Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Dragon Heist Retrospective and Review

A friend of mine is the admin for a local Adventurer's League store, and I've been helping out as a guest DM since this summer.  When the new "season" started in September, I began running a pair of the 5E hardcover books on alternating weeks - Waterdeep: Dragon Heist one week, Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus the following week.  Dragon Heist is a compact story and we finished it this week after 6 four hour sessions.  Here's a recap of our experience as well as a capsule review.

The Dragon Heist Experience
With Adventurer's League, a referee needs to anticipate transience with the weekly players.  An ongoing campaign needs to gracefully handle characters coming and going.  For Dragon Heist, the players created an adventuring company called The Misfits; by the second chapter, they owned a tavern in Waterdeep, and any transient characters were heretofore unseen members of The Misfits who helped run the business when not adventuring.  It worked well.

The principal group consisted most nights of Dmitrighor (dragonborn barbarian), Whistler (kenku monk), Kal (tiefling warlock), Trick (human sorceror), Mr Gloom (halfling rogue), Dick (gnome wizard), and Rycroft (human druid).  Misfits indeed.  Dragon Heist provides the opportunity for characters to be approached by factions and form allegiances with them; the Misfits had one member become a Zhentarim, and several members join the Grey Hands, an adjunct to an adventuring company called Force Grey.

The players were all experienced and competent, made good choices, and blazed through the campaign smartly.  We only lost a single player when an encounter with an assassin, Urstul Floxin, went poorly.  (Dick the Gnome Wizard was a replacement character).  However, the campaign didn't lack drama.  There's a tense battle with an intellect devourer at 1st level, and plenty of powerful, high level NPC's throughout the chapters that can lay a smack down (including death by immolation if they run afoul of a 17th level gold dragon).  One of our capstone battles involved the players fighting Meloon Wardragon, a high level fighter possessed by an intellect devourer.  There's a mind flayer and intellect devourer sub-theme in Dragon Heist, since one of the crime syndicates is run by a Beholder and employs a mind flayer and intellect devourers to infiltrate organizations in the city.

The summary of the campaign goes like this:  a previous lord of the city embezzled a half million gold pieces ("gold dragons"), and hid the money in a secret vault in the city.  A magic key to the vault has resurfaced, and the crime syndicates are fighting each other to be the first to secure the key and locate the vault.  The players become embroiled in the gang war, learn about the key, embark on a chase all over the city to claim it, and eventually become the group that discovers the lost vault.  The treasure is ultimately guarded by an adult gold dragon.  There's no chance of winning a combat against the dragon, so the players either need to think quickly and win a high stakes social encounter, or run for their lives.  The Misfits had negotiated events to that point such that they were accompanied by a doppleganger ally; they convinced said doppleganger to assume the form of the original lord's adult son and heir, Renaer Neverember, and used an extremely well-forged document to pass title of the treasure as an inheritance to their fake heir.  It was a classic heist movie moment.  Sidebar:  Heist scenes like "Ocean's 11" can be hard to pull off at the table in real time, so I let the players do flashbacks while in the vault if they think of something they should have planned for - such as the the forged documents, wearing the right uniforms, that kind of stuff.  Here's a good post from DM David that describes the technique of using flashbacks to support a heist session - good stuff!

However, our particular campaign ended with the villains getting the last laugh, and ensuring there will be a future reckoning.  Dragon Heist has four sets of antagonists, determined by the time of year you set the campaign.  The Misfits chose "summer".  Their secret adversaries were powerful devil cultists called the Cassalanters.  When Victoro Cassalanter learned his agents lost the vault key to the players, he ingratiated himself to them, portraying himself as a victim of a diabolical plot; the souls of his innocent children were forfeit to Asmodeus unless he and his wife could produce a million gold pieces by mid-summer.  He needed the gold to ransom his poor children.  The heroic instincts of The Misfits predisposed them to ally with the Cassalenters to "save the children", and they won through to the gold on Victoro's behalf.  The players were later invited to be guests of honor at the Cassalanter's mid-summer gala, rubbing shoulders with well-to-do nobles from Waterdeep's upper crust, while the Cassalanters threw a sumptuous spread for many poorer residents of the city out in the courtyard of the villa.

