Those of you who follow my Twitter account may have noticed I am very eager to get my paws on the upcoming D&D 5E hardcover adventure, Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus. I was sold on the concept of a Mad Max inspired sandbox in Hell. I’m getting some Dark Sun vibes from the shattered wasteland, Planescape vibes from the planeshopping, and Ravenloft vibes from the idea of being trapped in a hostile realm.
As of this writing, this book comes out in two weeks. Review copies have reached the hands of people on the internet and initial impressions are going up. As ever, the hardest workin’ man on the internet, Sean from PowerScore, is first to write a guide to the adventure and tweet about it. With the table of contents up came the surprising news that there is a lot of Baldur’s Gate in this book. I know it’s in the title but for a level 1-13 adventure I kind of assumed that Baldur’s Gate was a fig leaf. I figured it was a civilized excuse plot to get your players to level 3-5 and then the earnest adventure in Avernus begins. Storm King’s Thunder starts you off in Nightstone then has a 16 page excuse adventure to get the PCs to level 5 so they can actually play Storm King’s Thunder. Curse of Strahd has Death House, a level 1 adventure which ends with the players dead (probably). Then you create new characters at level 3 to play Curse of Strahd. Princes of the Apocalypse has a couple encounters “in case your players are not level 3” then the adventure proper starts.
I made this assumption and made an ass out of you and me. Well, a bit. I made a half-ass out of you and me. According to the Table of Contents the adventure starts with 61 pages of adventure in Baldur’s Gate. That’s about the same length as Lost Mine of Phandelver which also ends with level 5 but it’s a hell of a lot more pages than I expected. This also includes maybe 8 pages on Candlekeep and 20 pages on Elturel, both locations near to Baldur’s Gate. The next 80 pages are Avernus and then there are another 50 pages of specific Baldur’s Gate setting info. That’s a hell of a lot more BG than I expected. Recall that in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, the section of the book specifically about Waterdeep was 26 pages. 7 of those pages were on the Giant Statues of Waterdeep and Waterdeep Holidays.
My happiness at having more information about the city speaks to something I did not like about Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. I never warmed to the city of Waterdeep itself. It seemed like every other session our group was being spoken down to by the overbearing Waterdeep City Watch. The factions we were dealing with were never happy to see us. No one interesting wanted to drink at our tavern. It’s a low level adventure and boy do you feel like just another schmuck, not a hero. The hunt for the gold was interesting but the setting was boring. I kept thinking, ‘man why couldn’t this gold be lost in Neverwinter or Port Nyanzaru?’
Baldur’s Gate is different though. I liked it when I read a James Haeck article describing it as the Gotham of the Sword Coast. I liked this description less when every other WotC employee said the same thing and it is clearly part of the marketing for Descent into Avernus. I never played the Baldur’s Gate video games. Much like Planescape: Torment I have a real hard time getting past the shitty interface. I grew to like the city through the release of an adventure, Murder in Baldur’s Gate. This came out in 2013 and paper copies now go for serious money on Amazon. It was part of the 5E playtest and I remember it being very interesting to read. It’s an open adventure which puts the PCs in tough situations rather than going encounter to encounter. You basically work for one of three NPCs and they’re all the villains. At the end of the adventure whoever the PCs helped the most turns on the city and become the final boss. I’ve never run it, but I enjoyed reading it. I thought here at long last I would go through and review Murder in Baldur’s Gate. I’d also like to review the recent adventure on the DM’s Guild, Heroes of Baldur’s Gate, which I haven’t read yet. This will get us psyched up for Avernus and possibly kill time over the next agonizing two weeks.
Murder in Baldur’s Gate includes three things: A DM Screen including maps of the city, districts, place names, and random tables. The Adventure itself is a shorter book. And there is a setting book with all the adventure’s proper nouns and places in the city of Baldur’s Gate. I am very curious how much if any of this setting book will get reprinted for Descent into Avernus. There isn’t really a way to review the setting and adventure books separately, they go together. The adventure uses proper nouns and the setting book explains what they area. Coincidentally, you don’t know what’s important in the setting book until it comes up in the adventure.
One big problem with Murder in Baldur’s Gate is that it never really explains the central premise of the adventure and the DM needs to change that to make this work. There is no “Kill Strahd” or “Escape the Underdark” that fits into a couple sentences. Explaining the premise in this adventure is another story about Wizards of the Coast and D&D. Wizards of the Coast goes through phases in its product releases and marketing. Right now, with Descent into Avernus coming out, the marketing is all Hell, Devils, Pacts, The Blood War, Baldur’s Gate, Infernal Warmachine Vehicle Rules, and the announcement of the Baldur’s Gate 3 video game. A few years ago, when Out of the Abyss came out, the marketing was all about Drow, Underdark, Demons, and there were Drizz’t novels that referenced the events and themes in that adventure. You see the pattern.
