Once again, back with a timely update for the adventure path. At this moment of writing, we've actually managed to complete the entire thing, just two days ago, so I guess I have a lot of stuff to do before catching up on our next campaign; "Way of the Wicked". So let's get to it. After all, we're still in the first half of the campaign (the first book) which is for the majority a lousy piece of work, so thrill at the overwhelming praise and enthusiasm by which I scribble these words of worship!
You must gather your inspiration before venturing forth!
At the end of the previous chapter, the heroes had brought waste to the cultist tunnels and hopefully vanquished the dragon hatchery. At this time, they're able to head back to Greenest, rest up and resupply, before heading to the town of Elturel; about six days travel north.
This is optional, of course; what most adventurers would likely do, is to set out directly after the cultists, who by that time has more or less a day's head start. Sadly, the adventure spends preciously little time describing this, only stating that this could be an option and leaves the rest up to you. The more detailed road takes the heroes to Elturel along the road, in which they meet up with their old ally Leosin, the Harper Monk, and a potential new friend, Frume from the Order of the Gauntlet. Frume is presented as a likeable character; he's the good guy they can trust, as long as they want to compete against him in horseriding, arm-wrestling and drinking.
There seems to be one central point to this detour: introducing the heroes to two of the big factions that'll be important in the next book. Namely, the Harpers and the Order of the Gauntlet. As a GM, it's worth noticing that said factions' impression of the heroes start here already, and if they aren't on good behavior, it should reflect in the later chapters. In my case, the heroes had a hard time relating to a paladin who wanted to eat, drink and race and thus came through rather patronizing, which eventually lead Leosin and Frume to just send them on with their business.
I have one problem with this passage. It has too little point to justify the long travel. The heroes don't really learn anything new. In fact: they are the ones relaying to the NPC's what they've found out. It can easily feel like a stupid chore they just need to undertake, rather than following the cult in the first place.
What I did: I sent the heroes there, but I wish I didn't. You can easily introduce these factions in the second book. Instead, let the heroes follow the route they wish, along the tradeway. I let the heroes track the cult west, to Beregost, Candlekeep and north to Baldur's Gate for the second part of the adventure. If you're a fan of the old game by the same name, this should be a brilliant opportunity for you to revisit some old favorite locations. Odds are, that someone in your group has fond memories of those places too. You can simply add in clues at every town about 'strange wagons and riders' arriving in town and leaving just a few days before. Allow the heroes to feel that they are the one who came up with the plan and did the tracking.
Gotta make a move-action to a town that's right for the plot
The players make a short stop at Baldur's Gate before moving on. As an old veteran who's spend...way too many hours on the PC-game of the same name, I was severely alienated and didn't understand why Wizards don't capitalize more on this. The heroes make a short stop here, find some meh excuse to join the cultist-caravan along with other travelers (the book suggests body guards) and they're off. I really wish there'd have been more tribute to Baldur's Gate, though. Just listen to this description:
“Baldur's Gate doesn't allow wagons, pack animals, horses or even dogs into the city. The streets are so narrow, steep and slick from the frequent rain that heavy wagons would be a menace.”
I suppose things really did deterioate greatly after that whole Child of Bhaal thing, huh...
But I'm aware this is a highly subjective complaint. The heroes aren't expected to spend much time here anyway; it's mostly a pit stop.
As the plot moves on, it takes to the road, in which the heroes get to spy on the cultist carts from a distance, while at the same time getting to know the other people traveling with the caravan. Along the way, they encounter various events that make an otherwise dull section of the adventure much more interesting. And I'll have to admit...this was the first part of the book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Not all the encounters are equally interesting; some of them are mostly just hooks for later. And once again, we're introduced to a character who's supposed to bring another faction into play; the gnome Jamna Gleamsilver from the Zentharim and a red wizard of Thay. Again; there really is no point to include these unless you're very eager to shove factions down the heroes' throats. None of them serve any significant importance later on, their plots are kind of tame and there are several other great opportunities for you to get creative with your plots and make up your own caravan of unique and memorable individuals. Here's my setup:
A caravan master consisting of an old minotaur. Though his heritage frightens some folks, he knows his way up and down the coast better than most.
