When I heard “urban heist adventure” I was signed the hell up. Now Dragon Heist is over. I played it and now I have read it.
I wanted to like this adventure. After playing it I came away with a hostile bias.
I found it a parade of NPCs handing you things and not enough plot hooks. The story was impossible to get invested in because every time I started to enjoy it the writers pull the choke chain and slap you back down. It was difficult to engage with.
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, is not a heist. This little bit of bait-and-switch doesn’t bother me. It is a treasure hunt although it is set in Waterdeep and there are dragons, real and metaphorical. Much as I love a good heist adventure good D&D is still good D&D regardless of title.
The book begins with an in-depth behind the scenes look at The Plot Background.
- There is a hoard of 500,000 gold pieces somewhere in the city of Waterdeep. These were embezzled by former Lord of the City and patron to Tando Tossbottle, Dagult Neverember. Neverember used an artifact called the Stone of Golorr as a map to where he hid the money. The Stone absorbs people’s memories so when you lose the stone you lose the memory of where the gold is.
- Two criminal organizations, the Zhentarim and the Xanathar Guild, are about to get into a mob war.
- These two plots intersect when the Stone of Golorr was stolen by the Xanathar Guild from Neverember’s agents. Then during a routine crime type negotiation between the Zhentarim and the Xanathar the Stone got stolen from the Xanathar Guild by some guy. The Xan blames the Zhent and this kicks off a tit-for-tat war of escalation.
Chapters 1 and 2 have the PCs are doing unrelated tasks for a while just being citizens of Waterdeep. The plot starts in Chapter 3 when a fireball goes off outside their residence. From there the adventure splits into four alternate paths. Each path features a different villain with different goals and different encounters. These take place in different seasons to give the city different flavor and tone.
There are two sections in this first chapter, one about running an urban campaign and one about The Law in the city of Waterdeep. Guess which section should be longer and guess which section is longer. I’ll give you a hint, they’re not the same sections. This is the first time 5E has offered a real city based adventure and more advice on running one would be welcome. The adventure basically says, put down roots to foster buy-in and Waterdeep likes adventurers (some of them anyway). This isn’t really enough. I would recommend you pick up the Eberron book or its PDF, Sharn: City of Towers. While it is campaign setting specific it is also a great primer on running a city based campaigns.
The Breaking The Law section of this book has become one of the most talked about sections of the adventure and I think the adventure is worse for it. The thought behind it makes sense. Waterdeep is a archetypical human city and archetypical human cities have laws. Unlike Random Dirt Town #486 Waterdeep actually has the ability to enforce the rule of law. How does one enforce law in a world with magic and monsters? This is the first time for 5E that WOTC wrote a D&D game in a setting not ruled by the red law of sword and claw. To the average D&D player, this might be the first time their character has been in someplace with rule of law with the ability to enforce it.
It’s sounds like a logical inclusion but for Dragon Heist it is too goddamn heavy handed in practice. Even for my Lawful Neutral Cleric I felt like the adventure couldn’t make up its mind if we’re supposed to oppose the city watch or support them. Tip for adventure writers out there: Your players should not be encountering the City Watch more than the actual plot or villain of your adventure.
The chapter then gets into potential PC backgrounds and factions of the city. There’s one sentence I want to call out, “Assume the characters are familiar with [The Yawning Portal] and have met there before.” Uhhh, hey writers, The Yawning Portal did not feature prominently in Tales from the Yawning Portal and it may surprise you to hear this but Waterdeep itself has not played strongly into ANY published 5E books to date. So no, I am not familiar with the Yawning Portal and it’s a mistake to assume the players are.
Where your players come in is that they are drinking in the Yawning Portal. There is a brawl and in the midst of that the bar is attacked by three stirges. The bar is also attacked by a troll but Durnan the High Level Barkeep dispatches it. I would cut the troll out entirely if not the entire scene and start the adventure with Volo giving the players a hook. Why have the PCs get outshined by a powerful NPC and why have a random encounter they have no stake in? Better yet, have the bar fight and the troll fight all in the background. So Volo hires the PCs to find a kidnapped friend of his. None of this has anything to do with the PCs, the Dragon, or the Heist.
The players begin following a trail of clues. A couple of these clues involved this routine: Make a skill check or pay a bribe to get information from an NPC. I am going to complain about this more later, but we started this book playing with the Adventurer’s League Season 8 rules and part of those rules is that you only get gold for leveling up, not as a reward in an adventure. You can’t demand gold from the players for plot reasons and then not let them gain gold in the context of the plot. It just does not work. Speaking as a Dragon Heist PC, I was not about to give over my fixed income as a plot coupon. Every time this situation happened it took me out of the adventure. It reminded me of the Adventurer League Meta. It’s also always a bad idea to have your plot bottleneck like this. You need these clues to proceed in the adventure. Now this isn’t as bad a bottleneck as some adventures but it does require the DM to bail out the PCs if they roll low.
