There’s a place in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist called Trollskull Alley, and you may soon find yourself spending a great deal of time on this auspicious street. To keep this hub of life and excitement in Waterdeep feeling fresh, you will want to make sure it’s always teeming with new visitors for the player characters to meet. Dungeon Masters, this article is for you. And players?
THERE ARE WATERDEEP: DRAGON HEIST SPOILERS AHEAD. READ NO FURTHER.
Are all the players gone? Excellent. Dungeon Masters, let’s take a look at Trollskull Alley. Your players will probably make Trollskull Manor, the local tavern, their home. Most of chapter 2 of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is dedicated to familiarizing you and the players with their new neighbors and giving you ways for the players to interact with them… but cities are not static places. Waterdeep’s citizens move about, and as a historic neighborhood, dozens of people will be coming and going, visiting Trollskull Alley’s shops—and perhaps even the players’ tavern, if they get it up and running.
These “micro-encounters” will help immerse your players in the fantasy of living in a big city, and it gives you a quick and easy way to introduce new NPCs: just bump into them on the street! In the fantasy equivalent of New York City, not every first meeting needs to be accompanied by fanfare. Sometimes, you just meet someone.
Also, keep the start of chapter 3 in mind. When a fireball strikes Trollskull Alley and throws the street into chaos, the resulting blast kills no fewer than eleven people. While the deaths of several innocent bystanders is a tragedy, these senseless deaths carry even greater weight if they are characters the players had grown familiar with over the past few weeks. Use this method with caution, and be wary of killing off beloved NPCs; while a little bit of abject tragedy can thrust player characters into action, too much heartbreak can suck the fun out of a campaign. Try to get a good sense of your players’ tonal preferences in your “session 0,” and tailor your campaign’s events to your audience’s tastes.
Sowing the Seeds of Story
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is already replete with NPCs. You may wish to avoid inserting new ones into the story to prevent your campaign’s dramatis personae from becoming too bloated. Seeding your campaign with recurring NPCs is also a great way to create lasting bonds between player characters and NPCs. Many NPCs in this adventure are “functional” characters, that is, they fill a one-time role and are not expected to ever be seen again. This is perfectly fine, but if you want your NPCs to linger in your players’ memories, you may want to have them meet the player characters casually before their “function” in the story occurs. Here are a few encounters you can use to make greater use of minor NPCs.
Valetta is a bronze dragonborn priest of Gond. She tends to the House of Inspired Hands, a temple of Gond and place of creation for new inventions. Learning to visit the House of Inspired Hands after the fireball attack at the start of chapter 3 is one of the trickier leaps of logic in this adventure. Having Valetta explore Trollskull Alley to do some shopping earlier in the adventure with a nimblewright carrying her bags could help your characters make this connection better. Knowing that marvelous mechanical creatures like nimblewrights exist in the City of Splendors, and that they are created by inventors at the House of Inspired Hands.
Valetta is neutral, and has a mild temper. She has a mathematical and calculating mind, but enjoys shopping and will often work exciting new aesthetic designs into her mechanical masterpieces.
This young noblewoman is the scion of House Rosznar, a noble house with an ill reputation as a den of slavers and smugglers. But Esvele has an even deeper secret: while she is a bored noblewoman by day, she dons a mask at night and becomes the legendary criminal: the Black Viper. In this guise, Esvele may become an ally or rival to roguish player characters—especially if you have chosen the Cassalanters as your villain of choice. With the Cassalanters as villains, the schemes and intrigue of Waterdeep’s nobility takes center stage, and Esvele’s story of family drama and personal redemption can really shine through.
Of course, you need to set up a story like this in advance. The players may meet Esvele Rosznar out of costume in Trollskull Alley as she is dragged along with her overbearing family (or a servant) as they take a weekend jaunt through the North Ward. She is fascinated by scoundrels like the player characters, and may seek to befriend them. Later, they may encounter the Black Viper during a minor encounter—like on a faction mission or during the raid of Gralhund Villa—as she pursues her own objectives. The player characters may be seeking the Stone of Golorr in Gralhund Villa, but the Black Viper may simply wish to rob them blind, for she knows nothing of the stone or its significance.
On this mission, the Viper recognizes her new friends, but must try to conceal her secret identity while working alongside—or against—them.
Savra Belabranta is a knight of the Order of the Gauntlet, and personally delivers missions to characters who choose to the join her faction. She joined the Order of the Gauntlet because she needed to atone. Once, years ago, she was a member of the Feathergale Society, a group of griffon knights that were ensnared in the lies of the Cult of Howling Hatred, an evil sect devoted to the worship of Yan-C-Bin, Prince of Elemental Air. This story is detailed in the events of Princes of the Apocalypse, but in the aftermath of this adventure, Savra was freed from the grip of the cult and returned to Waterdeep and joined the Order of the Gauntlet to atone for her evil deeds.
