I've never been a Magic: the Gathering player, since I'd rather dive into a roleplaying game if I can get a bunch of nerds together, but I have always admired the background worldbuilding. I picked up A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara once upon a time & enjoy dipping into the game's meta-narrative when I stumble upon it. When Guildmasters' Guide to Ravnica came out, I was instantly charmed by it. Cool new species, some new background abilities, but above all it's the factions that sold me. Some of the most iconic intellectual property in Dungeons & Dragons comes from combining the game mechanics with the logic of the cosmology, like the Outer Planes. A Blood War between the devils of a Lawful Evil Hell & the demons of the Chaotic Evil Abyss, Sigil, that sort of thing. The Guilds of Ravnica work the same way, but on the Magic: the Gathering coloured mana paradigm. It lends a "same but different" feel to the Guilds' design, & I starting thinking of a lot of various ways to work them in to D&D, most notable as pan-dimensional franchises. The ur-magical Guildpact prevents largescale conflicts from breaking out on the city-world of Ravnica, so I've decided that if all ten Guilds are able to get established somewhere (whatever that might mean mechanically) a similar protective ward, what the people of Forgotten Realms might call a mythal, would come into effect there, as well. Not to mention that the last time there was shenanigans with the Guildpact, the winning Champion ended up bestowed with the power of the Living Guildpact, whose rulings are magically binding across the plane of Ravnica, so there is probably a supernatural incentive to compete, & while each Guild has to be included for the Pact to take effect, there is no need for all ten to be equal...
Another sourcebook I'd had my eye on was Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. Running Out of the Abyss has given me a newfound appreciation for published modules. I think I'll always be a homebrew guy at heart, but there is a lot of appeal in both being able to share in a part of the collective gamer zeitgeist, of having taken part of a "classic module" like The Temple of Elemental Evil & in having someone else do a big part of the game prep for you in advance. I've never had a story relationship with the metropolis Waterdeep, & this module is meant to go from level one to five, which is, I think, a modest & reasonable length considering the way most game scheduling goes these days. I've been playing in a Ravenloft game at lunch at work & I started to think that maybe the "scene at a time" restrictions might work for my vignette-heavy style...plus it reminded me of how much Middle-earth Role Playing I did during study hall in junior high. Major flashbacks to Morlókë the Noldo Sorcerer chilling at the Grey Havens. Dragon Heist also has a structure ripe for both faction quests & for sandbox-style "guild-building," & is cosmopolitan enough to be a worthwhile target for expansion (privately, I joke that the higher level Guild diplomats were sent to Kai Shan to negotiate with the Spelljammer sphere-spanning Shou Lung). So I rallied up some of my work crew & this is who they've chosen to play:
Jellywinks Stumbleduck of the Flayed Monkey Clan, Gnome Barbarian & secretly the envoy from the (Blue & Black) spies of House Dimir, played by Ruoxi. A failed academic freelancing on the courtiers beat for the Deep Times, delivering tabloid gossip about the aristocracy while a deep & abiding rage stirs in her soul, waiting eagerly for blood & axes. She has a creepy talking doll.
Serous of the Nine Currents, Water Genasi Monk, devotee of Istishia, & Faerûnian convert to the (Green & White) sylvan Selesnya Conclave, played by Jeff. Graceful & with a solemn playfulness, Serous is the survivor of planar catastrophe & kaiju menace, nursed back to health in the glades of the Selesnya, where street & forest, house & stream all coexist in harmony. He has a candle that burns under water.
Soom Splintertusk, Loxodon Warlock of the Undying, the elephantine shaman sent by the necro-fungal (Green & Black) Golgari Swarm, played by Carl. She is the only one openly wearing her Guild insignia, & she is exceedingly friendly...which what makes her periodic indifference to death & decay all the more uncanny. One of her tusks was shattered & repaired with gold, Kintsugi-style. She wears skullpaint that shifts with her moods.
Vanri "Toad" Todeshi, Air Genasi Rogue, a pale little thing, the childlike representative from the demonic (Red & Black) Cult of Rakdos, played by Caro. Sure, an archfiend runs the Guild, but there are plenty of people who join because they like circuses, crime, or in the case of Vanri, chaos. Her slight frame can lend her a false innocence, & it is your fault if you fall for it. She has a magical pipe that blows smoke into shapes.
The adventure begins in the legendary inn The Yawning Portal, built over the ruined foundations of a crazed wizard's tower, the open well of which is the only known entrance to the infamous dungeons of Undermountain. The bartender is Durnan, an immortal adventurer, retired; a collector of knick-knacks & trophies who pours a steady pint with a thousand yard stare. Each player gets to choose an NPC from a pre-generated selection of contacts, & they each independently decide on Yagra Stonefist. Okay, that makes my life easier; herding Player Characters can be difficult but at least I've got a half-orc to corral them to one table. & so she did, convincing the massive but relatively weak Loxodon spellcaster to arm wrestle the deceptively tiny Gnome warrior. Jellywinks ("Jelly, Winks, Stumble, Duck, you can call me whatever.") wins but the ice is broken & soon they are chatting & admiring the mummified corpse leaned up against Durnan's bar in a coffin ("He's waiting for someone.") & an unopenable bottle of fizzy liquid.