The Cassalanters and their children
It was a giant trap.  The player characters, along with the stunned noble guests in the main house, watched in horror as the courtyard full of peasants died at midnight to a horrific time-delayed poison, "midnight tears", an exotic toxin.  The players learned, too late, there were two parts to the Cassalanter's bargain with Asmodeus; the Cassalanters needed the gold, but they also needed to sacrifice a hundred souls in order to void their original contract.  Victoro and his wife black-mailed the nobles in attendance as accomplices to the horrific crime, ensuring they'll be able to cover up their misdeeds and continue their social advancement through leverage on several well to-do families.  The Cassalanters also had enough "muscle" present to dissuade the player characters from starting a brawl on the spot.  Victoro reminded the Misfits that they did indeed "save the children", even if it was based on half-truths and deception.  Victoro had bribed the characters with magic items and promises of future payments for their help, and he upheld his side of the deal.  In future games, Victoro will attempt to compel the Misfits to act as agents of the Cassalanters, the way a crime lord will exact service when he has some dirt on a mark.  It's good to have villains the players really despise.

Capsule Review of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
I provided a summary of the campaign up above.  Besides the five chapters covering the main story, Dragon Heist includes a gazetteer of Waterdeep, detailed lairs for the 4 antagonist organizations, the usual appendices of magic items and new monsters, and a pull-out poster map of the city.

Like any plotted adventure, there are connecting points between chapters that can be missed by the players, and the game master needs to be ready to nudge the action if advancing the story line is important.  For instance, our sorcerer had joined a magic guild called the "Watchful Order"; a fellow member of the Order suggested they pursue a Speak with the Dead spell as an option to learn information about a crime, thus revealing a clue to the next adventure site.  Ideally you'd like the players to consider these options themselves, but a plotted story may require the referee to prompt them with a friendly NPC here and there to keep the narrative on track.  Plotted stories are not my favorite style of play, but this one offers several patterns that made it quite memorable.

At the end of the first chapter, the players can take ownership of an abandoned tavern, Trollskull Manor.  Chapter two is all about deciding what to do with the place and exploring the neighborhood.  This was one of my favorite elements in Dragon Heist; I've found through the years many of my player groups have loved establishing a home base, an identity, and a brand for themselves.  The Misfits turned Trollskull Manor into a gambling hall and gin joint, and promoting their business (while adventuring) became a running theme throughout the campaign.  Through research and good play, they befriended the ghost of the deceased owner and own Waterdeep's first "haunted tavern" where a poltergeist helps tend bar.

I mentioned during the recap the players joined "The Grey Hands" and "The Zhentarim".  The factions provide the party with side quests and advancement opportunities that give the campaign a "world in motion" element while advancing the story themes.  The Grey Hand side quests in particular built on themselves nicely.  Dragon Heist provides some replay value because a second group could be presented with different faction choices (as well as picking a different master villain) and the pivotal chase sequence in chapter 4 changes based on the villain.  If my home group wanted to experience Dragon Heist, I wouldn't say no since the experience would vary quite a bit.

Chapter's 5 through 8 detail the lairs and organizations of the 4 principal antagonists of the campaign - the Xanathar Guild, the Cassalanters, a drow mercenary named Jarlaxle, and a Manshoon clone leading a Zhentarim branch.  It's unlikely these secret lairs will matter much during a run-through of the main story line, but I'm sure they'll see use in a long term campaign in Waterdeep - especially if the referee continues on to Dungeon of the Mad Mage, a megadungeon based in Waterdeep that picks up after Dragon Heist when the characters are 5th level.

