The Worst Adventure Ever: Waterdeep, chapter six
At long last, we are on the last chapter of this adventure. Chapter 6 is a long, convoluted mess that ends with a huge insult both in game and out of game. But let’s take it one step at a time.
“Midnight has seen the Realm of the Dead, and she would rather be destroyed utterly than live in the Realms if Myrkul rules them. What actually happened there? ‘Don’t ask,’ Midnight replies, shaking her head. ‘Never ask me that again.’
“The only fact she will reveal about her time in Hades is that she succeeded in gaining possession of the second Tablet of Fate – the one that had been held by Myrkul. As the PCs can deduce, her success occurred at just about the same time that Myrkul’s minions stole the first tablet. Thus, an ironic and uneasy balance is maintained – and the fate of Realms, as before, still hinges on which faction will ultimately possess both tablets at the same time.
“If the players think to post a guard over Midnight’s sphere in the Pool of Loss, go to Event 1. However, don’t remind them of this if they don’t think of it! No NPC thinks of it, either.
“If the PCs post no guard, skip the next event. PCs can undertake more adventures in Waterdeep (left as exercises to the DM). If and when they return to Blackstaff Tower to rest, go to Event 2.”
Event 1: The Gate Opens
“Use this event only if the players post PC guards at the Pool of Loss, the gate to Hades beneath the Yawning Portal Inn. If they fail to post PC guards, or post NPCs as guards, simply skip this event and go to the next one.
“The watches pass uneventfully through the afternoon and into the night. Then, take aside the players whose characters guard the pool in the last watch before dawn.”
Myrkul himself shows up and blasts apart Midnight’s prismatic sphere, unleashing the denizens of Hades on the Realms. Who would have expected that a magically shut portal to the underworld would fail in a time when magic itself is unreliable?!
The PCs have one round to react to Myrkul. The only real option is to get the heck out of the way. For kicks, I’ll throw in the text for the “attack” option:
“Myrkul pauses before destroying the sphere to kill the foolhardy PC who attempts this. If an NPC guard is also present, Myrkul destroys the NPC first, so the player can reconsider this fatal course of action.”
Again, the adventure takes the game out of role-playing game. The PCs automatically die if they face Myrkul head on – the only variable is how graphic the DM wants the details to be. I realize that going toe to toe with a god is stupid, but it’s also been done numerous times in this module series. It’s obvious by now that killing a god is difficult but possible – or at least it should be possible, were it not for the plot immunity that prevents the gods from dying until they’ve hit their appointed demise.
On the bright side, having a guard posted over this area can allow the PCs to reseal the gate (with the help of Elminster, Khelben, or Midnight, of course), lowering the number of enemies they have to fight later on.
Event 2: Marching Orders
“This event begins on the following morning, when a sudden noise outside the tower awakens the PCs.
“A company of over 200 soldiers arrives at Blackstaff Tower, their nailed boots clattering on the cobbles. The PCs can open their windows and look down on the tower courtyard below.”
This is the event the PCs get if they didn’t post a guard over the portal to Hades. There’s a bit of flavor text to let the players know that the big boss battle is here.
And that’s it. We’re moving right along at a fast pace, although the next couple of events are more in-depth.
Event 3: War in Waterdeep
“The adventurers dress in haste. Make it clear to the players that Myrkul.s avatar will probably attack soon. Let them plot strategy. Their options include waiting in the tower, or going out and actively seeking Myrkul.”
This event takes up an entire page and manages to say very little. A picture of a city at war is painted for the PCs and some possible actions are outlined. Almost all of these outlines boil down to, “do something awesome because you’re the DM,” which is a huge problem that these adventures have had all along. Making matters worse is the fact that while Elminster doesn’t have to follow the PCs around here, Midnight does. She will insist on joining the group and will then guide them on a romp through the streets to find Myrkul – the same guy who killed any PCs who attacked him earlier in one round with no rolls needed.
Event 4: To Battle a God
“The specifics of this battle depend very much on what the PCs try to do. Midnight and Elminster are plagued by magical chaos during this fight. Until pressed, Myrkul has little interest in fighting the adventurers; his night riders do that for him.”
