steal something from them and run off.

Allow the scenario to unfold with a series of appropriate checks before ripping them from their familiar world. This incident incident can range from gradual and cryptic to sudden and traumatic. Here are some examples.

  • If they successfully woo the object of their affection, simply relocate them during their satisfied slumber.
  • After they lose track of their quarry or successfully shake off their tail, they notice the fog creeping in and obscuring their surroundings. Their attempts to reorient themselves are fruitless as the surrounding buildings appear to drift away with each passing second. This baffling phenomenon continues until they hear the sounds of their boots crunching upon a gravel road that they don’t recognize.
  • If they manage to catch their targets, immediately turn the tables and trust them into an overwhelming encounter with strange creatures. As a blade fatally slips into their heart and the warmth leaves their bodies, they suddenly awaken in a new location, clutching at a non-existent wound.
  • They player stumbles onto the main street, gasping for air. They turn backwards to confirm whether they are still being followed. But before they can react, they are suddenly face-to-face with a speeding horse-drawn cart that collides straight into them, enveloping their sight in utter darkness. They jolt back to consciousness with an involuntary scream, surrounded by an unending wilderness.

Rural or Natural Setting

Similar to the aforementioned setups, allow the PC to wander and interact with their environments. Use a simple diversion to misdirect them as the fog creeps in and warps the setting. For instance:

  • While mining for ore from a nearby mountain, the fog suddenly cascades over the hills and envelops the character in its ethereal embrace. They attempt to flee but become hopelessly lost. Eventually they set foot upon a path that they had never traversed before.
  • After successfully tracking down and slaying some wild game, they begin carving up the body. After several minutes of concerted effort, they realize that the sky has grown darker and a foreboding haze has begun creeping up all around them.
  • A loved one wanders out at night and beckons them to follow. They attempt to catch this particular important person, but are then swept up by the mischievous mist.

The Sea

On the off-chance that a character began their journey at sea, getting them into Ravenloft is very simple. Devise a means or throwing them overboard. As they fight the currents and struggle to catch their breath, they violently breach the water’s surface and find themselves transported to the otherworld. Beyond the shore of the  barely-waist deep puddle they are now lying inside is the same gravel pathway.

Bringing The Pieces Together

After each of the mini-scenarios are concluded, read the following flavor text to the players.

“Your feet crunch against loose rocks as you follow the gravel path, taking great care avoid the boundaries of the obscuring mist. The milky white cloud erects a three sided wall to both sides and your back, funneling you along this lonely road. As you cautiously traverse the unfamiliar environment you observe that the miasma expands and contracts rhythmical, as if alive and breathing. Eventually, your ears catch the coarse grinding of multiple footsteps gradually growing out of sync with your own. And within the nearly impenetrable barrier you spot the outlines of other humanoid figures.”

At this point, all the players are made aware of each other, and have been brought together by a cruel destiny. This trail leads directly onto the Old Svalich Road (“Areas of Barovia” Section A, CoS pg. 33). But where they go from here is entirely up to them.

Call to Adventure: “Brand of the Scorpion”

An Adventure Hook Written By: Dice Prophet

Type: Bug Hunt, Dungeon Crawl

System: Pathfinder or D&D 5th Edition

Ideal Party Size: 4-5

Recommended Levels: 2-3

Concept

This dungeon crawl tasks a group of rookie adventurers with clearing out a scorpion-infested den that secretly houses the remnants of a malicious cult! If the players survive, they will find glorious treasure as well as the seeds for more quests!

This adventure assumes that the campaign world is advanced enough to allow for the usage and distribution of black powder (or its alchemical equivalent) and simple firearms such as flintlocks.

Introduction

Read the following flavor text to the PCs at the beginning of the quest:

There has been a recent infestation of large scorpions plaguing the area. Travelers have been found dead from the poison stings and partially devoured. The source of the abrupt arthropod scourge was traced back to to a den located at the base of the mountains. Peculiarly, the cavern entrance appeared to be carved by unknown stonemasons, and bears the mark of a golden pincer.

Setup

The vermin-infested cavern is actually a two-level subterranean dungeon that once housed an evil tribe of scorpionfolk. These abominable half-scorpion, half-humanoid hybrids were religious fanatics of a lesser dark deity simply known as “The Scorpion Queen”, whose unholy symbol was the golden pincer mentioned before. Most of the cultists have perished and the rest fled long ago.

