The Studio Walls — Top 20 Albums of the 2010s

It’s December, which means it’s once again that time of year where I crawl out of my cave and do some year-end nonsense about video games or music or something. Given that we’re nearly to 2020, I thought I’d do something a little more encompassing and tackle an enumeration of some of the best music of the last decade. As such, herein are the 20 albums released in or after 2010 that I think rise above the rest. There’s plenty left out here, and a lot of representation from a few prolific artists, but I decided not to restrict myself to only one album from each artist because that would be, quite frankly, unfair to the people here that have several albums representing them. Let’s kick off with some honorable mentions.

Honorable Mention — 2 by Mudcrutch

Mudcrutch’s history as a band is storied, forming in the early ’70s, disbanding, and reforming to release an album in 2008. Mudcrutch 2 is a lovely bit of southern-country blues rock. It’s nothing special or cerebral, but it’s plain goodness and easy listening. While a solid album, its presence as an honorable mention is, admittedly, mostly an attempt for me to get some recognition on this list for the late, great Tom Petty, whose last recorded work was on this album.

Honorable Mention — Aquarius by Haken

Haken is probably the greatest new presence on the progressive rock scene to come about in the last decade, and their debut album Aquarius is brilliant, if unrefined. Some musical bits go on a bit too long or get a bit too heady, but the trademark Haken absurdity is here in full force. Vocalist Ross Jennings and keyboardist Diego Tejeida really showed their stripes here, but Aquarius is missing some of the sting and complexity that would come later from the band. I highly recommend the stripped-down, 22-minute medley of the album from their 2017 live release to get a real feel for the greatness here.

Honorable Mention — Mandatory Fun by “Weird Al” Yankovic

It’d be unfair to talk about my favorite music without at least a passing mention of the genius himself, the person I’ve seen in concert more than anyone else, Al Yankovic. Mandatory Fun may not have some of the same genius as his earlier releases, but he showed his continue relevance here tackling some more modern hits. His parodies of Blurred Lines and Radioactive are outstanding, and his style parodies like Mission Statement, a painfully accurate parody of CSNY, are tremendous. It’s a bummer he won’t be releasing traditional albums anymore, but Mandatory Fun was a great send-off into a new stage of the comic legend’s career.

 

Now onto the list proper …

20. Second Nature by Flying Colors

You won’t be surprised to know that the legendary Neal Morse/Mike Portnoy combo will be appearing on this list numerous times. I know I’m not alone in thinking that these two are among a few keeping the spirit of classic prog rock alive, and Flying Colors is just one of many outlets of theirs in that endeavor. Second Nature, the sophomore release from the band, is equal parts punchy, ruminative, and grandiose, with epic tracks Open Up your Eyes and Cosmic Symphony bookending the album, punchy love songs like A Place in your World and One Love Forever, and straightforward rockers like Mask Machine and Bombs Away throughout. It’s a great catalog of the band’s different musical styles, and while it doesn’t quite reach the peaks of their first release, there’s plenty here to love.

19. Distance Over Time by Dream Theater

In a rare example of a band listening to their fanbase’s desires, Dream Theater splashed big this year with Distance Over Time, the follow-up to 2016’s misguided attempts at recapturing the magic of their first concept album. While The Astonishing had good bits sprinkled throughout and an ambitious tale to tell, it was bogged down with unnecessary noodling, extended sections of weak musical efforts, and the ever-present poor mixing that made Mangini’s drums sound like buckets and John Myung’s bass completely absent. Enter Distance Over Time, which not only vastly improved their sound, but also their songwriting. Riff-driven and energetic tunes dominate, with standouts like Barstool Warrior and S2N giving a glimpse of what made us all love Images and Words almost 30 years ago. Myung is back in the mix, Mangini’s drums sound like drums, and while the two epics here (At Wit’s End and Pale Blue Dot) are rather weak, Distance Over Time is by far the band’s best showing in a decade, and their best work since Mangini’s replacement of Mike Portnoy all those years ago.

18. The Mission by Styx

Styx doing a concept album sans-Deyoung is certainly an odd prospect, but the veteran pomp-rockers gave a surprisingly great showing with this release in 2017. Plenty of tracks hearken back to their old, Shaw-led material like Lights and Man in the Wilderness, and relative newcomers like keyboardist-vocalist Lawrence Gowan (yes, that Gowan) and drummer Todd Sucherman prove themselves as phenomenal additions to the line-up, which includes original members JY Young and Chuck Panozzo as well as Tommy Shaw. Radio Silence and Hundred Million Miles from Home ring of classic Styx hits, Gone Gone Gone and The Greater Good are great showcases for Gowan’s considerable vocal prowess, and they even get a bit proggy with songs like Red Storm which features some excellent drumming from Sucherman. It’s safe to say that this one beats out Kilroy by a substantial margin.

17. Vector by Haken

Released last year, Haken’s most recent effort is an exercise in downsizing with great results. Clocking in at just 45 minutes, Vector is veritably minuscule by prog standards, but not a second is wasted. Relaying a tale of a sinister doctor and his patient that makes subtle and fun references to their earlier material, Vector is full of that chaotic sound Haken is known for with intermingled ballads and instrumentals to keep things fresh. It’s got everything you want from Haken — a short lead-in tune, three straightforward prog-metal rockers, a 12-minute epic, a somber ballad with a flugelhorn solo, and a frenzied instrumental. That they could accomplish this in such a relatively short album is laudable, and Vector easily stands among their best material, representing the refinement of their musicality and storytelling.

16. The Theory of Everything by Ayreon

A brief respite from Arjen Lucassen’s sweeping space epics that are as corny as they are genius, The Theory of Everything is a sort of new kind of Ayreon album. This is the first and only Ayreon album not to reuse any vocalists from previous projects, and the only album whose story isn’t deeply-rooted in sci-fi pulp. The Theory of Everything has a bit of an uninspired story, most likely as a result of its disconnection from the larger Ayreon mythos, and as such the lyrics are a bit awkward, but the vocalists and guest musicians are all a great treat to hear. This album represents the first appearance on this list of Toehider’s Mike Mills, who has become a favorite musician of mine, and also has great vocal turns from Kamelot’s Tommy Karevik and the late, great John Wetton of Asia and King Crimson, not to mention guest solos from prog legends like Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Jordan Rudess, and Steve Hackett. The Theory of Everything is, to me, one of Ayreon’s weaker releases, but still stands tall as a testament to progressive extravagance and over-the-top storytelling and music.

15. The Great Adventure by the Neal Morse Band

A sequel to 2016’s The Similitude of a Dream, this year’s The Great Adventure continues the story inspired by John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, this time focusing on the son of the protagonist from the first album. That sentence is really only something you can say when talking about progressive rock. The Neal Morse Band is a collection of enormous musical talent, the previously-mentioned Portnoy and Morse joining bassist Randy George, keyboardist Bill Hubauer, and guitar master Eric Gillette. The Great Adventure manages to be a worthy successor to Similitude, bringing in great new hits like the title track, Welcome to the World, and the poppy Vanity Fair, and while every track has its own personality and musical themes, Morse and co. manage to deftly tie in the musical themes of the first album in something that really becomes a treat for fans and newcomers alike. The Great Adventure defies the odds and stands strongly as an effort of its own and as part of a larger picture, and is undoubtedly one of the greatest musical undertakings in recent memory.

14. What Kind of Creature Am I? by Toehider

You’ll be forgiven for not knowing what the hell Toehider is (hit YouTube) or not quite understanding just what’s going on with their music on first listen. Mike Mills, the sole instrumentalist/songwriter/vocalist behind the band, writes some truly strange and hare-brained music, but for whatever reason pretty much everything he does checks my boxes. Creature is a great collection of some of Mills’ best work, with the title track a continuation of a decidedly weird story about a little monster whose father got cheated on by his wife, who was a rock monster who left dust wherever she went and as such he went to the locals to dust them off and determine who she — … you get the idea. Alongside it are some great classic rock tracks like Whatever Makes you Feel Superior and The Thing with Me, and proggier outings like Under the Future we Bury the Past and the epic Meet the Sloth. It’s all downright odd, to be sure, but it’s all just … good. More on that later.

13. Tracker by Mark Knopfler

Those who know me were probably wondering when we’d get some Knopfler on this list. Here he is! Definitely different from everything that’s come before him on this ranking, Mark Knopfler is the folk-rock genius behind not only Dire Straits and some great film scores, but also a slew of solo albums, each one rife with some of the best songwriting and atmosphere to be found today. Tracker is melancholic and thoughtful, and boasts some of the most diligent song creation found on a Knopfler album to date. The opener, Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes is both catchy and heartfelt, as are other works of storytelling like Beryl and River TownsLights of Taormina and Mighty Man give us some mournful ballads, and Broken Bones and Skydiver serve to lighten things up a bit. Wherever I Go, the final piece on the album, features not only some excellent saxophone work from Nigel Hitchcock, but also beautiful guest vocals from Ruth Moody, who’s worth checking out on her own as well. The bonus tracks are also all exceptional and run the gamut from campy banjo country to homages to classic rock.

12. Kaleidoscope by Transatlantic

The only release by the prog-rock supergroup in the 2010s (though more is coming), Kaleidoscope is a great representation of the musical talents in the group. Featuring yet more Morse/Portnoy genius, the quartet is rounded out by guitarist Roine Stolt of the Flower Kings, and bassist Pete Trewavas of Marillion. The opening and closing epics, Into the Blue and the title track, are grandiose as ever, and are indicative of a much tighter and more riff-driven approach to the prog epic than we saw on their previous outing, 2009’s The Whirlwind. Where their earlier work would often meander off into vagueness or ambiance on their longer tracks, the lengthy tracks on Kaleidoscope (both of which clock in at around half an hour) are mostly punchy and exciting throughout. Shine and Beyond the Sun show off Morse’s particular talents in the ballad form, and Black as the Sky is just some rollicking prog rock goodness. Truly, Kaleidoscope is the best we’ve gotten yet from Transatlantic, and I can’t wait to see what else they’ve got coming.