Myrkul suddenly develops plot immunity. Midnight and Elminster, who have had no problem busting out game-saving spells before now, are suddenly useless. Or rather, they’re useless until the plot demands otherwise. When the group manages to track Myrkul down to a library, Elminster suddenly busts out a wall of stone to put the night riders at bay. Apparently, he pops up to do this even if the PCs didn’t bring him along.
Then Myrkul gets hold of the second tablet – also by power of plot:
“As soon as the adventurers reach the roof, the study’s stone floor rises, twists, and flows back into Myrkul’s humanlike form. Picking up the two tablets from the real floor of the landing, Myrkul puts one in each of the saddlebags he carries and walks down the stair to Elminster’s wall of stone.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen an adventure that takes so many potentially awesome set-pieces and then reduces them to mere descriptive text from the DM.
Myrkul then opens up the stone wall to allow his night riders in and makes his escape. He now plans to return to Hades, empower himself with the dead there, and use his newfound power to destroy Ao the Overgod, taking over all of existence or, um, something. What’s amusing about this scene is that it’s labeled as an off-stage event, even though it’s unfolding right in front of the PCs. I guess even the module writer got confused at what’s going on in this tangled mess.
“On the roof of Blackstaff Tower, the PCs realize that Myrkul has eluded them. Midnight, though tired, says, ‘Let me try something.’ Her power has grown to the point that (she thinks) she can fetch the tablets out of Myrkul’s hands!”
As the modules have gone on, there has been more of the writer stating that, “the PCs realize this,” or, “the PCs will do that.” I think he started to forget by now that the PCs are supposed to have free will.
Midnight passes out in casting her spell, but manages to take one of the Tablets of Fate from Myrkul. This naturally leads Myrkul to return. This time, the text states that the PCs are allowed to kill the god. I don’t know that they can, though, unless Elminster is with them. The PCs are still only around 9th level or so. Myrkul, on the other hand, is an 18 hit die creature that casts spells as a 23rd level magic-user. Barring some luck or outside help, the PCs are toast. However, if things look grim, Midnight comes to and manages to defeat Myrkul herself. Here’s Myrkul’s most probable death scene in its entirety:
“While they are engaged in their futile battle with Myrkul, give PCs an Intelligence check. Successful PCs note a griffon and rider diving out of the sky toward Blackstaff Tower. It appears to be heading straight at Myrkul. They can’t make out the griffon’s rider.
“If necessary, cue the players that someone should distract Myrkul from noticing this attack. Any especially heroic attack now distracts Myrkul, so that he does not see the griffon.
“It strikes, its rider leaping clear. As the great talons of the griffon pierce Myrkul through the chest, Myrkul opens his mouth in a silent scream.
“The rider leaps clear and lands on the roof. PCs recognize the rider now. Use any important character who appeared to die at an earlier point in this adventure. (In the novel, it is Adon; when he was swept away by the underground river beneath Dragonspear Castle, he was rescued by subterranean gnomes who nursed him back to health.)
“The griffon flaps wildly as it lifts the avatar off the roof. As Myrkul shrieks silently, Midnight grabs any nearby PC and points at the saddlebags Myrkul is holding. They hold the Tablets of Fate! If no PC makes a grab for the saddlebags, Elminster does so.
“As the saddlebags are torn away, Midnight prepares two spells (another sign of her growing power). Myrkul turns in the air and withers the griffon; to do so, he lifts his cloak of silence from the rooftop.
“At that moment, Midnight casts disintegrate.
“The spell works automatically; do not check for magical chaos. There is a flash of golden light, the ground trembles, and then a deepening purple glow settles over the scene. When it dies away, Myrkul and the griffon have vanished. A brown murk hangs in the air where The Lord of the Dead had been.
“In the same moment, Midnight has also successfully cast a special dimension door. She shunts the force of the avatar’s exploding energies far away from Waterdeep, out over the sea. PCs can see the explosion from the tower roof: a brilliant white sphere exploding over the Sea of Swords, on the western horizon.”
Although optional, Myrkul’s death scene encapsulates the main problems these modules have had – the PCs never being in any real danger unless it comes in a random encounter (and thus rendering their successes somewhat hollow), scripted events that come ripped out of a bad action movie, the NPCs stepping in to cover any missteps by the PCs, and so on.
