The Worst Adventure Ever: Waterdeep, chapter five

Khelben and Elminster...a double dose of suck.As Chapter 5 begins, the PCs have been separated from Midnight. They have also lost the Tablet of Fate to the god of death. But wait…didn’t the text in the previous section state that the PCs could hold onto the tablet if they took special pains to do so?

“If the PCs managed to hang onto their Tablet of Fate through the battle at Dragonspear Castle, they should lose it before they reach Waterdeep. Harry them with more night riders, or have Myrkul himself steal into camp invisibly and steal the tablet from its sleeping guard.”

Yeah…should’ve known better.

“Once they lose the tablet, the PCs still should head for Waterdeep. They can guess that is where Myrkul will be, with one or both tablets. Besides, they still want to meet Elminster, so that the sage can help them find Midnight.”

There is no part of that paragraph that I like.

Event 1: Roasted Griffon
“Use physical chaos more frequently, to give players a sense of mounting urgency. Use monsters that ‘don’t fit’ the surroundings. Inappropriate scenes that you have always wanted to use in play can appear as illusions, cloud-scenes in the sky, or as shared dreams. If anyone casts spells, use magical chaos whenever possible. The Realms are in a perilous state.”

Do we really need more screwing around with the rules to get across that the Reams are in a perilous state? Shouldn’t the PCs realize that once they lose the all-powerful artifact to the evil god of death?

The only purpose of this event, other than to remind the PCs that deposed gods running amok is in fact serious business, is for the PCs to discover the burned out ruins of the Roasted Griffon Inn. If the PCs can communicate with the dead in some way, they learn that Cyric destroyed the inn and killed the staff on his way to Waterdeep. If they don’t have that magic (or if they do but the DM follows the adventure’s own advice and screws it up with magical chaos), they’re left in the dark.

Event 2: Clutching Claws of Death
“Run this event when the party makes camp at night. There comes a sudden shout of alarm from whoever is on watch. Night riders are attacking the camp!”

The PCs are attacked by twenty night riders, each with 8 hit points and who attack as 1st-level fighters. Not to make war on old editions, but encounters like this remind me of how much I like the fact that 3rd edition and onward was designed to provide challenges from levels 1 through 20. The PCs are now around level 8 or 9, which is where D&D’s original unspoken level cap was supposed to kick in – after this point, the PCs are supposed to be retiring to run keeps and temples and such. Since most of the challenging monsters at this point are end-bosses such as giants and dragons, we’re stuck with the same type of encounter you’d get at 1st level, but more so.

The text also notes that random undead encounters are more common from this point onward. As you can see, we’re building toward a conclusion, or so it seems.

Event 3: Welcome to Waterdeep
“The adventurers eventually see the great walls of the city of Waterdeep in the distance. Mount Waterdeep rises from within them like a great shoulder sheltering the city from the sea.

“Overhead fly many griffons, each bearing a mailed rider armed with long jousting lances and javelins. One griffon-rider sees the party and circles overhead, observing. He ignores attacks or attempts to communicate with him, and hurries back to the city to report.

“As the adventurers approach the gate of their choice, they see that it is open and guarded by over 20 warriors in full plate of gleaming silver-blue. The guards hold leveled pikes, and regard the PCs in steady silence until one man steps forward from between the pikes, speaking to the armored men on either side. The pikes rise in smooth unison, and the soldiers stand aside, leaving only two doorwardens in black scale mail. On the breast of each gleams a golden crescent moon surrounded by nine silver stars.”

Along with Shadowdale, Waterdeep is the other big city of the Realms. We can see what was already in place here and what was pulled together for the module. Through Tantras and Cormyr, we got sketchy details and inconsistent descriptions. In Waterdeep, as in Shadowdale, the text suddenly becomes more flowery and detailed. We also get more of the “This is magic!” part of the Realms, with griffons flying around just to show how awesome Waterdeep is.