At the time Murder in Baldur’s Gate came out it was the 5E playtest and the marketing was all about The Sundering. The Sundering was a theme/world event in the Forgotten Realms IP with Murder in Baldur’s Gate, other adventures, and several books based around it. The idea was that the Uber-God of the Forgotten Realms is shaking things up. The Forgotten Realms has a Greek style pantheon of many gods with narrow portfolios. But Uber-God wants to deregulate or something so the Gods have to meet with a consultant and interview for their own jobs. It doesn’t really make sense if you try and say it out loud. It is very similar to the plot in Storm King’s Thunder where the God of Giants decides to make all giants equal and let them compete for who is going to rule the Giant Caste System from now on. And like Storm King’s Thunder, when the adventure was over The Sundering was never spoken of again. There was no ending. When the marketing stopped the idea stopped.
Where this is relevant to Murder in Baldur’s Gate and the players is the idea that during The Sundering The Gods are each selecting one person to be invested with substantial power. You may recall in the PVP/Penny Arcade D&D podcast during the 5E D&D playtest that Omin Dran became the Chosen of Tymora, Goddess of Luck. Also Viari was the Chosen of the Goddess of Song and Binwin Bronzebottom (RIP) became the Chosen of Dumathoin, a Dwarven God. Another adventure from this series, Legacy of the Crystal Shard, is all about the Auril, the evil goddess of winter, and her Chosen who is basically Elsa from Frozen.
Murder in Baldur’s Gate is about the Chosen of Bhaal, the God of Murder. Like I said, Gods in the Forgotten Realms have very narrow portfolios. Bhaal and his kids, the Bhaalspawn, are a big deal in the Baldur’s Gate video games. To the point that I think this adventure makes more sense if you played those games. The plot is that this adventure begins with a Murder which resurrects Bhaal who I guess died in the Forgotten Realms lore. Bhaal then goes about influencing the adventure’s three main NPCs in the adventure to get more and more violent. This finally climaxes when Bhaal selects one NPC as his Chosen and then you fight them as the final boss in the adventure.
This is never made clear to the PCs in the adventure. No one in Baldur’s Gate explains what a Bhaalspawn is and at the end of this adventure no one makes a big evil speech about how you fools have brought about the doom of this world. As written, after The Titular Murder these three NPCs, which represent the three biggest factions in the city of Baldur’s Gate, just get more and more violent and destructive in their bid for power until one of them goes crazy and starts killing people. Obviously this flaw in the MiBG has to be corrected by giving the PCs more exposition. Or run Heroes first which has more background info on Bhaal and what his deal is.
So let’s get into Murder in Baldur’s Gate. First thing first, this adventure was meant to be run in 10 sessions of about 1-3 hours as part of D&D’s organized play program. So if you run 3-4+ hour sessions you may burn through this adventure more quickly than intended. The setting book begins with Baldur’s Gate’s history. It was a natural harbor with little arable land, obvious place to build a city. A great adventurer named Balduran spent his fortune building a wall around the place and over time the city gets built!
What the city history and initial maps do very well is set the stage. They quickly explain that Baldur’s Gate is divided into three pieces each dominated by one faction. The Upper City is controlled by the nobles, referred to as The Patriars. The Lower City is where the middle-class lives and is dominated by The Flaming Fist, a mercenary company that is based in Baldur’s Gate. They protect the city and act as the city watch in The Lower City. The Outer City is the sort of shadow city/shanty town grown up outside the city walls which is controlled by the city thieves’ guild, referred to in the book as The Guild. Right away you have a political tripod, which Dr. Yueh described as the most unstable of political structures. You have the money, military, and masses all set against each other in a tinder box. It’s a tidy setup bordering on oversimplification. I find that factions like this really make a D&D city understandable. Rather than deal with 687 shopkeepers just give me the big picture of who the power players are.
The Adventure book details Bhaal’s story. He was a god, foresaw his death, and worked out some ritual where his children would slay each other like in Highlander. But when only one remained this would bring him back through some magic ritual. And when Bhaal is back he has influence over the city. The adventure also gives the DM the structure of the adventure. Murder in Baldur’s Gate is a series of ten or so events that happen in the city brought on by at least one of the Three Main NPCs. The Other Main NPCs and PCs react to this event. Depending on what the PCs do the DM assigns points to one or more of the Three Main NPCs. Whoever has the most points at the end of the end of the adventure becomes the Chosen of Bhaal and the final boss. So, it is very important to track this score.
The first session of the adventure starts with the final two Bhaalspawn facing off. Remember the lore, these are the children of the God Bhaal and when one is left alive the God comes back because magic. One is a skilled assassin (but not so skilled he can’t be defeated by level 1 PCs) and the other is an NPC named Abdel Adrian. He is apparently the main character in the video game. Abdel is the glue holding Baldur’s Gate together. He’s a wealthy former adventurer but he’s also the highest ranking officer in the Flaming Fist and he has the love of the common people. He appeals to all three factions dominating the city. So naturally he dies so everything can fall to shit.