11. The Union by Elton John and Leon Russell

Here’s a bit of a strange one for you. British pop icon Elton John and American veteran songwriter Leon Russell might not seem a likely combination at first, but from the very first this album demonstrates just how sublime this duo and their music can be. The Union represents a bit of a genre shift for both musicians in different directions, but their voices and piano compliment each other so incredibly well it’s kind of amazing that something like this didn’t happen before. While John and Russell are the stars of the show here, the album is a veritable who’s-who of songwriting, with John accompanied by his ever-present writer Bernie Taupin, backing musicians consisting of the likes of Booker T. Jones and T Bone Burnett, and backing vocalists like Neil Young, Brian Wilson, and Chicago’s Jason Scheff and Lou Pardini. The music here is all tremendous, going everywhere from dark ballads like Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes and There’s No Tomorrow, plaintive love songs like When Love is Dying and I Should Have Sent Roses, historical fare like Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream and the excellent Gone to Shiloh, and more upbeat piano-driven tunes like If it Wasn’t for Bad and my personal favorite Hey Ahab. There’s a lot to love here, and it’s a shame John and Russell never got together to do something else like this again before Russell’s death in 2016. Needless to say, The Union was a stroke of genius.

10. The Grand Experiment by the Neal Morse Band

The Neal Morse Band comes back in at number 10, this time with their debut album. The Grand Experiment exemplifies its title well, boasting an assortment of different genres in its five tracks. The title track is rock played straight, with Morse’s rougher vocals given a chance to shine. Waterfall wouldn’t sound out of place as an acoustic track on a contemporary Christian album, and gives guitarist Eric Gillette’s vocals considerable time to shine. Agenda is a goofy, up-tempo tune showcasing the guitars, while Alive Again, the album’s finisher, is a 25-minute prog epic that gives every vocalist and instrument in the band time in the spotlight. It’s incredible, if a bit bloated. The album opener, The Call, is probably the best prog song of the past decade, sweeping and majestic while remaining relentlessly catchy and musically impressive. The famous Neal Morse keyboard sound is all over the place here, and Portnoy’s drums are especially technical and showy. The bonus tracks are also quite good, with particular mention going to Bill Hubauer’s rendition of MacArthur Park and his vocal showcase on Doomsday Destiny. The Grand Experiment may have just been the newest iteration of Neal Morse’s band testing the waters, but it lives up to its name as a tremendous debut.

9. Flying Colors by Flying Colors

What’s that? You want more Morse/Portnoy? Enjoy. Flying Colors’s 2012 debut was a bombastic showcase of what the new combination of prog, rock, and pop forces could muster. The album plays like an introduction to not only the band, but each individual member, with each having a few songs that showcase them specifically and a few that feature some excellent combinations of their efforts as a full band. Guitarist Steve Morse of the Dixie Dregs, bassist Dave LaRue, and vocalist Casey MacPherson add some excellent texture to our favorite duo, and somewhat refreshingly this doesn’t feel entirely like a Morse-helmed ship (though there are two of them) as many of the Morse/Portnoy projects tend to. MacPherson on lead vocal duty is a welcome, poppy addition to the crew, and the other Morse’s guitar work soars, bringing some creativity from his instrumental work with the Dregs. The album opener Blue Ocean is one of the catchiest songs of the past decade, and Portnoy’s lead vocal on Fool in my Heart is a refreshing surprise before the epic Infinite Fire closing the album. Flying Colors is one of the only bands to successfully combine the sound of mainstream pop rock with the ingenuity of prog, and their first release is a perfect example of their worth as a supergroup.

8. Paper Airplane by Alison Krauss and Union Station

Another shift here as we get into the final entries on the list. In my efforts to compile this list, I scrolled back through Wikipedia to ensure there weren’t any gems I’d forgotten, and this one from 2011 nearly escaped my recollection. How the hell has it been almost 9 years since we got an album from Alison Krauss and Union Station? Krauss is one of the best female vocalists in the industry right now, and has been for the better part of 35 years. Her bluegrass stylings were on display in full force here, and her deeply talented backing band has never been better. Special note goes to dobro player Jerry Douglas, and guitarist/vocalist Dan Tyminski, who provide what I believe to be the quintessential bluegrass sound behind Krauss’s mellifluous vocals and stirring fiddle work. Krauss shines especially on her rendition of Jackson Browne’s My Opening Farewell and the title track, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t Tyminski’s tremendous vocals and guitar on songs like Dust Bowl Children and Bonita and Bill Butler that really made this album for me. When Paper Airplane arrived, it had been far too long since the last collaboration between Alison Krauss and Union Station, and we find ourselves in that place again. I hope the next decade brings more.

7. Down the Road Wherever by Mark Knopfler

Down the Road Wherever feels like the other side of Tracker’s coin. Here Knopfler manages to maintain the sense of beautiful melancholy that permeated his previous record without retreading the same ground (except perhaps on a couple of tracks that sound suspiciously similar to some of his other work). Whatever Tracker lacked in this endeavor, Down the Road Wherever picks up the slack. Knopfler delivers his usual atmosphere and storytelling prowess to these tracks, with an overall pervasive feeling that the album is a fond farewell (though let’s hope it isn’t). Trapper Man and Good on you Son are instantly ear-catching, Drover’s Row and My Bacon Roll’s irreverent storytelling are nonetheless poignant, and the album-titler One Song at a Time and gentle acoustics of Matchstick Man easily slot in with the best of Knopfler’s 40+ year career as a master songsmith. There are tinges of his past works here, with some songs sounding like they’d be at home on Sailing to Philadelphia or Shangri-La, but as with everything he does, this is an entirely unique effort only Mark Knopfler could produce. Here’s hoping it’s not the last we get.

6. Good by Toehider

Speaking of unique, Toehider’s Good is certainly that. This was my first real exposure to Toehider, back in 2017 and straight off my real introduction to Mike Mills (which is coming up on this list). Good is an aptly-named and deeply strange effort that certainly reeks of Mike Mills’s particular brand of comedy-prog-metal, and no two tracks sound alike or like anything else anyone’s ever released. Good trims some of the fat present on Mills’s previous releases, ending up with a perfect microcosm of Toehider’s music. Present are the fantastical and somewhat disturbing storytelling in I’ve Been So Happy Living Down Here in the Water and [funnythings], the surprising depth in This Conversation is Over, the pithy acoustics in Dan VS Egg and the title track, the deconstruction of a simple concept in How Do Ghosts Work? and the downright absurdity in It’s So Fikkis! Good is distilled Toehider, and whenever anyone asks me what the hell Toehider even is, it’s the album I point to. Everything is strange, everything is unique, everything is clever and musically complex. Everything is … good.

5. The Mountain by Haken

Top five time! With their first two releases, Haken proved they could tell a story and write some long-form, complicated prog. With The Mountain, they solidified themselves as masters of the art, stripping away the bloat, cutting out some of the headiness, and refining their musical talents to a sharpened point. The Mountain is certainly the pinnacle (no pun intended) of their career thus far, and is completely lacking in basically any of the weaknesses their previous work had. In Memoriam and Atlas Stone are true earworms, Pareidolia and Falling Back to Earth are sweeping epics, Because it’s There and As Death Embraces are somber ballads … Haken made the wise choice of separating themselves from the ambitious rock operas they wrote earlier in their career, and the result is a set of semi-related but all exquisite ‘shorter’ tracks. And of course, we can’t mention this album or even Haken without special note to Cockroach King, representative of the strangeness of their early work and the tighter structure they’d adhere to in the future. While all of Haken’s albums have great tracks, The Mountain is pretty much full of them.

4. The Source by Ayreon

The Source was my introduction to Ayreon, and still stands among my favorite of Arjen Lucassen’s work in this wacky sci-fi epic of a music project. Lucassen’s vast instrumental prowess is the show-stealer here, with his story largely retreading the same beats of 2008’s 01011001. That said, The Source is still chock-full of badass prog-metal, and Lucassen pulls some seriously great vocalists and instrumentalists, including vocalists Tobias Sammet of Edguy (a longtime rival of Lucassen’s in this rather niche genre), Nightwish’s Floor Jansen, Dream Theater’s James LaBrie, and the aforementioned Mike Mills on vocals, and Paul Gilbert and the incomparable Guthrie Govan as guest instrumentalists. The Source is rather short for an Ayreon project, but certainly benefits from its brevity for the most part. Where many previous releases (particularly 01011001) floundered under their own weight, The Source is refreshingly sprightly, with a large supply of upbeat tunes like Run! Apocalypse! Run!Journey to Forever, and who could forget, Everybody Dies. Each vocalist is used tremendously well, with special note going to Mills’s crazy binary singing and James LaBrie, who manages to bring emotion and depth to his performance in a way we’ve never heard him do with Dream Theater. The Source is perhaps not Lucassen’s best work (that crown goes to Into the Electric Castle), but it’s certainly a strong representative of his musical prowess at its best.

3. Privateering by Mark Knopfler

If Down the Road Wherever is the other side of Tracker’s coin, then Privateering is the other side of 2009’s Get Lucky, which, had it been released a year later, would’ve certainly found a home on this list. Privateering is the longest album Knopfler’s put out to date, and its 20 tracks and 3 bonus tracks have nary a weak spot among them. I’ve already gushed about Knopfler’s sublime storytelling, atmosphere, and instrumental prowess twice on this list, so there’s not too much else to say here other than that Privateering is an insanely strong collection of songs. Favorite of mine include the jaunty Corned Beef City and Privateering, the intensely somber Haul Away and Dream of the Drowned Submariner, the brash Hot or What and Don’t Forget your Hat, the atmospheric Seattle and Radio City Serenade, and my personal favorite Knopfler tune of the past decade, Yon Two Crows, equal parts melancholic, ambient, and profound. Listen to that and tell me you can’t feel every bit of the chill and determination Knopfler sings about. Privateering is nothing short of a crowning achievement for Knopfler, and includes some of his finest work. While what came after is just as brilliant, Privateering just has something about it that places it above them. There’s no weakness here. Only artistry.

