A DM’s Guide to Dragon Heist: Chapter Three
Once you’ve gotten the party all formed in Chapter One, and settled into city life in Chapter Two, it’s time to blow it all up. Quite literally, in fact. Assuming you took my advice and ended Chapter Two of Dragon Heist whenever your players told you they were no longer interested in prolonging it, they should be ready for some action. In this installment, we’ll get into how to make Chapter Three fulfill its primary function, which is getting you to Chapter Four. There’s a lot of investigation for the characters to do, and a lot of puzzle pieces to fit together before they can make that final push for the legendary treasure. If you run it effectively, Chapter Three will transform the entire shape of the adventure, propelling the characters from the sidelines of the treasure hunt and right into the thick of the action.
The Basic Requirements
Thus far, the characters have been on the periphery of the Neverember embezzlement scandal: they just so happen to have rescued Renaer Neverember, the son of the perpetrator, while they were actually trying to rescue someone else entirely. Essentially, their involvement was an accident, and the point of Chapter Three is to get them involved directly and deliberately. By the end of the chapter, the characters need to have become participants in the story, and the players have to be invested in the outcome. The action in Chapter Three bridges a gap: the vague do-gooders from Chapter One have to become the determined and unstoppable treasure-seekers needed for Chapter Four. What needs to happen in the adventure to make that change? Let’s break it down.
Getting More of the Story
You’re going to have to fill in a lot of the empty spaces in the story of the Neverember hoard, and how you fill them in depends on your personal vision for that story. If you look at the backstory provided on page 5, and the “adventure background” flowchart on page 11, you can get a pretty good idea of how the authors of the hardcover envisioned the events leading up to the beginning of the characters’ direct involvement, which begins with the death of Dalakhar the gnome outside their tavern.
How closely you care to stick to that sequence of events is your own decision, and I’ll tell you right now that I plan to criticize the backstory-as-written mercilessly before this article is over. I’ll even wax philosophical about the detective and mystery genre and how the writers of Dragon Heist didn’t consider how people actually make deductions and form theories when they wrote the backstory on pages 5 and 11.
But, no matter what backstory you choose to present to your players, you’re going to have to reveal enough of it during the course of Chapter Three to draw them in and motivate them to learn the rest. Pull back enough of the curtain, and curiosity will provide a strong motivation to follow through with the rest of the adventure. The promise of secrets revealed is tantalizing, and for some players it’s even more important than the giant pile of gold.
Getting Into the Spirit
If you’re going to get the story moving and keep it moving, the players are going to have to start making decisions that put them into the action and keep them there. This is a detective story, and the characters are going to need to investigate clues, and follow leads, and interview witnesses, and all the rest. If you don’t have a group of players who like that sort of thing, you’re probably running the wrong adventure and it’s going to make you miserable. Don’t worry, though, because I’ll offer you a fix for that situation that might carry you through until the running-jumping-chasing starts back up.
But, most players will rise to the occasion, especially when you thrust the mystery into their faces with a literal explosion as punctuation. The book provides some pretty specific guidance as to what information can be obtained, and from whom, and when, and how. Be willing to play fast and loose with that, because it’s more important that the characters make progress investigating than that they follow all of the requirements for success that the book sets out. If they’re coming up with plans and techniques that make sense, it’s not important for them to jump through all of the hoops that are required by the book to gain a particular bit of information.
This is the place in the Dragon Heist story where you have the opportunity to start building momentum. There are abundant opportunities for worthwhile discoveries, and that kind of success is what drives the character transformation that Chapter Three is all about: you’re turning observers into participants, so reward meaningful participation and keep the ball rolling.
Getting to the Villa
However, you can actually ignore the previous two sections. Yes, they are important, but when I called them “requirements” I mostly meant that they were required for a really rich and satisfying adventure experience. Fact is, you could probably get by without those things. I wouldn’t recommend it, but you probably could (and if you have players who won’t investigate, then you’re going to have to).
Ultimately, there is a simple metric for success in Chapter Three. You have to get at least one of the characters into the master bedroom in the Gralhund Villa, and let them see Yalah Gralhund give an unidentified small object to her nimblewright and send it fleeing out the window. There are multiple lines of investigation that can lead the party to that location so they can witness that event, and they will be discussed below.