This is an archetypical Sly-Flourish style Strong Start. During a big city-wide festival, during a speech, assassins rush the stage and attack Abdel Adrian. What do you do? With level 1 players who might not know the proper nouns of Baldur’s Gate the PCs will probably either 1) stand their ground and see what happens or 2) charge in to stop the assassins because they’re hero people. But this is a cutscene more than anything else. No matter who wins between Abdel and the assassin the victor transforms into a terrible monster that starts killing folk in the crowd giving the PCs an obvious thing to fight.
Two things I would highlight here from the text. First, make it clear to the PCs that this monster is defeatable by them. Second, make it clear that the City Watch is focused on the crowd or just as scared as anyone else to highlight that the PCs must intervene.
One thing I notice reading through this adventure is that you could very easily level this adventure up. As a playtest adventure, Murder in Baldur’s Gate makes no references to specific spells, very few specific skill DCs, and even the suggested monsters were based on the 5E playtest and might not work in the released 5E ruleset. It was released for level 1-3 play. It doesn’t have to be. Speaking as someone who doesn’t want to play level 1 5th Edition anymore I would suggest running this starting at level 3-7 and plan to level the PCs twice. Once at the midpoint and again before the final boss.
All right so the PCs have this fight with A Monster and save the city folk. Good work! Now come the job offers. One after the other, the PCs receive three separate requests for assistance. This scene is a little gamey for my taste but it’s fine. Three NPCs with quest bubbles over their heads ask the PCs meet with them at the same time. The PCs can’t possibly accept all three meetings at once! These three NPCs represent the three factions of Baldur’s Gate. While you’re supposed to pick one and stick with them I would advise lettings your PCs play the field for the first few sessions. The adventure even has advice on if the PCs try to play the NPCs against one another.
The three factions of Baldur’s Gate are, very broadly, the Nobility, The Flaming First mercenaries, and the Thieves Guild. The NPCs who approach the PCs represent all three factions. For the nobility, a rich wizard named Imbralym Skoond. He offers to meet the PCs at a tavern in the fancy part of town and makes mention of “the rot” within Baldur’s Gate. Representing the Flaming Fist is their 2nd highest officer after Abdel Adrian, a man named Uldar Ravengard. Ravengard makes other appearances in Rise of Tiamat and Descent into Avernus. He asks the PCs to meet him at the Flaming Fist base of Wyrm’s Crossing which is way the fuck at the other end of the city. Lastly is a non-descript guy in a cloak using thieves’ cant to signal the PCs to meet him in “Little Calimshan,” a walled in enclave outside the city amidst the slums. This person is helping a merchant with their overturned stall and represent the Thieves’ Guild and the common people.
Again, while these meetings all take place at the same time and the PCs are supposed to choose one, I’d be inclined to let them make all three unless the party is really pulling for one. Maybe the PCs even split up. The plot of this adventure is really that things get worse and worse in the city until one NPC goes way off the deep end but in all honesty the other two are not far behind. This is shitty advice but follow the Rule of Fun.
Each NPC wants to have a meeting where they will give the PCs their opening quest. Skoond buys the PCs dinner and drinks and then takes them to a meeting with the noble NPC representative, Torlin Silvershield. Silvershield is a Duke, the highest political office in the city, just like the recently murdered Abdel Adrian. He’s the High Priest of Gond, one of the more popular Gods in this city. He’s also possibly the wealthiest person in Baldur’s Gate. And his family is one of the oldest in the city. And he has the biggest house. So Torlin Silvershield has a lot going for him. But his opening monologue includes lines like, “I intend to sweep their filth from our city and restore Baldur’s Gate to its proper place of esteem.” Phrases like that and his obvious wealth and power scream VILLAIN to any player. What the players might not get is that ALL the quest giving NPCs in this stage are villains or at least becoming them. But Silvershield is a bit more obvious off the bat.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the goddamn city, Ravengard meets the PCs at the Fortress of the Flaming Fist which sounds like a great Kung Fu movie. There is no goddamn reason why he couldn’t have this goddamn meeting just after meeting the PCs or at least not make them walk all that way. While Silvershield’s portrayal screams “Corrupt Politician” Ravengard is obviously “Overzealous Cowboy Cop.” Hal Holbrook from Magnum Force, Meredith from Dragon Age being notable examples. The way Ravengard describes the thieves’ guild as a besieging army rising from slums and ghettoes is bound to raise red flags with your PCs. Neither one should be obviously evil right now but the arc that they’re on is clear. While Silvershield offers a place amongst the nobility, Ravengard offers the PCs the chance to join the Flaming Fist and be on the side of Law & Order in Baldur’s Gate.
