The Worst Adventure Ever: Waterdeep, chapter three
Chapter 3 assumes that the PCs watched as Midnight saved the day yet again and that they are okay with having Bhaal incapacitated rather than dead. Admittedly, they can’t kill off Bhaal without some fatalities – as demonstrated in Tantras, a dying god goes out with a literal bang that devastates everything in the area. Still, this would seem like an ideal time for a resourceful and noble PC to get everyone else out of the area and put down the Lord of Murder once and for all.
Event 1: Perilous Paths
“The next morning, over morningfeast, a grateful Lord Deverell offers the most resourceful PCs the post of Watchcaptain at High Horn as a reward for their quick thinking.”
What?! A tangible reward that recognizes the PCs for their deeds rather than giving all credit to the NPCs? The number of events I like in this trilogy has now increased by one (I believe the count stands at 3.5 events so far in three modules).
This section is a large overland journey. The PCs can hire out some soldiers to accompany them, but have to keep track of their food and water, lest starvation do them in. I appreciate the effort in trying to vary the challenges, but I think the module could have been thematically consistent in this regard. In a wilderness adventure where the challenge is for the PCs to find their way back to civilization, this type of resource management makes sense. In an epic tale about gods come to earth where the PCs must run across the Realms to recover two ancient artifacts while thwarting deities themselves, I can’t think of many more frustrating ways of going out than starving to death on the road. Well, I guess there’s the “dying via muscle strain” from the last module, but this one is right up there.
There is no flavor text in this event at all. There are a few vague descriptions of battles that the PCs might face, which might as well have been reduced to, “roll on the random encounters tables.” Overall, it’s a boring event, but I’m going to stick with calling it good because it’s the first time in three modules that the PCs have been recognized and rewarded for doing anything.
Event 2: Through the Bonerun
I’ll just use the following excerpt to sum up this event:
“The PCs can use a narrow, twisting trail along one wall of the Bonerun. It is lined with thick stands of pine, already gloomy in the late afternoon light.
“Roll 1d6 for encounters every hour:
“1-3: Nothing occurs.
“4: 3d4 stirges or 1d3 wyverns (DM’s choice) attack.
“5: 1d4 hungry griffons attack.
“6: Rockfall on the party.”
Admittedly, there is a short bit of flavor text where the PCs’ escorts, if any, depart back for their base. And the text makes note of Midnight meditating on her newfound power, because we need to know what she’s doing at all times. But other than that, this event is essentially a random encounter table. We don’t even get the customary description about the area and its history that makes the Forgotten Realms unique as opposed to Generic Fantasy Setting #47.
Event 3: Darkness Attacks
Well then, I’m attacking the darkness right back!
“PCs find no Zhentilar guards alive in the Bonerun. Dead ones, yes, and lots of dropped weapons, fireball scorch marks on the rocks, and the like – but living guards, no. Though they cannot know it, this is the aftermath of an encounter between Cyric’s forces and the avatar of Bhaal, God of Murder.”
Hey…wasn’t Bhaal encased in some freaky magical carbonite thing last chapter? Well, the off-stage event at the end of this section sheds some light on that…
“…he manages to get free when Lord Deverall orders his men to tie ropes onto the mass and hang it up near the front gates for display. The ropes break, the amber casing hits the ground and shatters, and Bhaal is unleashed once again.”
Holy shit, Deverall. You have the frozen avatar of the god of murder and you decide to use him as a trophy?! He deserves whatever Bhaal gave him for that bit of stupidity.
Anyway, this event is not devoted to Bhaal, but rather to that idiot Cyric. He decides to wander into the party’s camp and openly alert everyone that he’s there to speak to Midnight.
“Cyric is making one more try to convince Midnight to join him, bring the Tablet of Fate, and desert the PCs. This time he hopes a show of force, and perhaps a threat against her friends, will convince her.”
Well, at least this time the module admits that the logical conclusion here is to attack Cyric…
“The PCs very likely try to attack Cyric. If Kelemvor is along, he certainly tries. Midnight protests that Cyric only came to talk, and demands that everyone put aside their weapons.”
Hm…new plan. How about somebody knocks Midnight out, then attacks Cyric? That’s what I’d do if I was a PC in this adventure – provided, of course that I wasn’t playing a lawful good character.