If you can’t get at least one of those lines of investigation to lead into Room G16 of Map 3 on page 51, you have a very serious problem. So serious, in fact, that I’m not sure how to fix it without resorting to some low-class DM fiat. You could have some friendly NPC show up and just tell the PC’s what they need to do next, and the hardcover actually suggests that you can do that, on page 44. It’s an arbitrary deus ex machina move where you just sort of swoop in as the DM and hand the players whatever information they happen to need but couldn’t get for themselves. Does it keep the adventure moving? Sure, but you’ve basically just told the players that you’ll use your godlike DM powers to bail them out of their inadequacies.
But, take heart. There really are a lot of perfectly good ways for the PC’s to end up in that room, and at least one of them should work out. And, now that you know how vitally and critically important it is, at least you won’t be in danger of screwing it up unintentionally. If you only get one thing from this article, this is it:
At least one PC had better see Yalah Gralhund release her nimblewright at the end of Chapter Three, and live to tell the tale. Don’t screw this up, because it’s really, really important.
And yes, I know that on page 50 it says that the players should have the option of letting the City Watch handle the investigation of Gralhund Villa. That is a ridiculously stupid thing to even suggest, and under no circumstances should you allow it to happen. Use all of your DM guile, charm, and manipulation to make sure that the PC’s go to that villa and check things out themselves, because if you don’t, you will have failed at the one thing you absolutely have to achieve in this chapter; something so important that I put it in a blue box all by itself just a moment ago to be sure that it was adequately called out. Don’t even offer the option to let the Watch handle it. You can even have the Watch themselves ask the party to go investigate. Just get them into that room. Period.
Okay, I’m going to take a few deep breaths after that last bit, and give you some really good news: there are a lot of great, simple, plausible ways to make sure that the PC’s end up in that room to see the nimblewright make a run for it. My advice? Make sure that the players have the ends of all of the strings in their hands right away, and you can be justifiably confident that at least one of those strings will lead them to Gralhund Villa.
The Fireball: Starting the Investigation
It’s pretty obvious that the fireball spell explosion triggers the beginning of the investigation phase of Dragon Heist, but the way it’s handled in the book leaves a lot to be desired. By using a little bit of creativity and some common-sense thought about police procedures, you can use that fireball to start all of the lines of investigation at once.
First, the read-aloud text on page 43 is lacking, and that’s just because it doesn’t describe how a fireball actually behaves according to the spell description. This might seem nitpicky, but if a fireball spell went off outside the front door of the tavern, those inside would not say that it “seemed to have occurred right outside [their] front door.” The effects would be far more dramatic. And more useful.
When you set off your fireball, don’t just have it make a loud noise and some commotion in the street. It needs to blow out all of the front windows of the tavern, and flaming debris needs to come in along with the glass (remember, the fireball spell ignites anything not worn or carried, and that means all the little bits of trash in the street). And glass and flaming trash isn’t all that needs to come inside, either. Your fireball needs to send charred and burning bodies flying into that taproom as well. Remember, a fireball does 8d6 damage within a 20-foot radius, and most of the people milling around the street are commoners with about 4 hit points. Pretty much everyone in the blast radius should be dead, and it’s a minor miracle that only 11 people were killed. I wouldn’t increase that number, because it will make all kinds of additional hassle for you. Still, a fireball in a city street would be catastrophic. Play it out that way.
Now that I’ve waxed verbose about fireball spells, let’s go back to where I said you want to have burning corpses thrown through the tavern windows and into the taproom. Putting certain corpses right up in the PC’s faces is going to make sure that they check those corpses out carefully, and that they’ll have plenty of time to do so. Don’t fiddle around with being out in the street and trying to desperately cadge up some information before the Watch shows up. Just put the evidence the party needs to see right there with them, and cut the question marks out.
You want to make sure that the PC’s know that the Zhents were involved with the blast, so send one of the Zhent sellswords flying through the window. That’ll give them plenty of time to find his snake tattoo. Now you’ve established an important fact, without having to hope they check the bodies in the street before the Watch closes everything down. I also suggest that the unidentified elderly human female be blown in through the window thoroughly dead, and I’ll get back to why I picked her in a moment.