A group of wild hunting dwarves, their master a poacher and eccentric hunter of exotic animals; his beard stuffed with gems and he's always on the lookout for new prey. He's heard great things of the beasts in the North and wants to go there to hunt. He's a great chance for you to include a beast of your liking along the way, that he insists on stopping to hunt for. Say, a basilisk for example.
A husband, wife and son on their way north to Waterdeep. They wish to settle down, but their young son is very, very interested in the adventurers, hoping they'll let him in on how to be an adventurer, maybe even give him a weapon. Of course, his parents are against this.
A half-orc dealer in brass bowls and other cheap stuff. Smokes too much, wears a long coat and is very observant of the heroes and their potential magical items.
An old scribe from Neverwinter who's returning home. He's actually a wild mage trying to keep his talent at bay, which will likely go awry, should the entire caravan ever come under attack.
The cultists wagons; these keep to themselves most of the time.
A richly decorated and heavily guarded merchant wagon of unknown origin. It's actually from the Zentharim, and if the heroes grow curious enough, this is a chance for them to learn of the faction.
A traveling band of five gnome minstrels, called “The Merry Harpies” - they can't sing. Everyone hates them.
You can add more people if you want to, but I found this setup to be manageable and memorable without overloading the heroes with names.
You have been waylaid by enemies whose sole purpose is to make sure we can justify leveling you up at the end of the adventure and must defend yourself!
The chapter comes with 12 random events that can occur during the travel north towards Waterdeep. It's a two-month trip, after all. But hold your horses, not all of these are equally interesting. Some of them are simply a random encounters or a skill check.
I ended up using the events “Everything has a Price” in which the dealer of brass insisted on buying a magical item from the heroes (if they don't have one, he insists on the notion that they have) going so far as to searching their backpacks and spying on them.
“Fungus Humongous” is great too, only I designed a whole dungeon of Myconoids. The heroes arrived in a small town almost besieged by the shrooms and the heroes had to clear the road by clearing out the dungeon of fungus. It wasn't long, but enough for them to try something else.
“The Golden Stag” is beyond doubt the best thing this entire book offers. The heroes would often see the golden stag on the road, and the dwarves put out traps and started hunting it, till the heroes realized it was a cursed elven prince who sought to be restored and reunited with his love. This is such an interesting setup and you can go crazy with your creativity here. Either make a side quest in which they have to turn him back, or let him be a companion for the rest of the adventure.
“No room at the inn” is great as well, it can be run just as it is. The heroes are denied room at the inn because a small band of assassins have bought them all, and pretty much laugh out everyone else. Since they're disguised as officials, the heroes need to do some research and snooping (in my case, one player searched the stables and their saddlebag, noticing they weren't officials and the horses were too mangy for the story to stick) – After all, fights in taverns are always great fun.
“Roadside Hospitality” seemed okay, but I never used it. You have to work it a bit, as more experienced players will likely be on alert from the start; but for newer groups it can be very effective to have the old 'gotcha!' feeling going, by two benevolent doppelgangers stab someone in the back.
Finally, “Spider Woods” is an interesting encounter. It's ettercaps, and we always love those, but the heroes also have to make sure the things don't run off with the horses. This should feel like a bit of a surprise. I let the ettercaps drag off with some of the heroes and the heroes gave chase through the forest to get them back.
But wait, there's more!
There remaining six options aren't bad but mostly boring, and some of them rely on Jamna joining the campaign. This brings us to the final verdict of this chapter, as the heroes eventually arrive in Waterdeep where they're paid for their service and the cultists move on. In case the heroes signed up as guards for the cultists, they simply pay them off in Waterdeep and says their services are no longer needed. It should be no problem, however, for them to track them out into the swamp in the next chapter.
The main reason why I like this part of the adventure is because it really loosens up from the otherwise tight structure and starts suggesting to instead of directing the GM. You can potentially run every single encounter and have a couple of sessions with this chapter, of do as I did, and instead focus greatly on just a few of them. I sure wish there'd been more of this along the way, but alas. Enjoy it while it lasts.
For that reason, I'm not going to tell you how to run it or what to include, but merely let you know what I did with this. Following the sad tale that was the third chapter, it was very nice to see something else.