The clan once raided the area, capturing slaves and taking them back to perform their nefarious rituals. These included sacrifice to their pets and gods, as well as forced labour in excavating the Scorpion Queen’s shattered and buried temples. But eventually, the slaves revolted and blasted their way to freedom. All survivors vanished into the surrounding wilderness, eventually forming their own elusive societies.

Structurally, the scorpionfolk dungeon contains a worshipping chamber, quarters for the occupying cultists, a pit for housing captured slaves, a vault housing additional weapons, provisions, and treasure, as a path towards an unfinished excavation site for the Scorpion Queen’s temple.

Development

[OPTIONAL] Supply Run

Before they begin the quest, there is an option to purchase antivenom from nearby vendors, but they will drastically overcharge them. Any savvy characters proficient in poisons, herbalism, or alchemy should be allowed to craft antivenom out of samples harvested from the scorpions they slay.

The cavern is also entirely dark inside, so any characters that do not possess darkvision will need to acquire some means of creating light or they will be left fumbling in the void.

The Brood

The dungeon is occupied by six to eight medium-sized scorpions (Bestiary 2 pg. 240 or this link). Initially, they are scattered and wandering in different chambers; they are not outwardly hostile unless provoked or enticed by the promise of a decent meal. Multiple creatures can also be drawn to a location by loud noises.

The slaves were kept in locked chamber on the second level whenever they are not being tormented by their captors. This locked door was blasted apart during the revolt with smuggled black powder, which triggered a partial cavern collapse. The cramped corridors of this pit houses a mated pair of giant scorpions (Bestiary 1 pg. 242, this link, or MM pg. 327). These creatures are the source of the infestation. If left alive, they will easily repopulate the region with another vicious brood. The female scorpion has an outer shell striped with solid golden plates. This has no mechanical effect on the creature’s health, defenses, and damage output, but hints at the creatures otherworldly origin.

If the players are having a difficult time with the dungeon and you wish to be merciful, consider eliminating one of the giant creatures with the justification: “after a particularly intense mating session, the larger and more powerful female scorpion wanted a meal.”

Treasure

There are several corpses of slavers and escapees strewn about the den. Most of them do not possess anything of value. A keen inspection (Perception/Investigation DC 18) will yield a necklace from a slain manscorpion. It looks like a gilded pincer, similar to the symbol at the entrance, suspended by a golden chain. This is an unholy relic that can be used to tap into dark powers if the PCs are brave enough to invoke its magic. A thorough search (Perception/Investigation DC 20) will discover a broken dragon pistol wielded by a slave that didn’t survive the rebellion. This item must be repaired before it can function again.

Looting the vault, which requires clearing away (Strength DC 18) or squeezing through (Acrobatics DC 16) a partial ceiling collapse, yields a chest containing 500 gold pieces worth of jewelry, trinkets, and knick-knacks amassed from the slaves when they were stripped of their belongings. There are also additional slavers equipment such as bolas, snares, nets, whips, chains, and manacles.

The harvested exoskeleton from the mother scorpion will fetch a large sum of money and can also be used to craft specialized armor and weapons.

Conclusion

Beyond the dungeon, the adventurers can find the ruins of the Scorpion Queen’s temple. The rock had been initially blasted away to unearth the structure and gradually picked away with more finesse as the rubble cleared. The excavation was abandoned ever since the slaves escaped, for obvious reasons. But if the PCs are interested, they can dig deeper and further uncover the secrets of the golden pincer.

Call to Adventure: “The Sands of Time”

An Adventure Hook Written By: Dice Prophet

Type: Dungeon Crawl

System: Pathfinder or D&D 5th Edition

Ideal Party Size: 4-5

Recommended Levels: 1-2

Concept

This is a simple yet fairly difficult dungeon crawl for fledgling adventurers. It is meant to plant the seed for an epic treasure hunt, as well as provide the players with magical loot and treasure! This scenario takes place in a desert setting, and involves the party traveling underground to explore a mysterious sinkhole that turns out to be an hourglass-shaped dungeon guarded by the undead!

The dungeon is designed to teach the players the basic mechanics of play such as overland travel, resource management, exploration, solving puzzles, and combat!

Introduction

Read the following flavor text to the PCs at the beginning of the quest:

Life in the desert has always been a struggle. Whether it’s the constant heat of a scorching sun or the intermittent threat of attack from hostile bandits, settlers of the sands are as tough as they come. You are no different, and seek to carve out your fortune and fame amidst the endless salt of the wasteland. One day, an opportunity to test your mettle presents itself.

