My D&D group swept through chapter one of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist in a calamitous wave of havoc and mayhem that was contained just enough to keep them out of jail and with it, an early end to the campaign. Fortunately, logic prevailed and rather than go all in on “murder hobo” mode they were intrigued with their reward for rescuing one of Volo’s pals (and for holding the son of a disgraced lord hostage) and they stopped burning things down just long enough to sign a deed and take ownership of a home with a strange reputation.
Before you read further, this is your one and only spoiler alert. I am about to reveal some minor (I think) details about Chapter Two of Dragon Heist. If you are going to play this adventure out or run it and you don’t want anything ruined for you stop reading. Or don’t. I can’t stop you.
Ok, so here’s the thing about Chapter Two. I think it’s actually pretty boring. At least the early exploration of Trollskull Manor is kind of unremarkable. The players are given the deed to a rundown manor that also happens to be haunted by the poltergeist of the manor’s former owner. They have many options of dealing with the entity and the book points out a few options that player characters would take. Chapter Two is also supposed to be the part of Dragon Heist where the many factions in the city court the group and where they can cultivate alliances etc. I decided to still run with the setup of a dilapidated manor with a ghost but for some reason I decided to make this part of the story not only go out of the heist genre entirely but made things go dark. Fast.
Running a party through a dungeon or in this case a house, plagued with ghosts is nothing new. It can be filled with one combat encounter after another or crammed with puzzles. The best adventures serve are an blank canvas. You have your basic framework but a little imagination and you can not only tailor the encounters to your group and your playstyle but you have an opportunity to experiment. This could be dice rolling encounters, traps, puzzles or any combination of those. This part of Chapter Two is a great example. You know the premise and what is there but what is important here is what isn’t set in the module. This is a chance for you as a DM to come up with something unique to challenge your players and maybe make them use some skills or class abilities that don’t normally get a whole lot of usage. It also presents a great opportunity to mix things up in terms of the larger story. So in this session the ghost of the former innkeeper was known for keeping the place clean and spotless in life would be trying to keep the party out of the house not because he thought they would make it a mess but rather, to keep anyone from uncovering what he had really been up to before he died.
I had the maps of each floor of the mansion and no descriptions that were critical to the core of this encounter. The best written adventures will be set up like this. They allow for a certain amount of shoot from the hip, free form description for the DM so if you ever decide to run a prewritten module, don’t be afraid to lean into the lack of description and let things get weird. As my players explored the manor, I filled each room with a series of puzzles based around mirrors or oil paintings facing or not facing each other. The inhouse poltergeist did some obligatory ghost things. Tossing objects, making loud footsteps and writing cryptic phrases in dust. As they explored, I rewarded their successful attempts at these puzzles to find a series of notes, personal journals, magic tomes etc. that indicated that the last innkeeper had not taken the death of his wife well.
As they made their way to the top floors they found, underneath some sheets suspended from the ceiling some of his early versions of his undead wife puppet. While there were three sheets in the top most “lab” the first two contained only some spare parts strung together and while horrifying were non-functioning. It was in the basement that our dwarf used an ability that I rarely ever see called upon, that of being able to detect the age, construction method and type of stonework around them. She spotted a newer wall of brick put up by unskilled hands. They found the half-flesh, half-puppet monster that had been walled up “alive” and could see where her wooden fingers had scratched themselves to splinters and etched the stone in an old cooling room beneath the tavern’s common room.
When the session was over, my players breathed a very real sigh of relief. They confessed that this story of the necromancer innkeeper and his wife had them legitimately scared and in suspense. I didn’t plan on it, it just sort of happened. I think that perhaps because I didn’t spend the adventure chasing them through the house with ghosts or a flesh golem and that getting any progress in this part of the story required solving relatively simple puzzles which revealed more and more pieces of a sick, though tragic love story rather than just chasing them from room to room demanding initiative rolls every time. Could that have happened? Sure. I didn’t have anything written in stone but with a little abstraction and willingness to let the players own fear and suspicious write their story for them we had an incredibly fun session with very little dice rolling.
The moral of this story? There isn’t one. This is just a suggestion from me as a veteran DM that, no matter the type of adventure you’re running, in this case a heist, you should always be ready and willing to surprise your players with elements of something they aren’t expecting. I mean, who expects a ‘House of Wax‘ segue in the middle of ‘Ocean’s Eleven?’ Nobody. That’s what makes doing it so fun.