Obsidian Portal Campaign of the Month August 2021 – City of Splendors. Dungeon of Madness.

Congratulations to sethwhite and company for winning Campaign of the Month, August 2021, with their dungeon-crawling creation, “City of Splendors. Dungeon of Madness.” Waterdeep and The Yawning Portal may be familiar fare to those among you who enjoy the classics, but take a deeper look and marvel at the treasures and trade-secrets below…
Your campaign is set in Waterdeep – a city drowning in adventure hooks, plots, and interesting characters. What drew you to a city-based campaign and what are some of the pros/cons about urban adventuring?

The entire premise of this campaign is as a sandbox for urban and dungeon adventure. With the biggest city in the world sitting atop the biggest dungeon in the world, it’s primed for a lifetime of adventure. For the AI, we ran a game of the Lords of Waterdeep board game, with the Undermountain and Skullport expansions. With that one board game, we created an arc of major plots and conspiracies and power brokers of the city and much of the dungeon. I took pictures of where all the agents were, and the Quest and Intrigue cards that were played during each round. That “current clack” is continuing forward as the “meta plot” of the campaign, until it runs into the actions of the players, of course. Then the apple cart gets upended, and we’ll see what happens.

I’ve always been very interested in urban games, with the tangle of intrigue and vying political and economic interests that come with it. I really wanted a sandbox for the players to bite hard on hooks, or swim right past as they wanted, which meant I needed a lot of potential content, and a lot of factions that could get pulled in when the PCs bite. A city like Waterdeep is perfect for that. And I’m standing on a tower of giants as I use their great work to make this little campaign. Waterdeep itself is so rich and so big, with all the work of the great minds at TSR and WotC. Layer on top of that the amazing work at the Forgotten Realms wiki, Candlekeep, and Oakthorne.com, and there’s enough to slot in anything that the PCs are interested in exploring, or everything that’s linked to one of the plot hooks. I’m also using urban planning advice from The Alexandrian extensively in this campaign, as well as referring to other great city modules and settings, such as the City-State of the Invincible Overlord, Lankhmar, Vornheim, Zobeck, Freeport, and Ptolus.

It looks like you’re using a custom blend of Dungeons and Dragons rules and have some experience with some of the older systems. What rules work best for your group and style of play?

For this campaign I switched over to 5e. It reflects well the kitchen sink high fantasy Waterdeep, and is a simple enough rules system for most of my players, but with enough options for the couple of players who want to dig into character building. I’m mostly using the core rules, but I have a few variant rules or house rules. Healing is slower—requiring hit dice to heal; and I am using the treasure as XP from B/X to motivate treasure-hunting in Undermountain.

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

We’re a gaming group in Minneapolis, in my home with a group of friends. I run a somewhat open table of players—about ten or so semi-regular players with 5 regular players. Any session has between 3-7 PCs. I’m in graphic arts and advertising, and we have several players who are interested in the arts and music, as well as those who work in data and computers. The core players are Owen, Eric, Dave, Luke, and Sarah. And other less regular players include Hannah, Paige, Steve, Charlie, and Jake.

We started in-person at the beginning of the game about a year and a half ago, and we switched to Roll20 during the pandemic. Games started biweekly, but have become closer to monthly lately as my schedule with work and home projects got in the way.

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

I started gaming in middle school, in 1990 in a small town near Madison in southern WI. I played a hodge-dodge of D&D Rules Cyclopedia and AD&D with other friends. I played for a few years, and even went to GenCon a couple times when it was in Milwaukee. I stopped for about a decade, and got back into it in 2005 after I moved to Minneapolis. I played in a couple random groups in the twin cities. One of my players, Charlie, was someone I met through D&D at the wizards website. He runs a lot of OSR style games, and I poached some players from his game. The other players include my wife, some friends from design and advertising, and the husband and brother of one of my gamers. There has been some changing of the guard over the last couple years as players start families, or move; most of the regular players now weren’t playing in my game 3 years ago. I feel it’s necessary to run an open table style game because of everyone’s real life commitments, which I’m finding can be a challenge in a mega dungeon.