The PCs follow up some clues that lead them to a warehouse where they have a fight with some Kenku. From the start of this adventure to this point our party met or heard about the Waterdeep City Watch three times. From the start of this adventure to this point we haven’t heard once about Dragons or Heists. We also didn’t meet or hear about the eventual villain of the adventure. In two of these encounters the City Watch tells you to not get involved in “this sort of thing”. I can’t emphasize enough how damaging it is to have NPCs in an adventure giving the players negative reinforcement against getting involved in the adventure. It is fatal to buy-in. Real people in a persistent world should probably not get involved in trying to help the police solve a kidnapping. Players enjoying a game about being heroes should TOTALLY get involved to help the police solve kidnappings.
Completing this Kenku fight is also the point in the adventure where you should level your PCs up to 2. Level 1 is way way way too long in this adventure. The problem is that this warehouse scene leads immediately into the next scene. There is no appropriate place for a long rest. You find an NPC, Renaer Neverember, who tells you that the guy Volo wants the PCs to find was hauled off by thugs. You can’t come back tomorrow and just hope the thugs don’t kill Volo’s friend. I would suggest you get around this and repair the PCs relationship with the Watch by having the Watch heal the PCs and use the Magic Item ‘Pearls of Power’ to restore their spell slots. At this point, your PCs have earned a long rest. Give them the equivalent of one.
This next section killed my interest in the adventure and it never recovered. The story here is, “Volo’s buddy is in the sewer, kidnapped. Go save him.” Okay got it, I can be a hero. Then we fought some goblins. Another level 1 fight? Okay well it’s logical that the enemy base has guards. Then there’s some bandits. Fighting again eh? Then there was a gray ooze in a toilet. Uhh guys, I’m an adventurer, I don’t want to fight the toilet ooze. That kidnapped guy is probably getting tortured for the 20 minutes we’re spending fighting this ooze. Then we walk into a room and there’s a fucking mind flayer. It leaves, but it leaves behind several monsters including a gazer (baby beholder), intellect devourers, and an arcane caster. This is WAY WAY WAY too much for level 1 characters. This might be your 4th – 6th fight of the day. It’s too much and it is too godddamn long.
I would advise you cut ALL this combat between the warehouse fight and the boss fight. Don’t waste your players’ time with a toilet ooze. Maybe keep the Mind Flayer but have him teleporting out of the room. Don’t even hint that guy is nearby still.
So we rescue Volo’s buddy. Then we leave the sewer. I was wondering why the map was still on the table when we came to a giant rat at the exit. Before this moment I was tired. At the sight of a giant rat fight in a sewer level I started getting pissed. At this point I’m literally asking, “can we please get back to the story?” I was being a problem player, at least a bit. It turns out this was an inversion because the Giant Rat is actually a Wererat. Lycanthropes, like this creature, are immune to nonmagical weapon damage. This means they are not appropriate for first and second level D&D characters to be expected to fight. I don’t make the rules folks, sorry. And the wererat encounter also does not contribute to the overall adventure. CUT IT. I would advise you that after you rescue Volo’s buddy (who is not important enough to get a name) you just teleport them in the narrative back to the Yawning Portal. “You go back to the Yawning Portal. On the way you see some stuff.” Teleport them like Game of Thrones Season 7 characters. Doesn’t involve the PCs, Dragons, or Heists? CUT IT.
When you get back to the Yawning Portal Volo gives you a Tavern in lieu of a monetary reward. This leads into Chapter 2. I have seen people online going both ways on the Tavern section. Some people fucking love this shit. Set up a tavern, base, decorate it, go hog wild. You have a house! Do stuff with it! Animal Crossing meets D&D! For me, I really did not like this section and it for a very specific reason. The Adventurer’s League version of “Running A Business” rules are ass. Nobody nobody nobody wanted to spend our limited Gold and Downtime days on an optional activity with an uncertain rate of return. It just wasn’t going to happen. We got a good laugh out of comparing the ghost in the tavern to Will from Stranger Things but that was it.