2. The Similitude of a Dream by the Neal Morse Band

My rather verbose review of Similitude from when it first released pretty much covers all the bases here, but it truly is a work of art. Listening to this as someone familiar with Neal Morse’s work one gets the feeling that this was the album he’d been waiting his entire life to make, and merely had to wait til the right combination of inspiration and bandmates came his way. Morse had been well into the idea of the religious prog epic by 2016, with previous efforts like Sola Scriptura, Testimony, and One all trying, with various degrees of success, to capture the sound and feeling of what was no doubt rattling around Neal Morse’s soul for the past few decades. The Grand Experiment was Morse seemingly testing the waters with his assembled bandmates, having worked with all of them prior in some capacity or another, and Similitude solidified everything this group and Morse himself had been working up to. It’s impossible to even pick out a few tracks that are the best material here; it’s a cohesive piece meant to be experienced as a whole, and while most of the tracks are just as good alone, when put together the album becomes something more than the sum of its parts. Neal Morse created nothing short of a masterpiece with The Similitude of a Dream, and there’s nothing else like it.

1. Clockwork Angels by Rush

If you’re at all surprised by this, you’ve simply not been paying attention. Clockwork Angels, what we’ve mostly resigned ourselves to accepting to be Rush’s final album, is simply exceptional. Rush’s only release in the past decade, their 2012 showing proved not only to be a tremendous realization of an ambitious form they’d never attempted before — a full concept album — but also their best work in at least 20 years. Start to finish, Clockwork Angels is driving, captivating, and poignant, while relating a complex narrative that deals with the themes of wanderlust, autonomy, envy, and loss. Smartly, Neil Peart is never too on-the-nose with his lyrics, retaining enough clarity to follow the story should one choose, but remaining vague and thematic enough for the songs to all relate their specific themes just as well. Whether it’s the ideas of envy leading to self-destruction in The Anarchist and The Wreckers, the driven exploration of Seven Cities of Gold and Caravan, the awe and majesty of the title track, or the wistful pensiveness of Halo Effect and outright tear-jerker The Garden, the themes are all explored just as beautifully by Peart’s lyrics as they are by the masterful music that brings them to life. Lee, Lifeson, and Peart are in top form here, with Headlong Flight in particular standing out as a bombastic display of how immensely talented these three are as musicians. This album represents the end of Rush, but it also represents a phenomenal group of musicians closing the book on a 40-year career on their own terms. Devastating though it may be to see the end, how lucky we are to have this as the final word. Clockwork Angels sits comfortably amidst not only Rush’s best work, but the best progressive rock ever made, and is without a doubt the greatest album released in the past decade.

A Timeless Wavelength — An Evening with Mark Knopfler

It’s almost insulting that whenever I mention Mark Knopfler, few seem to know who I’m talking about. Usually, mentioning Sultans of Swing or Money for Nothing can get some recognition, and at the very least most people have seen The Princess Bride, but for how exceptional of a songwriter, musician, and bandleader Knopfler is, it’s a crying shame how comparatively unknown his work is. I say this, of course, after bearing first-hand witness to an absolutely packed house Saturday night at his Phoenix stop on the Down the Road Wherever Tour, a venture in support of his latest release. I don’t know what qualifies as a perfect concert, but if it wasn’t this, it’s pretty damn close. Knopfler shows no signs of slowing down, and crafted an amazing set list full of equal parts smash hits and deep cuts that had something to please everyone in the room.

Throughout the show, Knopfler managed to represent almost the entire scope of his significant career, highlighting some of the best of his tenure with Dire Straits, a song from almost all of his solo records, and even a track from his film score work. Regardless of how you knew Knopfler, you weren’t going to be disappointed with the set. He began the proceedings with the rollicking Why Aye Man from 2002’s Ragpicker’s Dream, a crowd-pleaser with ample room for audience participation and thumping rhythm from his enormous backing band, a collection of 10 veteran musicians, many of whom have been with him since the start of his solo career. Corned Beef City off 2012’s Privateering was next, and was another fun, up-tempo rocker that gave longtime collaborator Guy Fletcher some fun on the keyboard.

The more ruminative part of the show kicked off with Sailing to Philadelphia, from the 2000 album of the same name, with some excellent rhythm guitar work and one of Knopfler’s percussionists amply filling in the vocal role normally occupied by James Taylor. The next track was probably the one that the fewest people in the audience recognized, Once Upon a Time in the West from Dire Straits’ sophomore album Communique. This was an unexpected track to hear, but not unwelcome, and had some fun clave and trumpet work. Continuing the laid-back tunes, Knopfler moved into a beautiful rendition of Romeo and Juliet, from 1980’s Making Movies, my personal favorite Dire Straits tune. Knopfler’s voice carried the emotion of the tune even better almost 40 years on, and the lighting that placed him in a similar glow to the streetlight of the song’s main character made the performance even more evocative. The way the band was able to fade in and out between verse and chorus to let Knopfler’s vocals stand out was particularly brilliant. This was one of the highlights of the show.

If I were to have picked two songs from Knopfler’s album that he probably wouldn’t play on the supporting tour, it would’ve been the somewhat peculiar My Bacon Roll and the pretty but sparse Matchstick Man. So, of course, those were the two tracks Knopfler and band performed. After a brief break to speak some to the audience, My Bacon Roll fit surprisingly well after Romeo, matching a similar tempo and Knopfler’s signature melancholy. A simple chronicle of a man’s life as he sits at a diner, Bacon was not a song I would’ve expected to hear, but one that perfectly fit into the setlist. After, Knopfler told a story about his time as a struggling young musician in England and his travails attempting to get home to Newcastle for Christmas from the southern city of Penzance, a funny and expertly-told story that inspired the lyrics to Matchstick Man. This is a song that normally consists only of Knopfler’s acoustic guitar and vocals, but here was beautifully expanded to feature the trumpet, violin, and rest of the band. The way the song came to life was incredible, and again, while not a track I’d have thought I’d hear, it was a natural fit into the mood of the set.

Surprisingly, these were the only songs off the new record Knopfler played, but I wasn’t disappointed, as he set off into another favorite of mine, 1996’s Done with Bonaparte, after introducing his sizable and talented band. Bonaparte is a song that, on record, has an implacable and one-of-a-kind sound, and seeing the collection of instruments that produce it — a bodhran, bouzouki, electric bagpipe, violin, and accordion, among others — was a treat. The tune started with the steel guitar and bouzouki before opening up to the rest of the band, and was lively and energetic throughout. What came next was my definite favorite moment of the night — Knopfler joking about having too many guitars before moving into my number one favorite of his songs, 2007’s Heart Full of Holes. The way the track swelled over its numerous instrumental interludes and scaled back to just Knopfler and the rhythm section for the verses provided for some gorgeous musical juxtaposition, and Knopfler’s vocals told the song’s story of an aging pawnbroker somehow better than on the original record.

With a fantastic trumpet and horn solo came Your Latest Trick from the quintessential Dire Straits album, 1985’s Brothers in Arms. Knopfler’s guitar was much gentler here than on the original, and the saxophone work throughout was especially brilliant. While this one stayed pretty true to its original version, the next song was another that strayed from its original sound — Postcards from Paraguay, another favorite of mine from Shangri-La. Here, it was beautifully embellished with Mexican-style horns and a Mariachi-sounding piano solo in the midsection. The sound was topped off by some exceptional percussion work, with several band members taking up clave duty. Postcards is a no-brainer concert tune, and freed from its duty as the band-introducing track on the last tour, it was an immensely fun song. Without skipping a beat, he moved into On Every Street, from Dire Straits’ final album, which brought the horns in to the melody usually played only by the electric guitar. Finally, he brought the house down with Speedway at Nazareth, a song with an epic instrumental section at the end that never seems long enough. Its lyrics mentioning Arizona and Phoenix were especially well-received by the crowd, naturally.

The encore consisted of two songs, the first of which was the electrifying Dire Straits smash Money for Nothing, where Knopfler showcased his unparalleled guitar work, playing the iconic intro and solos as only he can. Getting to see this tune live was a treat, and seeing how the entire band was able to contribute to the song’s famous sound without over-embellishing was tons of fun. As soon as that opening synth part played, the whole crowd was on their feet, and was treated to an extended drum solo before the rest of the band took the stage. The final song of the evening was Going Home, the theme from the 1983 film Local Hero for which Knopfler wrote the score. At first it seemed an odd choice, but listening to the beautiful main melody of the tune, here with the trumpet and Knopfler’s guitar joining the usual saxophone, was a treat, and ultimately seemed the perfect way to end a show that was, by all counts, a career retrospective of the highest degree.

So, were a few things missing? Sure, I would’ve loved to hear other famous Dire Straits hits like Walk of Life or Sultans of Swing. Maybe some representation from Get Lucky or Tracker, or even more tunes from the album this tour was ostensibly in support of, like Good on You Son or One Song at a Time. I also wouldn’t have complained about hearing What It Is or Yon Two Crows, two other favorite tracks of mine. But when you have a library so expansive and full of great material from which to pick, you can’t begrudge Knopfler for playing what he did. A night where I get to hear Heart Full of Holes and Romeo and Juliet is a good night, and there was no weak link in the set list.

