Running this Guildmasters' Guide to Waterdeep weekly lunch game mashing up Waterdeep: Dragon Heist & Guildmasters' Guide to Ravnica has turned out to be a lot of fun, & judging from the events that are about to unfold in the Magic: the Gathering metaplot during their "War for the Spark" event, I feel like I'm very "on trend." I'll note that this campaign is shaping up to be a fairly brutal one: sure, there is a lot of rubbing shoulders with epic level NPCs & high CR monsters, but even beyond that the threats on the ground seem quite lethal. The last we'd heard from our protagonists they had been hired by a notorious popinjay, one Volothamp Geddarm, author of the various Volo's Guide to... books, to find his missing friend Floon. Other than a description ("human male, pale skin, red-blonde wavy hair, well dressed") the best lead that they have is that Volo had been trying to break his writer's block & Floon had taken him out gambling & drinking two nights ago at the Skewered Dragon, a casino in Dock Ward between Net Street & Fillet Lane.
Carl is playing Soom Splintertusk, an elephantine loxodon warlock & member of the Golgari Swarm. Membership has its perks, & her Guild grants her the ability to move about in the city's underworld rapidly, mostly made manifest by her buddy Shtaa, myconid sewer gondolier. The little toadstool person takes them aboard its boat made from an inverted giant mushroom cap after they descend a manhole near the Inn of the Yawning Portal, swallowing jar after jar of blood smuggled down into the undercity, drained from the corpse of the Xanathar gang member Soom dismembered. & off they scoot! Jellywinks Stumbleduck, Ruoxi's gnome barbarian, is the only one with nightvision, so it's torches or darkness for most of the trip. There seems to be some sort of drama up above, but they safely & quickly pass below it.
They come up safely, near their destination, detouring into a nearby purple storefront named after the stuffed beholder in its window: The Old Xoblob Shop. The shop is packed with wild gizmos & bric-a-brac, swathed in violet decor: amethyst lamps, lilac curtains, & an periwinkle deep gnome in plum robes, face adorned with eye tattoos & puffing on a pipe of lavender smoke. "Xoblob's the name...no relation!" Vanri "Toad" Todeshi, Caro's Rakdos Cultist air genasi rogue, trades some stolen death's head moths for a bone flute & the Selesneya Conclave's representative, Jeff's water genasai monk, Serous of the Nine Currents, yearns for a fancy mechanical goldfish he finds tucked away on a shelf; while the group barters & chats, they question the svirfneblin, who tells them that Floon & similar looking looking man (“not brothers, but you know how old friends can grow to look alike,” he says, gesturing at beholder in the window) were jumped outside the shop by half a dozen men with winged snake tattoos wearing black armor.
The Skewered Dragon is artfully distressed, the front torn up, with anchors embedded in the roof, smashing in the windows. It's the sort of dive where the professional upper-crust slum it with their working-class peers; in this case, It's the Order of Master Shipwrights drinking with the salt of the earth folk from the Most Diligent League of Sail-makers & Cordwainers. Asking around the bar, the consensus is that after Volo parted ways with Floon, he met up with Renaer Neverember, son of previous Open Lord of Waterdeep, Dagult Neverember. The dwarf Orsic Ruby-Eye says Renaer is “another spoiled, rich brat wrecking it for everyone!” but Eggren the dragonborn thinks “he’s okay for an aristocrat; I don’t mind winning his coins, at least!” There's a rumor that Floon was living off of blackmailing a noble, but otherwise the scuttlebutt is that the two of them played a few unlucky hands of Three Dragon Ante & were followed out by five men in black leathers who frequent a warehouse marked by a flying snake. As the group interrogates the patrons, Toad is subtly sneaking into conversations, inflaming tensions, escalating the stress in the room into an all out riot!
The clues have pointed them towards a warehouse with painted over windows on Candle Lane— now a poverty-stricken area, the broken street lamps still flicker with the continual flame spells cast in more prosperous days. Set in a part of the city with varying heights of infrastructure, half-built into a bridge, the main floor of the warehouse is lower than street level, inset with a yard & loading dock. & well, here is where things start to get rough. The players have a lot of reasonable concerns: the initial premise was that they were all friends with Yagra, & having found out she's a Zhent they are wary of bursting into their stronghold guns blazing. & Toad climbs the wall & goes to scout in through the second-story, as is the rogue's prerogative. The problem here is the dice: the players are rolling terrible on Stealth & Open Locks, & dun dun dun, the bad guys are rolling much, much better. Kenku, crow-folk, armed with wicked kris knives & cruel bows, mimicking the words of others to speak, lying in wait.