Sinkholes have been spontaneously appearing along the desert trade routes and swallowing up large portions of caravans. Dozens have been injured or killed and countless goods have been lost under the sands of the desert. Several days would pass before these sinkholes mysteriously disappeared, only to reappear again in another catastrophic event.

The merchant group known as the Gilded Sparrow has put out a sizable reward for whomever is brave enough to investigate this destructive phenomenon and prevent it from recurring. The most recent incident took place the day prior, and is located approximately twenty miles away.

Setup

Development

Getting There [OPTIONAL]

The PC’s journey to reach the dungeon can be an opportunity to teach them the basics of overland travel as well as resource management and environmental hazards. This is a good time to introduce them the tiers of travel speeds as well as testing them with appropriate Survival (Wisdom), Perception (Wisdom), and Knowledge (Intelligence) checks. Since they are in the desert, the party may encounter obstacles such as intense heat and quicksand. Try not to do anything too serious, and deplete resources such as food and water if they fail. If damage is inevitable, err on the side of caution and deal nonlethal damage (if applicable) instead.

Alternatively, the PCs can simply arrive at the entrance of the dungeon.

The Sinkhole

After following the primary trade road, the PCs will discover the sinkhole. This area is situated between two large cliffs and is strewn with debris from the incident. All loot has already been picked clean by scavengers.

The entrance is circular and roughly 20 feet across, and hole drops down 50 feet into a diamond-shaped 40 feet by 40 feet chamber [B1 MAP, Area 3].

If the players succeed a Perception (Wisdom) vs. Stealth, they can notice that there is something moving along the sand at the bottom. At this distance they are unable to ascertain the exact nature of the beast. The creature is actually a small earth elemental (Pathfinder Bestiary pg. 122) with a body composed entirely of finely ground sand instead of dirt.

If the PCs possess enough rope, they can safely descent to Area 3 with a successful Climb/Athletics (Strength) DC 15, but the sand elemental will not wait for them to safely land before it starts attacking them.

Area 1: Alternative Entrance

If the PCs search for an hour, they can find an alternative entrance to the dungeon [B1 MAP, Area 1]. This path takes them downward at a more gradual decline, so they don’t need to risk taking falling damage. The area is low-light at the cavern entrance and becomes total darkness at the far end. There is a flowing pool of safe-to-drink freshwater 30 feet deep that flanks the sides of a natural bridge. A darkmantle (Pathfinder Bestiary pg. 55 or D&D MM pg. 46) awaits on the ceiling disguised as a stalactite and will drop down upon the first person that crosses the bridge.

If the PCs are brave enough to swim underneath, they can find a secret passageway that leads straight to the final chamber [B2 MAP, Area 4] with a successful Perception (Wisdom) DC 25. To traverse the hidden path, a PC must perform a tight squeeze with an Acrobatics (Dexterity) DC 15. Failure will result in getting stuck and potentially drowning.

There are two paths to take from the alternative entrance. Going north takes the PCs to the sand pit with the sand elemental [B1 MAP, Area 3], and the east path takes the PCs through a puzzle [B1 MAP, Area 2].

Area 2: Hall of Mirrors

This path presents a simple puzzle for the PCs to fix that involves bouncing around a beam of light. Below is the diagram of the map in its starting configuration. There is a scarab-shaped jewel embedded into the post of the entrance and it generates the light beam. On the floor there is a riddle: “Walk the path of light and thou shall never fear death.” Because of the beam, treat this area as if it was well-lit.

This area is trapped; if a living creature strays out of the light beam, the five skeletons (Pathfinder Bestiary pg. 250 or D&D MM pg. 272) in the following room will become active, and slay anything they find. Otherwise, the skeletons remain inert, unless physically provoked. The skeletons are wearing golden scarab pendants, signifying their connection to the puzzle. Stealing this artifact requires a Sleight of Hand (Dexterity) DC 15 without awakening all the skeletal guardians.

The obvious solution is to walk within the path of the light beam, but the third mirror from the origin is broken! An unknown scuffle had taken place and knocked the mirror out of alignment, terminating the light prematurely. It will require a Strength DC 15 to successfully move the heavy object. After the first failure, a follow-up Dexterity DC 12 is required to handle the antique mirror with finesse. Failure to do so will cause it to break altogether.