Like Bhaal’s death, however, Myrkul’s demise eventually led to one of the better Forgotten Realms tales ever, this time in the form of the Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion pack Mask of the Betrayer (yes, it seems that the best Realms stories come from computer games). While Myrkul didn’t foresee his death like Bhaal did, he did have a contingency plan set up. In the land of Rasheman, a land where spirits walk the land and communicate with the locals, Myrkul created a being known as the Spirit Eater. The fear of his creation is enough for him to feed off of and retain a shred of sentience. To rid it, the hero of that game must put his very soul at stake and wage a war against the gods. But the high quality of Mask of the Betrayer, like the Baldur’s Gate saga, doesn’t excuse the poor quality of these modules – especially since Mask of the Betrayer didn’t come out until 18 years after these modules had been released.
Event 5: To Battle a Man
“Elminster manages a meteor swarm to polish off any remaining night riders. The Old Sage makes sure the tablets are safely in the party’s possession. Then he takes his leave, explaining that he must try to close the gate to Hades to stop the incoming flood of denizens. If Khelben has remained with the party through all this, he leaves with Elminster. However, if PC wizards volunteer to help, Elminster gently tells them they’d only get in the way.”
Fuck. You. Elminster. The PCs have just theoretically helped to kill the god of death, and they’re still being talked down to.
With Myrkul dead, the day should be saved. The PCs have the Tablets of Fate and should be able to restore order to the Realms. But like a bad horror movie, this module needs one last “thrill.” In this case, Cyric is still around and takes one more shot at grabbing the Tablets of Fate.
“While all of this has taken place, Cyric has stolen up the staircase inside Blackstaff Tower and waited for Elminster to leave. Now he makes his move. He slays an NPC from behind with his magical sword (in the novel, the victim is Kelemvor). Then Cyric tosses the weapon into the air to ‘dance.’ He draws another blade and hurls a glass vial of sleep gas to the roof.
“The gas is called ‘greensleep.’ It expands rapidly into a spherical cloud of mint-green smoke 20’ across. All PCs must save vs. poison at -2 to avoid falling asleep for 1-2 turns. Midnight saves, but other NPCs fail automatically.
“It is not necessary to breathe greensleep; it works by skin contact. Its antidote can awaken affected victims immediately. If the antidote is taken just prior to the release of the gas, it prevents protected beings from any effects. Cyric has just taken the antidote, but there is no other store of antidote nearby, nor are any of the adventurers familiar with it.
“Thanks to the effects of the gas and the confusion it causes among even those who make their saving throws, Cyric seizes the tablets and fights his way clear. Cyric also tries to kick conscious opponents off the roof.”
Seriously. This is almost the entire event. After fighting the god of death to recover the MacGuffin artifacts to save the Forgotten Realms, the PCs are given a no-win situation so the secondary villain can take them right away. He pops up with a super sleep poison that the PCs aren’t familiar with even if they’re expert alchemists, to which he is totally immune due to some crap rule made up just for this event, and then manages to steal the Tablets and get away even if the PCs don’t fall to this incredibly cheap trick. And to add injury to insult, he kicks unconscious PCs off the roof while managing to do all this.
Event 6: At the Foot of the Stair
With the Tablets of Fate in hand, Cyric rushes off to a Celestial Staircase near Waterdeep. Khelben shows up to revive the PCs and whisk them away on griffonback, where they can chase down Cyric. But no matter what happens, Cyric gets to the Celestial Staircase and confronts the guardian god Helm.
Cyric thrusts the saddlebags into Helm’s hands. “I have recovered the Tablets of Fate,” he says proudly. He glances back over his shoulder at you, and smiles.
Helm takes the tablets and stares down at Cyric. “I know who recovered them,” he says coldly.
Midnight calls Helm out on listening to douchebag Cyric:
Midnight angrily asks Helm, “If you are aware of Cyric’s evil, why do you not punish him?”
“Because it is not his duty to pass judgment,” says another voice, deep and resonant. A new voice. Behind Helm on the stair, another figure appears.
Helm bows. “Lord Ao!” he says reverently.