The third meeting takes place at dusk in Little Calimshan. As written before, Baldur’s Gate is dominated by three factions each repping a segment of the city. The nobility and Silvershield live in the upper city which is patrolled by a City Watch. In the lower city the Flaming Fist is the city watch and this is where the middle class lives. Outside the walls is the “Outer City”. There’s no law outside the walls and it is home to animal related businesses like butchers and tanners, blacksmiths, and warehouses. The city thieves’ guild is the closest thing to law here. There are repeated references to refugees from around Faerun going to Baldur’s Gate because it is a tolerant city with a good economy. Little Calimshan is a walled enclave of descendants from refugees and it is also controlled by Rilsa Rael, a bigshot in The Guild. While she presents herself as the owner of a pawnshop she’s actually the #2 to the Guildmaster. At this early stage Rilsa comes off as the least Obviously Evil of the three questgivers. She makes the fairly reasonable argument that in Baldur’s Gate the people with the gold make the rules and leave everyone else behind. Although the Guild’s first priority is its own profits Rilsa offers the PCs a chance to steal from the rich and help out the poor. She reminds me a lot of Sera from Dragon Age.
There you have them, your three questgivers. One of these three, Rilsa Rael, Ulder Ravengard, or Torlin Silvershield will be the final boss in Murder in Baldur’s Gate. Over the course of the adventure they each grow more extreme under the influence of Bhaal, the god of murder. WOTC took a poll of people claiming to have done this adventure and most groups had Silvershield as the end boss which became canon for the Forgotten Realms.
What follows in this adventure next are ten sessions that are more like events to react to rather than adventures. The DM has to do a great deal of work in making these into D&D adventures while at the same time foreshadowing Bhaal’s influence. As written the adventure has no cackling evil cultists. Rather, things just keep getting worse in the city which must to be disheartening to someone playing D&D. The adventure is different depending on which of these three patrons you are working for. Most of the time it’s the forces of Law vs. The Guild. One thing this adventure makes clear is that the events happen regardless of the actions of the PCs. So a PC will have to stop something as often as instigate it. And each time one of the three questgiver NPCs succeeds they gain a point bringing them one step closer to becoming the Final Boss. This is kind of an odd pace for an adventure where the person you help the most is the most corrupted. But the PCs also have the best chance to blunt the effects of that NPC’s corruption.
Also I should point out, any time there is an NPC or a place name or proper noun of any kind you can find it in the Campaign Guide. This book explains the politics of Baldur’s Gate, the Flaming Fist, the Thieves’ Guild and really has just a ton of details to mine. There are neighborhoods, businesses, city officials. It really makes Baldur’s Gate come alive in a way that Dragon Heist never did for Waterdeep. I don’t know how much of this will be reproduced or changed for Descent into Avernus but I look forward to finding out.
If working for Silvershield, the PCs are sent to hassle his political rivals under the guise of looking for proof that they are members of the Guild. None of the three have any concrete proof of Guild membership but this mission is a good guide to exploring the city and a template in running an investigation adventure. The three targets are all in different parts of Baldur’s Gate.
Rilsa Rael orders the PCs to rob Nant Thangol, a corrupt and little loved bureaucrat who collects tolls at one of the city gates. This encounter is a bit weird because it offers no advice on what amount the take is. It also advises the DM to be “ready to improvise” because who knows how the PCs will rob someone.
Ravengard orders the PCs to shut down two gambling dens (although neither is a noble-affiliated upper city joint). One is a place in Little Calimshan, the other is a bar that Silvershield also wanted the PCs to go to. If the PCs are working for Silvershield then Flaming Fist soldiers show up and start a barfight. If the PCs are working for the Fist, then the City Watch shows up and they too start a barfight.
In all these instances if the PCs participate or fail to stop the other two NPCs then each one gains a point on the “Final Boss Tally.” Offering the PCs a chance to do this seems like it will take two D&D games with the prologue and questgiving part. I like the way this adventure expects you to step outside the bonds of the adventure a bit. For example, Duke Silvershield gives the PCs a writ to search and arrest the three NPCs he wants investigated. The adventure says that clever PCs could come up with creative uses for having the signature of the most powerful man in the city on a document.
These are more tied to events rather than specific NPCs.
First, Baldur’s Gate passes sumptuary laws forbidding lowborn people (including Baldur’s Gate’s many wealthy merchants and prosperous middle class) from wearing fur, silk or other fine fabrics, and jewelry. This is citywide and lasts until the end of the end of the adventure. The adventure takes pains to say that the City Watch will enforce this and attacking the City Watch is murder which is prosecuted. I like this depiction of Law & Order more than the exhaustive fun siphoning measures listed in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. “Murder is a Crime” doesn’t need a page to explain.
At the same time, Baldur’s Gate has an outbreak of Guild-Sponsored vandalism starting with graffiti and escalating to broken windows and flaming trash.
Also in this session, the Flaming Fist begins hassling dockworkers under suspicion of Guild sympathies. These people work in Baldur’s Gate’s famous harbor in the lower city but live in the outer city. If the PCs get involved, Ravengard summons them to a meeting.
All three of these are more background events than traditional D&D encounters. City Watch slashing velvet garments, vandals breaking streetlamps, Flaming Fist beating up a guy with a club. Silvershield gains a point regardless but Rael and Ravengard’s dogs can be called off. If I was DMing this, I think your best option would be to have these vignettes happen as the PCs are doing other things. Either pursuing their own personal goals or maybe investigating Bhaal and what the hell happened to Abdel Adrian.