Knopfler and Co. are still at the top of their game and show no signs of slowing down. Mark Knopfler remains the best songwriter in the business, and after all this time he still knows how to tell a story, put together a killer band, and play the hell out of a guitar. This was one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen, and I felt lucky to have been able to see it. I hope he never stops touring, but if he does, I’ll be satisfied knowing I got to see this one. It doesn’t get better than Mark Knopfler.

Dragon Heist Campaign Diary #7; “Middletown Dreams”

We had a bit of a truncated session last Wednesday wherein we finished up what I’d consider to be act one of our campaign. At long last, our heroes finally set up their shop, made a bit of money through some connections, mediated some trouble at home, and got a call to action that will spur them down a path … to destiny. And, most likely, a lot of cash.

At this point I humbly request that Wobbles, Gardenia, Jo, and Copper look away, if for some reason you’ve found yourselves on this page, as well as anyone who might play this adventure sometime in the future. Don’t spoil it for yourself!

The PCs (level two):

Wobbles Offund: Rock Gnome Abjuration Wizard

Gardenia Stone: Moon Elf Circle of Plagues Druid

Copernicus “Copper” Cannith: Juggernaut Warforged Craftsman

Jo Raethran: High Elf Life Domain Cleric

We began where we left off previously with our heroes coming down from bed the next morning, and seeing Frewn and his hired halflings shoveling a load of shit out into the streets. Seeing them watching through the window, Frewn opted to shovel some of it onto their stoop, which of course they weren’t thrilled about. They decided to split up that day, with Jo heading off to meet with the Dungsweeper’s Guild to see if anything could be done about the river of shit separating their bar from Frewn’s, and then the Fellowship of Innkeepers to arrange a meeting with Broxley Fairkettle, their Fellowship liaison.

Gardenia decided to stay in Trollskull Alley and go around to meet with a few of the neighbors and get their takes on what was going on with Frewn, since it seemed that he’d be causing trouble for them in the future. She met with Tally, who was mostly amused by the circumstances but advised them against causing any further actionable trouble, and with Avi and Embric who had mostly similar things to say (though this was her first time actually meeting them). She also offered both her help in the future if there was anything they thought they might need from her, a goodwill gesture and somewhat transparent (though not unwelcome) attempt to get in their good graces.

Copper went to briefly speak to Frewn, who stated his suspicion that Fala across the street was responsible for his … fecal problems. Copper, knowing that Wobbles was most likely responsible, headed immediately across the street to head that off and was met not by Fala, but by Ziraj, the enormous half-orc assassin for the Doom Raiders that sometimes stays in Fala’s upper room. Ziraj, not one for many words, simply stated that he’d ‘take care of it’. Copper then went to meet with Captain Staget to inquire about perhaps working on the armored carriages used to collect taxes (an occurrence which came from a random encounter I rolled during the first session) and was directed to his own guild hall.

There, Copper met with Eldon Ironhide, an NPC from my random tables, a meticulous gnome who sounds vaguely like Patrick Stewart. Eldon offered to give him one of the old carriages to see what he could cook up. Wobbles stayed home and worked on getting better at using the brewer’s tools there with some help from Lif. That night the party reconvened and met with Broxley, who offered them all guild membership depending on how many of them wanted their names on the contract (they settled on Wobbles and Gardenia). He put them in contact with their respective liaisons in the Butchers’ and Brewers’ Guilds, and they were finally ready to get started.

Their first two weeks running the business weren’t especially lucrative (I’ve since decided to use the alternate options from the Valeur RPG guide to chapter two), but I had some fun coming up with the various hirelings they’ve got at their place (included a pair of gnomish siblings in the kitchen with an adopted, silent goliath teenager as their dishwasher, a quiet dwarven bouncer with a pet mouse named Cupcake, and a clumsy but well-meaning human waiter). I threw Threestrings in there as their bard on retainer because I like his character and it seems a waste to keep him in the Yawning Portal. I figure he’s keeping an eye on them for Mirt.

Over the course of the next two tendays, their various friends stopped by to visit, including all their neighbors (apart from Frewn), Captain Staget, Celniana from the Market, Catarina Brisby and Maladie Song from Rats of Waterdeep (who opted to stay and use their guest room in exchange for working as janitors), Mirt, Renaer, Floon, Volo, and, finally, Davil Starsong, who had an amiable meeting with Wobbles and told him that Ziraj was a friend of his. They went to speak briefly with Fala, who politely asked that they not do anything like that again, and also asked that they not tell anyone else about Ziraj staying there. They obliged.

Finally, Copper met with Eldon who was impressed by his work on the carriage and gave him a bit more spending money to continue. Near the end, Copper received a mental message via sending from Vajra Safahr, the Blackstaff, asking him and his friends to come see her …

The Promise of Adventure — An Evening with the Neal Morse Band

I was an enormous fan of the Neal Morse Band’s 2016 album The Similitude of a Dream, and have been studiously following Morse’s career for several years. His collaborations with Dream Theater alum Mike Portnoy have never disappointed, whether it’s the contemplative prog wanderings of Transatlantic, the poppier, more accessible tunes of Flying Colors, or Neal’s religious, epic, and at times deeply personal solo albums, the Morse/Portnoy pairing is a fountain of amazing music. Their most recent collaboration is in the Neal Morse Band, alongside bassist Randy George, keyboardist Bill Hubauer, and guitarist Eric Gillette, and their three albums under this banner have been some of the absolute best music released in the past decade. This band has a certain synchronicity that’s missing from most of today’s prog, with everyone getting ample time in the spotlight. This Saturday marked my third year in a row seeing Neal Morse (2017’s The Road Called Home tour and last year’s tour in support of Life and Times being the others), and once again I’m left with little to complain about.

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Like their 2017 tour, the band played through the entirety of their latest album, The Great Adventure, which is a sequel to 2016’s The Similitude of a Dream. The Great Adventure continues the story of Similitude, once again loosely based on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. This time around we follow the story of Joseph, Christian’s eldest son, whose story follows many similar story beats to his father’s. Characters from the book and from the previous album show up in different capacities, as do some of the more pervasive musical themes from Similitude, but The Great Adventure is by no means a rehashing of the same musical material. The Great Adventure is every bit as diverse and brilliant as its predecessor, and the band’s performance of the work was masterful and nearly flawless.

The show opened with Morse in the same outfit he wore at the end of the previous tour, which makes sense as the album opens as the previous one closed. It was a great touch and showed just how much love and care these guys put into making their performances entertaining and cohesive. The sweeping overture was played perfectly, as expected, and the performance of Welcome to the World was electric. The crowd was singing along almost instantly, and you could tell it was a group of fans who already knew the relatively new album front to back. The performances of the next several songs were similarly emotionally charged, with Dark Melody including some amazing vocal work from Morse and Hubauer, the latter of whose vocal work is distinctive and piercing. Hubauer’s position at the back of the stage sometimes made it difficult to see him, but you could always tell when he was singing.

Gillette’s guitar and voice work got a chance to shine in I Got to Run, a more straightforward rocker that let him show off his impressive chops at both, and To the River served as a light breather with more nods to the previous album and some impressive acoustic guitar work from Morse. They took their first pause before the title track to joke around a bit with the audience about how it sounds a bit like a country track, with Gillette providing a hilarious vocal example and Portnoy insisting that they sing it that way for the second chorus given that it was to be the last night on the US leg of the tour. They obliged, and it was every bit as funny as it sounds. The rest of the song was pretty awesome, too.

Venture in Black featured Portnoy on vocals for the first part of the song, which remains impressive, and a great call-and-response vocal part between Hubauer and the rest of the band in the back half. The first half of the show was closed with Hey Ho Let’s Go and To the River, both of which once again featured tremendous voice work from Gillette as well as an angelic keyboard solo from Morse.

After an intermission they came right back with the second overture, which has some great organ work from Morse and Hubauer on keyboards and a great, floor-tom driven beat from Portnoy. Fighting with Destiny is another track that’s just pulsing with energy, mostly thanks to the fantastic rhythms of Portnoy and George driving at a very fast pace. Vanity Fair, probably my favorite track on the album, didn’t disappoint either, with Morse wearing an over-the-top costume and the whole band just belting the chorus and dancing about. You could tell they really had a blast with this tune, especially with George stepping up to the mic with an affected, pompous British accent.

Portnoy once again took vocal duty on Welcome to the World 2, not only singing and drumming but also gesticulating and pantomiming with his drumsticks to accentuate the lines he was singing. The Element of Fear opened with a dramatic, growling solo from Gillette’s seventh string, and was another impressive instrumental showing from the whole band that seemed to give everyone a chance to shine. Indeed, Morse constantly moved around the stage for most of the show, trying to draw attention to the various band members when they played particularly impressive parts. You can tell he really enjoys playing with these guys.

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Child of Wonder and The Great Despair were the two best vocal showcases from Morse and Gillette, respectively, and Freedom Calling is an absolute tour de instrumental force, complete with a monster of a drum solo from Portnoy halfway through. Finally we came to A Love that Never Dies, which operates on much the same frequency as Broken Sky/Long Day (Repirse) from Similitude, reprising the musical themes of the album and giving Eric Gillette a chance to flex his vocal chords with a gorgeous closing melody.

But of course, they weren’t done there. The show closed with a career retrospective medley for Morse, starting with The Land of Beginning Again from Testimony, and fluidly playing through parts of some of his best work, namely Temple of the Living God from ?, The Conflict from Sola Scriptura, and parts from One, Lifeline, and Testimony 2, ending with a fist-pumping rendition of Momentum that seamlessly led into The Call from their first album as the Neal Morse Band, which I’m inclined to say is the greatest song released in the past decade. No one was in their seats by the time they segued into Broken Sky/Long Day from Similitude, bringing down the house with Bill Hubauer’s sweeping keyboard and Gillette’s soaring vocals. In a stroke of musical genius, Morse ended the show with the last few lines of Similitude, which are also the first lines of The Great Adventure, smiling to himself as he played the last few piano bars.