So, let’s think from the perspective of the City Watch: there’s an explosion in a city street, in broad daylight, at a busy time of the morning. There are casualties in plenty, and the street is still full of people who were not injured, as well as people who live there and have come out to help or to gawk. What do you do?
The City Watch and Police Procedures
First, you cordon off the street. Nobody gets in, and nobody leaves. Maybe you’ll get lucky and trap the perpetrator, but at the very least you won’t have more people contaminating your crime scene. People love to come and see the scene of a disastrous bloodbath, and anyone who thinks that maybe someone they know might have been in that street is also going to come running. The Watch wants to keep all of them out, so the barricades go up immediately.
Second, you get everybody out of the street. They’re just going to get in the way of your investigation, and it’s possible that one of them is the perpetrator you’re trying to catch. You don’t want to spend the time it will take to return everyone to their own homes, and some of the people in the street don’t even live there. So, you send your constables down each side of the street, and have them sweep each of the citizen bystanders into the nearest building.
Now you have a nice, clear street for your investigation, and you can go to each building in turn to take statements and maybe catch the bomber. Sure, people are going to be cooped up for a bit, and some of the residents of the street are going to have some involuntary houseguests for a while, but it’s a workable plan.
After you’ve investigated, removed the corpses, and cleaned up the mess, everyone can leave their temporary holding locations and return to their homes, and you can open the street back up to traffic.
Now, don’t tell me that real police don’t work that way, because I really don’t care if they do or not. It seems pretty reasonable, so unless you have a police officer as one of your players, and unless that player feels like being a jerk about it, the procedures in the blue box will have a realistic feel. And that brings us to the first real set of strings to place in the characters’ hands.
There are three primary living witnesses to the explosion, and all three of them are detailed on page 45, along with the information they have to share. You can make sure that the PC’s have a really good opportunity to speak with all three of them by making them among the people who were swept into the tavern by the Watch because it was the nearest door to get them off the street. Now your PC’s know that the Zhents are involved because of the tattoo on that one body, and they have three important eyewitness leads to follow. And, what’s more, that elderly human lady provides a fourth opportunity to gather some information.
Fala Lefaliir, the neighborhood apothecary: through Fala, the party learns about the limping man, and the direction he was headed in after the blast. Fala doesn’t know the man was a Zhent assassin named Urstul Floxin, or that he was headed to the Gralhunds’ villa, but the PC’s have plenty of information to track a limping man right to the Gralhunds’ doorstep.
Jezrynne Hornraven, the noble passerby: the party has the nimblewright described to them by Jezrynne, and they know that it was responsible for throwing an object into the blast area right before the explosion. Anyone from the City of Waterdeep knows that they should inquire at the temple of Gond if they want to learn about nimblewrights. When they get to the temple, they acquire the nimblewright detector, and that can also lead them right to the Gralhunds’ doorstep.
Martem Trec, the local urchin: the party now knows about the necklace of fireballs that was used to create the blast, because Martem saw it disposed of and snatched it up. If they handle it right, the PC’s might even have the necklace in their possession. Now they’re sure about how the blast was triggered, and any inclination they had to investigate the nimblewright has been substantially strengthened. They might also suspect that someone wealthy was involved in the incident, because necklaces of fireballs don’t come cheap.
Alice Conover, the unidentified human victim: she doesn’t have a story to tell in the book-as-written, but I gave her a name anyway. The reason for this is that it allows us to get Vincent Trench involved as an ally, because Alice’s husband hires Trench to investigate his wife’s death. This makes it completely reasonable for the PC’s to compare notes with Trench, and maybe get some additional information about the limping man. Granted, they were probably going to try to trace the limping man anyway, but if Trench also thinks he’s important, that inclination is strengthened. They might learn from Trench that he’s a Zhent, or even his name, depending on your preferences as a DM. Assume that the PC’s have more information on the nimblewright than Trench does, so they have the basis for an exchange. When I mock and ridicule the notion of having a friendly NPC show up and serendipitously restart a stalled investigation, remember that this is a different situation entirely. That’s because both Trench and the PC’s have information that the other wants. That means roleplaying with an NPC, not just getting a handout from an NPC as some arbitrary DM fix-it-quick fiat.