This is really where things start to kick off into a deliciously complicated adventure. One night, the hands off five statues are stolen. This annoys upper and middle class people. The next day, someone takes the hands from the statue of The Beloved Ranger which depicts Minsc and Boo, a warrior and his pet hamster from the Baldur’s Gate video game. This pisses off the entire city as Minsc and Boo are beloved in Baldur’s Gate.
The culprits for the first theft were experienced Guild operators. The Minsc and Boo statue was defaced by bored rich teenagers. They are hiding in a shop somewhere in the city. What do you do?
This is a great setup but it makes more interesting reading than it does a D&D adventure. It’s a little breadcrumby for my taste. The interesting choice for the PCs is what do they do when they find these overprivileged jackasses. There are four options listed here, three including the three questgivers and one involving Baldur’s Gate’s Master of Cobbles, a bureaucrat responsible for the city statues. He declares a reward for anyone who spares the city the expense of a trial which the adventure points out he has no right to do. This is really the moment for the PCs to declare their allegiance to a faction.
If the PCs kill the vandals or turn them over to Rael she gives them over to a mob and they lynch these rowdy young adults. Ravengard uses the law to bring down a 10 year sentence on them with no possibility of money or political clout saving them. Silvershield has evidence of the crime planted on a rival and the kids go free. These are all extreme solutions to a statue being defaced in a society that has magic. You kind of have to sell the problem as the DM that people really fuckin’ love Minsc and Boo. I would go a different route though. This overreaction feels to me like a chance to telegraph to the players that something is not right in Baldur’s Gate. It reminds me of Derry, the town from Stephen King’s “It”. The book does a good job of getting across that something is wrong with Derry even if you don’t know about the clown faced fear demon. For a small Maine town, Derry is too violent and its people never seem to question or notice its insane rate of disappearances and brutal murders. Two weeks ago people would’ve hauled these vandals to a watch post, now they’re cutting off people’s hands? Once again, influence of Bhaal on the city. Regardless of outcome, you might try to have one kid escape and face the mob if you feel the PCs would enjoy the extremely graphic and brutal murder the text describes.
Whichever NPC the PCs side with gains a point on the “Final Boss” meter.
This time around there are two events and one is mostly background while the other is a more proper encounter.
In the background, Rilsa Rael and the Guild are organizing a slowdown of the sanitation workings that haul garbage, piss, and shit from the Upper and Lower city. Like the vandalism in Session 2, this isn’t for any reason that would normally motivate the profit-oriented Guild, it’s entirely a fuck you to the upper class. The PCs can either do nothing and Rilsa gains a point or end the strike. The adventure suggests bribing the workers although 150 gold seems like a lot in an adventure with few mentions of treasure.
The main attraction this session is that Baldur’s Gate is due for an election. Abdel Adrian’s death leaves an opening for Duke on the city council. Traditionally one of the four Dukes on the council is a member of the Flaming Fist. With their highest officer Abdel Adrian dead, Ravengard is the obvious choice to take his place. There is background maneuvering here. The other three Dukes on the council are described in the Campaign Guide. They include adventurer patron Torlin Silvershield, The Tony Stark of Baldur’s Gate, and two others. One is a woman who is secretly the pawn of a Mind Flayer and the other is a malleable old man who reminds me of Grand Maester Pycelle. Both are wealthy nobles.
Ravengard meets with the PCs regardless of whether they’ve opposed him up to this point. Silvershield is supporting a noble from the Lower City to join the council. Ravengard wants the PCs to blackmail him and keep him from taking the nomination. The blackmail is a fabrication, clearly an evil act, and frankly not much of an encounter. Like the missing kids last time this one is a bit of a hand-holdy breadcrumb trail. At the end of the day no new Duke is elected anyways so this one falls flat for me.
There’s a sidebar here that that describes the PCs finding a bowl to foreshadow events later in the adventure. In a trash heap, the PCs find an alchemist’s mixing bowl that a wizard can tell was used to make smokepowder. Through another trail of breadcrumbs the PCs can find that someone came to the local fireworks maker asking where these bowls were made. This is a bit too obvious for me, I would say maybe put this bowl on a list of other trinkets the PCs might find.
Like Session 2, this part kicks off with a new law going into effect. The Dukes order that the gates to Baldur’s Gate’s upper city be closed at 3 bells, I’m guessing this means 3pm? Previously they closed at Dusk. The adventure says this edict affects two groups, first, merchants in the upper city’s open air market who now have to close much earlier to leave and dockworkers who live north of the city who have to leave work earlier or take a longer commute around the city.
If the PCs are working for Duke Silvershield he tasks them with patrolling the streets and gives them passports so they don’t get arrested. If the PCs do not have passports then their options are to use Baldur’s Gate’s vast undercity to travel in secret, present as nobles, ask for passports, or get the law overturned. The adventure doesn’t really give a great way for the PCs to make any of these happen.