“City of Splendors” features a mega-dungeon — Undermountain: The Dungeon of the Mad Mage — beneath the streets of Waterdeep. Do you have any advice for GM’s who may want to run a mega-dungeon campaign or have you encountered any challenges while running one?

Underneath the biggest city in the world is the biggest dungeon in the world. I’m using the “Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage” module as the core for setting content. I also am including all previous versions of the dungeon as well: 2e Ruins of Undermountain 1 and II, 3e Expedition to Undermountain, and 4e Halls of Undermountain. And then of course the plots and intrigue from the Lords of Waterdeep. One crucial learning was how to run the mega dungeon, especially with an open table. In the beginning it was all dungeon crawl in Roll20, showing the map and narrating each hall and chamber. But now as they’ve explored more, I’ve opened travel to areas they know in the dungeon as if they were traveling in the city. It’s still dangerous, and they may trigger an encounter, but following a map from the Entry Well to Downshadow is only a little more dangerous than navigating the Dock Ward at night. Things I’m intentionally doing in the dungeon:

Creating active factions that span floors and that have vested interests and goals, and that interact with different factions.

Creating “residential zones” that are safe enough throughout the dungeon, so that I can allow for resting and beginning a session with new players. Some are already built in, like Skullport and Wyllowwood, but I want to make sure there are enough secure areas of potentially allied or neutral factions that can be discovered to allow the game to run efficiently.

I’m also opening the gates and stairs to “jacquay” the dungeon, as the Alexandrian calls it. I want to make sure that the PCs and factions are moving between floors to make the place a living, breathing community.

I’m also trying to seed dangerous areas with clues that they PCs are out of their depth. I have a gate from level 1 to level 10, and I plan to put a recently destroyed stone golem right in the entryway if they go through the gate, so they can have a clue about the level of threats there.

I’m also attempting to include other adventuring companies, or the remains of them, as well as monsters and faction members. I think dead creatures or even bloody handprints or trails are a great way to develop the recent history of the dungeon and introduce new factions. I also think prisoners of factions work really well for this, and to dangle plot hooks.

Your campaign pages on Obsidian Portal are very well organized, cross-referenced, and tagged, and your wiki is a very useful reference tool. Has this been helpful when managing the complexities of Waterdeep?

This has been essential for my game. In a city of over a million people, hundreds of locations, and dozens of factions, it’s helpful to have a way to drop some tweet-sized common knowledge on the page. I’m using Obsidian Portal as much of my campaign journal, and create a location, NPC, or faction with a small snippet of common knowledge, and then use the GM secrets to flesh out the plots, deeper lore, and secret connections to other elements of the campaign. I am also using the various secret societies and factions like the Harpers, Knights of the Shield, Monsters, etc, so the Secrets section is particularly valuable. The wiki looks different for different players, and it allows my player who secretly belongs to a spy group to have contacts and know things the other players don’t know.

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

I have a wide range of play styles in my group. The bard is really interested in making a name for himself in the city and is performing at top venues. He just booked a gig at the Amnian Embassy, which the party knows has old Shadow Thieves smuggling tunnels currently being used by the Xanathar Guild to smuggle slaves down to Skullport. We’ll see how that plays out when the Fey Day concert series happens. Another player is very invested in Forgotten Realms lore, and enjoys all the canon Easter eggs that pop up from time to time. He’s a sun elf, and so I try to tie in the old lore of Aelinthaldaar into the game with relevant plot hooks. Another player is a haughty spoiled noble, so interactions between noble families is becoming important, and is a focus when she plays. The party has just unlocked the second level of Undermountain, and are entering the Goblin Bazaar. I plan to really make that place over the top, and expand on what’s been done to make it a fun and vibrant place with weird stuff for sale, zany characters, and of course ridiculous goblin carnival games.