So here's how it goes down: Toad is ambushed & dropped to zero in the first round. This is tense: I know that the kenku inside of the warehouse are kidnapping her & I'm giving her "death saves" to let her have a chance to wake up, but the table is feeling pretty dire as she starts critically failing them. Jellywinks charges in, but the raven-people from the Xanathar Guild are covering the back & ventilate her with arrows, as well. She's up & trucking but sticks to the shadows, taking the long way around the crates & boxes of the lower floor...which is littered with a dozen bodies, some with the many-eyed circle of the Xanathar Gang but more in the black armor & winged snakes of the Zhentarim. Soom & Serous both climb up & go to help Toad; they are barraged by arrows & dagger strikes but fight back with spell, sword & punch. Still, the odds are against them & things are looking grim, until a clumsy yell & hurdled violence stuns the corvid villains for a moment, giving the remaining party members a chance to finish the avian antagonists off.
The battlecry comes from one Renaer Neverember, pickled herring soaked son of the previous Open Lord, armed with a scavanged kenku dagger & slim Zhent rapier. In his princely attire & ginger hair, he does match the rough description of Floon, & indeed, Renaer believes that both group of gangsters' cases of mistaken identity are at the root of things. The Zhentarim kidnapped both of them, but when ambushed by the Xanathar Gang, Renaer managed to sneak away to hide in a back closet in the chaos...but Floon wasn't so lucky. He doesn't know what's going on but the Zhents who kidnapped him were too stupid to shut up, & so Renaer learned that the crooks all seem to believe that his father Dagult Neverember embezzled a vast sum of gold from Waterdeep’s charity & welfare budget when he was Open Lord & hid the dragon-stamped coins somewhere in the city. The Xanathar Guild has — or had— a magical artifact called The Stone of Golorr, whatever that is, but it was recently stolen, & now it seems like there is going to be an all-out gang war.
The whistles in the distance mean the City Watch is on its way, but they have a moment to search or question the unconscious or dying bird people. The Selesneyan representative Serous is roused from unconsciousness, confused but glad not to have been dissected. They focus on a round of questions: Soom's magic is able to stave off death for a few of the parliament of avian crooks; the one with the gold rings in its beak & the one with blue cheeks are too far gone but the perpetually molting one lives & the one with the peg leg is roused for questioning. You might call it [Gears,] since it mimics the sound of spinning clockwork teeth when questioned. These bird-critters only answer in call & response, but eager to live, it chirps:
In a scratchy voice: “No time to loot the place; just get him to the boss.”
In a gruff voice: “Heh, heh, heh...The Xanathar sends his regards!”
In a nasal sing-song: "🎵Follow the yellow signs in the sewers...🎵”
There is a secret closet where a crate full of paintings & a crate full of silver bars are stashed, but they don't have a chance to grab any before the cops show up. When the City Watch arrives it is embodied in the person of one Hyustus Stagat, Watch Captain & Boros Agent, wearing a “Worf sash” with a glowing Boros Legion symbol & a Chultian Flaming Fist. "A triple cop," they call him, & they aren't wrong, but he's not the kind to play by the book; he's the type from the school of hard knocks. What's the cliche? “Keep the blood off the streets”? Well, Stagat's laissez faire attitude extends thus far & no further. A Waterdhavian native & Guild member, he's a pragmatist whose familiar with Force Grey murderhobos, Golgari crypt-gardens & secret Rakdos clubs; if the PCs can restrict their violence to gangsters & monsters, out of public eye, he’ll try to help them out..."but not everybody as understanding as I am, like the Boss." Besides as much, he’s impressed by a Neverember, even a black sheep like Renaer, so they depart unmolested, but not unremarked.
