What Do I Know About Reviews? Skullport: Shadow of Waterdeep (Dungeon Masters Guild Product)
Way back in ancient days, when boxed sets roamed the land, and armor class descended, I had a second edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game that spent a lot of time in Waterdeep, the Yawning Portal, Undermountain, as well as Skullport. I even ran a short 3.5 campaign set in Skullport, with my players all being agents of various nefarious and/or criminal enterprises with a stake in the hive of scum and villainy.
Skullport is touched on in Dungeon of the Mad Mage, but it’s largely a somewhat dangerous stopover for PCs while exploring the dungeon complex, as it’s detailed primarily as an extended stronghold of the Xanathar. Seeing a Dungeon Masters Guild product detailing 5e Skullport caught my attention, so I picked up Skullport: Shadow of Waterdeep, and today on the blog I’m going to take a deeper look at it.
Skullport: Shadow of Waterdeep is an 86 page PDF. There is a front cover, an endplate, Table of Contents, and the main body of the book, which includes a gazetteer of Skullport, an adventure outline, adventure hooks, NPCs, monsters, PC options, spells, and magic items.
The formatting of the product looks very similar to standard D&D 5e books, with a two-column arrangement, sidebars, black and white maps of Skullport and its environs, and various half and quarter-page illustrations.
Forward, Chapter 1: Skullport Overview, Chapter 2: Getting to Skullport, Chapter 3: Skulker Politics, and Chapter 4: The Thirteen Skulls
The Forward to this product introduces some shorthand terms for the various locations of Skullport, as well as providing content warnings about the material that is included in the product. This includes discussions of addiction, alcohol, animal cruelty, disease, mental compulsion and illness, parasites, self-harm, sex work, slavery, suicide, and torture. In addition to providing this content warning, the foreword includes a link to the Consent in Gaming product from Monte Cook Games. I appreciate this level of content discussion in a Dungeons and Dragons product.
The Skullport overview discusses the geographic locations of the city and how they relate to one another, but in addition to this geography lesson, there is also a section that discusses how Skullport functions compared to the three pillars of Dungeons and Dragons game philosophy. I like that kind of core loop mapping to the expected norms of the game.
The Overview also provides some quick links to Skullport for Dungeon Masters looking for good reasons for their player’s characters to become entangled in the Port of Shadows, and wraps up with a discussion of what resources are important to the city, and from where those resources are derived.
Chapter Two looks at ways to get to Skullport, which is a pretty an important topic to address. It’s one thing to wander into the city when exploring Skullport, but if Skullport itself is the destination, players need a clear means of arriving that doesn’t involve wandering through two and a half dungeon levels to get there. It’s even more important to know about the various connections to Waterdeep’s sewers and back alleys now that one of the most common means of entry in previous editions, the South Sea Caves, aren’t being maintained the same way as in the past.
Of the passages presented, there is some great connective tissue to events in the setting’s past, including the ancient Netherese origins of Skullport’s caverns, and ties to the weird long term aftereffects of the Time of Troubles. The ways into Skullport are flavorful enough to make just traveling back and forth, without navigating the bulk of Undermountain, a memorable trip.
Chapter three details the various factions that have a vested interest in the environs around Skullport, and those factions include a mix of long term interests in the region, with existing power groups newly moved in, and newer power groups introduced in more recent products. Drow mercenaries, traditional drow houses, and drow adherents of good and redemption can all bump up against one another while dealing with hobgoblin factions, everyone’s favorite beholder crime lord, long term aboleth manipulators, slime cultists, shapeshifters, local gangs, and borderline proto-unions. I’m a big fan of continuing the Realms tradition of having power groups, big and small, interacting in a location, as well as rectifying an issue with the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guideby providing plenty of factions for player characters to come into conflict with, and other factions to work for or against.
Chapter four looks at the skulls themselves, and gives them an upgrade from recent quick descriptions that classify them as flaming skulls. In this case, they literally are skulls that are on fire, but given their origins as Netherese arcanists, they get an upgrade to demi-liches, with a few modified quirks, which feels appropriate for the long term rulers of the Saugauth Enclave.
Chapter 5: Locations in Skullport, Chapter 6: A Brief History of Skullport, Chapter 7: Adventuring in Skullport
Chapter five details many, many locations in Skullport, from inns and taverns to prisons and fortresses, to monster lairs. In addition to locations literally in Skullport, several adjacent regions, like the local temple of Eilistraee, the Xanathar’s Lair, and the local hobgoblin encampment are also detailed.
As with the previous chapter detailing the various factions, there is a mix of old, familiar denizens and locations in Skullport, with newer additions to the city. You can find your favorite hag-run zombie shop next to a guild of Malar worshipping thrill-seekers that poke around Undermountain for fun. Mixed in with this is the tension of the Xanathar’s patrols and “tax collectors” and the less lucid than normal skulls.
It’s very clear with the amount of detail and how locations are written that most of the areas detailed are meant to be adventure sites. PCs are meant to go to these locations and interact with the NPCs, and this ties into how Chapter 7 is structured later in the product.
Chapter six is what it says on the tin. It provides a very functional history of Skullport and this particular section of Undermountain, without being too worried about a hyper-detailed timeline. The history presented is weighted in favor of background that explains what the skulls are, why they aren’t acting the way they have traditionally, and how a long term NPC can be restored in a manner that allows them to reclaim their place of primacy over the Xanathar’s operatives.