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

I wasn’t as familiar with Forgotten Realms lore before starting this game, so it was enjoyable to really dig into the lore, and come up with obscure characters from the early game. It’s also fun to play around with iconic characters, so I’m trying to work in the many Mary Sues (good and evil) of the Forgotten Realms in a way that doesn’t steal the thunder from the PCs.

You have lots of great extras throughout the campaign — a very detailed adventure map, house rules, guides to deities and factions, and a place for rumors and public notices. The campaign calendar is especially cool. What elements have been the most useful for your gaming group and which ones are the most fun to create?

The maps and campaign calendar have been essential to the game’s organization. I am only planning it about a month ahead of the PCs, but it allows me to mark all the major festivals to create color and plot hooks, and also to mark down when different events are slotted to happen as the Game unfolds. It’s not all on Obsidian Portal yet; a lot is still in my notes on my mac, but it’s something that I’ve enjoyed putting together. I also think the factions all need to be firmed up so I can link to them and connect them together in the plot spiderweb the PCs are navigating. I don’t have them all fleshed out yet, because there are so many layers of street gangs, crime syndicates, scheming nobles and guilds, power-hungry mages, and of course the disparate churches and cults and orders.

A lot has been written over the years about this particular setting. Do you prefer to draw your adventures from published source material, make up your own stories, or do a bit of both?

In this campaign, I’m trying to use the published sources as much as I can. I have a few players that know a lot of Realms lore (more than I do likely), and I don’t want to ruin the fun of the rich lore. I also think it’s a great way to spark ideas and to create stories and plots. There is so much that’s been done in this city, and it’s really cool to have such interesting characters and locations to draw from. The Xanathar, Mirt, Artor Morlin, Halaster Blackcloak, the Masked Lords, etc are all such fun and exciting characters to play around with. I’m also adding my own characters into the setting too of course, and even taking ideas or factions from other sources.

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

The future of the campaign really lies in the hands of the players. I know what the major factions in the city and dungeon are trying to do, and yes there are apocalypses planned if no one intervenes. The city may collapse into Undermountian if the Melairshield finally fails, or the Dark Army of the Night may recover the thread of the Shadow Weave from the Knot and plunge Waterdeep into the Plane of Shadow, or an avatar of Ghaunadaur may be summoned from the Pit, or Halaster Blackcloak may send a mechagolem into the city above to wreak havoc. Or the Amcathras may corner the market on ice wine. Lots of plots big and small, and we’ll see what the PCs grab onto and if they themselves become the movers and shakers of the City or the Dungeon, or both.

As far as other projects, I’ve been working on my Velnswood campaign. I started it a few years back, but it wasn’t quite ready. The idea of that one is a fantasy 13th century game set in the Baltics during the Northern Crusades. It’s a fascinating time and place where the Teutonic Knights are crusading against both the pagan viking-like Baltic warriors and the Russian princes, and the Holy Roman Emperor is branded an antichrist by the Pope, all while the Mongols are sweeping through Poland and Hungary to the south. This would be a OSR game, and it would dive deep into brutal scorched earth warfare, and religion with all the Christian schisms, sects, heresies, and pagan pantheons. I think there’s a lot of potential for an interesting sword and sorcery game set on the frontier between Latin Christendom and Eastern Christendom, with the last pagan nation between, in that time between the Dark Ages and the High Middle Ages.

Finally, Obsidian Portal always loves to ask if you have any advice or clever tricks to share, as a GM, a site-designer, or as a gamer in general.

I would recommend a campaign calendar tool as part of the wiki so that it’s easier to build a campaign calendar. I don’t know how many other people would use it, but it was nice to create something like that for my campaign, and it would be neat to have a more seamless add-in.


And with that, we must shut the tavern doors for the night. Many thanks to sethwhite and the “City of Splendors” gaming group for sharing their work and insights with us. We hope you’ll do a little exploring of your own and draw inspiration from the work within this fine campaign. Until next month – Happy Gaming!

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