Other than that the tavern element is ignorable because it has nothing to do with the PCs, Dragons, or Heists. I would advise you to change this in a couple ways. #1, the NPC you rescued, Renaer, should be sending you story hooks. The NPCs who are your neighbors should be dropping by with baked goods and story hooks. The factions that are listed in this book should be hectoring you with fucking story hooks. And in the middle of these story hooks just have the tavern look nicer. The nice elf person next door puts some roses in your window. Just say, “the carpenter down the street fixes the front steps.” Then the DM rolls the “running a business” chart for the PCs and just tells them the result. Didn’t make a profit? Well maybe the other shopkeepers on Trollskull Alley or a friendly NPC contact pay for your debts this time. What you want to avoid is a parade of guilds and city officials with their hands out looking for gold you don’t have and can’t earn if you play with AL rules.
Also, WOTC, just reprint the rules for running a business in the chapter that features running a business you cheap fucks. This reminds me of how in Out of the Abyss they didn’t reprint the madness rules from the DMG. Here they don’t reprint the tiny “Running a Business” table. It’s irritating and pointless to not just reprint the relevant rules.
The second part of Chapter 2 is a number of “Faction Missions.” All the factions active in Waterdeep have different jobs to offer you. You want to offer these early and often. In general you always want players to feel like they have too much to do rather than too little. But some of these are pointless because they’re tied to a specific villain. Some of them are hard to do because they require the players to be in a specific part of the city for days on end. Be sure to have small encounters prepped for those parts. Really these missions are busy work. I think you’re meant to spend a session or two on them but in large part they don’t matter to the plot. These are tasks given to the PCs. They’re not originating from the PCs’ goals and they don’t involve Heists, although there is one potential dragon. I think it depends on the individual group how long you want to spend on these and which ones you do. As in all D&D, cut the boring parts.
For your leveling it makes sense in the pacing to go to level 2 after the warehouse and then level 3 after the sewer level since it is long and 5E really starts to feel like D&D at level 3. Depending on your group you may just want to skip chapter 2. A lot of these faction missions have to do with the Zhentarim/Xanathar war which for the most part stays in the background and never comes forward. The Gang War has a little bit to do with the PCs, Dragons, or Heists unless you are using Xanathar or Manshoon as the villain of the adventure. But it doesn’t have much to do with the PCs so maybe CUT IT. If you cut Chapter 2 you could have each player describe a week in the life of running the Tavern or one improvement they would make to the Tavern.
Chapter 3 is where the plot of Dragon Heist starts. A Fireball spell goes off outside The Tavern. People are dead. I don’t know about you but if I heard a bomb go off in real life I don’t think I would want to run towards it. That’s the difference between real people and adventurers, right? I think back to the trailer for the movie, Dawn of Justice. Superman and Zod are fighting and blowing up Metropolis. Beneath them on the streets shit is falling apart. Everyone is running away from this horrific event. But one person is running towards it. That’s what you want from your players. So you better not have had the Waterdeep City Watch on the players’ asses for being heroic. If the players have no motivation to be heroic then this scene of a fireball going off in the street does not work.
In game my first instinct, as the Lawful Neutral Cleric, was to ask, “what does this have to do with me?” I felt no incentive to go outside. I didn’t see anything and I knew if I went outside the City Watch would be there telling me to fuck off. As written, if the DM doesn’t work their ass off to change the adventure, a fireball going off outside does not tell your players that this has something to do with their PCs, Dragons, or Heists and is thus irrelevant. I went outside because I wanted to be a good sport for the DM. “Do you want to investigate the scene?” Why would I?
What you want to have happen is that when the Watch shows up they say “Oh Thank The Gods Our Good Friends Who Run The Tavern Are Here! Have you found anything, can you please help us keep all these potential witnesses here?” The previous session my character had been given a hook to go investigate a problem in the Waterdeep harbor. I cared far more about doing that task which was just busy work than I did this Plot Relevant Fireball. I cared more because an NPC asked my character for help. Sure enough, the City Watch show up and tells you to fuck off. But the adventure doesn’t happen if you fuck off. SO DON’T WRITE IT THAT WAY. YOU FOOLS. It is more realistic for the City Watch to chase off these amateurs but it’s also doesn’t help tell the story so maybe don’t write it that way. This is also a massive plot bottleneck which you want to avoid at all costs. If the PCs don’t get involved, and as a D&D player I consider the Waterdeep City Watch telling me not to get involved a strong reason to not get involved, then the adventure doesn’t happen. If the PCs are reluctant or do not question witnesses and take good notes they won’t know what to do next and the adventure doesn’t happen then either.
