Obsidian Portal Campaign of the Month August 2020 – In Search of Hidden Dragons

Treasure hunters, take heed! For this month, we investigate the glittering secrets of Waterdeep and the beautiful 5th Edition D&D campaign, In Search of Hidden Dragons by philip_andrew_stevens. Along our journey, we shall find a Mind Map, an old-school initiative trick, and the greatest treasure of all – weaving a story with family and friends. So, take a seat upon that tavern bench and listen to the tale of lost gold and a father’s gift to his girls.

Hail, philip_andrew_stevens! For those new to Waterdeep, The Yawning Portal, and your campaign, can you give us an overview of In Search of Hidden Dragons?

“In Search of Hidden Dragons” tells the story of a long running game based on the “Waterdeep: Dragon Heist” adventure. It is set in the great city of Waterdeep, in the D&D “Forgotten Realms” setting.


Like many adventures, it starts in a tavern…. Four strangers come together in the infamous “Yawning Portal” in a fateful encounter that sets off a chain of events that could lead to their doom, the doom of the “City of Splendours”, or glory! It is essentially a detective story. A series of seemingly unconnected events pull them into the search of half a million gold coins, the ‘dragons’ of the title. Swirling around this great prize are some powerful and interesting characters and organisations with very different reasons to be interested in this cache and each other.


It is a great opportunity to become enveloped by a complex interaction of people (well, entities!) in a vibrant and diverse city. Plus there is an opportunity for sneaking, partying, shopping, teleporting, starting a small business, and rooftop chases.

Hidden Dragons uses 5th Edition D&D, but it looks as though you have some experience with several editions. If you could mix and match your favorite parts, what would your ideal game system look like?

I love the simplicity of First Edition AD&D. The mechanics seldom get in the way of the roleplaying excitement. My favourite bit is initiative. Literally competing to have the highest score on a d6 every single round, along with draws and re-rolls, keeps the tension and excitement going through the whole of combat. The 5th edition rules around initiative are more ‘realistic’, but stall the action when everyone has to roll a d20 and the GM has to write all the scores down and each round we have to refer to the list to see who is next. Interestingly, the most exciting bit is when people have the same score, in which case we go back to good old First Edition d6s each round!


Fewer lists and more high-stakes dice rolling = more fun!
That said, there is so much more richness in 5e. It has grown with experience of literally millions of players over the years, it took a few wrong turns but is generally an excellent game. It was the first one to tempt me away from 1e.

Do you have any house rules or homebrew mechanics that have worked well?

Breaking initiative ties with a d6 every round, 1e style. It is just so much fun.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your players, and your lives outside of game?

There are four of us in this game. Three of us are from the same family, my two daughters and me, the other is one of the girl’s friends. They are all at high school, and I’m a public servant.

How did you get into gaming? How did your gaming group find each other?

I got into playing Basic ‘Red Box’ D&D in 1980, when I started high school in the UK. I had fallen in love with the ‘Hobbit’ when I was nine, and was just starting on the Lord of the Rings, Ursula le Guin, and the Dark is Rising books by Susan Cooper (which were based just around the corner from where I lived in Berkshire, and went on holiday in mid Wales).


I moved on to 1e AD&D shortly afterwards and played that through high school, along with the occasional game of Traveller.


Fast forward 20 years, and my daughters and I are sitting in our play room on a rainy day. We’ve played all the board games, and one of them asks me what I used to play when I was their age. I told them about this game where you get to be inside a book that you are jointly writing with your friends. We had read JRR Tolkein, CS Lewis, Susan Cooper, and the like as bedtime stories, and being in New Zealand now, were big fans of the LoTR movies, so they thought this sounded great. We dug up my old rulebooks from the loft, used Lego figures as miniatures, and used a dice roller on a website. Soon they had invited a friend each and we were doing the classic Greyhawk adventures – U1-3, Cult of the Reptile God, White Plume, G1-3 etc.

In Search of Hidden Dragons is packed full of classic elements from fantasy adventures. What are your favorite parts of these kinds of stories? Dungeon crawling? Monster hunting? Treasures? Mysteries?

Variety. Too much of one thing makes Jack a dull boy. We have always loved the problem-solving elements of dungeon crawls, but also detective work – Waterdeep: Dragon Heist has lots of the latter. That said, we do like to bring the boom! There is nothing quite like everyone gleefully shouting “Double Damage!” when someone rolls a 20!

Did this campaign have any particular challenges for you as a GM? If so, what solutions did you find most effective?

Dragon Heist has a lot going on; Waterdeep is a large and complex environment. It would be very simple to get lost or overwhelmed, following dead ends. Also, there are so many cool characters, it is hard to leave any out, which the four-season structure kind of demands.


While ‘railroading’ players can cause them feel manipulated and the ‘playthings of fate’, pure sandpits can also be pretty frustrating too. I have tended to create little self-contained nodes of adventure that can be done in any order, with a flexible storyline that links them all together. A good plot is a bit like gravity. It is dull if you just crash straight to the ground in a thud, or float off into space, but somewhere between the two is the zone where you can really fly. Gravity still pulls you down, but you get to choose where to land.