Overall I liked Dragon Heist.  The home base, the faction missions, the big chase sequence, the "heist", all present interesting urban play patterns that provide a change of pace from exploration-based hex and dungeon crawls.  The plotted scenes weren't hard to keep on track; the Trollskull Manor side business and faction side quests were great fun.  Chapter 4 is a gigantic chase sequence composed of a handful of connected vignettes.  The chapter is okay, and moves along nicely.  There are several breaking and entering "heist" style capers that can devolve into fiascoes - infiltrating Gralhund Villa and breaking into the main vault to confront the dragon.  However, to get full value out of the book, I'd recommend it for referees interested in running a Waterdeep campaign, to take advantage of the full content.  As for my group, we'll be starting Dungeon of the Mad Mage sometime in January and I'd expect the lairs in chapters 5 through 8 to become relevant in a long term campaign.

Artwork copyright Wizards of the Coast

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Get Your Mythology on with Odyssey of the Dragonlords - A Review

Odyssey of the Dragonlords kickstarted earlier this year, and the digital rewards were delivered in October.  With the long holiday weekend, I was able to finish my read through and reflect on the work.  It's impressive.  You'll see below I call out several things I see as problems, but the vision and scope of Odyssey of the Dragonlords is inspiring.  It's broken new ground for 5E.

Like most reviews, there are could be some spoilers ahead.

What is It
The Behemoth, a giant monster
Odyssey of the Dragonlords is essentially a massive "adventure path" that takes a group of characters from 1st level up to at least 15th level, and probably closer to level 20 (or immortality, whatever comes first.)  Along the way, it details a setting heavily inspired by Greek mythology, called Thylea, with analogs to Sparta, Athens, Atlantis, the underworld, and many island stops reminiscent of the Odyssey.  For inspiration, it felt like reading a mashup of The Iliad, The Odyssey, the Metamorphoses, Percy Jackson, Clash of the Titans, Xena Warrior Princess, The 300, Dragonlance, and the Godzilla series.  (There are lots of giant monsters).

It comes with an extensive player's guide (freely available:  here) which includes Greek myth inspired races, new class archetypes, a setting guide, and a new type of background called an "epic path".  The epic paths are optional additions that give the character another connection to the setting, and establish a potential story-line and destiny for the character.  They reminded me of 4E's "epic destinies" but you establish them during character creation instead of waiting for "Tier 4".

Who Made It
The writers are credited as James Ohlen and Jesse Sky in partnership as Arcanum Worlds with several other creative contributors; the kickstarter listed them as fans of Dungeons & Dragons, long time campaigners, and possessing many video game creative credits (Dragon Age, Knights of the Old Republic, those types of games).  The setting, characters, and plot-lines all point to professional writers, backed by a serious publishing house (in this case - Modiphius Entertainment, publisher of a wide range of RPGs and board games - Vampire the Masquerade, Star Trek, Conan, Acthung! Cthulhu, and more).  The cadre of artists they assembled did a fantastic job bringing Thylea to life.
The Mossy Temple

What Was Awesome
I loved the setting of Thylea. As the campaign develops, the authors incorporate the major themes and elements from mythology or the secondary material, while retaining the core of the D&D game experience.  Plus dragons.  There weren't any traditional dragons in Greek Myth (Ladon, or maybe the serpent of Pythia) so the dragons of Thylea arrived from the outer lands as invaders.  It wasn't lost on me that Odyssey of the Dragonlords has similarities to the Dragonlance series of the 80's; both lay out an epic storyline for the player characters with world-shaking implications, they involve reintroduction of lost or missing gods, and plenty of dragons to battle and ride.  There's even an Orb of Dragonkind as a potential treasure, like an Easter egg pointing towards Hickman and Weis.