So here’s what happened. A gnome, who is not affiliated with any faction, stole the Stone Key that unlocks the location of the 500,000 gold vault. The actions of this sideways asshole started the gang war (which probably doesn’t matter to the PCs) between the Zhentarim and Xanathar. This SOB can’t get out of town. How this guy could steal the Key to The Treasure from the Xanathar but not leave Waterdeep I have no idea. But he knows about these people, The PCs, who rescued Renaer Neverember. Maybe they can help! So rather than turning himself into the cops he seeks aid from a bunch of level 3 bartenders. It isn’t a great plan. He is being followed by Zhentarim agents. The Zhentarim agents are being followed by a third party, a noble house, which is allied with whatever faction is your villain for Dragon Heist. Their involvement is what connects the PCs to the Villain of the Adventure. Their agent is the one who casts the fireball, grabs the stone, and clears the fuck out of there. This agent, a construct, brings that Stone Key to this noble house. He then clears the fuck out of there again when the PCs arrive. He brings the Stone Key not to the villains direct but to some other place associated with them.
This whole part is a bit confusing since the PCs can’t really get the story out of one person. There are a lot of different factions competing for attention. It doesn’t help that the plot has been anemic to this point and now the players are being thrown in the deep end of a problem they might not care about. The people with the relevant information are either dead or opposed to the PCs. This makes it difficult to understand what the stakes are and come up with a reason to get involved.
Here’s what I would do instead. The Gnome NPC needs to be foreshadowed or this plot hook is dead on arrival. Have this guy reach out to the PCs to try and set up a meeting. Maybe crowbar him into one of those faction missions. If the PCs hear an explosion outside it’s a tragedy that doesn’t involve them. If the PCs hear an explosion outside five minutes before this guy who asked them for help and wants to pay them for a meeting they’ll say OH SHIT IS THAT GNOME GUY!?
There are a variety of directions the PCs can go after the bombing. There are two easy ways forward. First, have someone to cast Speak with Dead on the gnome corpse. At level 3, no character has this spell but if the PCs ask, certain factions will cast it for them. While playing I did not think to just ask an NPC to solve the problem for us. That would feel like cheating. It’s not a sure thing though, for starters unless you foreshadow it the PCs won’t know that the gnome is the correct person to cast the spell on. The second easiest way is if your PCs can’t figure it out (like we didn’t figure it out) then Renaer Neverember drops by to give the PCs the answer, that this gnome guy was looking for them and hey did he drop by okay?
A few times the adventure just wants to hand you an answer (Casting Speak with Dead or Legend Lore on your behalf, asking for help from a Faction) but it doesn’t tell the PCs they need to ask. Then when it makes sense to ask for help, the adventure slaps you down. This was a problem for our group because we are just coming off Tomb of Annihilation and we’re accustomed to being forced to do things on our own.
There are a few different scenes you can have between the scene of the Fireball and finding the Bad Guys with the next step of the adventure. But two of them, a dinner on Jarlaxle the Drow’s ship, and a visit to the Temple of Gond, both really have nothing to do with the PCs, Dragons, or Heists. CUT IT. If you are using Jarlaxle as the villain of the adventure then I would keep that scene in and make it more relevant.
Jarlaxle feels like a late addition to this adventure. It seems like the scavenger hunt for gold and the Xanathar/Zhentarim gang war was well-developed. Jarlaxle and the Cassalanters, the other two potential villains, aren’t well integrated into the rest of the adventure. I like the idea of the Cassalanters, I like the idea of the PCs having to fight against a powerful noble family in the city. It’s well written if not well executed. But Jarlaxle feels like some combination of Tyler Durden and Littlefinger and I do not mean that as a compliment. He is written as a Mary Sue villain which makes me not want to use him. Unlike the other villains his goal is somewhat laudable. He wants to buy his way into the Lord’s Alliance organization sort of like Vince Vaughn in True Detective Season 2.
I advise you to cut the Jarlaxle encounter and I also advise you to cut the Temple of Gond encounter. In that encounter you go to the Temple of Gond. There is a construct there that made another construct which ran away. You get a magic device to find the other construct. This can lead you to the evil nobles who currently have the Stone Key. But the outcome of that scene at the noble’s home is that the Stone Key is moved out just before the PCs arrive. They find its next location but not the Stone itself. The fact that the Key isn’t really there makes it possible to cut the constructs out of the adventure as extraneous fluff. Your goal as DM is to get the PCs from the Fireball to this mansion scene and to find a way to do this in four hours without confusing the PCs with extra names and details. One session of investigation to bring the PCs to the noble’s door and next session you actually deal with the evil nobles seems to be the appropriate amount of time to spend.