So, now we’ve put everyone who has a meaningful story to tell right there in the taproom along with the PC’s, with plenty of time to talk about what they’ve seen. If the players aren’t interested in the limping man, or in the nimblewright, or both, you have a very serious problem, because that means you have a group that doesn’t want to investigate. Groups that don’t want to investigate bring this whole adventure to a screeching halt. And yes, I remember that I promised to give a possible solution to that problem, and yes, that solution will be forthcoming before the end of the article.
Anyway, that takes care of the testimony of eyewitnesses. At least the living ones, that is. Let’s move on to the others.
Speaking with the Dead
That’s right, in D&D you can get eyewitness testimony from crime victims who are deceased. Because this is so different from anything in the real world, you might need to point it out to your players as an option. But, you can do this very gently, and a good way to do it gently is to fall back onto police procedures, and explain what the City Watch does with dead bodies as part of your narration when they lift the barricades on Trollskull Alley. I used some narration like this:
The City Watch removes the bodies from the street, and transports them to the nearest headquarters post, where they are kept under gentle repose spells for a period of ten days, giving Watch investigators time to cast Speak with Dead spells as part of their investigation, and to provide time for family to look for missing loved ones. If no family members come forward to claim the bodies for burial or magical resurrection by the end of the ten days, the bodies are cremated and interred in the Vault of the Nameless, which is a monument in the City of the Dead maintained by the Lords of Waterdeep for that purpose.
And now your players know (or remember) that interrogating corpses using magic is a thing in this fantasy world, and that they have a limited time to take advantage of that. You’ve also established that it might be difficult to get access to the bodies in order to cast the spell, creating room for some creativity in getting into the cold-storage room.
We’ll return to what Dalakhar’s corpse has to say later, because it’s really important to the story, and how the story is going to go requires further discussion. However, there were ten more people killed in the blast, and there’s a problem that comes out of this, and for which you are going to need to prepare. On page 46, the book provides information for Dalakhar’s corpse to impart, and also information for the two Zhents who were killed. That means that you have four halflings, three humans, and one half-elf who were also killed in the blast, and the authors of Dragon Heist haven’t given you names or stories for any of them.
Be ready for your players to decide to cast the spell to interrogate any or all of these other victims. Have names ready for each of them, and have specific reasons they were in the street. If that half-elf was running an errand for a wealthy family, make sure that he has a name, the family has a name, and that he was doing some specific task, like delivering a letter or buying some eggs. You also want to consider whether any of these other victims saw anything worthwhile. The halflings probably didn’t, because they were too busy busking, but it’s possible that the messengers saw something to corroborate other accounts. Anyway, figure this out ahead of time, and don’t get caught by surprise when the players say they want to talk with the halfling fiddler.
The information given for the Zhent corpses on page 46 probably requires no adjustment at all, whether or not you decide to alter the backstory, so we’ll leave it at that.
Renaer Neverember’s Story
This is also something you might want to change if you’re planning on altering the backstory. I’m mentioning it now because it is also the source of meaningful clues or leads in the investigation, but I’ll return to the topic later when we get into the merits of the backstory-as-written.
Conducting the Investigation
At this point, you’ve given the party enough leads to follow to ensure that they find their way to the Gralhunds, and probably enough motivation to want to get inside the villa and poke around. Again, there are two ways for them to get to that conclusion.
The first way, and the most adventuresome way, is to go through the “Nim’s Secret” story as given on pages 46 and 47. Not only does this make for a better story, but you also want the PC’s to obtain the nimblewright detector, because they’re going to need it in Chapter Four when they need to track down the nimblewright again. The only criticism that I’m going to make about this sequence is that the House of Inspired Hands is full of steampunk stuff, and I really hate steampunk stuff in D&D. I just don’t like the change of tone caused in the game when you start including devices like that nimblewright detector. There’s a picture of the thing on page 47, and it’s this idiotic clockwork nightmare with a damned umbrella on the top. Just see if you can tell me with a straight face that this wackball device belongs in a story about murder and avarice.
If you also hate steampunk in D&D, don’t bring up the Hall of Exemplary Inventions, and don’t hand out the steampunky reward items. Because you kind of need the nimblewright detector, I decided that mine was going to be a crystal sphere with a piece of nimblewright inside it, and that the nimblewright fragment was going to become increasingly agitated whenever it came near a nimblewright, and go bouncing around inside the sphere. If you feel fine with steampunk, just go with the way it’s written. It’s your game, after all. You can even include guns, if you’re truly misguided.
