Castle Naerytar is a good example of an adventure locale that will challenge DMs and their players. It’s at this point that Hoard moves into the territory where a DM can make or break the adventure. Better be prepared!
What’s going on here from a story perspective? The adventurers are continuing their investigations into where the treasure looted from the Sword Coast is being taken. They’ve discovered the cultists funnelling it from the work camp in Episode 5, and now they’re discovering the next link in the chain: a magic portal in a somewhat-abandoned castle. That’s what they care about. Unfortunately, it’s not like the cultists are just going to show them where the portal is!
The adventurers’ job is made easier by the existence of a number of competing factions:
There are the lizardfolk, who want nothing to do with the place. Initially, they were seduced by promises of Rezmir that the cult would make them great again, but the menial work they’ve been doing has frustrated them utterly. What they’d really like to happen is the destruction of the bullywugs. The players can gain insight into this conflict from Snapjaw. He’s a tremendously important way of giving the players information.
The bullywugs, on the other hand, are pretty happy with how life is going. Their leader, Pharblex, wants to get rid of Dralmorrer Borngray, the Cult of the Dragon leader in the castle. Primarily their roles is as antagonists, although it is possible the adventurers might gain their aid if an alliance is made against Borngray.
The Cult of the Dragon are mostly happy: they’re moving treasure from one place to the next. However, Borngray, their leader, hates the swamp. He also hates humans. There’s not going to be much the adventurers can offer him except their deaths. The interesting thing here is that Borngray likes the lizardfolk and not the bullywugs, so there is the slight possibility the adventurers could make use of that.
Making a frontal assault on the Castle without allies is unlikely to go well. All the factions are likely to band together, which means about 40 lizardfolk, 50 bullywugs, 16 cultists, 8 dragonclaws, and 7 dragonwings will be arrayed against the party, in addition to the faction leaders. For a group of 5th-level characters, this is unlikely to go well. If for some reason your players want to take this route, it’s likely to be quite entertaining for you. Personally, I’d have the cultists drive them off (assuming the players actually retreat when things go badly), then have Snapjaw approach them and suggest an alliance…
Sneaking inside the Castle will likely go well at first – both the lizardfolk and bullywugs are quite happy to accept that the adventurers are cultists – and once inside the cultists’ section of the castle, there aren’t many lizardfolk and bullywugs around to alert the others. The cultists that are there can be dealt with, but what happens if they raise the alarm?
This is where your skills as a DM will come in. You need to have the monsters react to the actions of the party. Will the lizardfolk see this as an opportunity to overthrow the bullywugs? Will the bullywugs see it as an opportunity to get rid of Borngray?
There’s a lot of information in the adventure to guide you as to the reactions of each of the groups. You can choose which to emphasise, aided by the decisions of your players. It’s quite possible for the party to spend a lot of time with the lizardfolk at first, getting them ready for rebellion, so the lizardfolk deal with the bullywugs whilst the party deal with the cultists.
Once fighting begins, the bullywugs want to preserve their position, the lizardfolk want to be free, and the cultists want to make sure their treasure is safe. Try to communicate this to the players somehow – perhaps through conversations between their opponents.
The major NPCs, Rezmir and Abzara Jos, begin the adventure in the Castle, but slip away once trouble starts. In fact, my group never ran into the cult leader or the Red Wizard. I had them slip off beforehand because they were needed for the final section in Skyreach Castle. You really don’t have to do the same. It’s not a bad idea to have Rezmir spotted from afar so the party are reminded on her importance to the plot, and also confirming that they’re on the right path.
One of the really interesting parts of this adventure is the black dragon Voaraghamanthar, who doesn’t do anything at all in relation to the characters, but whose presence in the Mere of Dead Men informs the reactions of the factions. Here’s an article on the black dragon by Ed Greenwood (written in 1999). His inclusion here is a nod to the rich details of the Forgotten Realms.