Finding the evil nobles with the Stone is where our group got into trouble. In Waterdeep, it is illegal to kick in someone’s door and raid their home on Suspicion of Being an Asshole. We had been hectored and reminded of the City Watch at every turn so we said fuck it, let the City Watch handle these jerkasses. It was getting near the end of the session and Combat-Averse player that I am I didn’t feel like going through another map, especially when the sewer level was…well a sewer level with giant rats. The Book actually has a section for what to do if the PCs turn these bastards into the city watch. Annnnd it’s a big letdown. The real story is that the evil nobles where hired by the Zhentarim to get the Key Stone but they’re double crossing them in favor of the Villain, whoever that is. There’s been a bloodbath at the mansion over this Stone Key which is why it is possible for level 3 PCs to insert themselves and live. The City Watch doesn’t figure any of this out and the nobles just lie to them and the watch leaves.
By fortunate coincidence there isn’t really a price for involving the city watch here, it just kind of wastes your time. It also provides a better reason for the Stone to not be in the house when the PCs do enter it. If they do not enter there isn’t a clue to move them further down the path. I feel the need to re-iterate that hopefully by now your players have found a reason to seek out this Key Stone and the treasure that it unlocks. If I had to run this adventure, I would straight up tell the players, in-character, but still be obvious and tell the players that if they do nothing then someone very evil (Xanathar, House Cassalanter, Jarlaxle, or Manshoon) is going to get that gold and the law will do nothing to stop them. Introduce that villain before the fireball goes off and make sure the PCs know the stakes.
Chapter 4 is where the PCs now begin confronting the villain of the adventure, at least in the text. The chapter features a number of different locations like an alley, a theater, or an abandoned windmill. You go through them in a different order with different encounters in each depending on the villain you choose. This is an elegant way to conserve page space and let you see different parts of the city. In the book, this all starts after the Evil Nobles. You go there and…wait nothing happens? The construct who set off the fireball and stole the key stone from the dead gnome outside your bar has already fled the evil nobles house when you arrive but the evil nobles have nothing to say about its location. So those evil nobles are just pointless. Just have them give you the next location instead of needing to track down the construct…again.
This entire chapter is meant to be a tense chase. I don’t know about you but 8 different encounters sounds a bit more plodding than a tense chase. There is also a long sidebar about how the Stone Key itself, if gotten early, tells the players to give it away at the next encounter. This is really stupid, guys if they get the stone they get the stone. Don’t cheat your players out of their win. Again it is very important to keep in mind what the player’s goals are. The DM needs to convince the PCs that this key is in the enemy’s hand and they need to get it. The Ring is being carried back to Sauron and this is your last chance to get it back. Don’t screw your players if they out think the adventure and don’t make this so hard they say fuck it and retreat.
As I said before, our group opted for the Cassalanter option which takes place in “Summer”. Each different season has a different environmental effect. Like in Spring, there is rain and fog which makes perception more difficult. In Summer and Winter there is an exhaustion mechanic which is fucking dangerous. For a chase scene it is a very bad idea to give your PCs more than one level of exhaustion which cuts your speed in half. And it also kicks in after every encounter which, now I have to ask questions. Why wasn’t this mechanic detailed in chapter 3 which takes place days or hours before chapter 4? I know why, it is because the specific seasonal/villain differences in the adventure don’t start until chapter 4 but it makes no sense. These mechanics are also dependent on your players not doing things. In Summer you don’t need to make checks if you drink water. In Winter you don’t need to make checks if you have proper cold weather clothing. This is also stupid, do the players also need to describe themselves breathing, eating, and shitting? If you haven’t established that this mechanic is in place and given the players the option to consume water or risk exhaustion then it’s an unfair mechanic. And if the adventure takes place in Winter why in the hell would the characters not have coats?
The exhaustion mechanic deserves its own paragraph. 5E D&D prides itself on using natural language and elegant rules. It succeeds for the most part. The game is the most intuitive and easy to learn D&D ever. Exhaustion however is the black sheep of the 5E rules. It first appears as a penalty for the Berserker Barbarian’s Frenzy ability and then isn’t mentioned often until the conditions sections in the back of the book that defines it. It is an escalating condition track. Nothing else is like it in 5E. It starts with permanent disadvantage to ability checks, then half speed, then disadvantage to attack rolls and saving throws, then half HP, then speed 0, and finally death. A long rest removes one level. The 5th level spell greater restoration (9th level Cleric gets one 5th level spell slot per day) removes one level. This is devastating to a character’s effectiveness in an adventure and extremely expensive in terms of character resources to get rid of. It is cheaper for a character to handle Death rather than Exhaustion. Many classes have features that prevent them from dying but no one has something to prevent Exhaustion. Look online at those wacky Character Optimization folks who judge class features and they agree that the exhaustion drawback of the Frenzy Barbarian is too high a price to pay for the amazing benefit.