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Simply put, the Neal Morse Band put on a damn good show. They’re entertainers, first and foremost, and the lights, pyrotechnics, and graphics backing them up always accentuated the best musical moments without distracting from the sheer amount of talent and musicianship on display from all five members of the band. Morse has written an impressive catalog and assembled an absolute powerhouse of a band, and it’s truly a joy to watch them play. I look forward to what’s next for the Neal Morse Band, and you can be sure I’ll be getting a ticket the next time he’s in town.

Dragon Heist — Campaign Diary #6

We hit a lot of milestones this week, finishing up the Rats of Waterdeep arc in a fairly satisfying way (at least I thought so) and also the last of the necessary repairs on Trollskull Manor. Other hijinks included rescuing a plumber from the Baker’s Guild, making a few new friends, and … oh, right. Filling Emmek Frewn’s taproom with shit.

At this point I humbly request that Wobbles, Gardenia, Jo, and Copper look away, if for some reason you’ve found yourselves on this page, as well as anyone who might play this adventure sometime in the future. Don’t spoil it for yourself!

The PCs (level two):

Wobbles Offund: Rock Gnome Abjuration Wizard

Gardenia Stone: Moon Elf Circle of Plagues Druid

Copernicus “Copper” Cannith: Juggernaut Warforged Craftsman

Jo Raethran: High Elf Life Domain Cleric

 

We began with the party entering the sewers of the Dock Ward yet again, this time in search of the “Rat King” Catarina Brisby (a name which I realized was a reference to the Rats of NIMH as I began the session). They expertly evaded the mousetrap along the way and had a nice conversation with the despondent Catarina. Meantime, Copper caught the cranium rat spying on them for Xanathar and started to unravel some of the crime lord’s plot. They decided to send Jo (with the cure disease potion Fala made for them) and Bogarte back home, a mostly utilitarian decision since Bogarte is basically useless and Jo’s player couldn’t make the session this week. That left us with a core group of Wobbles, Copper, and Gardenia to finish the investigation.

They headed to Doc Ward’s Apothecary at Catarina’s request and swiftly enough discovered the secret lab beneath it. A well-placed cantrip from Gardenia dealt with nearly all the cultists in there in one fell swoop, and they were clued in a bit more by one they interrogated as to what was going on. Copper and Wobbles elected to find the group who would be participating in the march to take place later that day, a bunch of worshipers of Ilmater heading through the quarantine zone to hand out blankets and baskets of other supplies. Meantime, Gardenia investigated the area a bit further in an attempt to figure out where the Lady of Plagues would be making her grand entrance, successfully narrowing it down to one of two buildings.

Copper and Wobbles encountered Ugarth, a half-orc paladin of Ilmater from my random NPC table who sounds like Matthew McConaughey. He was great fun and they got along swimmingly, especially after his curing of Wobbles’s rat symptoms. They then met with a group of ne’er-do-wells from the Xanathar Guild who were planning on using the parade as a front to transport slaves. They couldn’t figure out what they were up to but they smartly asked their new friend to keep an eye on them.

The parade came around, with Wobbles situated on one rooftop, Gardenia on the other, and Copper in the streets between. Catarina joined Wobbles on his rooftop and they spotted the Lady of Plagues, Maladie Song, coming up Gardenia’s building. Gardenia was able to subdue Maladie easily enough, and Catarina headed over to speak with her with the knowledge that their strife had been caused by Xanathar. Simultaneously, Wobbles spotted the previous group of ruffians corralling a group of bound and gagged peasants into a sewer entrance. A fight quickly ensued, and they made short work of the slavers with a little help from Ugarth.

That wrapped up Rats of Waterdeep in a nice little bow, with Maladie offering to teach Gardenia some of what she knows (I decided that Gardenia’s old tribe, of which she remembers very little, were also Plague Druids and so extended that as a possible subclass for Gardenia to take, which she did) and the party collecting their reward from Arvene Morrow. With samples they took from the lab and Maladie’s help they were assured that the plague would be dealt with swiftly.

Next was the matter of rescuing Flaps’s nephew Putty from Master Baker’s Hall, which was made a very easy mission indeed thanks to Vincent Trench’s excellent investigative work. He supplied them with a map of the joint, as well as information about suspicious people coming and going. With that information in hand it was an easy matter to sneak in and confront the warlock modifying Putty’s memory. They knocked him out and took him back to Trollskull Manor, and he revealed (after some great interrogating) that he had been hired by the Cassalanters to cause trouble between the Plumbers’ and Bakers’ guilds. He didn’t know why, but they had paid him quite handsomely so he hadn’t asked. This put the Cassalanters on the party’s radar, as I’d hoped, since with them not being our planned central villain they basically have nothing to do in this campaign without sufficient purpose.

With Putty rescued, Flaps was willing to fix their sewage problem for a nominal fee, and that only because he had to remove the sewage by hand. I reminded them of their dust of dryness, which they quickly decided to use to remove the sewage themselves. After a few more days, another 200 gold borrowed from Mirt (bringing his total stake in the manor to 10%), and some questioning of Frewn (Ichabod, Wobbles’s toad familiar, had spotted Frewn’s hirelings trying to break into the manor), the renovations of Trollskull Manor were complete.

They did some more crafting and selling of materials and asked Fatima al’Umari over at Zephyr Post about Frewn’s hirelings (a smart move, to be honest), learning that he had paid for them with money borrowed from Istrid Horn of the Zhentarim. Maladie came over to offer some more lessons to Gardenia, noting that she and Catarina would most likely be getting out of town soon. Gardenia offered them one of the spare rooms at Trollskull, which she may well take her up on, at least for a time. Lif finally began to cooperate as he saw Wobbles and Copper attempt to learn how to use brewing equipment, showing that he really wasn’t all that bad.

We capped our session with one of the best things I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness in a D&D session — dust of dryness essentially condenses up to 15 cubic feet of water into a small, round pellet, which, once broken, will expand back out into water. Fed up with Frewn’s continued rudeness and attempted espionage, Wobbles elected to have Ichabod toss one of the two pellets into Frewn’s chimney, thus filling his taproom with rancid sewage.

I can’t wait to see how Frewn responds to that.

Dragon Heist — Campaign Diary #5

Our heroes continued their extensive Home Ec class this week, knocking about several more of the necessary repairs, met the rest of their neighbors, got some clues about a rather shady secret one of their neighbors might be hiding, and took on a few more quests in the interest of putting a bit more coin in their pockets. Also, some of them are turning into rats. So that’s fun.

 

At this point I humbly request that Wobbles, Gardenia, Jo, and Copper look away, if for some reason you’ve found yourselves on this page, as well as anyone who might play this adventure sometime in the future. Don’t spoil it for yourself!

The PCs (level two):

Wobbles Offund: Rock Gnome Abjuration Wizard

Gardenia Stone: Moon Elf Circle of Plagues Druid

Copernicus “Copper” Cannith: Juggernaut Warforged Craftsman

Jo Raethran: High Elf Life Domain Cleric

 

We started with some more shenanigans from Lif and with our party finally meeting with the man, the myth, the legend — Emmek Frewn. Once again, the module really doesn’t give you a whole lot of description for him, so I settled on making him about as disgusting as I possibly could. I gave him a sort of “season one Michael Scott” vibe, with the awful combover and a wispy, poorly-grown beard to boot. He was in the process of lighting a malodorous pipe with a couple of denouncement notices from a few guilds and was incredibly condescending to Wobbles, who did most of the talking, about all the hoops they’d had to jump through to get guild support for their establishment. He, evidently, was spending a fraction of what they had to by just hiring a few halflings to do the brunt of his heavy lifting. They hated him, which was perfect.

They went to meet the last two neighbors they’d not spoken to yet, who are honestly two of my favorite in the Alley: Vincent Trench and Rishaal. Trench is just a fantastic character, a rakshasa in disguise as a human who works as a private investigator. I gave him a sort of Solid Snake-style voice and described him as smoking an enchanted pipe that didn’t put off unpleasant tobacco smells but rather that of lavender (essentially a fantasy vape), and they hit it off with him instantly. Wobbles was also very keen on Rishaal, the squat, dragonborn proprietor of Book Wyrm’s Treasure, and both Jo and Gardenia found books they were interested in. Wobbles managed to pawn off the spell book he’d found in the Xanathar Guild hideout for a good bit of coin, and worked out an arrangement whereby he’d still be able to copy the last couple spells he didn’t have out of it.

They paid a brief visit to Fala, since Vincent informed Wobbles that there might be someone else living there who would interest him (Ziraj, a Zhent member of the Doom Raiders, a group that Wobbles has some history with), but they were unable to discern anything other than some footsteps without pissing off their neighbor. They got a few more visits from some guild members to do further repairs, and it became clear that they were going to need more money. Copper sold some of the silver bars he’d found and set to work for about a day and a half making the replacement railings (since he’s technically sanctioned by a guild of metalforgers, it was all above board). Meantime, Celniana had some success selling his daggers, and they got a visit from Flapignon “Flaps” Vitosian from the other Leverage module who was there to fix the pipes. I decided that he didn’t have a sense of smell, which was why he was uniquely qualified for the job.

He quoted them at a hefty sum and said that about 100gp of it was just getting the sewage out of there (I was hoping they’d think to use their dust of dryness for this, but they didn’t). They asked if there was anything he needed help with to reduce the cost, which of course he did. He gave them the mission to rescue his nephew from the Master Baker’s Hall, which they promptly passed off to Vincent (quite smartly, if I may say so). They sent a message off to Mirt asking for a meeting, and after a short bit he teleported into their establishment and lent them their requested gold — 200 to start. They finished a good deal of the repairs by now, with new windows and light fixtures, Copper’s railings, Cole’s work on the chimneys near completion, Flaps setting to work on the plumbing, and Tally nearly finished with the roof. It’s starting to come together!