The PCs are escorted to Blackstaff Tower, home of Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun. And…oh crap…

Worn, comfortable chairs and sofas crowd a room that is littered with maps and scrolls. A crystal ball sits in an ornately carved waist-high holder in one corner. A huge globe with its own elbow-rail of smooth, gleaming wood stands in another. In two overstuffed chairs sit bearded men.

One is clad in robes of black, adorned with many tiny silver stars. He is handsome, his black hair shot through with silver and white combed back from a high forehead. A neatly trimmed beard adorns his chin.

He smiles at you with bright, almost hawkish interest. His voice is pleasant, yet commanding. “Well met, heroes! I am Khelben Arunsun, called by some ‘Blackstaff,’ and this is—”

“They already know me, I think,” says Elminster the Sage.

Go. Away. Elminster!

Okay, setting my growing hatred of Elminster aside, I guess it’s worth pointing out that I think Khelben is actually pretty cool for an NPC. On the surface, he’s got some of Elminster’s problems – namely, he’s an uber-level mage who is given special rules-breaking powers to show his coolness. (Notice also the recurring trope in the Realms and in D&D that good guys look good – even Elminster is shown as handsome and charming despite being a bazillion years old.) What separates Khelben from Elminster, though, is that he has flaws. First, he’s lawful neutral, meaning he’s not automatically inclined to help the good guys. Second, he’s a touch arrogant – and not in the same way as Elminster, where arrogance is supposed to be charming, but in an unappealing manner. Third, he sometimes has too rigid a view of law and rules, which prevents him from acting in a timely manner to stop the greater good. Aside from his character flaws, Khelben is one of the masked lords of Waterdeep, which means that he has his own agenda and motivations and is sometimes legitimately unable to help PCs, as opposed to Elminster who has nothing to do but sit in his tower and smoke his pipe most of the time.

Of course, none of these details matter, because Khelben is just there with Elminster to recap the adventure so far for the PCs.

Well, not entirely. Khelben also thanks the PCs and tells them that he’ll take it from here. This is supposed to trigger an argument from the PCs, which Elminster will prompt if they don’t. In theory, the PCs don’t want to quit until the job is done, and Khelben eventually yields to them. They’re then given a chance to rest and train in Waterdeep before the next event. At the end of this event, the PCs travel with Elminster and Khelben to the Yawning Portal, where they visit the Pool of Loss.

Event 4: The Pool of Loss
The cavern is full of glowing white shapes drifting aimlessly through the air. In the center of the room is a shimmering dome. “Look away from the sphere!” Khelben commands sharply.

If the PCs fail an Intelligence check to look away, they are blinded. But at least it’s only temporary.

The Pool of Loss is a portal to Hades…beneath the Yawning Tavern. I have no idea how that inn manages to stay in business. “Hey honey, let’s spend a night at that nice place with the mutton stew and the magical portal in the basement that links our world with a realm of unspeakable evil.” This isn’t even mentioning that the Yawning Portal also links to Undermountain, an uber-dungeon beneath Waterdeep run by an insane and immortal evil wizard. And these facts are easily discoverable to someone who asks.

Beyond the portal lies Midnight. Unfortunately, the portal is blocked off by a prismatic sphere created by Midnight. Touching the sphere will likely kill the PCs and probably even harm Elminster and Khelben. It’s up to the PCs to figure out how to get a message to Midnight. Only one option is given as being successful – the way that worked in the novel. If Elminster dispels one of the layers of the sphere, the PCs can toss a message through it that Midnight will receive and then dispel the sphere. And just like that, Midnight returns…thanks to something that Elminster had to do.

Midnight delivers bad news: Myrkul’s denizens are ready to storm Waterdeep for the second Tablet of Fate. Dun-dun-DUNNNN!!!

Event 5: Rest and Revelations
The PCs rest up at the Yawning Portal. While they’re resting, Elminster starts ruminating out loud and basically spoils Myrkul’s ploy by telling the PCs that he intentionally let Midnight escape so she could seek out the second Tablet of Fate. The module thus does a really nice job of taking the dramatic wind out of the sails of the big bad evil guy’s plot, since the PCs should have a pretty good idea now of what Myrkul has planned.

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