Exhaustion comes across as a “DM Finger of God” mechanic to beat down unruly or overpowered characters. If you need to bring players to heel killing them is pointless but exhausting them is cruel. I encountered it before in Tomb of Annihilation where one of the final bosses can use ALL of its legendary actions to force a very difficult saving throw or the PCs get a level of Exhaustion. The DM could’ve killed us all with this if they kept using it but after 3 rounds it was abandoned as being unsporting. Now Dragon Heist is using it by surprise multiple times per day in encounters with henchmen.
We can’t just cut it because then there is no cost at all to the season. But I’ve gone running in heatwaves before and it doesn’t take a full 6 hour rest to recover completely. I think the best thing to do here is what our DM did and make it temporary. This was a good idea because after I had two levels of exhaustion there was no reasonable expectation that my character could participate in a chase scene. I was ready to say fuck it and retreat. I was becoming a bit of a problem player again. Like my irritation with being a glorified exterminator in the sewer level this mechanic coming out of nowhere pissed me off. There’s just no way to fail forward with Exhaustion. I’ve sent players into combat against a Dragon before and they lost but that sent the story into a different direction. Exhaustion is the denial of options rather than presenting new, worse options. A character who fails sometimes faces a hard choice. A character who is exhausted often faces that same choice but with less hope of victory.
I don’t have a whole lot to say about the rest of these specific encounters. There are two different chase scenes which use the DMG Chase rules which are not reprinted. The chase rules are uninspired. On your turn move your speed. Roll for complication. What happens? K. There’s a limit on how many times you can use the Dash action before risking exhaustion…so don’t do that. I already had two levels of Exhaustion here so I didn’t get too involved beyond my familiar flying along. I needed to sleep for two days, was out of spell slots, and out of bardic inspirations. I was perfectly fine saying, “I guess they get away” but I misunderstood the stakes. I figured this would end with us finding the final location the Key Stone to the treasure hoard was going. The DM told us “uhh you need to get the stone now or its game over.” Again the adventure doesn’t really overemphasize the stone compared to the other faction missions so it was hard to give a shit about this thing. I was in dire need of a long rest and like Chapter 1 this is too many encounters and too many fights.
These chases were kind of pointless because it ends with Nat, Squiddley, and Jenks, who you might remember from Dice, Camera, Action, grabbing the stone. But you still have to do well enough to keep your eye on the enemy right? I’m probably misreading the adventure this sure seems like a plot bottleneck where the adventure needs the players to get this fucking key stone to the treasure. If you don’t get it then THEN you have to pull a heist on the enemy base. This would be a lot of work for the DM and very challenging for the players. Me having no resources and 1/3rd of my HP means my character will probably not want to rush into combat situations.
One other thing that threw me here is that the devils we were chasing “just get away” after the Key Stone gets dropped into the sewer. Instead of continuing your pursuit we just change to a sewer scene. This made it difficult to explain later to a magistrate judge why exactly we broke off our chase of these devils we were pursuing in defense of the city.
“Why did you go into the sewer instead of going after the devils?”
“I DON’T KNOW, YOUR HONOR, THE DM SAID THE CHASE SCENE WAS OVER.”
This Chapter is intended to end with the players in possession of the key stone to the treasure. I keep writing it as “key stone” to emphasize the hook and the stakes, something this adventure does not do well enough. Keep hammering home that the evil villain vexing the PCs needs this money for their plans to succeed and this is the way to do them harm. The stone is a magic item, which I should mention this adventure has precious few of. Not surprising for low level characters. The point here is that a character has to Attune to the stone and then they learn the Vault location and how to get in. I would suggest you have the stone start speaking right away. With so few magic items and so few artifacts in D&D none of the players in my group (me included) remembered that “oh yeah attuning is a thing.”
Good thing this encounter ends with you finding the vault because the villain probably IDed you and is blowing up your tavern.