Yagra gets up to get them all a round of drinks so that we can do some character descriptions & introductions, leaving them to talk amongst themselves, but that is cut short by slurs & violence. “Ya pig! Like killin’ me mates, does ya?” is what they hear, & by the time they push through the crowd, Yagra has a human with an eye tattooed on his forehead pinned & about to get knocked out for the count, but four of his friends with similar eyeball marks & brands ("The Xanathar Gang!" realize those in the know) are about to jump her from behind. Oh no, not on their watch: they get right into the thick of it. At first it's fists & non-lethal attacks, as Waterdeep is a city of laws & police, but Vanri palms a blade & tries to shiv the thug on the ground, & while no one else notices, he decides it's blades out...just in time for Jellywinks to rage & remove his head with a battleaxe. Thunk. Soom throws the body towards the chasm into the deadly dungeon in the center of the bar, but she falls short & only the head goes in. Plunk, plunk, plunk plunk. There is more bloody scuffling but soon Soom & Yagra facedown the rest, tusks & sneers, intimidating them into fleeing...except the one Serous kicks in the pants on the way out. That one decides to get a little vengeance, or at least, that was his plan before Jellywinks & Serous pinned him to the floor.
Just in time for the warty, green fingers & grotesque, carroty nose of a desiccated troll to crest the lip of the well, climbing up out of Undermountain! A cloud of sluggish, possum-sized mosquito-things surrounds it, bloated on it's blood & bile: effing stirges. "Troll!" shouts Durnan, unsheathing Grimvault, of the moonlit glimmer, of the shining edge, from beneath the bar. "Take care of the bugs & get ready to douse this thing in oil!" he barks, leaping to battle. Most of the stirges, seeing stiff resistance, sink heavy & lethargic back down into the dungeon, but three are still hungry for the sweet red kroovy. Serous & Jellywinks drag the Xanathar Gangster toward the troll, throwing him towards it as a distraction, & as stirges attack him & Soom, she calls upon black magic to envelop her mammoth form in tentacles of darkness, crushing the bandit & two of the bloodsuckers. Durnan is picked up & gored by the troll, mauled by rows of teeth, but preservers, chopping off some of the thing's fingers & a hand, massive blade ringing like a chime. Vanri uses the wind magic of her djinn bloodline to pick up a barrel of lamp fuel from the second story of the Yawning Portal, dropping it from a height onto the troll, coating it & Durnan thoroughly in oil. Yagra is behind the bar throwing bottles of liquor at the thing, & the others squash the remaining stirge & help distract the troll so Durnan can really whale on it. He does so with gusto, as Vanri picks up a torch & chucks it squarely at the troll the instant Durnan is clear. Whoosh!
Cleaning up, collecting a wriggling troll finger under glass cake lid for display on the bar, Durnan says they can't solve everything like murderhobos, but he saw the crook draw first; he’s not willing to lie for them but he is willing to tell the police that...either now or later if there is an investigation. Yagra, who they have now figured out is part of the Zhentarim black market syndicate, says she'd love to stick around & talk with "the big one with the nose & the little one with the temper," but she has to go tell someone named "Davil" that the "Eyefuckers" are out looking for trouble on their turf. As she leaves, Soom dips into a pouch with her trunk for some spell components & touches the badly injured Xanathar member, casting spare the dying to make sure he is stable, & gathers up the headless corpse of the other for disposal back in her room. She's been eyeing the mummy at the bar all night & Durnan says "his" tab is up at last call; Soom can keep ‘em after that, since that troll— or the stirges!— probably took care of his friends, so they won't be be getting back in time either. Similarly, he tells Serous that he can keep the fizzy bottle & says the others can have one of the many, many oddities stashed around the inn, but it's not a flea market: don’t go poking around, just grab something. Jellywinks takes a break from chopping the burning troll corpse & finds...a lost heirloom from her family, a necklace belonging to her stillborn sibling, while Vanri picks up a black book labeled "Nocturne" that seems to have recorded her most recent dream in some detail.
Which brings us to Volothamp Geddarm, preposterous author of such volumes as Volo's Guide to Baldur's Gate, Volo's Guide to the Sword Coast, Volo's Guide to the Sword Coast Number II, Volo's Guide to Monsters, the forthcoming Volo's Waterdeep Enchiridion, & the soon-to-be-written ...Guide to Spirits & Specters. A human wizard in at least four contradictory styles of fashion, if even a fraction of his stories are true he has lived a cursed & charmed existence. If any of them are true, but for now that's besides the point. He's single-mindedly focused on his friend Floon, which hey, sounds like Soom, & also, does Jellywinks think that the Deep Times would like to run a book review column? He's has a galley copy of his Enchiridion with him, as I hand over the printed out pages to Ruoxi as a prop. Did we accidentally create a publishing mini-game in our publishing lunch hour game? Signs point to yes. But for as pompous as he seems, his concern (& gold) seems genuine, though Vanri Todeshi turns the conversation dark & the haranguing & bargaining of the other members makes him start to think he might have read the room wrong & accidentally approached a party of evil adventurers instead of a greedy party of heroes. They assure him they'll take the job, as he flees, throwing four pouches of ten golden dragons each, having promised at least ten times that on completion.