The Worst Adventure Ever: Waterdeep, chapter four

There's "darkness" again...I could be drunk now if I had started a drinking game.Chapter 4 opens with a multiple choice path: either Midnight teleported the group to safety or they’re screwed. Breaking with my normal format, I’ll show option B first, since it’s the non-assumed part that won’t get brought up again in the module:

Event 2: Transfigured
“Use this event only if the party was caught in the explosion of Bhaal’s avatar.

“Don’t just kill them outright; that is not much of a conclusion to an adventure story, when the party’s major goal remains unfulfilled.”

And the writer lost me already. I am a self-admitted candy-ass DM, but even I have a problem with handwaving a way to save the PCs every time they come close to failing their mission. It is not a novel, it is a role-playing game. Although RPGs have storylines and plots, they also have the chance that the PCs will fail, sometimes spectacularly. That’s part of the game, and a game with no chance of failure bugs me. Plus, I can think of a lot worse ways to go out than to die in a horrible explosion after killing the god of murder.

Anyway, there is some explanation to the PCs’ survival, at least. Bhaal’s essence is magical, so it might unleash weird magical effects instead of killing outright. Some effects include:

“The characters get turned into random creatures from the Monstrous Compendium. In general, they should still be mobile and able to fight or do interesting things. This can be a fresh role-playing experience for jaded players. If they become monsters, choose monsters roughly as powerful as the original characters. (If a PC becomes something as powerful as a beholder, he or she may outclass the rest of the characters – and may not want to become human again!)”

So the PCs get turned into a random creature that the DM chooses. I don’t think the creative team really knew what the word “random” meant…

There’s also another AD&D-ism here in thinking that the PCs would be happy to be turned into beholders. The general assumption of a player in AD&D seems to be someone who wants to outclass everyone else constantly and “win the game,” regardless of role-playing. I know I’d generally be unhappy to become a beholder, in spite of the power boost. Being a big pink blob with no arms and legs and deadly eye beams means a total exile from society, possibly killing people I look at the wrong way, and no way of having any sort of normal relationship with the people I love. But the average AD&D player, according to this logic, instead goes, “Awesome! I’m a beholder! I’ma commit murders!”

“A variant idea is to switch the characters – bodies. Each PC’s mind ends up in the body of another. This lends a comedic touch to adventures, but should not be carried on too long.”

Hee. Like the awesome Justice League Unlimited episode “The Great Brain Robbery.”

“If Midnight could not teleport them, the explosion might – but not to any place so convenient as Dragonspear Castle. The party may end up somewhere else in the Realms, in Kara-Tur, on another plane, or even stranded in history. Midnight’s magic has temporarily ‘burned out,’ so the party must undertake a new adventure to return.”

A decent chance for a side-adventure, although it’s hard to encourage side quests when you’re dealing with a, “The world is doomed!” scenario.

“If the PCs have proven too strong for the opposition so far, the explosion can drain them of levels, ability scores, or special powers. Or it can destroy possessions. This type of unfortunate circumstance can arouse players’ bitterest anger if it is applied in heavy-handed fashion, so choose calamities wisely.”

And the lamest of the bunch. Ask a typical player whether they’d prefer death or level loss, and many will choose death. Level drain was especially frustrating in the pre-3rd edition days, since it was permanent. In other words, all that time you spent building your character up? It didn’t mean anything.

Once the PCs get a save from the heavens with consequences, we move on with the plot.

Event 1: On the Road Again
“This event begins as Midnight’s teleport dumps the party elsewhere. They have no horses and none of the supplies that the horses carried. However, the tablet is safely tied to Midnight’s back, or carried by a PC.

“‘Elsewhere’ in this case is the snow-covered road to Waterdeep, a few days’ ride south of Dragonspear Castle.”