The second way is just to track Urstul Floxin, the limping man, through the streets until you get to the Gralhunds’ front gate. There should be plenty of citizens who observed a limping man, as well as beggars, and Watch members, and even stray cats and statue-perching pigeons that druids and barbarians can talk to. Not as exciting as getting and using the nimblewright detector, but it’s workable. It also provides a location to try out the nimblewright detector first, rather than going all over the city at random with it. Just remember that if you want the party to meet Jarlaxle as Zardoz Zord, they’ll need to find his nimblewright before they find Yalah’s. Maybe they just accidentally find him as they’re headed over to Gralhund Villa. Make something up.
Sure, Split the Party
Yes, everyone will tell you that you should never split the party, but allowing different players with different characters to do the investigation that fits their skills or style is actually a good idea in this chapter. There shouldn’t be any combat which requires full party strength for success, and it’s also possible that there will need to be some strategy conferences as the investigation progresses. For example, the group that went to investigate the nimblewright at the House of Inspired Hands can be doing their thing, while the players who are breaking into the Watch post to get to the corpses are busy figuring out their next move.
I always treat split-party situations like cutting together scenes in a movie or television show. Start with the one group, have them do their thing for a while, and wait for the point where you would put in a commercial break if this were a TV show. Not necessarily a cliffhanger moment, but at least a pause in the action. Then switch to another group, let them go for a bit, and stop them at the opportune moment. You can just switch back and forth until they finally join up again. If one group stops actually doing things and starts talking about what to do next, cut away to another group immediately. Also, don’t hesitate to allow the players to regroup their characters if they decide they would rather be working on another part of the investigation. Decide beforehand if you’re going to allow players whose characters are working on one task to make suggestions to players whose characters are doing something different. It’s not that one way is right and the other is wrong, and it’s all about how you deal with your table talk. Just figure out your rules for this kind of split-party crosstalk before it comes up.
Concluding the Investigation
Either way, your party will find their way to Gralhund Villa, and they’ll probably want to get inside and look around stealthily. If they don’t, you can always have some shouting and calling for help coming from inside the estate when they go to check it out. Just come up with something to draw them inside, and let the flow of the battle take care of the rest. The layout of the house and the locations of all of the NPC’s are usable exactly as they are written; I found no need to adjust any of that. As I overemphasized earlier, you need to get them into the room with Yalah. You also want them to meet Orond, and all it really takes for that is to narrate how Urstul Floxin is trying to bash down the door to get to him; it’s instant motivation to stop Floxin and then find out what he thought was so important. The reason you want the PC’s to talk to Orond will be covered in the next section, which is all about the backstory.
Revealing the Backstory
If you read my article covering the introduction to Dragon Heist, you might remember that I said you had plenty of time to work out the backstory for the adventure. Well, now that time has begun to run out, and you need to decide how the Stone of Golorr found its way into the hands of Dalakhar the gnome, and what he was planning on doing with it when he got killed by the fireball. Revealing more of the backstory is an important thing to accomplish during Chapter Three, and you have two excellent opportunities to dish out information directly, instead of just dropping hints and giving clues. Interrogating the corpse of Dalakhar is one of those opportunities, and having a conversation with Orond Gralhund is the other.
Speaking with the Dead Gnome
The spell that can be used to speak with dead bodies allows five questions to be asked, and the answers to those five questions that the now deceased Dalakhar gives are the best way so far to reveal the past history of the Neverember embezzlement scheme and the Stone of Golorr. The catch is that the players have to come up with five worthwhile questions, and they’re not going to hit on the best questions without some prompts. This is where Renaer Neverember becomes very useful to you, as the DM: when he tells the PC’s his part of the overall story, make sure that he drops lots of names and makes some useful speculations.