If the PCs possess any mirror-like objects, they can craft a makeshift reflector with successful crafting checks at the DM’s discretion.

Below shows the main solution to this rudimentary puzzle. But if the players think outside the box and come up with inventive alternative solutions (generate their own light with spells, remove the scarab jewel and carry it, etc.), they should be considered and decided upon at DM’s discretion.

Area 3: The Sand Pit

This area is mostly low-light except for the pillar of light produced by the hole in the ceiling. It is also ferociously guarded by a sand elemental that will attack any creatures at enter. It uses the sand on the ground to hide itself as it uses hit-and-run tactics.

At the center of the pit, there is another hole 10 feet across that drops 30 feet into the final chamber [B2 MAP, Area 4]. The hole is partially obscured by sand build-up.

Area 4: The Throne Room

The final chamber is guarded by a skeletal champion (Pathfinder Bestiary pg. 252) sitting atop its throne. It will immediately engage with intruders and try to kill them.

Since this area is the lowest part of the hourglass structure, it is entirely dark. There is also a large pile of finely-ground sand 20 feet across and 10 feet at its deepest. The sand pile is treated as difficult terrain. At the south side of the final chamber there is a pool of water that connects to the entrance.

Conclusion

If the players survive the difficult encounter with the skeletal champion, they acquire an ornate (cursed) crown, a masterwork longsword, a full set of ancient metal armor, and several miscellaneous jewels. The highly-decorated nature of the final boss implies a royal lineage of some sort.

Inspecting the throne will reveal that the structure belongs to “King Valcyan.” A successfully History (Intelligence) DC 20 reveals that King Valcyan once reigned over the vast kingdom of Ako-Jorak thousands of years ago. However, the kingdom had so greatly offended the gods that it was swallowed up by the sands. This teleporting hourglass structure has some function in raising the lost civilization. The details are sparse, but the method is apparent; the hourglass appears and swallows up material, and whatever gets trapped within is destroyed into a fine powder that collects in the final area.

But before the PCs can ponder any further, the structure begins to crumble, as the magic has been interrupted by the slaying of the King. The PCs must escape before the collapsing dungeon traps them underground forever. After the dust settles, there is no trace of the underground structure, the sinkhole, or the side entrance; it was like as if they were never there.

If the PCs wish to uncover the secrets of the ancient kingdom, they must seek out the hourglass once more.

PC: Leoris Bog’ Leon

Name: Leoris Bog’ Leon
Player: Spartans282
Details: Wood-Elf Male 200 yr old Druid
Appearance/Equipment:
Leoris is a 6’0″ Wood elf with light tan skin. His hair is a Dark Pitch black. His eyes are a shinning Silver with a gleam. A Phoenix Feather in his left Ear attached to his hair.He has DarkBlack Leather armor with Black feathers on the shoulder pads. His dark green cloak drapes around his neck covering down to his knees almost like a poncho. he carries a wooden shield and a Scimitar with a hilt of Green Vines wrapped around to a Dark Oak wooden sharp blade.
Background: 
Leoris is actually created from a Tavern PC after learning of that PC’s Secret.
Magic Items
2 Trinkets: He carries a piece of a Crystal around his neck that shines in the moon light. Also has a Bright Red Shelled Egg
Companion:
Ferret named Bleh.

Love without Eroticism

Love is a great way to get your players that much more invested in their game’s setting. Lovers, spouses, and children can all make your PCs suddenly and intensely invested in the well-being of a particular town/city/region. Depending on your group’s dynamic, however, utilizing love as a narrative tool can get tricky.

Too often in rpgs, love and sex appear either in far too much detail or they simply don’t appear at all. In just about all cases, both of these two extremes will detract from the overall game experience. On the one hand, it would be blatantly dishonest to ignore something in a role-playing game that we spend so much time thinking about or pursuing in our own everyday lives. Giving your players too much time at the table to talk through and represent this important yet extremely personal element of their character, however, risks ignoring or side-barring the other players in the group – to say nothing of player comfort levels, play-styles, or ages.

So, love (in all its various forms) should be treated with care in tabletops. Here are some ways to allow your players to acknowledge their character’s romantic sides with minimal waiting or discomfort for others!

Pre-Established Relationships
When they’re designing their characters, ask your players about family members as well as past or present love interests. This will allow you as the GM to involve/incorporate established character loves (familial or romantic) into the story without needing to take too much time developing them in-game.