Event 7: The Lord of All
Ao is finally here, and the Time of Troubles is at an end. So what, then, has been so important about these Tablets of Fate?
“Bring me the tablets,” Ao commands. Helm does so, removing them from the saddlebags and kneeling. Ao touches them. “On these tablets,” he says in a voice like thunder, “I have recorded the Balance created to keep the Order. They have now been restored!”
“And I returned them to you,” Cyric says quickly.
Ao looks down at him. “I know what you have done,” he says in calm, even tones. “And here is what all of it amounts to!” Ao crushes the tablets in his hands; they explode into dust.
Yep…the Tablets of Fate were meaningless. They were mere symbols. The entire world has been plunged into chaos because of useless chunks of stone. This leads to many unfortunate implications about Ao and the gods, but I’ll discuss those in a little bit. First…here’s the grand finale:
Silence hangs heavy over Mount Waterdeep. Then Ao speaks again – this time addressing all of the gods across the Realms as well as the PCs. [yes, it says, “the PCs” in the read-aloud text] “I created the gods for a purpose. Now you, the gods, will fulfill that purpose. From this day forward, your true power depends upon the number and devotion of your followers.”
There is a rumbling in the sky, a gasp of astonishment from avatars all across the Realms. Ao smiles slowly. “Aye, and after what has befallen in the Realms, it will not be easy to win the faith of mortals. You will have to earn it by serving them. Now, let the gods return!”
“No!” Cyric yells. “After all I went through.”
Ao says, very quietly, “I do not care to be challenged. It makes me fear I have made a poor choice for my new God of Strife and Death.”
Cyric smiles. “So you do keep to the bargain! I am to be a god!” He steps forward to stand by Ao on the Celestial Stairway. “My thanks!”
Ao replies, “Do not thank me, evil Cyric. Being given the role of God of Strife and Death is no gift. It is eternal punishment. At first, you will enjoy it, for it is the only thing you are suited to. But you will find it wearisome in the end. The freedom you seek lies not with godly power. You serve me now…and your worshipers.”
For a moment you see in Cyric’s eyes the beginnings of fear. Then he scowls, but he says nothing.
Lord Ao turns. “Midnight!” he says commandingly. “I have lost Mystra, Lady of Mysteries, Mistress of Magic. She is within you, and yet she was weary and weak, and could not now be restored as she should be. I have selected one mortal for malevolence and cruelty. I hope to select another for wisdom and spirit. Will you take her place?”
A ring of nine small, blue-white stars appears in the air around Midnight, dancing softly. Midnight looks both surprised and exhausted. She almost shakes her head. Then she looks at you for guidance.
“The PCs can argue pro or con. Only Midnight responds to them; Ao ignores queries put to him. Let the players really ham it up; after all, the circumstances merit great oratory. Lord Ao himself smiles upon PCs who orate exceptionally well; award them bonus experience points.
“Regardless of what the PCs say, Midnight finally agrees to godhood. She climbs the stairway to stand beside Cyric, with the words, ‘I accept. And you, Cyric, will soon wish you had not.’
“Ao lifts his hands, and the Celestial Stairway and those upon it vanish in a pillar of light.
“The Time of Troubles is over.”
And all the PCs got was this lousy t-shirt.
Well, no, actually. The PCs are rewarded with enough XP to level up and a wish from Midnight. It’s still small potatoes compared to godhood.
And now it’s time for my rant about the ending.
The ending, in my opinion, is what elevates this trilogy from merely bad to the worst adventure modules ever. Following the climactic battle with a god, the PCs have earned the right to save the day themselves – and that’s not even counting the amazing force of will that would require a group of players to go through all of these modules for any reason other than penance for a mortal sin. Instead, the group is ambushed by Cyric who uses the equivalent of a sleeping gas made from distilled DM fiat to snatch victory away from the group. Cyric never gets his comeuppance, because the gods show up. Moreover, the PCs’ enemy is given his wish to become a greater god. He absorbs the portfolios of Bane, Bhaal, and Myrkul, meaning that any evil the PCs have thwarted through these adventures is balanced out to zero.