It turns out you need three keys to enter the Vault and the Stone which just tells you where the vault is and what these keys are. There are eighteen different randomly generated keys. Most of them call back to moments in the adventure. If you found the adventure incomprehensible and stopped taking notes at the start of chapter 3 like I did you might be fucked here. For example, one key is easily obtainable from a shop the players encounter in Chapter 1. Another is a Drunken Elf, so hire one or an elven PC can get wasted. Also listed is a Bronze Dragon Scale and it just so happens you can meet one in Chapter 2, hopefully you had that optional encounter. Some of these are intuitive and fun and some are punishingly difficult to obtain. It kind of sucks to have a fetch quest at what should be the penultimate moment of the adventure. Like we were pumped and ready and this is kind of a speed bump puzzle. But I do like the idea of how this calls back moments from the adventure. The keys are randomly generated but obviously a DM should mold this to their adventure to not be too easy or too impossible.
The Vault that follows is a nice little dungeon. Not much in the way of combat and a few nasty traps. I love adventures with lots of traps that I can steal for other adventures. After weeks of sewers and chase scenes your players will need a reminder as to how a dungeon works. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and it gets you to what I assume is the conclusion. You come at last to the Treasure Hoard and an Adult Gold Dragon. This is impossible for a 5th level party to defeat. It all comes down to a Persuasion or Deception check. The players can gain advantage by bringing a prominent NPC with them…which they have no reason to do.
The pacing of this vault discovery and playthrough is weird. You found the vault. Great! Now go around the city gathering these three keys. You went through the vault and found the fucking Dragon and the Heisted Gold. Great! Now leave and return with a prominent NPC to convince this dragon you’re on the level. It’s okay if this is challenging and I would consider allowing this to proceed without a dice roll. The players found the gold they should get the sense that they accomplished something. Don’t deflate them by having a monster they can’t possibly overcome tell them to fuck off.
Your final boss fight occurs as the Villain’s minions attack the PCs on their way out of the dungeon. How does the villain know where you are when the entire point of the adventure was that no one could find this place without the Key Stone? Ah fuck it you wanna play D&D or not? You might get reinforcements from a faction and the adventure allows for the possibility the players will lure their enemies back to the Dragon. Which would be funny.
And so the PCs have found the hoard of 500,000 gold coins. The adventure immediately points out that they can’t keep it. The City of Waterdeep knows it is missing (although the city has sat on its ass in terms of effort to find this gold). If the PCs don’t hand it over to the city then the city will come after them. Again, this location can only be found with a secret stone. “Word will get out.” From who, exactly? By the book, the players are allowed to keep 10% which is still considerable. For parties so inclined there are far worse directions to take a campaign than the PCs trying to hold onto this much money. I’m reminded of The Shield Season 3 which is all about the Strike Team dealing with aftermath of stealing 2 million dollars from the Armenian Mob. Leave the stone here, plane shift to Eberron where the good bankers of House Kundarak would be happy to accept an infusion this size and defend those bringing it to them.
The adventure then suggests various people coming to beg them for money. If you have no intention of following up on any of these hooks or are going to just move onto the next hardcover I wouldn’t include these in the adventure. I like the hook about a Masked Lord asking them for 10,000 gold (a fifth of what they made) and they have the potential to make an enemy if they refuse but if you’re not going to do anything with it then don’t introduce it. I wasn’t sure what to make of these. As a player, I’m all about spreading around Gold to buy influence, that was Tando Tossbottle’s brand, but if you have no intention of allowing players to draw on that influence why bother?
The adventure is now over but the book is only on page 98. For those capable of math, this is less than half the book. The next four chapters detail the strongholds and machinations of the adventure villains. These are Xanathar the Beholder, Evil House Cassalanter, Jarlaxle the Drow Swashbuckler, and Manshoon The Evil Wizard. Most of the page space here is for their respective Headquarters. I’ve always found it difficult to write about tactical encounters like this. By the book you don’t actually need to go to any of these places. A few of them are mentioned in the Chapter 2 random encounters but those are random encounters that have little to do with the PCs, Dragons or Heists. This is very lootable material but it has virtually nothing to do with Dragon Heist.
The last chapter of the book is something I expected and was looking forward to, a kind of guide to Waterdeep. I’ve tried and failed a few times to run a real city campaign but I love books about them. I very much dig Sharn: City of Towers for the Eberron setting. For The Realms you have Murder in Baldur’s Gate which contains a 30ish page adventure and a 60ish page Guide to Baldur’s Gate. You also have the 4E Neverwinter book which has a too much Spellplague Nonsense and 4E Crunch but I still like it.
The Waterdeep section is only 26 pages which is hella short compared to other similar texts. With the extreme focus on the Forgotten Realms Sword Coast we’ve seen in 5th Edition it is strange that we didn’t get a proper Waterdeep focused book until now and 26 pages seems thin. Then again, quantity does not equal quality. I’d take 26 well organized good pages over 60 pages of crap.