NPC Courtship
When establishing new loves in-game, the most important thing is not to leave other players waiting in the sidelines for too long. The best way to do this is to make the pursuant/pursued interest valuable to the whole party in some way. Make him/her an NPC the group needs to interact with anyways – an informant, barmaid, employer, victim, VIP, objective, etc.. This makes the budding relationship with one NPC potentially significant for every PC. As a result, they shouldn’t resent the digression any more than they’d tire of one player taking a minute to pick the lock on a treasure vault!

“Hat on the Door”
One of the easiest and safest ways to minimize both the narrative intrusion and potential group tension caused by romantic love encounters is to practice a “Hat on the Door” policy. Allow your players the freedom to culminate their courtships, consummate marriages, or pay for their bodily comforts by simplykeeping the sex itself off-screen. Once the door closes, as it were, jump the story ahead to when it opens again and leave the rest to player imagination!

Travel Mechanic

How to Make Travel Interesting in D&D

Travelling in D&D can be boring. There are only so many LOTR: Two-Towers inspired panning shots across the countryside that anyone can deal with. Marking the passage of time can be difficult for a DM too, because you don’t want to have to plan for a million encounters upon the road and random tables can feel stagnant or forced. “Oh no, X randomly comes out of the woods!” gets old quick.

Over the years I’ve come up with a quick and easy mechanic for travelling which gives the players agency (GM Basics: The Golden Rule), encourages roleplay, and takes minimal prep time for the DM. At its heart, this travel mechanic functions like a narrative version of a Skill Challenge. Feel free to tweak this and use as many or few parts of it as you desire; depending on the group you might need to give them some time to find their feet.

For the GM:

  • Have the Party roll for Initiative to get a turn order running. Set an Appropriate DC for skill checks dependant on the Party Level.
  • After you’ve described the nature of their journey and the type of terrain that they’re going through, here’s what you ask your PCs:

For the PC

  1. Describe a problem.
    What happens to the Party while they’re on the road? Do they encounter Bandits? Is there a gully which needs to be traversed? Perhaps they meet a trader who’s not all he seems to be? Leave it up to the player’s imagination, and feel free to veto anything too ridiculous. If a player is struggling with being put on the spot, offer them some suggestions, and allow them to take inspiration from their fellow PCs. This is the hardest part, so don’t be discouraged by some initial hesitation; they’ll get used to it soon!
  2. Describe how your character solves that problem.
    If there are bandits perhaps you see them off with a display of swordsmanship? Traversing a river with a fast current could require creating a boat or scouting out a suitable crossing. Once again allow for some corroboration in the team if some help is needed.
  3. Pick an appropriate Skill Check to make and Roll!
    This part’s the easiest! Simply pick a Skill which is appropriate to the way the Character is solving the problem and have the player roll. You can have a set DC for each “Travel Encounter” for the players to beat. A success means a positive outcome, and a failure means they don’t! These can lead to some interesting problems for the next player – for instance if a player has failed their Athletics check to swim across the river and is now drowning the next PC in the Turn Order might have to save them!

In the basic application of these Rules, you can use this Travel Mechanic for one Turn or more, depending on how creative your player’s are feeling and once it feels like an appropriate number of instances have occurred.

Additional Rules:

Here are a few extras I like to use in my games to force the players to think outside the box.

  1. Player’s can’t use the same Skill check Two Turns in a row.
    You can’t use Stealth to sneak past the Kobolds if last turn you were sneaking past Goblins. This encourages the player to think creatively and use a more varied skillset.
  2. The Players can’t use the same Skill if it’s already been used that Turn.
    Josan can’t use Medicine if Redgar just used Medicine. This encourages more teamwork and planning amongst the player’s, and can lead to some interesting moments when a player finds themselves having to use a Skill they’re not particularly good at.
  3. The Players as a team are allowed one Re-roll.
    If someone fluffs it badly collectively they can decide if they want to use their get out of jail free card. I like this extra rule because it encourages that team element and allowing them to decide together can add to the tension when they’re one Failure away from disaster.
  4. Successes and Failures count towards an overall score.
    If the Party hit X successes, they reach their destination easily and nothing bad befalls them. However, if they reach X Failures before that, reaching their destination is made more difficult by an unseen factor – decided by you. More often than not player’s will choose skills that they’re good at, so you can expect a high number of Successes over Failures. A general rule of thumb I use is 8 Successes to 2 Failures, but feel free to playtest it out.