Chapter seven includes an opening encounter to introduce the player characters to NPCs that can bring them into the plot to restore the skulls as the masters of Skullport, displacing the Xanathar’s Guild. It presents them with a retrieval quest for a ritual that will get them an NPC ally, who can then set them looking for an item that will weaken the Xanathar’s hold on the region. It is an adventure largely detailed in outline, but part of the reason for that is that the outline references the highly detailed locations provided in chapter five. Given that the adventure assumes tier two characters, that means that the DM may be on their own presenting adventures for tier-one adventurers and seeding the desire to rebel against the Xanathar’s Guild if they want to start a campaign completely native to Skullport.
Appendix A: Events in Skullport, Appendix B: Rogues’ Gallery, Appendix C: Denizens of Skullport
Events in Skullport provides two pages of paragraph-long adventure hooks for adventurers in Skullport, ranging from infected adventurers wandering into town from Undermountain, to mysterious figures trailing adventurers, to bodies that show up and beg to have their murder investigated.
The Rogues’ Gallery section revisits NPCs from the past, with an eye towards where they are now (for example, the ranking priests of the Promenade and Xanathar’s agents), as well as introducing new NPCs, or NPCs that are new to the region (for example, Jarlaxle makes an appearance now that he’s interested in spreading Luskan’s influence).
I particularly like the introduction of the Umain Twins as Elistraeean operatives from the Promenade. Fraternal twins that are male and female, neither is the gender assigned to them at birth, and part of their affection for the faith of Eilistraee is the freedom from the assumptions placed upon them in childhood.
Appendix D: Character Options, Appendix E: Spells, Appendix F: Equipment and Conditions, Appendix G: Magic Items
Character options include a Skulker background for natives of the city, with their special feature providing an urban version of the foraging abilities that some wilderness backgrounds receive. There is a bard college that adds clerical spells to the bard’s spell list, and a clerical domain that adds bardic abilities to the cleric class. There is also an Abomination domain for ooze focused clerics, allowing for formless shapeshifting, a channel divinity option to deform opponents, and the ability to make an ooze servant out of your own blood. The Oath of Liberty Paladin is focused on freeing slaves, and their oath tenets focus on making sure all of their allies are willingly serving in any situation. That’s the opposite of the Mantrapper Conclave ranger, that focuses on capturing humanoids, at least in part in connection to the slave trade.
I like how the College of Hymns, the Song Domain, and the Oath of Liberty all work as being tied into the church of Eilistraee, but all of them can function as broader player options. I got a bit turned around with the College of Hymns wording of the Hallowed Field ability, which essentially creates a free-floating region of inspiration, rather than assigning inspiration dice directly to a character.
Call it a weird quirk that it bothers me less to have a domain for an ooze worshiping cleric as a potential player option than it does to have a ranger who learned their abilities based on working as a slaver. Tying any kind of PC behavior to supporting the slave trade is a very hard sell for me, even if you are going for reformed slaver making better use of their abilities.
There are two pages of spells, many of which are thematically included because of their ties to NPCs or organizations local to Skullport. Long term Realms/D&D fans will potentially remember a few of these spells from the past. The appendices don’t end their 5e conversions of older material with spells, however. The section on equipment adds in 5e stats for weapons like courtblades (finesse two-handed swords), bolas, and lassos. If you don’t want to reference the DMG and mentally replace “smokepowder” for “gunpowder,” this section also has you covered with stats for pistols. New gear also includes a Body Modification Kit, which includes tools for piercings and tattoos, and I’m kind of surprised no gear has referenced those activities before now.
The appendices also address new conditions and diseases, including Haunted, Addicted, and the disease Darkrot. I actually like Haunted as a substitution for all kinds of clumsy translations of mental health issues. Essentially, it makes it harder to get the full effects of a long rest until the character can shake free of the issue bothering them. Addicted is interesting, but since it involves tracking an increasing number of -1 penalties, it feels a bit too fiddly for 5e’s usual means of adjudication.
The magic items section include some of Jarlaxle’s signature magic items, the singing swords of Eilistraee, complete with a summarized history and location for all of the named swords, and the super handy Ring of Readiness. All of that said, I really like the Dread Helm, a common magic item whose only purpose is to make your eyes glow red when you wear it. Warduke cosplay!
This is a wonderful amalgam of lore on Skullport, and while it respects the current state of Skullport as presented in recent adventures, it also presents a scenario that assumes player character intervention to restore Skullport to a still dangerous, but less restricted, base of operations. There is a very nice balance of previous lore with accessibility.
There is also a surprisingly robust number of player options included in the product as well. I wasn’t expecting the number of mechanical offerings included, and many of these are very thematic and well-executed. The content warnings and links to the Consent in Gaming document as a means of bringing more of a discussion of potentially troublesome elements in D&D to a DMs Guild products are welcome.
The Grinning Skull of Death
The product itself acknowledges this, and it has always been true of Skullport, often visualizing the relative positions of the various parts of the city and points of entry can be a little confusing. A few of the class options and at least one of the spells gets a little complicated, and drifts a bit away from 5e’s usually more streamlined nature. It’s a bit of a balancing point that one of the strengths of this product is that it’s really good at focusing lore on what’s core to the story of Skullport, but where it drifts a bit into the complicated is on the mechanical side of things.
Despite content warnings and links to broader discussions, having a ranger subclass that is closely tied to slavery is still a little uncomfortable for me as far as something that might be referenced as a player option.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
If you loved Skullport from “back in the day,” this product is a bridge between the history of the location and the way it has been introduced in 5e. If you were intrigued by Skullport for the first time from the references to it in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, this is going to provide you with a good amount of fuel for continuing adventure.
There is a strong mix of home base information, adventure, and player options that should provide broad appeal for this product. Unless Skullport really isn’t of interest to you, I don’t foresee fans of the Waterdeep adventures being disappointed with this purchase.