Either way, Cyric has planned for an attack…
“However, Cyric did not come without backup. Whether or not the PCs attack, Cyric draws his own glowing red short sword and calls, ‘Dalzhel!’
“Cyric’s Zhentilar number over 30, unless their casualties so far in this adventure have been very heavy. They emerge from the night in a long line, cocked crossbows in hand…They close in, trapping the party against the cliff edge.”
Oh dang…looks like the group has to listen to Cyric this time. But wait…!
“Midnight casts a wall of fire. It rises up as a raging 20-foot-high wall of green flame. It sets the pine copse alight, and separates Cyric, the adventurers, and their mounts from the Zhentilar. Cyric, for once, appears impressed.”
Yeah…so impressed that you’re about to die, bastard!
Unfortunately, the PCs, as usual, can’t effect the plot whatsoever:
“Regardless of how many PCs join in, Cyric can hold off the attacking weapons. Whenever he parries, the touch of his magical sword…stops other weapons cold, as though they had been swung against a stone wall.”
…No, I’m not going to add anything else. The text has already made it clear that the module is cheating the players. Again.
Anyway, even if Cyric is somehow defeated, Midnight keeps the PCs from killing him. If they don’t listen to the logic that there are 30 armed crossbowmen waiting to attack on the other side of the wall of fire, Midnight proceeds to cancel her magic and let the PCs take on the Zhentilar. She claims that she will not let the group become butchers. Apparently, meting out justice on the guy who has already killed dozens of people is immoral, while robbing graves and killing the inhabitants of ancient tombs in okay in the Forgotten Realms. Midnight, by the way, is lawful neutral according to her NPC stat block in this module. This is an error, as according to later supplements, she is neutral good. And in these modules, she is acting like the worst kind of lawful stupid.
Cyric tries to convince Midnight to leave the group, but she refuses. Then he offers an alliance, suggesting that the adventurers join up with him and his Zhentilar. The module assumes that this offer is rejected. Instead, a fight breaks out, during which Cyric commits an evil deed that proves to Midnight once and for all that he is a legitimate rat bastard. The default option is the same as the event in the novel, in which he kills Sneakabout. Optionally, he murders one of his own men for a trivial mistake, or he gives one of the PCs a disfiguring injury (but not the NPCs, of course). He then escapes immediately afterwards, leaving Midnight convinced once and for all that he is evil. Great job, Midnight. It only took multiple attempts on the lives of your companions, an alliance with the god of strife, the slaughter of a halfling village, and the casual killing or disfigurement of one of your friends to convince you.
Event 4: A Wall of Darkness
“This event begins as the chilly morning finds the adventurers still in the Bonerun. PCs who investigate discover that Cyric’s troops are following them.”
You know, these Zhentilar are the worst kind of plot hammer. There are an essentially unlimited number, and they exist to both railroad the PCs and make the situation seem like a desperate race against time. And yet it is painfully obvious that there is no race against time, because the Zhentilar will leave the PCs alone as long as they’re following the story. If the PCs want to take two hours to eat their breakfast, that’s seemingly allowed. But if they want to take an alternate route to the north, the Zhents apparently run out of patience and try to kill them all.
The PCs eventually run across a wall of blackness, which is actually a planar rift caused by worshippers of Bane who failed to create a gate that would get him out of Toril. Inorganic matter is totally destroyed by the rift, while intelligent creatures suffer a variety of ill effects. The text also mentions that artifacts coming into contact with the rift are plane shifted to another dimension, which is hilarious because in all likelihood the only artifact in the PCs’ possession is the plot-important Tablet of Fate. Sure, it seems unlikely that anyone would be dumb enough to toss the plot MacGuffin into a rift of pure evil blackness, but my experience with gaming is that if it’s possible, somebody will do it.
At any rate, the PCs are forced to take another detour, and their next route uses a table that seems suspiciously familiar:
“Roll 1d6 every hour to check for encounters.
“1-3: Nothing occurs.
“4-5: A random encounter, selected purposefully or taken from a table in the Monstrous Compendium or some other source.
“6: Rockfall; see Event 6 in Chapter 2 for details.”
This is all sorts of laziness. First, we’ve got what is essentially a repeat of the table we got just two events ago. Second, a random encounter that is selected purposefully is not actually random. Third, the writer couldn’t even bother to include an appropriate table or suggest some examples of what a good random encounter table to use would be. Third, the “Rockfall” event references Event 6 in Chapter 2. No, you’re looking for Event 2 in this chapter. There was no Event 6 in Chapter 2. So we’ve got writing fail, designing fail, and editing fail all in one concise table.