Another thing that happens in this stage is that the Harbormaster levies new taxes on luxury goods. The PCs don’t really have a motivation to get involved with this as written but can get the laws overturned if they 1) find a new harbormaster or 2) ask Ravengard to halt the taxes as the Flaming Fist has jurisdiction over the docks.
Failure to overturn the law gives Silvershield and or Ravengard a point on the villain track.
At this point your players are halfway through Murder in Baldur’s Gate. The PCs are invited to a fancy party thrown by Coran, a character from the Baldur’s Gate video game. Coran is a former adventurer, multiclass fighter/rogue, and an elf who loves the ladies. Coran is very very very similar to Zevran from the Dragon Age series but both series share some writers so I guess it isn’t plagiarism? With his earnings from a life of adventuring and thievery Coran bought his way into the nobility and is living high on the hog. But his fame and luxurious lifestyle preclude him from continuing to steal and adventure. In short, he’s a rich idiot with no day job. And he is bored. And he wants to live vicariously through the PCs. It’s obvious that whoever wrote this adventure really likes Coran because he’s continuously mentioned and appears on the cover despite having not much to do with the adventure. Coran is here to give the PCs a push when they don’t know what to do. This was the role Raenar Neverember had in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. He’s meant to be the voice of the DM there to offer advice or bail the PCs out of jail.
As written, this party isn’t much. There’s no adventure to it. There’s no guest list, there’s no intrigue, there’s no map, and no wine list. It is just, ‘Coran invites the PCs to a party’. The entire point here is to first, introduce Coran if you haven’t already. Second, Coran is here to tell the PCs that they might want to investigate the Harbormaster’s Manifest. This is because Coran knows but does not say that someone is importing a large amount of ingredients for Smokepowder.
Once again, there isn’t really an adventure here. If the PCs investigate the Harbormaster’s office, get past a couple traps and steal his ledger they find that someone just bought a shitload of smokepowder ingredients and had them delivered to the same guy who had the bowl earlier in the adventure. This is again where the trail goes cold. The Fireworks guy still doesn’t know anything and everything imported was already picked up from local warehouses.
This could use a fight with Bhaal cultists or maybe agents from the faction you’ve irritated the most.
Starting at this point Baldur’s Gate starts to go a little crazy. The three questgiver NPCs become more violent than before.
Rilsa Rael begins a campaign of arson against businesses that draw money away from the outer city or exclude residents from their guilds. This is a sharp contrast to the Campaign Guide which specifically says that The Guild doesn’t like arson because it’s too high profile. This is meant to signal that something is wrong here. The book specifically says that with its stone buildings and damp climate Baldur’s Gate isn’t too vulnerable to fire. Also, Rilsa is using professionals who can set a controlled blaze and they’re not killing anyone. The point is that The PCs should not be worried about the city burning down. They can either help set and scout for the fires or try and prevent them. One odd thing about this event is that this seems like a good point for the Guildmaster to ask some questions about what Rilsa’s intentions are here. If the Guild doesn’t like Arson why is no one making an argument to that effect?
Duke Torlin Silvershield is back at using the law to cause trouble. This time he has reinstated laws allowing for duels. Back in the day, someone wrongs you, challenge them to a duel and the gods decide the victor. But the gods tend to favor people with military training and access to weapons and armor. Rich People. The adventure suggests a scene where a sword wielding noble squares off against a lamplighter boy who the noble believes dishonored his sister. Without intervention, the noble cuts the boy down in the street. People start carrying weapons and settling grudges leading to blood in the streets. Again, there’s no cause for this other than “God of Murder Influence”. Torlin isn’t justifying this to the PCs. As they say in the news, the cruelty is the point.
Ulder Ravengard on the other hand is also using the law to further his goals. The Campaign Guide speaks Baldur’s Gate’s justice system without going into too much detail (like Waterdeep did). The rule of law simply applies less to nobles and people connected to the Thieves Guild. In frustration Ravengard is setting up his own courts which he has no right to do. In order to stop him, the PCs need the Dukes and Parliament to intervene. Yes, Ravengard is curbing petty street crime but people are also being hanged and having their tongues cut out. Which hopefully the PCs see is wrong.
You can see how this has escalated quickly. Failure to stop any of this means the NPC in question gets a point on the villain tracker. I’m not crazy about Ravengard and Silvershield in this episode and others in the story that require the PCs to ask the government nicely to please stop doing something evil. It makes sense but it’s not very D&D. It’s not an adventure. You need to spice it up a bit from the text.
This is a long one so stay with me.
First and most straightforward, Ravengard. Ravengard suspects that the city newspaper, Baldur’s Mouth, is being used by The Guild to coordinate illegal activity. He’s not wrong but his overbearing response is to order his soldiers to shut the paper down. The adventure here is that if the PCs can get a copy of a secret coded broadsheet they can learn about a Guild meeting where the criminals discuss plans to kidnap people.
