Author’s Note: I’m going to try something new. Or rather, new to me…
What is this?
At the end of my initial review of Dragon Heist, I mentioned that I had a plan to review the game when I was finished with it. I and my play group are about five sessions in and things are going pretty smoothly. In fact, a recurring refrain so far has been that “there’s just something about this campaign.” And while I’m pleased as punch to hear my players say that it did give me an idea. It’s become popular (and theoretically lucrative) to transcribe the story of one’s TRPG (Tabletop Role Playing Game) campaign. These have many names like “Let’s Play,” or “Long Plays.” So I suppose this is one of those, but I’ll also be sprinkling my actual critical review of the game in there from time to time.
Any story lives and dies on the depth and qualities of its characters. In the case of any TRPG, characters can be divided into two camps: Player Characters or PCs who make up The Party and Non-Player Characters or NPCs who are the various different members of the supporting cast who act as everything from allies and antagonists to minor shopkeepers and the like. Oh and as a quick reminder, Waterdeep is a large, medieval metropolis in the Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms setting. It will be serving as the backdrop for this tale. Given that the origin of this project was how strong the player characters are, I figured that’s the best place to start:
Adran Nebireos (Half-Elf Paladin): Adran is perhaps the most traditionally heroic member of the party. He’s the bastard son of a Waterdavian nobleman, the last reminder of the man’s more adventurous past. What’s more, Adran is a particularly elven Half-Elf so he looks very young for his age. Growing up, he felt ostracized from the rest of his human family and so he turned to two things: swordsmanship and the nature goddess Melikki, the worship of whom makes him feel closer to his sylvan heritage. His part of the story opens with him praying at a temple and getting some much needed advice from a man with glowing green eyes. The man, let’s call him Boer (because that’s his name) recognizes Adran as an adventurer just waiting to happen and suggests the young man buy himself a drink at the Yawning Portal, one of Waterdeep’s most famous taverns.
Durwin Scofflaw (Human Fighter): Durwin Scofflaw is a member of the Waterdavian working class. Which is to say that up until the start of our adventure he’s made his living working as muscle for business ventures on both sides of the law. Durwin is a steely-eyed cynic who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty but is just morally upstanding enough that it’s not his first solution to every problem. Durwin is one of the most straightforward characters in the group, but he’s got his own hidden depths that have been teased out for the benefit of the rest of the group. When we’re introduced to Durwin, he’s getting the pay from his most recent job as a bodyguard and decides to head over to The Yawning Portal to celebrate (are you sensing a theme here?)
Matty McMulligan (Halfling Wizard): Matty is a halfling, sort of like a Hobbit from Lord of the Rings. But where Frodo and Sam were soft-spoken humble folk, Matty is a foul-mouthed braggart with a taste for fine hooch. He’s also not even technically a wizard. Matty’s story opens with the young pickpocket stealing the spellbook of an actual wizard. Despite the insistence of his partner in crime, Matty feels drawn to the book and refuses to pass it on to their usual fence, despite the very evident value. It’s worth noting that because the adventure path is called Dragon Heist, all of the characters were meant to be riffs on classic heist movie archetypes. Durwin is the muscle, Adran was originally a wheelman of sorts and Matty is a sort of hacker given his skills as a Diviner. Matty decides to end the day with a trip to the Yawning Portal, because apparently that’s how he ends every day.
Stars on Black Velvet (Tabaxi Warlock): Stars on Black Velvet is a Tabaxi (cat-person) nomad who has recently arrived in Waterdeep by stowing away on the Hellraiser, one of three ships in the Sea Maiden’s Faire, a sort of floating carnival. Velvet is young, impressionable and curious about the world but she’s also more than capable of defending herself. As a Warlock, Velvet has a patron that provides her with magical power in exchange for her service. Velvet’s patron is an Archfey, think something along the lines of Queen Titania and King Auberon from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This means that Velvet’s magic is mostly focused on illusions, deceptions and the like. Also much like Matty she doesn’t know much about her magical powers beyond the fact that they just seem to work, at least so far. So far, in five sessions she’s even managed to completely avoid killing anyone. Much like the others, after arriving in Waterdeep Velvet is directed to the Yawning Portal, which is pretty evidently a place for adventurer-types.
Non-Player Characters of Note:
Unfortunately, the supporting cast of this game is quite expansive. As such, while I’d like to pad out the word count of this first part with a full cast sheet, I’m going to refrain from doing so. Suffice to say, whenever you see a character whose name is Bold, you can discern that they are a recurring character of note. What’s more, I’ll do my best to give a brief description of them as they appear.
At The Yawning Portal:
The Yawning Portal is a tavern that could only be built in Waterdeep. It’s a popular watering hole and meeting spot that just so happens to be built on top of a massive, sprawling labyrinth filled with monsters and the like. In any other city, in any other fantasy setting, this problem might’ve been solved with a very large cork, or at least a stone to block the big well that leads into absolute darkness. But in Waterdeep, it was decided that the best solution would be a bar that regularly serves drinks and charges patrons for the chance to plumb the depths of Undermountain.