Everyone decides it is best to rest the night at the Yawning Portal: Volo is up in the balcony but they avoid him & settle in for a few drinks, tucked away in a corner. The Inn is plastered with posters for an upcoming Rusty Bighat show, & a fat orange tomcat is sitting on the bar being fed a saucer of milk by Bonnie the barmaid; they overhear gloomy old Durnan chiding her not to encourage the thing to stick around or it’ll be stirge food before long, or worse. Toad tries to befriend the fluffy one-eyed beast— "Marmaduke"— but they get off to a bad start: he scratches her & runs off to hide in the rafters. Exhausted & put upon, they are not long for the taproom & soon head upstairs, Soom & Toad bonding & nuzzling while Jellywinks passes out in a nest of books & sweaters with the necklace belonging to her stillborn sibling that she somehow found amongst the bar's many oddities. Serous meditates in the stable barracks; Durnan recognizes a certain thousand yard stare in his eyes & put him up in the workers' quarters free of charge.
That night they dream. Serous is troubled by nightmares over-brimming with spectral kaiju, as ever. He hides while the Temple falls, but this time the earth genasi he's powerless to save from a fate worse than death is not the little girl he remembers, but an older man with bismuth “hair” wearing a heavy leather apron who is soul-flensed by the dark, grasping tentacles, spirit ripped screaming from his body while the young monk watches helplessly. He's first up in the morning, lurking in the hallways outside everyone else's room, half-awake.
Soom is a warlock, & the Corpse-Germ is her patron, rhizomes of unlife reaching deep into her nervous system. It appears as a tusked skull, jawless & sprouting the veins & connective ligaments of a body as roots & fungal bodies, waiting for her in an endless grey sea sprinkled with prismatic stars above & below. Corpse-Germ has a literally cyclopean affect, as it turns to face the viewer with no relation to the eye sockets, giving the impression that the central nasal cavity is it's "face." It wants to know “What did we learn today?”
"Are you locked inside or out?" is what I ask Ruoxi while her character Jellywinks dreams of the Blue Door. The Blue Door that haunts her. She's locked inside. "What is outside?" The steppe. When she wakes up from the dream of the Blue Door, the Blue Door that haunts her, she remembers that her unborn sibling's necklace is a kind of puzzle-locket, but she can't figure out how to twist it open. Is it some kind of key? Jellywinks sleeps in; she has to be pried from her cocoon of slumber with a proverbial crowbar.
Caro's air genasi rogue also picked up a knick-knack from the Yawning Portal, a black book labeled “Nocturne” that records people's dreams: in the morning, she can see everything written in perfect detail on the first page, ready to be copied into the following pages if she so chooses. She floats in the eye of the storm, a dust storm of brittle glass swirling in eviscerating breezes that spiral closer & closer until biting into her face, blood everywhere.
Morning comes uneventfully. Renaer does not have access to any deep coffers; he lives on his mother's estates but his name does still afford him a line of credit to some degree, which he leverages with a cleric of Waukeen, Obaya Uday, for two potions of healing. He's waiting for the party in the common room with Volo, who is complaining about being stood up by his editor & drinking a hot, bitter, brown drink from a complicated pot. Chultan kaeth, coffee from his friends in the import & export business, River & Flask. He asks Soom, as politely as an overly curious man like him can, what happened to her "other trunk," mentioning that the other "Loxo" he's met all had a pair. Strange! Volo is, of course, staying behind, but Renaer comes with them on the rescue mission, albeit trepidatiously. The kitchen is serving a kind of biscuits & gravy, & Jellywinks stuffs her overflowing pack with a handful before heading out.
Down into the dank, churning sewers again! This time to follow the yellow chalk signs the kenku "spoke" of. They pile into another manhole in the Castle Ward, climbing single file, not entirely unnoticed, & it takes a bit of searching to pick up the trail...but luckily Soom & Shtaa are specialized for the sorts of labyrinthine, underworld affairs. The myconid is a little lumpier & flirtier than before, & between them, Jellywink's ability to see in the dark, & Serous & Toad getting out & searching for old chalk markings that might have been rubbed away— "Wet & Breezy" combine clever eyes & a working knowledge of thieves' guild tactics— they find themselves back under the Dock Ward, navigating the maze of chutes & tunnels swiftly & unerringly. They've got a torch burning but have all (besides Renaer) inhaled the psychic rapport spores of their fungal friend, so they are largely silent, except when they remember to speak out loud to include the young Neverember.