You can help this story of atonement make a greater impact by introducing Savra as a character before the players know her as a simple faction representative. She is overjoyed to have escaped the cult’s influence and to have been “reborn” as a devotee of Tyr, and she often takes to the sky on griffonback in the early morning to perform aerial tricks above the North Ward. Early-rising player characters may notice her doing tricks above Trollskull Alley, and if they have opened their tavern for business, Savra may stop in for a hot breakfast before returning to perform her morning duties at the temple.
Fel’rekt Lafeen is a male drow and a member of the Bregan D’aerthe. He is in Waterdeep as part of Jarlaxle’s crew, and he is nearly inseparable from his best friend Krebbyg Masq’il’yr, and the two love bantering back and forth and lambasting their enemies.
Fel’rekt has an interesting story that might be missed in anything but a campaign with Jarlaxle as its primary villain: he is a male drow that was born female, and rebelled against the drow matriarchy. He fled Menzoberranzan and joined the Bregan D’aerthe and is “eager to prove himself, [and he] is quick to volunteer for tasks and hurls himself into combat with verve.” Nevertheless, he is actually a kind-hearted and altruistic dark elf, and may even become a close ally of the player characters if they have a common enemy. If Jarlaxle is not the main villain, this is easy enough. If Jarlaxle is the campaign’s antagonist, however, Fel’rekt’s friendship with the characters may make him a tragic character, forced to choose between his captain and his friends.
During my playtest of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, one of my players’ characters fell in love with Fel’rekt and he became one of the party’s best allies. Jarlaxle Baenre was an untrustworthy ally of the player characters, as the Xanathar was their common enemy, but his slippery and self-serving actions often put the characters and the Bregan D’aerthe at odds. Nevertheless, when the chips were down, Fel’rekt chose his beloved over his captain.
Introducing a New Neighbor
Several NPCs from my original draft of Trollskull Alley didn’t make it into the final product. There are only so many words one can fit in a 256-page book, after all! If your version of Trollskull Alley could use a few more neighbors, here’s a local shop that didn’t make the cut.
Birds of all colors can be seen delivering letters through the upper windows of this sky-blue townhouse at all hours of the day. The residents of Trollskull Alley and other nearby streets use the Zephyr Post to deliver letters to friends, colleagues, and mercenaries throughout Waterdeep. The inside of the shop is filled with the sweet aroma of Calishite incense.
The owner of the Zephyr Post is an elderly, brown-skinned woman from the distant lands of Zakhara. She speaks little of her past, but other residents of Trollskull Alley believe she fled with her parents as a child after her city was sacked by barbarians. She uses commoner statistics.
Ideal. Communication. All sorrow in the world is caused by those who fail to communicate.
Bond. I have no blood relatives in this city, but I treat the poor and homeless as my children. I remember what it was like to have no one.
Flaw. My memory isn’t what it used to be. I have to keep strict written records to remember anything.
The Zephyr Post’s hawks can deliver a message to any address in Waterdeep for 2 sp.
Additionally, mercenaries and other hirelings can be contracted through the Zephyr Post. By sending a hawk and attaching their fee in advance, an NPC hireling will arrive at the characters’ residence the next morning. There are only so many mercenaries in Waterdeep, and you may deny any unreasonable requests.
Lackey, troubadour, or torchbearer (use commoner statistics)
2 sp per day
Common mercenary or artisan (use acolyte, bandit, or scout statistics)
5 gp per day
Veteran mercenary or artisan (use druid, priest, or veteran statistics)
50 gp per day
Famous mercenary or artisan (use gladiator, mage, or master thief statistics)
250 gp per day, plus the cost of spell components and an equal share of all treasure and rewards
Making Trollskull Alley your Own
The quiet little neighborhood of Trollskull Alley is only as important as your players make it. You can’t force them to make friends with the NPCs, but you can encourage them to make the neighborhood your own. Sometimes that means changing up who hangs around. If your players want to turn their tavern into a dark and suspicious den of villainy, perhaps more upstanding NPCs like Avi and Embric will clear out and a less reputable business will take over their forge. Maybe Vincent Trench will make his true identity known to player characters he feel are suitably sinister (or who melt his fiendish heart with true kindness).
And if you don’t like any of this… change it! I won’t be offended (unless you’re a jerk online about it). What’s your ideal Trollskull Alley? Is it a quiet and secluded hideaway for your group of roguish characters? Or is it filled with NPCs snooping about for some hint of the player characters’ activities? Do they feel at home, or threatened? Ask yourself questions like these and see how it inspires a new version of this historic neighborhood in your version of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is now available digitally on D&D Beyond and in print at Wizards Play Network affiliated game shops. If you’re still waiting to get your copy, it’ll be available at other retailers starting on September 18th.
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his tabaxi hirelings, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.