Midnight’s ascension to divinity was telegraphed from her very introduction onward, and doesn’t sting quite as badly. It does, however, suck for the PCs, who get to sit back and watch as the NPC takes the ultimate glory. The PCs do not get a chance to become gods here. They don’t even get a chance to become new members of Mystra’s Chosen, which would make them movers and shakers of the Realms. They get a slight bump in power – not enough to put them even close to the proliferation of 20th-level and higher NPCs already in the Realms – and then go on their way.
The notion that Cyric might get some cosmic comeuppance is hilarious in hindsight. Ao’s statement that Cyric must serve his followers never comes to pass – he just goes about stealing other gods’ powers and becoming even stronger. And Midnight’s statement that Cyric will regret his decision is even more hilarious. In the transition to 4th edition, Cyric winds up killing Midnight and destroying all magic in the Realms for a time. His penalty for casting the whole world into chaos? 1,000 years imprisoned in his home plane. He essentially gets told to go to his room. And really, what is 1,000 years for a god, except for some time to scheme in private?
The big issue to this incredibly unsatisfying ending, in my opinion, is the implications on the theology of the Realms. Ao tossed the entire mortal world in upheaval in an attempt to teach the gods a lesson. The Realms remains scarred for years to come, and it all amounts to nothing. And following the Time of Troubles, the gods draw their strength from their followers. Why anyone would willingly follow such beings is beyond my comprehension. The gods – even the supposedly good ones – behaved like super-powered children and thought nothing of tearing apart the mortal world. The supposedly wisest of the gods, Ao, seemingly had no problem with the high loss of life in this conflict and saw it as a necessary sacrifice to teach his children a lesson. The lesson, of course, is totally lost on the evil gods who continue to do evil, while good gods already treated their followers with respect. As it turns out, Ao’s new world order basically gives increasing amounts of divine power to those beings who will lie, cheat, and smooth talk their way into earning more followers – beings like Cyric. In years to come, when Midnight tries to keep magic out of the hands of evil creatures, she is punished and nearly cast down. Cyric, meanwhile, continues whipping together fanatical followers and suffers only a slap on the wrist when he throws the entire cosmos into utter chaos.
Matters get even worse when you go to the novels these modules are based on, which details the afterlife of the Realms. Those who worship a god are immediately transported to the afterlife upon their death, where they essentially get their version of Heaven. Those who worship no god, however, are buried in the Wall of the Faithless – a wall constructed of forsaken souls that lie in eternal torment until they are finally consumed into oblivion. Those who only pay lip-service to the gods are branded as false and must spend eternity sealing the faithless souls into the wall. There is no get out of jail card here, no repenting or being saved from this fate. Mortals in the Realms must either worship a deity sincerely or suffer a fate worse than eternal damnation.
So, to recap the new order that Ao has established in the Realms:
- Gods must draw power from their worshipers. Failure to serve them properly results in fewer worshipers, which could eventually be lethal to a god (but this never happens in the official Realms).
- Mortals are free to worship only the gods who serve them directly…but if they choose not to worship a god, or if they rightly point out what douchebags the gods have been during the Time of Troubles, they eventually are placed in the Wall of the Faithless and forced to suffer until their souls become nothing.
- Gods who willingly shell out a lot of tempting power, such as Cyric, are likely to get a ton of followers, while gods who want mortals to actually do shit themselves, such as just about any good deity out there, are inevitable going to be punished in the form of fewer followers.
On top of these adventures being a pain to play through as written, forcing the PCs along a heavily scripted path, focusing overly much on annoying NPCs, expecting the DM to be some sort of creative genius, making the game terribly unfair for the players, and rendering any potential victories hollow, they establish the Forgotten Realms as a world that is cosmically unfair, run by childlike, hypocritical deities that force mortals to choose the least evil one of them to worship lest they suffer intense torment followed by oblivion. It takes the whiniest, most obnoxious NPC villain out there and elevates him to the status of greater god while the PCs are left with nothing but more points and no real sense of accomplishment whatsoever. The adventure modules almost single-handedly established Elminster as the most obnoxious, rules-breaking, adventure-ruining NPC in existence, turned the mystery and magic of the Forgotten Realms into something mundane and dull, and ushered in a new era of AD&D modules that helped nearly kill the game with its utter lack of quality.
In short, the Avatar Trilogy is the worst adventure ever.