Their initial approach is stealthy, deadly & efficient. A gazer— a small beholderkin creature, like a hovering grapefruit of flesh with four eyestalks & an angerfish maw— blocks their path through the fetid tunnels, but a few arrows & darts dispatch it. Coming to a three-way junction, with a landing platform, very narrow drainage passage & continuing canals, Jellywinks spots a hidden door! & they all spy several arrow slits, & hear the sounds of snoring creatures: goblins? The telepathic spores they shared with the Golgari myconid allow them to remain eerily silent, sneaking up on the gang hideout unawares. The group slips in through another murderhole, past more arrow slits & almost catch the warty green humanoid asleep at the watch...almost. At the last minute he jumps up, yelling "BREE-YARK!" out into the echoing tunnels & trying to scamper away before Serous knocks him unconscious.
The action is on, now! They players sweep the area; the main room features a plinth topped with a stylized beholder, absent its main eye; the room is otherwise featureless, literally swept clean, though ever-perceptive Toad finds a dustless spot on the wall, as if a large painting or tapestry that reached all the way to the floor had been removed, as well as a mysterious glass bottle of some kind of "serum" in the side chambers: crude cells, junk-strewn & with bloody manacles bolted to the wall. There are two massive double-doors left, & pausing to listen they hear the sounds of pain coming from beyond, like Han being tortured on Bespin. Ready to get the drop on them, the party use magical smoke & illusions to simulate all sorts of shenanigans in the room on the other side of the door.
Here's the thing about that: it works, but perhaps too well. Unbeknownst to them, one of the lieutenants of The Xanathar Gang is visiting an underboss, & the mindflayer capo comes straight through the doors (opening them telekinetically, hovering a foot above the ground) into the room the players are in. With it, skittering along the wall, is a brain with four chicken feet, its pet intellect devourer, & last in through the door, spewing gouts of fire from his fists: a magical, pyromaniac...orc? Half-orc? Three-quarters orc wizard. The Rakdos troublemaker, Toad, hiding behind the corner of the door, is nonetheless cooked by the cone of flame.
So there's a moment of true terror: the party is face to face with a threat easily capable of destroying (& to be entirely honest, devouring) them. Now, it is clear from an audience standpoint that this mini-Cthulhu is basically done with the whole scene & looking to bounce, but you know how heroes are. So there are a few moments where it is touch & go: mammoth-like Soom had a spell prepared to go off at the first non-redhead through the door so she takes the brunt of its initial annoyance, luckily rolling over twenty on her save versus being dominated into killing her friends. The monk Serous, well. He's "lucky" in that his short sword draws blueblack ichor from the thing, piercing into it; but unlucky in the way that it looks at him, mindblasting him, liquifying important parts of his grey matter.
Two healing potions later & things are looking a little better; the mindflayer has left through the portal, though it still hangs ominously open. The cerebral horror is no slouch on its own; clawing through the room & focusing a horrible psychic assault on Renaer, who falls to his knees, beats himself about the head & flees into the other room, a blessed mix of stupid & stubborn defeating its awful, sustained psionic assault. Axes & blows seem to harm it, but not completely; it's like doing three-dimensional damage to being that exists on more than just this plane of existence. The spellcaster, Soom, is occupied keeping people from dying, so it falls to the rest of them to deal with it— & the orkish mage with the eerily familiar gruff voice— via brute force & mundane damage...& violence wins the day!
They hurriedly scan the next room; Renear has a man who looks like him up in a fireman's carry— Floon, bearing truth serum track marks, at one hit point & with several levels of exhaustion— & the chamber is otherwise adorned with ragged curtains, a dais, a throne, & more torture cells. Searching, the group finds a secret passage, the orc magician's spellbook & sack of treasure. They decide discretion is the better part of valor & ignore the secret dirt tunnel they've uncovered under a flagstone, & whatever else might be in the rest of the dungeon, doubling back to the canal. Another goblin— chanting "🎵fill 'em full of arrows 🎵" in a sing-song voice— takes pot shots at them as they retreat, firing from behind the arrow slits opposite the way they came in, sinking a barbed arrowhead into their myconid pilot, Shtaa, but they beat an otherwise successful hasty retreat, as the Golgari lead them back through the filthy, sunken passages of Waterdeep's sewers.