Retreat and Return
A group of adventurers should always be ready to abandon an expedition if things go badly. If the party need to retreat and recuperate, then I’d allow them. The question then is what happens in the castle? Here’s how I’d handle it:
Rezmir and Abzara Jos will get to Skyreach Castle as quickly as possible, giving Borngray instructions to find the adventurers.
Borngray sends the lizardfolk to find the adventurers, keeping the bullywugs behind to guard the castle. The remaining cultists prepare for an attack, but if one doesn’t come within a day or two, relax their guard and go back to sorting treasure.
The lizardfolk don’t search that hard, and I’d probably have Snapjaw catching up with the adventurers to offer an alliance (or to discuss what went wrong if the alliance was already in place).
Errata and Clarifications
The map omits a number for the moat (should be 5) and has the gate marked as 5 (should be 6).
Abzara Jos is normally found in areas 1V and 1W. (1V: Guest Rooms should actually read 1V, 1W: Guest Rooms).
Pharblex’s sanctum (area 12 in the caves) has a chest with nothing in it. Originally, the text read: “Pharblex retires to this chamber to study two spellbooks that he stole from Dalmarror Borngray’s library (area 2N). These are valuable arcane resources, and Borngray and Rezmir would be furious if they learned the books were missing. One belonged to a 7th-level wizard and contains spells up to level 4. The other was written by a 9th-level wizard and contains spells up to level 5. Being arcane spells, the magic is beyond Pharblex’s ability to learn or cast; his lust for power is great enough to keep him puzzling over the text and hoping for a breakthrough.”
The number of tower spectres (3E) is unclear (either 3 or 6). Steve Winter says, “The tower chamber as originally written contained three specters, but unless you’re crafty with them, PCs might destroy three very quickly. I recommend using as many as you think will make a good fight for your characters, and describe that number of dead bodies in the room. Remember, however, that this fight can be considerably more difficult than straight numbers imply. Characters are confined to a small tower chamber and a very treacherous set of narrow stairs above an offal pit with an otyugh in it, while the specters can phase up and down through the floor and roof and in and out through the walls. If they chose to, the specters could simply hover outside the tower, waiting for characters to pick their way back down the stairs, with the specters clawing at them through the walls all the way down. If I were running it, the specters would wait in their corpses until everyone is preoccupied in the upper room, then they’d drift unnoticed down through the floor and attack with surprise by clawing up at PCs through the floorboards. There’s plenty in that situation for the DM to have fun with.”
Steve Winter on running Castle Naerytar:
“The situation in episode 6 is entirely open-ended. We didn’t want to script NPCs’ locations or motions. Guidance is given in certain cases; where nothing is said, it’s up to the DM. When Rezmir is at the castle, she’s in charge, and she could be anywhere the person in charge might go: in the library, in her chambers, in the Great Hall supervising the sorting of loot, outside the castle dealing with bullywugs or lizardfolk, in her office consulting with Borngray and Jos, in the dungeon watching loot being transported to the Lodge, in the courtyard watching lizardfolk at drill. As SiC, Borngray has most of the same options. The castle is meant to be a site in motion, not a store window display where everything and everyone is frozen in place until PCs come to attack them.
“Rezmir is definitely at the castle when characters arrive, but she might not be around for long. She evacuates immediately if an attack develops. She leaves within a day or two if characters drag things out.
“Until castle denizens become aware of the characters’ presence, they go about their normal routine. Once they become aware of non-Cult infiltrators in the area, they’ll react in whatever manner the DM thinks is most appropriate and most exciting for the players. There are too many possibilities for us to enumerate all of them. That’s one of the facets of D&D that makes it so brilliant; there’s a human brain behind the screen, constantly reacting to the changing situation and intelligently guiding NPCs by weighing far more factors than any remote author or programmer can account for.
“So my guidance is, internalize the personalities of the principal NPCs and the factions, look at the developing situation from their viewpoints, and have the NPCs do what it makes most sense for them to do.” (original post)