Event 5: Black Rain
Okay, I know that the fantasy genre is not the most subtle out there, but I really wish I had come up with a drinking game where I took a shot every time I saw the words “black,” “darkness,” or “shadow” used in reference to something evil in these modules. This is admittedly a trope I used very often in my novel Shadowslayers (plug plug), but even I knew it had limits.
“The next day dawns cold and gray, a warning that winter is not far off. As the adventurers struggle upward, check for encounters and rockfalls as described above.
“Around highsun (noon), wyverns attack the PCs on the mountain trail. These four hungry wyverns have 49, 47, 40, and 32hp. They carry no treasure. If the battle grows too close for comfort, Midnight slays or drives them off with a meteor swarm – and then collapses, exhausted.
“After the adventurers defeat the wyverns, they crest the high saddle between the peaks. They see the mountains falling away to the west, with the green expanse of the Far Lands beyond. The scene would usually be beautiful, but at that moment an ice-cold driving rain begins to fall. Its drops are jet black (a manifestation of physical chaos), and where it touches flesh, it leaves itching red circles behind.
“Check for encounters as the adventurers follow the trail down the western side of the mountains. Midnight continues to ride in grim silence, responding angrily when spoken to.
“When the sun is sinking low, the party finds a sheltered overhang at the base of a cliff in a steep-sided valley, and makes camp. A small, clear pool nearby contains a human skeleton – and nothing else. The water is cursed; horses can drink it safely, but it makes humans sick and weak (- 1 to hit, – 3 on all damage dealt, + 1 on AC) for 24 hours after drinking from its water.
“Any monster encounters here are with stirges or mountain lions. Because of the heavily overcast sky, night comes early.”
That’s the entire event. Pointless, eh? I’m convinced that this module hit a very tight deadline, forcing stuff like this to get thrown in for the sake of meeting the required word count. That deadline theory also explains the lazy writing and poor editing in Waterdeep – not that any of these modules has been an example of good writing, design, or editing. I guess the alternative to my deadline theory is that the design team just didn’t give a damn…which is sadly just as likely.
Event 6: Midnight Goes Missing
“Blaming herself for Cyric’s atrocity (due to her misjudgment of Cyric), and reasoning that as long as she is with the party, she will bring death to her friends, Midnight resolves to seek the second tablet on her own.
“In the early hours of the morning, Midnight leaves. If any PCs are standing watch and see her, she casts sleep on them. Using magical silence and, if necessary, invisibility to conceal her actions, Midnight takes the tablet from the sleeping character who carries it.”
Not a badly executed plan by Midnight, but a huge miss on the part of the writer. There’s a good chance that the PC party includes at least one elf, who would be 90% resistant to Midnight’s sleep spell, or a dwarf, who is likely to make his saving throw. The DM could in theory give it a cheat again and rule that PCs automatically fail their saving throws, but that would be…well, cheating. Again.
As a DM, I don’t think I’d run this encounter unless I knew the players really liked Midnight. The module assumes that the PCs will pursue Midnight either out of concern for her or in hopes of recapturing the Tablet of Fate. However, I think a lot of players by now would happily cut ties with her and go on their way, effectively ending this adventure. Midnight has to this point been too clueless and frustrating to be very likable. Even in the novels, where the reader got to see what makes her tick, she wasn’t a terribly good protagonist. In the modules, she’s invaded the party and usurped the PCs’ status as main characters. As a player, I think I’d be happy to see her go.
As a nice demonstration that Midnight’s plan of protecting the group by leaving them is doomed to failure, the PCs are soon attacked by servants of Myrkul. The event assumes that the PCs will follow Midnight’s trail eventually, bringing them to the river crossing of Hill’s Edge. An off-stage event makes things even worse for Midnight, though:
“Midnight travels alone for several days, through the time of the next event. Then she encounters Bhaal’s avatar, and he quickly captures her.”
Event 7: Battle in the Trees
“Riding on the trail soon after Event 6, the adventurers hear a faint crashing in the underbrush ahead. A man rises out of brush beside the trail and runs away through the pines, clawing and scratching at small dark furry things swarming all over him.