Tonight, the atmosphere in the Portal is tense. For the past several weeks (called tendays in the setting because this is a fantasy), the city has been suffering the side effects of a war between the two major criminal factions within its walls, the Xanthar Guild and the Zhentarim. The streets aren’t safe, and as such the Portal is packed, so much so that four complete strangers might have to share a table. I’ll admit right up front that this was me taking the easy way out. The game proper starts with “your party is busy drinking at the Yawning Portal.” But my group prefers to not start out with a cohesive thing. We enjoy the process of coming together as a unit and slowly gelling as a team. I don’t think this was ever a conscious decision on our part, it just sort of happened. So I wrote some fun little introductions for our characters and then just…had them crammed into the same booth in the corner of the local dive.
Anyway, things pick up a bit in the Yawning Portal when a fight breaks out. Now, this is a tavern in Waterdeep, fights are to be expected. In this case, it seems that the violence out on the streets has found its way inside. Five human thugs have cornered a single female Half-Orc. Granted, this young woman also happens to be seven-foot tall, and her surname is Stonefist, so it’s a pretty fair fight. The men are accusing the Half-orc, Yagra, of “having fun murdin’ our mates.” Yagra is known to work as a bouncer for the Zhents so one can pretty easily surmise that these fine gentlemen are Guilders. The fact that they all have tattoos of the Guild’s logo (a stylized eye) also tips their hand. At a glance, Yagra seems to be more nonplussed than anything, especially because all five of her assailants reek of booze and have slurred every word to come out of their mouths.
This bar fight presents the first real choice for the players. Do they interfere? Or do they stand aside and watch? Durwin’s the first to step up since he’s seen this sort of thing before. A such, he begins shouting for the bar patrons to make some room and let the six fighters burn themselves out. Meanwhile, Adran being the good soul that he is, decides to try and stop the fight. He stands up up on the bar counter and calls for everyone’s attention. His secret plan? Free drinks. Adran comes from a noble background meaning that his player has access to what could best be described as a magical credit card. Any minor expenses he incurs can just be sent back to his family with an IOU attached. And luckily for the players, drinks are extremely cheap in in-game currency. The dice aren’t in Adran’s favor though and he bungles his persuasion check. Despite giving a heartfelt plea for camaraderie, the best Adran gets is a “shut up kid!” Remember, being a half-elf Adran looks about fifteen despite being in his mid-twenties.
Within a few rounds of combat (yeah, I’m the type of GM that will play this out) Yagra has the fight in hand. One thug went down early with a punch to the gut and their leader is currently literally underfoot. At this point Durwin steps in, declares a winner and calmly suggests that the five thugs high-tail it out of the portal while they still have teeth. Durwin proves to be persuasive and the five men leave, dragging their unconscious friend with them. That’s when things went really bad.
Remember how I said the Yawning Portal was built on top of a well that leads into an underground network of monsters and other dangers? Well sometimes those things climb up and start causing problems. Tonight’s guest is a troll. In Dungeons and Dragons, trolls are about what you’d expect: large, ugly and very difficult to kill. Unfortunately, the troll isn’t alone as it’s being menaced by a swarm of stirges. Stirges are mosquito-like insects, except they’re are about the size of a small dog. Several of the stirges are already lolloping about like lazy balloons, having gorged on the blood of their troll prey but a few are still looking for a quick dinner. With these new uninvited guests making their presence very much known, chaos breaks out in the Portal. Some guests are fleeing out the door, and others are trying to hide. Only our brave heroes leap into action.
Durwin pull out his signature weapon, a flail and starts going to town on the stirges. They’re big, ungainly things and soon, Durwin is making short work of them like some kind of fantasy Orkin Man. Meanwhile Adran, Velvet and Matty are sizing up the troll. Adran grabs a short sword left behind by one of the thugs and starts trying to stab up the troll’s legs. The troll, already weakened by the Stirges is a tough SOB though, and its natural regeneration is making it hard to deal any lasting damage. Luckily, our spellcasters know a thing or two. Some quick skill checks (nature and arcane knowledge) reveal that both characters know trolls are vulnerable to fire. Luckily, this fight is taking place in a tavern filled with very flammable liquids. Velvet splashes the beast with booze and Matty throws a fire bolt at the troll for some fireworks. But so far, the best it’s done is make the big thing even more angry and it’s pretty clear that our heroes are out of their depth.
Luckily, the tavern’s owner is an ex-adventurer and knows how to handle himself in these situations. He pulls out his own sword and leaps into the fray. Given the veteran’s skills and his magical weapon, the fight is short after he decides to step in. With one last mournful howl, the troll topples back into the inky darkness of the well. Durnan, the owner (yeah, the players picked out names before realizing their similarities to certain NPCs, this will not be the first instance of this) gives some terse compliments to our adventuring party, something to the tune of “you fought well,” and a free round on the house. As the party sits in the now substantially more empty bar, they take a minute to collect themselves. Introductions are made and backgrounds are shared. As they converse, a man sits down and introduces himself. He calls himself Volothamp Geddarm and he is downright giddy with excitement at having seen this four young heroes in action. But Volo isn’t just hear to hand out accolades. It seems that a friend of his has gone missing, and these four fine fellows seem like the perfect lot to help him find the poor lost soul. He’s willing to pay handsomely, 100 gold coins, a fortune to anyone who grew up on the streets or otherwise impoverished. So, what do you say?
Come back next time for the party’s investigation, an awfully unfortunate encounter with some birds, a handful of surprising allies and other shenanigans.