Renaer’s story will prime your players with the right questions to ask, if only because he talks about people and things that seem important. You’re not going to hit the jackpot and have all five questions yield exceptionally useful answers, but you can probably count on at least three of those questions providing an opportunity for you to fill in some details. This is also one of those occasions where it’s a wise move to give out a lot of information for each question, rather than being more reticent. A lot of divination spells really intend for the DM to answer briefly, or vaguely, or deceptively, and that often includes speaking with the dead. This is not the right time for that strategy: answer each one of those five questions as if Dalakhar was just bursting with the desire to reveal his secrets, and now that he’s dead, he can do just that.
Remember that you need to get Renaer to tell his story early on; I would suggest having him show up at the tavern to get it all off his chest shortly after the Watch lifts the barricades. Without some hints dropped gently in Renaer’s story, the players are probably not going to ask productive questions. Using Dalakhar to reveal backstory is such a great opportunity that you don’t want to leave it to chance.
Dalakhar’s responses are covered on page 46, if you’re going to go with the backstory provided by the authors of Dragon Heist. If you’re going to change things up, you’ll need to have your own answers ready to go. You’ll also need to adjust Renaer’s story to drop the right suggestions that will lead to the right questions.
A Pleasant Chat with Orond Gralhund
I totally roleplayed Orond Gralhund as a simpleton, eager to talk to whomever would listen in order to impress them with his supposed acumen. Orond is the single best way to reveal to the players what the current situation with the Stone of Golorr is, because he’s only too happy to chat about the goings-on at the villa, whereas nobody else there will tell the PC’s anything about anything. Give Orond a vague manner and some repetitive phrases, and he’s a font of information on anything Yalah has been up to lately. When I played Orond, he kept calling the nimblewright a “wood golem”, and then asking “a wood golem is a thing, right?”, and the players thought he was just adorable.
Of course, I also had Yalah kill Orond under cover of the “Zhentarim Massacre” at the villa, because he was a liability. Like everyone else in the story, she was bloody-minded and ruthless, and willing to do anything to get her hands on the Neverember hoard. Getting Orond out of the way was actually a good move for the adventure, as well, because that meant I wouldn’t have to use him as an information source again: the PC’s got what they got, and that was all there was to be had.
Building a Better Backstory
I’m going to give you the backstory I came up with, and you’re welcome to use it. I decided from the beginning of the adventure that expecting players to make deductions and figure out puzzling situations and all of that other detective work was foolishness, unless the NPC’s involved had understandable and reasonable motivations. That’s the thing about detective stories: everyone has to be doing things for understandable reasons. Good reasons or bad reasons, malicious reasons or benevolent reasons, smart reasons or stupid reasons, but some kind of reasons that can be accounted for. Occasionally you’ll have someone in a detective story who acts in a bizarre and unaccountable manner due to just being a raving lunatic, but that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) happen very often.
Dragon Heist is a detective story, and the PC’s are the detectives. The players have to be able to work out what the various NPC’s have been doing, and what their motivations might be. That’s what you need to make a detective story work when you write one in a book, and it’s especially important when you’re expecting a group of people to gradually solve a detective story on the fly. The DM doesn’t have the luxury that an author has, because literary characters do what their author wants, and nothing else. When Dashiell Hammett is writing a Sam Spade story, Sam Spade doesn’t just go rogue and start doing his own thing. Your players and the PC’s can and will go rogue, so your detective story has to make sense on its own, and that means that the NPC’s have to make sense.
And, when I started asking questions about why NPC’s would behave the way the backstory-as-written had them behaving, and not coming up with good answers, I decided the whole situation needed a new angle. It all started with Dagult Neverember getting a wizard to use the Stone of Golorr to erase memories, and then store them until they were needed to recover the treasure. It’s a good place to start; it reminded me of the stories of ancient kings burying their construction crews along with their treasure vaults so that nobody living would know where to find them. So, now there’s this artifact stone which knows how to find a vast hoard of treasure. For some reason Dagult doesn’t take it with him when he goes on the lam, but that’s just something we have to hand-wave away if we want to have a story. So now Dagult’s wizard, who did the memory erasing, has this artifact.
If I were a shady, unscrupulous kind of wizard, and I had come into possession of the key to a massive hoard of treasure, what would I do? As soon as Dagult had left the city, I would try to get the treasure for myself. If you remember the initial story change I suggested from the get-go, right in my first Dragon Heist article, the wizard wouldn’t be able to use the Stone to get the memories because he wasn’t a Neverember. What would I do then, if I were him? I would try to sell the Stone to the highest bidder, take the money from the sale, and skip town. All of a sudden, we aren’t talking about “a wizard” anymore. We have a full-on NPC, with motivations and actions following from motivations, and he needs a name. In my story, he became Teagan Firefleet, personal arcane advisor to Dagult.
