A compelling illustration inspires adventure

An earworm is a tune or song you just can’t get out of your head. Sometimes an illustration or painting can be like that.

For me, one such image was Brynn Metheney’s illustration of the Deep Scion from Volo’s Guide to Monsters.  The magical monster — a sort of aquatic changeling, though more Lovecraftian than fey in its origins — really resonated with me.

The creature occupies a similar thematic place in Dungeons and Dragons lore as the fishlike kuo-toa — humanoids captured from the shore that were taken into the depths and transformed by some unfathomable power into a piscine horror.  

But the Deep Scion, with its array of tentacles, its maw resembling a northern pike and fins extending from muscular forearms and calves, is an altogether modern take on the concept of a humanoid fish.

As soon as I saw it, I have to say — no pun intended — that I was hooked.

Once I read the creature’s descriptive text and examined its shapechanging powers, I knew I had to use it in an upcoming adventure.

But what kind of adventure?

KrakencoverThe answer didn’t come right away. It wasn’t until after I read Waterdeep Dragon Heist did a sequence of likely encounters come to mind. It would be a post-heist adventure, an expanded form of one of the faction missions detailed in Chapter 2. I intended to use the Deep Scions as minions of a Kraken Society priest who was trying to gain a foothold in Waterdeep’s underbelly.

Pairing the Deep Scions with the Kraken priest — an NPC whose illustration is by the aptly surnamed Chris Seaman — formed the heart of the my DM’s Guild adventure, Call of Kraken.  It also provided an opportunity to use another old favorite monster, the sahuagin, in an urban setting.

The adventure has some things that I really enjoy. It has a roleplay opportunity as the PCs encounter the strange occupants of the old trading house. It’s got exploration of challenging terrain as the underwater channels leading in from the harbor need investigating. And it’s got combat, the aforementioned sahuagin and Kraken priest, not to mention a shark or two.

Even after the adventure’s development and release, the image of the Deep Scion remains fixed in my mind. It’s my hope that player characters who go through the adventure are similarly affected.

 

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The Madness of Mages

Waterdeep’s most prominent wizards are Laeral Silverhand and Halaster Blackcloak.  

They are, in the final analysis, reflections of one another. That’s especially true in regard to the madness that has afflicted them both during their lives.

The convergence of their stories and their respective roles in Waterdeep and Undermountain, played a part in how I developed Mad Mages of Undermountain.

I didn’t start out that way. I had simpler intentions. The supplement, as planned, would present five wizards and describe their cohorts and their lair within Undermountain. But as I developed each mage’s motivations and the type of madness they were afflicted with, the origins of Laeral and Halaster kept popping up again and again in my research.

It became apparent that in this current iteration of the Forgotten Realms that Laeral and Halaster are linked. They aren’t opposites. But they are counterweights on the magical axis that gives the city and the dungeons below their rich character.

Laeral fully represents the city she now governs. She is cultured and refined, a person who understands and practices restraint. She finds herself as head of state, upholding Waterdeep’s strict code of laws yet, I think, remaining in her heart rather ambivalent about their enforcement.

It’s a strange position she is in, given her origins. She is one of the Seven Sisters, belonging to one of the most powerful spellcasting families on Faerun. In her wild, untamed youth, she was a conqueror, rising to become Witch-Queen of the North. Later she was a member of the Nine adventuring company.

It was in that latter role she had her encounter with madness, her sanity devolving in the great underground bunker the Nine used as a base in the High Forest. Overcome by paranoia, the Nine became lost in a lethal game of Survival.

Her rescuer was Khelban Arunson, Waterdeep’s Blackstaff, who became, in time, her loving husband.

For years, Khelban — as the Blackstaff — was Halaster’s opposite. The contrasts between the two and their aims for the city very distinct. Khelban was the lord of magic above, Halaster the crazed ruler of the caverns below.

Since Khelban’s death, the titular role of the Blackstaff has gone to another.

Yet, the practical responsibility of checking the influence of Halaster and his creation, the great magical passageways of Undermountain, have fallen to Laeral. This is true even though her own mastery over the Weave has diminished over time.

It is an interesting arrangement because Laeral — at some level — has a greater sense of empathy for Halaster. She is opposed to his objectives — his chaotic motivations — most certainly. But her brush with madness has clearly given her insight into the stranglehold that dark places such as Undermountain can hold over spellcasters.

In Mad Mages of Undermountain, I used Laeral to issue words of warning to would-be delvers. Essentially: Don’t do it!

Meddling with Undermountain will be your undoing.

But, of course, they are compelled to.

They are adventurers, after all.

 

Downtime Options

My third Waterdeep Dragon Heist-related product on the DM’s Guild is Downtime Businesses.

The hardback adventure itself presents player characters with an option of running an old inn and tavern — Trollskull Manor.

It’s a attractive option, should the PCs pool their coin and find a couple of investors to cover the balance of the tavern’s maintenance and operational costs. The accompanying side quest, involving the owner of a rival pub, is also quite good.

On the other hand, running a tavern isn’t for everyone. And because the initial investment required of the PCs is likely more coin than they earned in the first part of the adventure, I thought it made good sense to present DMs with other options.

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Downtime Businesses
provides a floor plan map of six other Waterdeep locations the PCs can use to start a business (or simply set up as a their adventuring group’s  headquarters). In these, I left the initial cost open ended — giving the DM the flexibility needed to match price to the player character resources.

It also meant there was enough options if every member of the party wanted their own downtime businesses. Spellcasters, in particular, are probably more interested in establishing an inner sanctum where they can contemplate and hone their magic. Clerics could find a spot suitable to start up a temple or faith outreach center. Some PCs just want to be craftsmen, forging arms, armor or something else entirely. Again, the space could be used as a workshop or forge.

As for the others? Well, carousing is still a downtime option. Ask many an adventurer: Running a tavern is real work. Hanging out there is much, much better.

In addition to the six floor plans and the site descriptions provided by friendly local real estate agent, Tessalee Amblecrown, the product’s other feature is a d100 chart of complications.

The Downtime rules allow for a Complication to occur about 10 percent of the time. It’s a mishap that carries a penalty when rolling on the profit-loss chart for that time period.

But rather than the Complication be some abstract occurrence, I thought a d100 chart would provide a concrete answer as to why the business took a downturn during that tenday period. Moreover, many of the results are actually adventure seeds. Adventurers aren’t going to stand still if some element of organized crime deals a blow to their business. They are going to take action if the downturn is related to escalating prices because of a city emergency. And they are hardly going to sit still if a rival uses illegal or unethical means to undercut them.

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Tessalee Amblecrown

Not all complications are story hooks. If the pipes burst, you’d better call a plumber and leave it at that. But even that has potential. What if the plumber in Waterdeep turns out to one of the merfolk who needs the PCs help in the harbor? In Waterdeep, anything is possible.

Some players like downtime activities because the adventure doesn’t end just because their characters emerged from the dungeon victorious and with a bag of loot. DMs like them because the downtime concern ties the PCs ever more tightly to the setting itself. In essence, they’ve “bought into” the imaginary world of the game.

And if that imaginary world comes with Guild fees, taxes and the inn’s staff requiring a raise to deal with the latest calamity on the Complications chart, so much the better.