The last part of the session was dedicated to them starting Rats of Waterdeep (finally!). Bogarte Locks is a hilarious NPC in that module. I decided that he thinks he’s in a classic, film noir detective movie, and I have him say out loud all the little diary entries that pepper the module in an edgy voice. We got a kick out of his awful metaphors, as well, with my personal favorite of the bunch being one I came up with on the spot: “this plot is getting thicker than a bowl of oatmeal.” Wobbles and Jo are slowly starting to turn into rats, but they made good progress on the puzzles (solving most of them through brute force since their investigation checks were almost all abysmal), and we ended with them heading into the sewers to confront the Rat King.

We should have no problem wrapping up the Rats mission next session, and with Vincent’s information I suspect they’ll be able to save Flaps’s nephew easy enough as well. With the rewards they’ll get from those and maybe a bit more borrowed from Mirt, they should be able to finally finish up the repairs of Trollskull Manor and get on to the real meat of chapter 2 … faction missions. Looking forward to seeing how those play out!

Dragon Heist — Campaign Diary #4

The slow burn continues! We had a bit of a more eventful session this week, albeit still one full of home-making and investigating. Our heroes dealt with a fence’s warehouse in the Dock Ward before handling a creepy talking doll and meeting some more of their neighbors, ending with the possible acceptance of another quest.

 

At this point I humbly request that Wobbles, Gardenia, Jo, and Copper look away, if for some reason you’ve found yourselves on this page, as well as anyone who might play this adventure sometime in the future. Don’t spoil it for yourself!

The PCs (level two):

Wobbles Offund: Rock Gnome Abjuration Wizard

Gardenia Stone: Moon Elf Circle of Plagues Druid

Copernicus “Copper” Cannith: Juggernaut Warforged Craftsman

Jo Raethran: High Elf Life Domain Cleric

 

They began with a brief meeting with Cole Clambertop, the fire genasi steeplejack from the masons’ guild who gave them the rundown on what he needed them to do — steal back a necklace from a warehouse in the Dock Ward that was operated by a fence named Cybil. They had a few ways they could go about doing this, but given that our group is unfortunately not especially gifted when it comes to stealth, they ended up basically having to bust down the door. Luckily, they proved themselves much more formidable at level 2, with a fight against 5 thugs going really smoothly thanks to Copper’s ridiculous armor class, Wobbles’s new abilities from the School of Abjuration, and some really lucky death saves (both natural 20s). The Leverage module didn’t provide much detail about the interior of the warehouse, but it ended up involving another fight with two thugs (with Copper dealing with one and the other three members of the party dealing with the other) and culminated in a nasty fight with a mimic disguised as a bookshelf that nearly ate Wobbles thanks to a weird Fantasy Grounds glitch that made Copper target his own (nigh impenetrable) armor class. Luckily we sorted it out and they ended up also beating the crap out of Cybil to steal her money. They made off with the stolen goods, a nice bit of cash, and some heavy crossbows worth a surprising amount of money tot he right buyer.

They got back to Trollskull Manor and returned the jewelry to Cole, who was grateful for their work and continued to do the rather lengthy repairs required on the chimneys of the manor. In the warehouse, they’d also found a strange packet of dust (dust of dryness) which Wobbles thought to bring over to Merric in the Market for some identification. Gardenia also offered up the creepy talking doll that she’d found and asked for an identify on that as well. This is a fun little bit that I found on Reddit that ties in nicely to Trollskull Manor’s history as an orphanage run by hags. Merric identified the two things for them and advised that they meet with Ulkoria Stonemarrow, a previous owner of the property and member of the Watchful Order. Meanwhile, Copper asked Celniana if she might try selling some of his ornate silver daggers at her stall, which she agreed to try.

They headed to the Tower of the Order where they got a brief meeting with Ulkoria and her Shield Guardian (which I hastily decided was named Carl) and got the details from her — Trollskull Manor was sold to group of women running an orphanage who ended up being a coven of hags eating the children. The reason the creepy talking doll was sticking around was because one of the souls of the children killed there hadn’t moved on. Depressing stuff. They headed back to the manor and after some investigation found the bones of the child in a stewpot in the kitchen; they were able to give it a proper burial thanks to Jo’s Ceremony spell which solved their problem. I used the opportunity to have Mirt and Renaer drop by on a visit and witness the unsettling ceremony, with Mirt once again offering his services.

They also had some great interactions with their neighbors; Gardenia talked a bit more to Fala about a potential partnership (I had her roll a perception check to see if she could hear Ziraj walking about on the second floor, but she failed spectacularly), Wobbles sold the weapons they’d found to Avi and Embric, bringing the crossbows over to the Bent Nail to sell to Tally. He was able to sort out a misunderstanding between the proprietors of the two shops and, thanks to the hefty price tag on heavy crossbows, work out a deal with Tally to make some new furniture for the manor as well as repair the floors and the roofing. The shopowners told them about Emmek Frewn, who had apparently moved in right across the street from them Ray Kroc style in an effort to run them out of business. Last, they had a visit from Broxley Fairkettle from the Fellowship of Innkeepers who also told them about Emmek and suggested Wobbles might talk to him. Most of the people they talked to did not have a good first impression of Emmek, and the party is really looking forward to meeting him.

I had a guild representative come to repair the sewage before leaving in disgust, saying that “Flaps” should be the one to take care of it (from another Leverage sidequest), and ended the session with a visit from Captain Hystus Staget, who sheepishly requested their aid in what will eventually set off the Rats of Waterdeep mission. They continue to make progress on repairing the place and getting it running, and most of the neighbors seem to like them thus far. I look forward to seeing what happens with Emmek, as I plan to make him a real nuisance. Should be a fun time!

Dragon Heist — Campaign Diary #3

Starting this adventure up in my last semester of college proved to mean that I could take a different approach to it than any other adventure I’d run before. Namely, I wouldn’t be in a time crunch to finish things up around particular periods of time (the end of a semester or school year, primarily), since I’m playing it online with an already geographically separated group. With that being the case, I was determined to make this adventure as close to a Breaking Bad-style slow burn as I could, since the players and I all enjoy the roleplaying and storytelling aspect of the game as much as, if not more than, the tactical combat and strategy portions.

Knowing that I’d be taking my sweet time with this one, and that the players were fine with that, I made a concerted effort to familiarize myself with Waterdeep as much as I possibly could, and make sure that the city seemed alive and actually populated with real people. After all, we’re going to be spending a lot of time here, so it seemed appropriate that they actually care about at least some of the sprawling city. I also sought out as much additional content as I could find, given that, if we’re going to be spending a lot of time here, we might as well have some fun doing it. There’s a huge wealth of content that creators have put out for Waterdeep; lots of little side adventures and jaunts through the town as well as expansions on the somewhat lacking faction missions present in chapter two. So I’m throwing as much stuff in here as I reasonably can.

Suffice to say, my attempts at making Dragon Heist a slow burn are paying off so far, as we spent the entirety of session 3, for lack of a better description, playing The Sims.

At this point I humbly request that Wobbles, Gardenia, Jo, and Copper look away, if for some reason you’ve found yourselves on this page, as well as anyone who might play this adventure sometime in the future. Don’t spoil it for yourself!

The PCs (level two):

Wobbles Offund: Rock Gnome Abjuration Wizard

Gardenia Stone: Moon Elf Circle of Plagues Druid

Copernicus “Copper” Cannith: Juggernaut Warforged Craftsman

Jo Raethran: High Elf Life Domain Cleric

 

We picked up right where we left off last week with the party arriving at Trollskull Manor with Volo, who promptly warned them about Lif, the poltergeist living in its taproom. I had written up descriptions of all the various decay to be found in the various rooms of the massive manor, and combined those with some handy descriptions I found on Reddit of the various repairs that needed to be made to each room. I boosted the repair cost up from 1000 gp to 1500, given that the party makeup allows for some pretty substantial income already and I wanted them to borrow at least some from Mirt so they could owe him a favor and I’d have an excuse to pull out the spectacular Blue Alley mission.

They gave the place a thorough investigation, which in itself took quite some time, while Copper headed back with Volo to the market in order to meet with Celniana, his new teacher of jewelry-making. I came up with some modifications to the “training” downtime activity from XGtE given that, as a Craftsman, Copper already has proficiency with all artisan’s tools. I still ruled that knowing the tools didn’t necessarily mean he could make intricate things with them just yet, so we figured 3 workweeks at 25 gp a week would get him up to snuff. Meanwhile Volo set up a meeting with a magistrate and sent a paper bird off to Mirt to have him come inspect the place for them the following day.

Ultimately, they liked the place despite it being a huge fixer-upper. Lif was a right nuisance, throwing glasses around and hanging up a vulgar painting of an elven woman in the taproom whenever no one was looking. I decided to throw some frogs in one of the bathtubs (which Wobbles immediately latched onto) and a cat in the spare room. Additionally, I introduced the party to neighbor Tally Fellbranch early on by having him call up to them while they broke into the upper floor (every outside door has rusted out locks holding it closed). Then, when Copper returned from his lesson, came the time for some bureaucracy.

When they set down for the night in Wobbles’s shop, Wobbles started taking some notes of what guilds he’d need to contact and in what order, aware of the fact that unsanctioned repairs would be a no-go. This turned out to be a lot more fun than anticipated, as I had already drawn up some NPCs to have as guild representatives (one of whom Jo had some fun interaction with, he sounded like Foghorn Leghorn). They got back to Trollskull Manor the next day to see Mirt playing with the resident cat before noting that repairs would most likely cost upwards of 1000 gp, but that he’d be willing to lend them whatever they needed in return for partial ownership. They talked him down to 2.5% ownership for every 100 gp he lent them, with the promise of being able to buy some of his shares back when it became profitable. Copper also asked him for a small loan of 100 gp to do some experimentation with his armor, which Mirt gave him on the condition that he be allowed to put Copper’s name down on some people’s lists (which gives him a connection to the Gray Hands and possibly the Harpers for later on in the chapter).