Rilsa Rael spends this episode kidnapping people. Unlike the Guild’s normal practice of holding people for attainable ransom and then letting them go, Rilsa is basically doing this to murder people. The players could get involved in this through Silvershield or Ravengard. A local blind begger tells the PCs to follow a pigeon to its home where they can pay the ransom. The PCs can bust in to pay the ransom or they might fail and the thugs will kill the hostage.
Turn the Baldur’s Mouth info over to Ravengard or shut down the paper and he gets a point. Fail to save the hostage and Rilsa Rael gets a point.
Silvershield has a big damn encounter. A group of protesters is heading for the High Hall (Where Parliament and the Dukes govern from) to demand rights for the Outer City. Neither the City Watch or Flaming Fist protect them, the law doesn’t help them, and Silvershield’s laws are making their lives worse. So the scene is set. At the literal historical Baldur’s Gate (The City is named after the Gate) which separates the lower city from the upper city around 2000 protesters meet up with 300 Flaming Fists. The Fist is arrayed around the gate and another 100 noble retainers are on the wall above everyone (subtle). Ravengard shows up and demands they disperse, the crowd refuses. With a hard perception check the PCs can see Imbralym Skoond, Silvershield’s toadie, on the wall.
What follows is a massacre. The nobles act first, shooting from the wall with their crossbows. The final tally is given at over 200 dead, hundreds more wounded. The noble retainers did most of the killing after the armored Flaming Fist dispersed the crowd with clubs and the flats of their blades.
The adventure says that the only to prevent this is to make a specific argument to Ravengard that the nobles intend bloodshed. I think you need a bit more flexibility in an encounter but this meant to be horrific and difficult to prevent. Being horrific, you also need to ask yourself if your group can or wants to handle this situation.
Fail to prevent the massacre earns Silvershield a well-deserved villain point.
In this session, a riot engulfs the city. It starts in the harbor. People are destroying property, turning on each other, with Rilsa’s agents stirring the pot. The Flaming Fist responds with lethal force and the City Watch backs them up. The adventure expects the PCs to work together to come up with a plan to counter the riot. The adventure doesn’t ask for their plan to be more in-depth than something thought out with a few successful checks. Maybe come up with some vignettes to make this into a full session.
One weird thing is that from the adventure text the massacre and riot seem completely unconnected but maybe they shouldn’t be?
If the PCs fail to calm the rioters everybody gains a villain point.
Rilsa plans to heist weapons from the Flaming First armory and smuggle more in from the harbor with legitimately hauled dead bodies. The PCs are given the choice to help or prevent the Guild from heisting weapons from the armory. It seems like it would be very difficult to prevent the harbor smuggling since that is business as usual for The Guild.
The same family that helps the Guild smuggle goods with dead bodies is also helping Silvershield smuggle smokepowder around the city. That is until one of their agents empties a pipe onto a cart and it explodes. This is another very breadcrumby investigation without an ending. If the PCs discover Silvershield and Skoond’s plot then he doesn’t get the villain point but success here really depends on how much evidence the DM gives the players. A player might get clever here and realize Silvershield is involved in this incident since Rilsa Rael and Ravengard are doing other things this session.
Speaking of, Ravengard declares Martial Law. Fuck them kangaroo courts. Under this rule, anyone not complying with the order of a Flaming Fist mercenary can be arrested or killed. Only the Fist can carry weapons. Gatherings are forbidden. A curfew is put into effect. All ships require leave from the Seatower, a castle guarding the harbor. Fortunately, the players probably have tokens from Ravengard as symbols of authority which were freely given earlier in the adventure regardless of whether or not they helped him. There isn’t really an encounter here, this is very much just a thing that happens.
Ravengard automatically gets a villain point. Rilsa gets a point if at least some of the weapon smuggling is stopped. Silvershield gets a point unless the PCs uncover his plot which seems a shame to prevent.
Welp, this is it. The final violent acts of the three questgiver NPCs. The adventurer advises that you play out the encounters for the two highest ranked villains on the villain track and if the PCs significantly impede one event that NPC loses 5 points. I’m curious if PCs by this point have turned away from the NPCs in disgust.
The Guild organizes a prison break from the Seatower which is full to bursting after the riot. If the PCs are with the Guild they are tasked with planning the job. But the general scheme of it is that the Guild has a smokepowder bomb capable of blowing the gates open. Guild agents can breakout prisoners while the PCs fight the guards. Unless the PCs stopped the weapon smuggling in session 9, the armory of the Flaming Fist is sparse and the slaughter amongst the mercenaries is grievous when pursued into the streets.
Ravengard is pursuing the least adventurer-friendly course of session 10 and this makes a good background event if you’re running the prison break and Silvershield’s Smokepowder Plot. Very simply, the Flaming Fist has 90-150 criminals (the adventure doesn’t know?) at their bases around the city, the Seatower, Wyrm’s Crossing, the Basilisk Gate, for crimes ranging from violating the sumptuary laws, trespassing, and murder. Quite a range. Then the executions begin. People are hanged or beheaded. The adventure recommends including some NPCs the PCs know. If the PCs rescue the majority of prisoners from Wyrm’s Crossing (fuck the Seatower I guess?) they’ve succeeded, although the adventure seems to indicate this should be very difficult.