Kentimane:  the campaign's hundred-handed one, an Elder Titan
Odyssey of the Dragonlords is epic in scope.  The central conflict regards a 500 year peace between the ancient Titans and the gods that is about to end, plunging the world back into a divine war.  The oracle identifies the player characters as the heroes that can forge a new peace by confronting and defeating the Titans, after a series of quests and journeys to arm themselves and build their power.  However, confronting the ancient Titans is only the first domino; there are older and more dangerous forces in the cosmos, and where this particular campaign shines is it's willingness to up the ante and push the high-powered characters into conflict with larger and stranger primordial threats.  The capstone involves 4 terrible "weapons of the gods", giant monsters from the dawn times, awakened and rampaging across the land all at the same time.  One of them is the Tarrasque.

I already called out a reference to Dragonlance; the campaign also reminded me quite a bit of Mystara, another gem from the 80's.  There used to be a boxed set called "Wrath of the Immortals" that featured a world-spanning divine war.  This campaign is just as gonzo as anything published for Mystara.  One of the potential end-games for the characters is to ascend to immortality themselves and become a new pantheon.  Great stuff, absolutely bonkers - like those 70's campaigns where the players killed Thor with Stormbringer and then used Mjolnir to smash Cthulhu (because Deities and Demigods was a monster book, right?)

Thylea is a self-contained "world" that supports a game master putting the continent and islands of Thylea into an existing game setting - there are plausible explanations regarding why outsiders can reach Thylea.  This explains why they setting has some elves, halflings, dwarves, and dragons, mixed in with the satyrs, centaurs, nymphs and sirens.

Any long time reader here knows I favor sandbox settings - hex crawls and megadungeons.  Give me the lego blocks, let me build my own thing - don't give me a 300 page story to follow.  Odyssey of the Dragonlords is a 300 page "adventure path".  The action is especially forced in the first few chapters, getting the players to board the train and leave the station.  However, once the characters are engaged with the main story-line, the world opens up significantly and the players get real choice on how to attack the remaining story-line.

Similarly, the player characters are the snowflake chosen ones, right from the start, assuming they chose an epic path.  It's in keeping with the source inspiration - if you're a demigod learning to grow into your power, this is a fact that oracles and the great powers can learn.  Kings have heard of you, the gods know about you.  You can't play as Achilles, Hercules, or one of the Argonauts without having some degree of destiny and fate surrounding your character.  But this is much different style of play than the zero-to-hero approach in our OSR games.  That being said, the authors implemented the "epic paths" well here - they don't constrain agency, they just give the players some narrative juice and built in goals they can pursue (or not).

There's a lot of redundant read aloud text.  An entry may go like this:  After fighting the big evil thing, the characters are compelled to visit the city by a summons - immediately followed by read aloud text that says "After you fought the big evil thing, you and your friends are compelled to visit the city by a summons..."  I'm being pedantic, as this is stuff you can fix at the table with your own presentation (ie, I personally don't tend to use read aloud text).

Overall Recommendation
I highly recommend this one.  It's massive, thorough, lovingly developed, interesting, and breaks cool new ground for 5E.  I only bought into the digital rewards, and I'm regretting I didn't order the hardcover - this one would be fun to have.  The care in the world and setting building, and love for elements of mythology comes through in droves.  There's a dearth of 5E adventures that push into levels 15-20; Odyssey sits in rarefied territory, with meaningful challenges for 18th level characters.  I like the thematic similarities to Dragonlance and the gonzo elements of Mystara's "Immortals" campaigns.  The material is so compelling I'll smooth out any early issues with the plotted sections.  Once this campaign gets moving, it's going to be a tour-de-force.  When my players finish Tomb of Annihilation, I'm going to ask them if they're up for trying this one.

Unfortunately, hardcover books aren't available yet - the kickstarter updates claim they'll ship in January.  Besides the free player's guide on DriveThruRPG, the only way to get a copy of this campaign is doing a late pledge via the kickstarter rewards page - here.

Any art used in this review is © James Ohlen 2019, © Jesse Sky 2019