Wobbles wrote a bunch of letters to guild halls and sent them through the Zephyr Post, a great optional neighbor I can’t believe they left out of the final copy of the book, and then headed to the Market to buy some spell components. I rolled on my random NPC table and came up with Merric Fastfoot, a former soldier who now operates a small business spelling wizarding supplies (fine inks and paper, components for first level spells, and a couple spell scrolls) who sounds like the Engineer from TF2. Jo met with the Streetworkers’ Guild to organize a trash pickup for all the crap they hauled out, Gardenia went across the street and met Fala, getting a few potted plants out of the deal so she could do some more herablism, and Copper headed to Steam and Steel and met Avi and Embric, arranging a partnership wherein he could use their forge some nights in return for eventually allowing them access to the forge he plans to build into Trollskull Manor’s basement. All fun interactions; I’m also using some of the sidequests from the Valeur RPG guide to flesh out the neighbors further. They also noticed some moving crews setting up further down the alley where Frewn is eventually going to move in.

They finished up with a visit from Cole Clambertop, a steeplejack from the Masons’ Guild and side character from one of the great Leverage side missions I found on DM’s Guild. He offered to lower the price on the considerable repairs needed if they helped him and his wife out with a little something … the party accepted and headed off to bed for the night, agreeing to meet with him the next morning and discuss.

Overall it was a grand time and helped me set up a lot of further interactions and encounters without having any actual combat to speak of. I don’t think I even rolled any dice apart from determining the weather and a few random encounters along the streets that never ended up amounting to much. Next time I plan on running that Leverage mission to its end, introducing the next one, and possibly starting them on the Rats of Waterdeep mission as well. We’ll see what happens, though, we might end up just moving a bunch of furniture around.

Dragon Heist — Campaign Diary #2

Hey, I’m back (after an untimely computer crash deleted this post as I was just about finished with it). Time to go over the events of session two and some of the behind-the-scenes stuff that went into it.

At this point I humbly request that Wobbles, Gardenia, Jo, and Copper look away, if for some reason you’ve found yourselves on this page, as well as anyone who might play this adventure sometime in the future. Don’t spoil it for yourself!

The PCs (level one):

Wobbles Offund: Rock Gnome Wizard

Gardenia Stone: Moon Elf Druid

Copernicus “Copper” Cannith: Juggernaut Warforged Craftsman

Jo Raethran: High Elf Life Domain Cleric

 

We started with everyone who wasn’t rendered unconscious by the events of the last session poking around the Zhentarim warehouse. Gardenia decided to give a look at the offices upstairs and came across a paper bird rolled up in one of the desk drawers while Copper followed the wire tied to the alarm bells above the office doors and found the secret door downstairs they were attached to. He immediately absconded with the silver bars in the room hidden beyond, but elected not to take the paintings (which makes sense, given the nature of his character).

Shortly thereafter, Renaer came to and informed them that he was not, in fact, Floon, the man they were looking for, but that it was most likely the Xanathar Guild who’d taken him based on the various corpses around the warehouse. They didn’t have much time to process this information before Captain Staget barged in with his army of watchmen and demanded to know what had happened here. The party (or at least the two who were conscious) played it cool with him and were very apologetic for the events that had happened and Staget took a liking to them. This I kind of needed to happen so that Staget could later ask them to partake in the Rats of Waterdeep mission. Staget asked Copper if he was truly immune to disease as he’d heard warforged were, and seemed to file that information away before sending them off with a couple potions of healing for their comrades.

After an inspired speech from Wobbles about the promise he’d made to his father to make something of himself, the party headed off to the shoe shop with Renaer in tow (at least part of the way, he stopped at the Yawning Portal for a much-needed drink) and took a rest. Renaer had mentioned that he might know of a person who could help them find the Xanathar Guild hideout (given that they were unable to interrogate the Kenku in the last session). Gardenia took a stroll in the City of the Dead to gather some ingredients to supply her herbalism kit and Copper took the forge to make some ornate daggers from the silver he’d found.

They got up early the next morning (given that they started their long rest the previous day at around 4pm) and decide to hit the Market to sell off some of the daggers Copper had made. I got in some good description of the streets of Waterdeep and some of the different options they had for traveling from point A to point B. I like the information the book has in Volo’s Waterdeep Enchiridion about this stuff, it’s great flavor. I pulled some random NPCs from my table to flesh out some of the shopkeeps in the Market and they stayed til about 2pm to sell the daggers off. Meanwhile. Gardenia made friends with a dwarven shopkeep named Veit Fireforge who had some herbal supplements and other flowers for sale (at a discounted price under the condition that she promise to be a returning customer) and Copper met Celniana Queyore, a gnome jeweler who offered to try and teach him some finer crafting methods. All in all some fun interactions (Veit told Gardenia that he was merely a front for the actual herbalist responsible for the goods at his stall who didn’t want to tell anybody where he got his stuff from. In actuality, Veit is the herbalist himself and is merely pretending. I think everyone bought it easily given that he was described as obese and had a voice like Ray Romano).

They then headed back to the Yawning Portal to meet up with Renaer, who told them he’d set up a meeting with Mirt. He hired a carriage to bring them to Mirt’s mansion (which I incorrectly described as being in the North Ward) and they had some really fun interactions with Mirt while he contacted his Harper friends to figure out where the Xanathar Guild hideout was. This meeting was inspired by the Valeur RPG guide to chapter one, and was a good opportunity to flesh out some more character background (as they still don’t really know each other) and have some fun with voices (I decided he sounds like the Demoman from TF2) before heading off to the sewers.

Renaer opted to hang back in the Yawning Portal as they made their way down. The gazer encounter went off well, and they soon found themselves in the Xanathar Guild hideout. They made fairly short work of the place, taking care of the goblin fairly easily, dealing with Krentz and Zemk equally quickly (they left Zemk unconscious in the corner and let Krentz run away after being beaten). While they interrogated him, Krentz informed them about the gray ooze in the latrine so they made the smart call of leaving that area be. Then they headed up to fight the boss with is Intellect Devourer, which should’ve been a much more difficult encounter but the person at the front didn’t have a brain (damned Warforged physiology) and I forgot about the half-orc’s ability to come back after hitting 0 hit points (oops). That said, they successfully saved Floon, and Wobbles had a new spellbook to mooch off of. They made their way out the way they came (not discovering any of the secret passages to other shops) and reunited Floon and Renaer.

Volo was at the Yawning Portal when they arrived, and offered to give them a ride to the estate he gifted them — Trollskull Manor. I leveled them up to level two as they set eyes on their new home, and I’m really excited for the next session. I’ve got a lot of stuff planned for Trollskull Alley (a lot of it taken from various side missions on DM’s Guild), so stay tuned!

Dragon Heist — Campaign Diary #1

Greetings, friends! In the interest of getting myself into the habit of writing a bit more, I’ve elected to (try to) do a campaign diary for one of the D&D 5E campaigns I’m currently running, the newest entry in WotC’s published modules: Waterdeep — Dragon Heist. In these (hopefully) short pieces, I’ll go over some of the prep work I did in the week(s) prior to the session, what actually happened in the session, any changes I made to the published material for those following along at home, and anything I learned and would do differently. The first session was a bit rough, so there will most likely be a lot of stuff in that last category. Without any further banter, let’s get into it.

At this point I humbly request that Wobbles, Gardenia, Jo, and Copper look away, if for some reason you’ve found yourselves on this page, as well as anyone who might play this adventure sometime in the future. Don’t spoil it for yourself!

I’m going to be playing with the format of these things, so bear with me while I feel out how exactly how I want to go about these things. For this time I’ll just stream-of-consciousness write out whatever comes to mind as being worth mentioning.

This was the first session I’d run of Dragon Heist, but it was also the first session I’d run using the Fantasy Grounds virtual tabletop. On the technical side, things went off effectively without a hitch; getting everybody connected and making sure all the right material was downloaded took a bit of time, but other than that there weren’t too many problems apart from a connection hiccup here or a sound issue there. Speaking of sound, coming from Roll20 I was a little disappointed by the fact that there was no built-in background music/ambiance function in Fantasy Grounds, but I was able to work around this by piping music and SFX as the input to my Discord voice chat. It gets a bit technical so I won’t explain too much, but ultimately it worked out fine.

As far as my prep work goes, a large portion of it was spent just learning Fantasy Grounds. YouTube tutorials were somewhat helpful, but those kinds of things can only get you so far. Luckily, I stumbled upon Fantasy Grounds College, an online community designed around helping new GMs get used to working with Fantasy Grounds, and the users on their Discord server were incredibly helpful in getting me situated.

The rest of my preparation was based, largely, on building a basic framework of the order of events to take place. I wrote up about a 1-page GDoc with the salient points I needed to hit on, as well as the player characters and the important bits about their backstories that I could use to tie in to later plot hooks. Almost all of this involved giving them relationships to factions, since if your players aren’t tied in some way to a faction or two, chapter two of Dragon Heist is pretty much pointless. Luckily, my players were very cooperative with me on this front so it was easy to give each of them a few relationships to various faction members, with the notable exception of Bregan D’aerthe, whose leader Jarlaxle is my chosen villain for this run of Dragon Heist. Bregan D’aerthe is a tough one considering they only allow male drow among their ranks; I wasn’t too concerned with tying them in to the players’ backstories (but managed to anyway).