In Search of Hidden Dragons tells a lot of its story through the artwork presented throughout. Do you use visuals during gameplay, too?

I do, including the previous episode’s Obsidian Portal post as a bit of a recap. The visuals help with the atmosphere and allow you to do point at things in a way that might lose momentum when you have to draw them. Any major map drawing I do during toilet or lunch breaks, when I tidy up the rather more wobbly lines drawn in the midst of the action. I like searching the net for characters and backgrounds and pulling them together into something original in Photoshop or GIMP. One thing I like doing is making graphical handouts of excerpts from written documents, etc.


We have recently started using Spotify playlists that other people have produced. This came from my daughters when they were DMing. Our last Saltmarsh adventure had 5hrs of ship sounds from YouTube, complete with waves and creaking planks and rigging!

What highlights of the campaign have your players enjoyed, so far?

I thought I better ask them (hoping they could think of something!). Hannah’s answer was:


“Probably the investigation parts, I enjoyed kinda sneaking around and finding stuff out e.g. when we had to go to the ball [held by the Cassalanters] or sneaking into the Black Viper’s tower and kind of spying on her. Also when we had to do the investigation about the man with the axe, Meloon Wardragon [who had been possessed by an Intellect Devourer and was acting strangely].”


Their grandfather was a Detective Inspector in the UK Police, so I am sure he is proud that his grand daughters are ace investigators, even if it was the City of Waterdeep rather than Stoke-on-Trent!

What part are you most proud of? Or, what was the most enjoyable moment for you as the GM?

One of the best for me was during our original (and still ongoing!) mega-campaign ‘Second generation, first edition adventures’, when the players were uncovering the manipulative Drow plan behind the recent Giant incursions from the mountains to the west of Keoland and Geoff in Greyhawk. I found a drow font on the internet and gave the players messages written in drow and they didn’t roll a ‘history’ check, but had to work it out themselves. The quieter of my daughters, usually lets her sister (and her very chaotic and risk-loving [verging on suicidal] elven thief) lead things. However, she refused to be beaten by them, even when her colleagues said they were indecipherable. She quietly worked on the texts while the rest made their way from the vaults of the Fire Giant Snurre into the shadows of the Underdark. Eventually, she had a Eureka! moment, and she had the alphabet sorted. She did this just in time to work out that there was likely an Illithid/mind-flayer ambush waiting for them.


I love the way that a party is made up of different skills and capabilities: not just of the characters – whether it be cleric or mage, fighter or thief – but of the players themselves. There is not one way to play, and all ways play their part.

One of your most interesting organizational tools is a Mind Map, which details connections between people, groups, and locations. How did you come up with that concept and how did you create the image?

We used the Mind Map for two reasons. First, my daughters use these at school as a way of organising thoughts and ideas. I wanted the game to reinforce this structured thinking they were being taught at school.


Second, Dragon Heist has a lot going on: some of it has important interconnections, whether it be people or places, but there are also a lot of dead ends. The Mind Map was something we started using on a whiteboard, so I decided to put it on the Obsidian Portal site, so we could build on it, and could use it to base discussions between the players, or I could remind them of what they had already worked out or new, but had forgotten.

Can you give us any hints about the future of the campaign without giving too much away? Or, do you have other, upcoming projects?

I have a whole second part to  Dragon Heist worked out, building off the published adventure. It just leaves so much quality there, that I wanted to make use of it. The richness of the characterisation and the homebrew things that people have come up with, mean that no chapter truly ends, as there are so many loose ends, or seeds that can be nurtured into a whole new story.


One of my daughters is GM-ing the 5e reworking of the U series of the 1e AD&D adventures we played all those years ago. I get to play them for the first time, and we have a new player who has never been to Saltmarsh before. She may be the one to write the reports on Obsidian Portal this time.

Lastly, Obsidian Portal always loves to ask if you have any advice or clever tricks to share so we can all craft games as wonderful as In Search of Hidden Dragons.

The key word for me is ‘weaving’. Many cultures have the concept of ‘weaving a story’. No story is a straight line. Characters don’t just appear to interact with the players. Take every element and run with it: think of the motivations of the characters and institutions; what are they doing outside of this adventure? What do they want from life? Let this play around in your head and then they become people you know, and you then will know how their story will weave into the events surrounding your adventure.


It is not possible to overprepare. You may not always use stuff when you plan to, but once you know who these people are, you can pull them out of your Bag of Holding and drop them into the story when the time is right.

Finally, remember that we are doing this for fun. It is not about showing everyone how clever or creative you are; this is co-creation. Enjoy it getting out of hand, and the players taking you where you didn’t plan to go. Enjoy the ride!

Our quest is at an end for this month and the Yawning Portal is blowing out the lanterns and stacking up the chairs, so it must be time to go. We trust that you were inspired by In Search of Hidden Dragons. Join us again each month for more gaming greatness, and read about our previous Campaigns of the Month, here. And don’t forget to pay a visit to our site forums, where you can nominate your favorite campaigns for consideration. Until next time, adventurers!

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