“PCs who succeed in an Intelligence check recognize the man as one of Cyric’s Zhentilar. This sentry turns and runs into the woods. He seeks his fellows, so they can brush all these things off of him.”
Remember how I complained about starvation being an anticlimactic way of dying in these modules? This way is more anticlimactic, but very amusing.
“Physical chaos has driven every squirrel in this wooded area fighting mad. PC spellcasters can dispel this effect, but on only one squirrel at a time. Any character can attack and kill a squirrel, but again, only one at a time. And there are hundreds of them!
“Each character must make a successful Dexterity check every round or suffer 1 hp of bite damage. All attacks by characters during this event are at -1 to hit, since the attacker must constantly tear squirrels away from face, throat, and hands.”
Yes, the PCs can be murdered by insane squirrels! I don’t know if this is stupid or awesome. I do know that I need to petition the designers of the Pathfinder RPG to include squirrel swarms somewhere in a future Bestiary.
The battle eventually leads the PCs to an encounter with Cyric and his Zhentilar, who offer to ally with the group to find Midnight. If the PCs refuse, they follow covertly, which must be pretty darned difficult considering that there are dozens of them and that the PCs know the Zhentilar have been hounding them for days.
But who cares about the rest of this stupid event? Squirrel swarm!
(I like the squirrel half of this encounter. That boosts my liked events up to 4.)
Event 8: Heroes’ Road Goes Ever On
“The combined bands travel on uneasily together for three days, toward Boareskyr Bridge. Select encounters from the High Moor Encounter Table to test the PCs and whittle the numbers of Cyric’s men down still further (to around a dozen).”
Oh yeah…the PCs can trade with a couple caravans, too. (Said caravans don’t seem to mind that the PCs are traveling with openly evil Zhentilar warriors.) That’s the full extent of this event. Deadlines!
Event 9: Boareskyr Bridge – and Bhaal
“Just after nightfall on the brightly moonlit third night of their traveling together, the combined party reaches an abandoned tent city at the southern end of Boareskyr Bridge.
“The massive 30-foot-wide stone span of Boareskyr Bridge crosses the broad Winding Water in five long stone arches. Eyeing the bridge in the moonlight, Cyric suggests that they should explore the tents. They should make sure the cause of the abandonment is not lurking nearby, and they also need to find a defensible camp.”
The PCs are ambushed here by Bhaal, who introduces himself in a totally badass way – ripping off one of the Zhentilar’s horse’s legs and using it as a club. I think I might have a crush.
The fight, unfortunately, is the same kind of smoke and mirrors that has gone on with important battles before. Bhaal can’t be killed yet, but when someone inflicts a serious wound on him he gives a roar and retreats. The PCs then hear Midnight calling for them.
Bhaal and Myrkul have teamed up to locate the Tablets of Fate. Bhaal doesn’t intend to hold Midnight, and has already let slip the location of the second tablet. He then plans on letting her escape and following her to its location. Too bad my new villain crush is about to go bye-bye.
Rather than retreat after Midnight has escaped and blasted him with lightning, Bhaal becomes enthralled with the battle. He is thus doomed to die. To be fair to the module’s writer, the PCs can get in the killing shot here, which can make for an awesome story later on. It’s less dramatic when one realizes that if the PCs don’t do it, Cyric will. Bhaal then dies and goes boom, taking out everyone around him – or he would, if Midnight wasn’t there. She teleports the party to safety, with the hilarious shout of, “Join hands, and touch me!” just as she activates her spell. I’ll bet that at least 75% of groups who actually played to this point had someone who engaged in a bit of inappropriate touching, shrugging it off later as a heat of the moment type of thing.
“Everything whirls away into oblivion.”
It wasn’t apparent at the time, but the death of Bhaal turned out to be one of the better things that ever happened to the Forgotten Realms. In 1998, two video game companies called Bioware and Black Isle created the Baldur’s Gate computer game, using both the AD&D rules and the Forgotten Realms license. That game revealed that Bhaal had foreseen his own death and had coupled with mortals of all different races before his demise. This led to the Bhaalspawn Saga, which ran through Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, and Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal. Those games were among the best computer RPGs ever done and among the best stories presented in any RPG, period. So while the Avatar Trilogy has been a poorly constructed railroad of an adventure, it did spawn something truly awesome.