I also came up with a table of random NPC names and mannerisms to hopefully populate the city (since it is supposed to be huge and dense), and decided to also run some of the expanded encounters from the Valeur RPG guide to Dragon Heist as well as the City Encounters from the DM’s Guild Adepts, in order to further flesh out the town and make travel between point A and point B hopefully a bit more interesting. The last bit of prep was to ensure that I dropped some hints about a quarantine zone in the Dock Ward, as I’m planning on running Will Doyle’s Rats of Waterdeep before the players hit level 2, and set up the Yawning Portal map with some random commoner tokens I made as well as those provided in the FG module for Dragon Heist. Worth noting — the adventure doesn’t actually come with a map of the Yawning Portal, which is somewhat odd as it’s where the adventure starts. Luckily there are plenty to find online.

 

Now, how did everything play out?

The PCs (level one):

Wobbles Offund: Rock Gnome Wizard

Gardenia Stone: Moon Elf Druid

Copernicus “Copper” Cannith: Juggernaut Warforged Craftsman

Jo Raethran: High Elf Life Domain Cleric

 

For a brief bit of backstory, Wobbles is an elderly cobbler who’s just finished working off an enormous debt placed on him and his late father by the Zhentarim, whom they’d hired decades prior to protect them and who killed Wobbles’s mother when they faulted on their debt. Wobbles made a promise to his father before he passed to make something of himself when the debt was paid, and since tonight was to be his last payment, he decided to sign up with the Watchful Order or Magists and Protectors, as well as the Lord’s Alliance, with his newly-gained magical prowess and headed to the Yawning Portal to meet his current Zhent contact, Davil Starsong. Wobbles also has made some enemies in the Xanathar Guild due to accidentally supplying one of their members with a faulty shoe some years ago.

Wobbles takes care of Copper, a warforged from a faraway place who found himself in Waterdeep a few years ago with no memory of his previous life (given his inevitable ties to Eberron, I’m planning on having his backstory involve the Astral Sea and gith pirates, which will hopefully tie into Dungeon of the Mad Mage). As constructs don’t have rights in Waterdeep, he had a difficult time finding a place, and luckily met up with Wobbles and found work at a forge. The forge pays Wobbles for Copper’s work, for which he is uniquely qualified as a giant robot man. Copper in turn designs his own ideas for shields and armor after hours at the forge and gets to keep a portion of the profits made from their sale, and has a few friends in the Gray Hands who like his work.

Jo is a fledgling cleric who has lived with a small encampment of priests in the forests outside Neverwinter since childhood. Before then, her parents were Underdark travelers who had their children in the captivity of a Bregan D’aerthe prison. She has little memory of them or her siblings (I’ll most likely tie them in in some way to Jarlaxle’s plot). She was raised by the head priest of this encampment alongside his son Tye, with whom she’s smitten. Tye has since left for Waterdeep and joined Force Grey, and in the interest of pursuing her love, Jo headed off for Waterdeep and joined up with the Order of the Gauntlet, hoping their resources would give her the ability to follow her heart. She was sworn in by Savra Bellabranta.

Gardenia was raised in her youth by a militant offshoot of the Emerald Enclave whose methods bordered on bio-terrorism in the interest of destroying Waterdeep. She was separated from them at a young age during a raid, and taken into the orphanage at Helm’s Hall in Waterdeep. Since then she’s attempted to gain work in various guilds (including a brief stint as Wobbles’s apprentice) but failed miserably; most recently she’s worked with the Guild of Vintners and Brewers to little success. She has something of a connection to Melannor Fellbranch, who expressed an interest in her activities when she was at the orphanage.

Most of this came from the “This is your Life” tables in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything alongside my efforts to tie everyone to some factions in some way or another, as well as giving everyone a reason to be in the Yawning Portal at the start of the adventure. To keep track, Wobbles is in the Lord’s Alliance, hates the Zhents for killing his mother, and is hated by the Xanathar Guild for accidentally foiling one of their plots. Copper is friends with members of Force Grey (who are tentatively interested in bringing him into the Gray Hands). Jo is a member of the Order of the Gauntlet, is in love with a member of Force Grey, and spent some of her childhood as a captive of Bregan D’aerthe, and Gardenia used to be with the Emerald Enclave and is still somewhat tied to them. Phew.

All of that said, the start of the adventure was relatively problem-free. Had some good interaction with Wobbles and Davil collecting his final payment, and the party mostly stayed out of the bar fight between the Xanathar Guild and Yagra, which turned out to be a wise decision as they seem to lack DPS. Copper can take a lot of hits, and Jo and Gardenia can heal, but no one really has much damage output. Hopefully Wobbles can get beyond that as he learns new spells but his rolls on Firebolt were abysmal.

The troll fight went off without a hitch (though Durnan was the primary damage dealer, for expected reasons), and their interactions with Volo were hilarious (when Copper and Gardenia’s players were able to hear the rest of us). The loose ties between the party members thus having been created, they headed out into the early autumn evening to track down Floon Blagmaar.

I embellished the “Blood in the Streets” encounter using the parts from the Valeur guide, as I wanted to establish Captain Staget early on. I made sure he showed interest in Copper in particular — Staget is going to be the one asking them to get started on Rats of Waterdeep and his knowledge of Copper’s immunity to disease will work as a great reason for him to ask them. On their way through the Dock Ward there was some good inter-character conversation, and I ran a small vignette from the City Encounters involving some smugglers. I had no idea what I would have these characters actually be doing, so luckily the PCs walked on by as I expected them to. Still, I think it worked to give some flavor to the seedier aspects of Waterdeep.

They asked for directions to the Skewered Dragon, and got some aid from a fisherwoman I pulled from my pre-gen’d NPCs list in the form of wrong directions that I later had to correct once I figured out where this stuff actually was. Oops. I set up the quarantine zone from Rats just north of all this stuff so they’d have to pass by and see the guards patrolling its alleys. They passed the Old Xoblob Shop and I was a bit worried they’d completely pass it by, but luckily Jo expressed some interest in it and my description of what she could see from outside was enough to get her inside.

The rest of the party didn’t particularly enjoy the venture, but it did end up providing some fun RP and more info about where they might find Floon. One thing I really like about the way FG handles quests is that you can expand the information they have at their disposal with tidbits they pick up from NPCs. It’s a handy way of reminding them of what they already know and where they heard it from without telling them directly.

I ran the Skewered Dragon as written in the Valeur guide and I’m really glad I did. Solomil turned out to be a blast and his fist fight with Copper was hilarious — I only got two attacks and rolled nat 1’s on both. We played it off as his fists literally being too weak to even dent Copper’s metal body and the fight was over before it even started. He gave them their info (which they rightfully were skeptical of) and sent them off. They elected to all stay the night at Wobbles’s shop before venturing into Candle Lane.

Jo took the spare room upstairs and Gardenia opted to sleep in a bedroll on the main floor — neither of them really have a place to stay in town — and the next day they were greeted to a hail storm courtesy of the great weather tables from the City Encounters module. Wobbles, Jo, and Gardenia decided to head back to the Yawning Portal since they knew by now that they were looking for Zhents and that Davil might know their whereabouts. Copper stayed behind to man the shop.

After a brief but great mishap with a failed pickpocket (again from City Encounters) wherein Jo wasn’t to be messed with, they were unable to find Davil in the Yawning Portal and decided to split up. Which was a mistake.

Wobbles headed back to the shop (Offund’s Wares Often Worn, which I just love) while the gals decided to scope out Candle Lane. One City Encounter later (with the amount of enemies halved!) and they were about dead. Still, Jo was able to fry a guy with an Inflict Wounds and the two got out of dodge before the guards showed up. They got to Candle Lane and decided to hide out and see if anyone walked in or out (and they both got nat 20s on their stealth checks! Unbelievable.) I think it did a good job of establishing the danger present in the Dock Ward but in retrospect one Thug would’ve been plenty. Ah well.

Wobbles and Copper arrived a bit later and the four of them headed to the Zhent warehouse where some stealth checks and perception revealed a relative lack of ways in. You really need a rogue for this encounter. They had Copper break down the door, which obviously alerted the Kenku and allowed them to hide. This is where my biggest screw-up happened.

I ruled that, based on the Kenkus’ stealth, the players would need a passive perception of 16 to spot them, which none of them have. Well, that’s not strictly true. Gardenia has a passive perception of 19 thanks to the Observant feat (I let all my players start with a feat), but I didn’t notice it thanks to not understanding how FG works. So the Kenku naturally destroyed them. After I realized my error I rewound to the start of the combat to negate the surprise round, but it still proved a fatal encounter for Wobbles, with the last Kenku running off. I ended the session with Copper finding a locked up Renaer in the closet.

After the session I talked to Wobbles’s player and decided that he wouldn’t be dead, just very much unconscious and badly wounded. It didn’t seem right to kill him for my mistake, for surely if they had known the Kenku were there (which they should’ve with Gardenia’s passive perception), that encounter would’ve gone a lot differently. Luckily, no one has any problem with my little retcon, so hopefully the next session will go a bit better as the party tries to find out where Floon is.

Since they weren’t able to interrogate the Kenku, I’m planning on having Renaer suggest a meeting with Mirt, who will give them the information they need. Introducing him will help me out a bit because they need to know he’s a moneylender so they can afford the eventual repairs to Trollskull Alley and he can give them the Blue Alley quest.

So … I think that’s about it! Next they’ll finish up searching the Zhent warehouse and meet up with Captain Staget again, who will try to find a way to see if Copper is truly immune to disease (most likely by just asking him straight up). It’ll be interesting to see if this party stays together.

Hopefully you found this somewhat informative or at least interesting. I’m flying by the seat of my pants with Waterdeep but I think so far it’s going well. I can’t wait to get into Trollskull Alley, I have a lot of good stuff planned for that part of the adventure. Until next week!