But, in my backstory, the auction never happened. Teagan was getting ready to sell the Stone to the Xanathar Guild or the Zhentarim, but he was betrayed by his apprentice before the auction could take place. The apprentice was Dalakhar the gnome, who murdered Teagan, took the Stone, and went to find the treasure for himself. That explains what he was doing in Trollskull Alley: being smarter than his former master, he realized he needed a Neverember to unlock the secrets in the Stone. Dagult was long gone, but his son was still in the city. However, Renaer had disappeared, and the PC’s were known to have been Renaer’s friends, so it makes sense that Dalakhar was on his way to Trollskull Alley to meet them. We may never know what exactly Dalakhar had in mind with the PC’s, because he was killed by the fireball before he had a chance to carry his plan further.
Anyway, that’s the backstory I came up with, based on my own suppositions about how dishonest and unscrupulous people behave. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. Come up with something that rings true for you. If you want to use the backstory provided by the Dragon Heist authors, just be aware that the NPC’s in it do a lot of things that don’t make a lot of sense, and it’s very difficult to figure out the behavior of people who act irrationally. Inasmuch as a detective story relies on figuring out who did what and why, introducing nonsensical motivations isn’t doing anyone any favors. I’m not going to reiterate my observations on the detective genre in full, but remember the gist of it all: characters in a detective story have to make sensible decisions, by which we mean decisions that make sense in context. If they don’t, the detectives can’t figure out what they did and why, and that means they can’t solve the mystery.
I want to make a final note on the backstory situation: you really don’t need it. Having a good backstory is an asset, because it allows you to roleplay your NPC’s better. Placing their actions in a larger context makes them more versatile and interesting characters. Having events that have transpired already creates a richer story, and gives you juicy bits of the overall puzzle to feed your players and whet their appetites for more of the same. Some players get very engaged in backstory, and won’t feel fulfilled unless you provide them with at least a little bit. So you should have a backstory, and you should dole it out to the players, and you should make it reasonable and plausible as befits a good detective story.
With that being said, as long as the players know that they need to get the Stone of Golorr in order to find the hidden treasure, all the rest is just frosting. It’s sweet and delicious, but it’s not critical to the adventure. The PC’s don’t actually need to know where the Stone came from, or how it knows the vault location, or whose hands it has passed through. As long as they go and get it, we can march on with the story. Not a very satisfying solution, granted, but backstory is not part of the minimum requirements for this adventure. Note I said “minimum requirements”. Don’t be a DM who just does the minimum. But also don’t be a DM who gets heartburn over aspects of the adventure which won’t wreck it if you don’t do them just right.
What To Do with Players Who Won’t Investigate
I promised I would comment on this, and it is a danger for DM’s who run adventures with non-standard elements, like mystery stories. When you’re just crawling through a dungeon killing progressively harder badguys, there’s not much risk of the party taking a left turn off of the path and going back to town to start a cobbler’s shop. But, when you present certain groups of players with something like Chapter Three from Dragon Heist, there’s a chance that they just won’t investigate, because that’s not really something that they feel like doing. We can theorize all we want about why they might not want to go chasing clues, but it really doesn’t matter why they don’t want to do it. In a story like Dragon Heist, players who don’t like that playstyle pose a possibly fatal problem for the adventure, and that problem immediately falls to the DM to fix.
I will say right here that if you started running Dragon Heist without reading it all the way through first and evaluating whether your group of players would like it, you did a very foolish thing. If you didn’t read it through and then ask your players flat out if they would be interested in a detective mystery adventure, that was also kind of dumb. That’s why we do a Session Zero: make sure that everyone’s on board with the adventure to come.