There you have it! Combining all of these elements can take time, so I’d suggest adding in the Additional Rules piecemeal once your players have a grasp of the core principles. Send in your thoughts about the Travel Mechanic below, and let me know about any examples of it working particularly well/poorly in the comments section!

Why DnD for New Players?

Why D&D for New Players?
For most of us, D&D is the first tabletop we play – and not without good reason. As one of the first of its kind, there is something venerable to be respected about the grandfather status D&D maintains. This long lineage also contributes to a much broader player base than many other games, which in turn simply makes it easier to play in the first place given the number of groups out there. In our post-digital age of video game rpgs, D&D also offers a degree familiarity. Western MMOs borrow heavily from earlier TSR products in their adherence to Tolkien-esque fantasy tropes and character design systems built mechanically around class/level progression. For new players moving into tabletops from having played digital rpgs, D&D will require little conceptual transition.

There are, of course, still tons of other great games out there. In the midst of our ever-growing Kickstarter renaissance, there is almost no limit to the breadth and diversity of tabletop rpg systems available to try. As a result, many veteran players and GMs – myself included! – have begun to passionately advocate taking their games out of the now “old-guard” world of mere dungeons and dragons. But even with these growing communities outside of WoTC products, there is still something to be said about the value of starting off new players in the world of D&D. 

“D” IS FOR DIVERSITY
From a character perspective, D&D is still one of the most inherently diverse tabletops out there. The colourful array of races, classes, abilities, and equipment provide a huge array of clear decisions for players when making new characters. In few other games will a group of five first-level characters have the potential to look and feel so different from one another. For new players without any experience adopting, developing, and playing out a persona, this stark diversity on the surface of D&D’s character design provides a huge relief. Bold character diversity allows players to feel like their character stands out within the group dynamic without requiring as much nuanced role-play. When characters are literally different shapes, sizes, and colours, and they’re all swinging, shooting, or blasting with something different, it takes the pressure off of new players to come up with ways to proactively and creatively make their PC unique. This is, of course, not to say that other games lack character diversity nor that D&D’s rigid race/class system cannot accommodate extremely nuanced play. It’s simply that the overtness of this diversity – “pick a race;” “pick a class;” “pick a weapon;” etc. – makes it one of the most accessible character systems for new players who want to feel the excitement of roleplaying an exciting character straight out of the gates!

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GM Basics: Bookkeeping

Sometimes, being the GM can feel overwhelming. Keeping notes is essential for tracking the developments of your world, your NPCs, and your PCs. Here are some tips to lighten your bookkeeping burden as a GM!

SHARE THE LOAD
Delegate, delegate, delegate. Just as driving the story should be a shared endeavour between GM and players, so should be your group’s bookkeeping labour. Designate one player in your group to be responsible for each of the following: loot ledger, NPC “address book,” setting/map notes. This will enable you as the GM to focus on narrating the story and events and allow you to improvise more freely. Delegating will also help drive your session pace by speeding up your party’s reference questions: if Dave forgets who the NPC Synbar is or if Cathy really needs to know who is carrying the glass cube, having multiple referees to help clarify questions will take much less time than the one GM digging through a 3” binder by him/herself.

SESSION SUMMARY
One set of short-hand notes that is worth taking as a GM during play is general plot points. You may have prepared for your party to move from the town to the farmer’s house to the cemetery, but by the end of three sessions they could have instead only gone from the town to the apothecary to the church. Given this unpredictability of story, it can be useful to write up short session summaries for reference later by both you and your party. These summaries can help bridge time gaps between sessions and get your players back into the action – “Last week you did W, X, Y, and ended off with Z.” They can also be a great reference tool during session planning: over time you’ll be able to see what types of encounters your party is prone to falling into and more easily design unfamiliar situations to keep them excited.

ONLINE/SHARED SPACES
Setting up a shared campaign/party website, google doc., or even just facebook group is almost always worth the extra effort. Shared online spaces help with both your in-game bookkeeping as well as your out-of-game scheduling and overall engagement. Making all of your campaign notes accessible between sessions and providing a forum for their discussion allows players to track their game’s progress and gives them the opportunity to stay engaged throughout the week. All parties will use these spaces differently, but here are some great ways my groups have used them in the past: campfire chat (in-character dialogue between PCs), longer written character backgrounds, development/management of character domestics or economics (home and business life outside of adventuring), and out-of-character discussion of the world, NPCs, or the party’s general plans and goals.

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