Silvershield is going full V for Vendetta. He’s full Anders from Dragon Age 2. My point is that Silvershield, under Bhaal’s influence, has stashed a great deal of Smokepowder in the High Hall of Baldur’s Gate. The Guild and more specifically the Guildmaster have a great deal of influence in the city. Enough to guarantee the election of a Duke, passage or prevention of a law (although not the ones in this adventure), or the outcome of court decisions. Silvershield wants power and in his sane and rational mind the best way to get it is to blow up Parliament. If everyone’s dead, the Guild has no influence, right? RIGHT!?
There’s a bunch of specific where how and who detailing Silvershield’s plan and the movement of the smokepowder across the city and through tunnels to get it where it needs to go. At the big moment Skoond summons a Fire Mephit to blow it all up. I would advise a backup plan since Counterspell is a thing. Bonus points if your PCs don’t figure out the plan until it’s too late and you play “Light of the Seven” for your D&D music that night. Again, this should be a difficult encounter and the adventure doesn’t really give enough advice on how to make sure it is.
I’m curious how Rael and Ravengard’s plots intersect. My advice would be that if the PCs liberate the Seatower then the executions just happen elsewhere. It makes more sense to have the Prison Break follow the executions. I think the idea is you should do either Rael or Ravengard since you can’t not blow up Parliament. If you put smokepowder on stage in Act 5 it has to explode in Act 10. With these events, meant to be shocking and horrific, you should now have a victor. Someone needs to be at the top of the villain track. If the PCs do absolutely nothing in this adventure Ravengard wins since both Rael and Silvershield are not in at least one previous round. The majority of people that reported their results to Wizards of the Coast reported that Torlin Silvershield came out on top. Whoever has the most points after Act 10 is your final boss.
But the town mothers and fathers are determined to heal the madness that seems to have engulfed Baldur’s Gate. The city is due for a holiday, the Feast of the Moon, a three-day spectacle meant to bring the city together. Unfortunately, all it manages to do is get the citizens in one place.
If Ulder Ravengard is your final boss, the feast is interrupted when flaming projectiles begin raining down. The PCs must make their way across the city and into the Seatower where Ravengard is firing a trebuchet and shells full of alchemist’s fire at the city. Frankly, this one is kind of weak especially if the PCs did the prison break which supports my idea that you’re supposed to do Prison Break or Public Executions. Also, there is no trebuchet that can fire from the Seatower to the wide. Maybe it is just a magic trebuchet. Next!
Rilsa Rael arrives at the feast with dozens of assassins who begin killing everyone quietly until panic breaks out. This continues until they’re all dead. A fight against dozens of low-level threats will never not be awesome.
Torlin Silvershield has the best written of these three final encounters. He makes an eloquent speech and proposes a toast. But the wine is poisoned. It’s supposed to be rage poison but I also like the idea of it being regular poison. Silvershield then wades into the crowd and begins murdering people.
Your final boss becomes The Chosen of Bhaal. What the hell does that mean? Well, there are stats for these three NPCs although they were written before 5E officially came out so they are a bit wonky. Remember this is supposed to be a level 2-3 adventure although it is very easy to scale it up. The Chosen of Bhaal is a template that you apply to your final boss. The template gives your boss immunity to disease and poison because 5E keeps that damage type viable. The NPC gets a climb speed and can jump without provoking opportunity attacks. The NPC’s attack also force a Constitution saving throw and the target’s speed goes to 0 on a fail and then with another failure the target is stunned. As written, it’s a low DC with a very unfun effect. It should be something more dramatic like vulnerability to damage.
And that’s your adventure. Baldur’s Gate might continue to fall apart without the PCs influence or it might thrive under their guidance. The adventure says obviously none of them are elected Duke but if you look up summaries of people who played this adventure more than one had a PC attempt to get elected Duke. This is not an easy adventure to run. I have never seen a city adventure of considerable length that was easy to run. It isn’t a sandbox by design but it is one in practice. PCs have access to the entire city and considerable latitude in what they do. I think you need to alter the adventure to speak more towards the goals of your PCs and to push the idea that Bhaal is influencing events in the city. I’m not sure how you get that across. The more I think about the adventure, “It” seems like a good model for Bhaal. Bhaal has no cultists, no secret lairs but you confront the god at every turn.
There is one thing that strikes me wrong about Murder in Baldur’s Gate. This adventure is a knock down drag out fight between the dominant factions of the city. Someone loses big here and the city is forever changed. I worry that it is using too much of the lore and NPCs of the city leaving nothing left for future adventures. I’m not even sure this is actually a problem but it bugs me.
That said, this is a fun adventure to read and a damn good guide to running Baldur’s Gate. It made me like Baldur’s Gate to the point that I envision the city as the hometown of several PCs I’ve made when I need a character in the Realms. The DM screen and Campaign Guide have plenty of detail on the proper nouns of the city. I’m excited to read Descent into Avernus and see how things are the same or different.