Cyric lies nearby, seemingly dead, which would inspire a happy dance from my PC. Unfortunately, the presence of the glowing magical sword which will not leave his side and which protects him from all further harm suggests that he’s only playing possum. Once the PCs leave the area, he gets up, heals himself to full health, and gets back to his villainy.

Event 3: Travel and Chaos
“The party walks north, seeing ice on the streams and frost glittering on shadowed hollows. An early winter is coming.”

Why is it that epic adventures always begin around harvest time and conclude in the winter?

The PCs encounter a couple of random creatures which can only confirm that Dragonspear Castle is still standing but who do not join the PCs or fight with them unless attacked. Moving right along…

Event 4: Death Walks at Dragonspear
“The party reaches Dragonspear Castle. A map of the ruins is included in this adventure.

“Exploring, they discover that its outer ward is utterly ruined, and its main tower is a gutted shell open to the sky above. But its inner ward is defensible. Give the PCs time enough to find the cellar beneath the castle, then start this event.”

The cellar has an underground river that will become plot-important soon. The event happens to be an attack on the castle by a horde of undead sent by Myrkul. There are enough undead to kill the PCs outright, which the author presumes will force them to flee. Again, I think this is a bad assumption for an adventure designer to make – players are often more willing to die than to retreat or surrender. Or, especially in games like this where the DM magically saves their bacon, they might be assuming that some plot contrivance will save the day when really they’re doomed if they stand and fight. They’re supposed to retreat to the keep’s cellar, which only provides more trouble as the undead start crawling up from the dirt underneath.

The purpose of this fight? Some NPC has got to take a figurative bullet:

“…the light in the cellar dims slightly as an undead archer, outside with bow ready, steps forward to one of the slit windows.

“The archer’s shaft hums across the chamber and strikes an NPC (in the novel, Adon is the character felled by the arrow; here, it can be any NPC except Midnight). Silently he topples forward. Give the two nearest PCs Dexterity checks at -5 to catch his falling body. If they fail their checks, the NPC falls through the open hatch and splashes into the river below.”

So now we’re in a reverse of the Shadowdale and Tantras modules, where the NPCs couldn’t die under any circumstances. Now the PCs can’t save the NPCs under any circumstances, and their apparent deaths ignore the rules just like their numerous previous saves did. (The arrow, by the way, deals 10 damage and stuns the NPC. Adon has 25hp and Kelemvor has 44hp. Unless they’re badly injured, the arrow can’t kill them by the game rules. But don’t worry – they’re not really dead anyway.)

“Hurl endless waves of night riders at the party until the PCs make a fighting retreat. During this assault, unless the character bearing the Tablet of Fate takes special pains to avoid coming into contact with the undead, the night riders succeed in grabbing the tablet, whereupon some of them break off and head for Waterdeep to deliver the tablet to Myrkul.”

Even if the players do see retreat as a viable option, the stealing away of the Tablet of Fate, now obviously destined for the clutches of an evil god, helps to give them an unintentional incentive to fight on. Retreating with the Tablet of Fate? Okay…you’re losing face but saving the Realms. Retreat after the Tablet of Fate has just been stolen? You’re guaranteeing that Myrkul now has an uber-powerful artifact.

“As it becomes obvious that vanquishing all the night riders is impossible, one by one each of the party members should leap down the hole into the blackness below.”

And to make matters worse, the only reasonable option of a retreat is to jump into a frozen river in the dead of winter. That’s almost as certain a death as fighting against the undead. Yes, it happens all the time in movies and books. That’s because those characters are guided by the writer and know, at least on some meta-fiction level, where the plot is going. The PCs are controlled by players who do not know what is about to happen, and thus are less likely to gamble like that. Some of them might be genre savvy enough to do it, but others might also think that the scene is setting up for a dramatic capture. Basically, anytime you play the “throw wave after waves of enemies at the PCs until they retreat” card, you’re playing with fire because some PCs just will not retreat.

On the bright side, I guess it’s nice that Midnight didn’t forcibly grab the PCs and drag them along with her this time.


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