But, if for some reason you are now sitting at the beginning of Chapter Three and realizing that your players aren’t going to do the investigating which makes up almost all of the chapter, I’ll offer a solution for you. It’s not a great solution, but it could work well enough to get you into Chapter Four. Chapter Four is very run-jump-chase, instead of find-and-follow-clues like Chapter Three. I haven’t actually tried to run this solution, because I did the smart thing and made sure my players wanted to be detectives for a while. Anyway, you’re reading my article, so presumably you’re interested in what I would do if I had your particular problem. So here you go: solid conceptually, but untested.
If you need to get a group of non-investigator players through this chapter, cut the story down to the bone and make it up entirely out of action sequences. The fireball goes off, the players rush out to see what happened, and they see the nimblewright running away from the blast site. They immediately chase the nimblewright all the way to the Gralhund Villa, crash the gates, and run straight into the battle that’s already in progress. They fight their way upstairs just in time to see the nimblewright escape, leaving some kind of clear trail to be followed (maybe it’s on fire from the explosion or the battle and leaving a trail of smoke, or something), and they jump over the rail of the second-story balcony in hot pursuit. Run some kind of a chase. There are rules for chases in the DMG, and they’re pretty awful, but if you’re using this solution you’re already in deep trouble as a DM, and beggars can’t be choosers. So the PC’s chase down that nimblewright, and catch it, and then off they go into Chapter Four. No investigating, no clue-following, no witnesses. Just explosions, chases, and battles.
I think that’s a pretty awful way to run this chapter, but at least it will propel the players and the characters through it in a quick and exciting manner, and push them out the other side into more excitement in Chapter Four. If you have the choice between doing something like this or just stopping the adventure for good right in the middle, double down and go with the mindless action option.
Remember Faction Missions?
If you decided to do faction missions as part of Chapter Two, remember that now that the PC’s have reached level 3, they are eligible for another faction mission. Considering that they will have to take time away from their investigation to do that faction mission, you risk breaking the momentum of the adventure. Or, if your players have chosen several different factions, you might have several faction missions to break for. I didn’t do the standard Chapter Two when I ran Dragon Heist, so this wasn’t an issue I had to deal with. You might find it better to squeeze the faction missions in before the fireball somehow, or else put them after the action at Gralhund Villa. I wouldn’t recommend trying to integrate them into the middle of the chapter, because the sense of urgency you’re trying to develop will just roll over and die if you interject non-related action. These are all reasons I scrapped Chapter Two, but if you went with it as-written, you’ll have to figure this out somehow.
Chapter Three is a bridge. It connects the accidental and ingenuous involvement of the PC’s in Chapter One to the purposeful and driven involvement required of the PC’s for Chapter Four. It also sets the stage for Chapter Four to take place, by letting the PC’s see Yalah Gralhund send her nimblewright on the run, presumably with the Stone of Golorr. Now they know they have to find the nimblewright and the Stone in order to keep on the trail of the treasure.
If you can get your players excited about the investigation, that’s great. If you can reveal interesting parts of the backstory to give them a more complete picture of what’s going on underneath the surface of the Neverember embezzlement scam, that’s also great. There are plenty of opportunities for both of those things to happen. Remember, the backstory is ultimately not vital to the progress of the adventure: the players can actually go through the entire story without knowing any of it. As long as they know they need to get the Stone of Golorr to find the treasure, the adventure can proceed.
You absolutely must put the PC’s in the room with Yalah so they can see the nimblewright escaping. Otherwise, you have no basis on which to start Chapter Four. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to get the PC’s into the Gralhund’s villa, and you can safely rely upon at least one of those trails leading the PC’s to where they need to be. You can put all of the leads right in the taproom of the PC’s tavern, right after the fireball goes off, and it works fine that way because of the way the City Watch might reasonably respond to an explosion in a public street. Give the players plenty of clues, and they’ll work out enough of them to advance the story.
This chapter is not really that difficult to run successfully, and that’s just because you can get away with using so little of it and actually come out all right on the other side. I hope you seize on some of the opportunities for revealing some of what’s really going on in the story, because there are some great built-in ways to get that done. There’s also plenty of space in this chapter for fun and creative investigation, and for players to leverage their class and background to solve problems that arise.
Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that you need to run Chapter Three in order to get to Chapter Four, which is a completely different animal. And we will discuss that animal in the next article in this series. For now, concentrate on getting your players invested in the chase for the treasure hoard. If you can accomplish that, you’ll have gotten what you need out of Chapter Three.