Dungeon Master Review: Murder In Baldur’s Gate

Baldur’s Gate stands on the brink. A city where class divisions are physically delineated by walls, separating the wealthy Upper City from the middle-class Lower City and the lawless Outer City, it is a powder keg of social strife and unrest. Now, an old threat is poised to spark an inevitable reckoning. Three leaders, desperately trying to protect the city they know, unknowingly avail themselves to the plot of a murdered god. As events spiral out of control, is there anyone who can stem the flow of blood? 

Murder In Baldur’s Gate™ is the first issue of the Sundering Adventure series by veteran writers Ed Greenwood, Matt Sernett, and Steve Winter. Players are thrown into the midst of a tangled skein of plots, conspiracies, and social movements which threaten to tear apart one of Faerûn’s largest cities. Time and again, they are challenged to determine the lesser evil before a worst-case scenario unfolds.

If you played the Baldur’s Gate PC games, you will recognize a number of the supporting characters and references skilfully woven into the fabric of the city’s history and character. This enrichment of the setting can create a stronger emotional connection for the players familiar with the city’s legacy, but even players new to the city can be charmed by its complex nature. The module contains so much detail about Baldur’s Gate that it required a separate setting book twice the length of the actual adventure!

The events that transpire encourage players to quickly align themselves with one of the city’s prominent figures. Each represent a faction exerting influence over the city in its own way, and each have sensible motivations that can endear themselves to players. Duke Torlin Silvershield, scion of the most influential noble family in Baldur’s Gate, seeks to excise a cancer from the city’s leadership and restore prosperity; Ulder Ravenguard, Marshal of the Flaming Fist, struggles to keep order and maintain the status quo; and Rilsa Rael, the face of the “noble outlaw” Guild, aims to further the rights of Baldur’s Gate’s poor and disadvantaged. As the adventure progresses, each becomes more embittered toward their rivals and more radical in their methods. Unchecked, the consequences of their actions will change the city forever.

Gameplay

As mentioned above, there is an enormous amount of text to digest for this adventure. The adventure is 32 pages long, supplemented by a 64-page setting book that provides description and background for virtually any location in the city. Even for DMs with a special affection for a well-rounded setting, it can be a monumental task to remain aware of all the factors that may come into play as the players spread their efforts throughout the city. Furthermore, as all veteran DMs will know, no amount of preparation can ever fully account for player capriciousness, which can make for a lot of inconsequential reading. At one point, my players decided to force the issue of interrogating an NPC on a delivery from his establishment. The adventure book didn’t include possible responses the NPC would provide under duress, and I had to peruse another chapter of the adventure book (as well as several salient sections of the setting book!) in order to find all the information the NPC would reveal under threat of violence. While the sandbox-style of gameplay exemplifies the very best of Dungeons & Dragons, outside of a few randomly-located sidebars there is a troublesome absence of aids to help account for the various moving components of the myriad ongoing plots. Even a flowchart would have been helpful.

Additionally, for an adventure which evidently strives to provide all that a DM needs for any situation, there are no encounter maps. Even the opening fight of the module requires the DM to either recycle an encounter map from another adventure, or come up with something from scratch. Week after week that we ran this module the bulk of my prep time was spent splicing various elements from random maps to represent important areas. Because the quests are all so open-ended I had to use three wet-erase map mats to account for the possible choices of my players. On more than one occasion I had to declare a thirty-minute break while I came up with yet another map because they’d decided to do something entirely unexpected.

Player Feedback

A complaint that came back to me from my players was that they got “tired of the politics”. Frankly, this frustrated me, as I thought the conflicting social pressures were an excellent background to give reasonable motivation for player actions, and I wish that more Dungeons & Dragons campaigns were like this. The best villains, in my estimation, are the ones who represent what you could become if you valued ends before means. Nonetheless, I can understand how the subtlety of witnessing a “good guy” becoming a “bad guy” can be lost amid the feelings of confusion and betrayal that players will feel as people whom they supported as just slide into iniquity. Without a tangible enemy, the players can feel their efforts are merely in vain, and because some of the events in the adventure are unavoidable and pre-scripted I can somewhat agree. From behind the DM screen I had the benefit of the whole picture and a perspective on how every action prompted a reaction; my players felt they merely mitigated a complete disaster, leaving their victories rather empty. All said, however, they found the adventure worthwhile, and enjoyed finally putting down the ultimate foe.

Conclusion

This adventure is worth trying out to take a break from the ubiquitous “good vs. evil” campaigns. While intensive on the DM, it is rewarding to provide your players with an open-ended adventure experience. There will likely be aspects of the adventure that they love, and aspects that they hate. It took my party a little over two months to get through this adventure, playing once per week on average, so be prepared to emphasize the impact of their victories and accomplishments (as well as their failures) of your party along the way to keep them invested. It is especially important in this module that the players feel they are making a difference, otherwise they’re likely to get frustrated.

And don’t forget to have fun.


Post-Script [SPOILER ALERT!]

Below are the choices and outcomes my players experienced:

  • They supported the Guild, seeking rights and recognition for the Outer City.
  • They infiltrated the Flaming Fist on Rilsa Rael’s request when the Fist locked the Upper City down after dusk, and earned Ravenguard’s trust by closing down several remaining vice dens (in actuality, warning the proprietors via Guild contacts to vacate and set up somewhere more discrete).
  • They failed Ravenguard’s task to peacefully convince Caldwell to turn down his nomination for Duke, instead prompting Duke Silvershield to issue a warrant for their inflicting violence on a patriar. Ravenguard refused to protect the players after this, and sent his officers after them to show that he did not sanction their actions.
  • They were caught by authorities and sent to the Seatower of Balduran. One party member escaped arrest and, with the help of the Guild, organized a prison break.
  • They killed Ravenguard in a demonstration-turned-riot, believing that he had ordered the guards to fire on the unarmed citizens.
  • They investigated but failed to prevent the Smokepowder plot, which led to Duke Silvershield becoming the Chosen of Bhaal.
  • They killed Silvershield at the Feast of the Moon, becoming the Heroes of the Wide twice over.

Did you run this adventure? Share your experiences in the comment section below! Remember to tag your posts with spoiler warnings!

Image credit: Wizards of the Coast

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