Opening this up the first page is given over entirely to a description of the Law…again. It goes Law, Waterdeep History, and then Law Again. This overemphasis again on the authorities of Waterdeep leads me to ask again, who is the antagonist in Dragon Heist? What agent or faction is most frequently opposing the goals and actions of the player characters? If you run the adventure hewing close to the book it has to be the City Watch.
The biggest problem here is that you run the risk of telegraphing to the PCs that they should seek adventure elsewhere. I get the same vibe from Waterdeep as I get from Thrane in Eberron. The sense of being unwelcome. Like John Rambo being run out of a small Podunk town in First Blood. Waterdeep is a place where even a Lawful Good character is treated with suspicion and scorn. This book makes me want to loot this adventure and set it somewhere else. Most PCs don’t put down deep roots. If they don’t like where they are they’ll change it or they’ll leave town. If I had to sell Waterdeep to a party of low level characters…look Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter are right down the road.
Now having said that, if you want to run a game where the players are starting a thieves’ guild or expecting to have repeated confrontations with the City Watch then this is more useful. If you want to put the players on one distinct side of Law & Order those sections of Dragon Heist become much more relevant. I would’ve preferred more space devoted to other subject matter. In my experience most games center on the fight between Good vs. Evil with the PCs more or less on Good’s side. It isn’t a waste of time to tell a smaller story that focuses more on Law vs Evil. But it is different and much different than Published 5E To Date. I picked up Hoard of the Dragon Queen because Adventures Set The Tone For Editions. Dragon Heist has a different tone than the other 5E adventures which don’t take place in civilization or the civilizations the PCs they encounter are non-human centric or are so beset by evil their ability to enforce law is non-existent. Port Nyanzaru is a notable exception but you’re not spending more than a couple sessions there. BTW anyone wants to run a Port Nyanzaru based city campaign I would be down for that shit, Port Nyanzaru is cool. It’s not cool because it has weak law enforcement, Port Nyanzaru is cool because the pages (its a 21 page section) are filled with interesting material.
The rest of this Waterdeep section is fine. It goes through the various wards of the city, nobility, and travel within the city. There’s no listing of shops or NPCs here. The intention is that you can get these from earlier sections in the book. The section on Temples gives you an idea of where to find the faithful in Waterdeep if you have a faith based character. The section is written in a conversational tone as if written by Volo which makes it a better read but is more limiting to a DM looking for hooks for their game. I have to look askance at spending as long as they do on The Giant Statues around Waterdeep that can come alive to protect it and the holidays of Waterdeep. At 7 pages, these are 25% of the section, almost as long as the description of the Wards. I always find holidays difficult to write into an adventure because the DM puts them where needed right?
After this we get into the Appendixes. Magic items, monsters, lots of humanoid stat blocks which you can never have enough of. Not sure Hlam the Monk needs a full page since he’s a non-combatant with one scene in this adventure. Meanwhile Manshoon has to share a page with the Martial Arts Adept reprinted from Volo’s Guide. Manshoon seems a little feeble compared to the expansive stat block for Jarlaxle. I think a lot of Manshoon’s punch comes from the idea that he might be using Simulacrum. Barnibus Blastwind is only a CR 2? I see why, his Constitution sucks and his spells are entirely given over to criminal investigations rather than anything related to combat. As a Mary Sue, Jarlaxle has the ability to attune to up to “as many magic items as Jarlaxle has at anytime” which in this case is five.
At some point WotC has to release a PDF of all the custom monsters in their hardcover adventures. I would definitely buy something that collected that information.
That brings Waterdeep: Dragon Heist to a close. Now a verdict must be rendered, just as the City Watch judges the PCs. On some level you can’t take points away from an adventure because, “The DM has to do work.” Every adventure requires input and creative effort from a DM.
Let me compare this adventure with, “Out of the Abyss.” In that adventure, the PCs walk through over a thousand miles through the Underdark. In the first half they run from Drow and Demons. In the second half they run towards them. Much of the content there is driven by random encounters as day after day passes in the depths. Curse of Strahd also asked the DM to roll for frequent random encounters. For CoS I used them infrequently since there was plenty of content in the adventure itself. I would roll before a session for encounters and then apply the results or not as best suited the group and the session I wanted. Out of the Abyss had far wider gaps between non-random content. Your PCs would go for weeks between locations and the random encounters were critical to filling up the time and level up the PCs. Dragon Heist, by contrast, is plotted out. Your PCs come in here. They do this. Chapter 2 is up to the DM, but after the fireball happens the plot is linear. The players follow a set path.
My point here is that when I read Out of the Abyss I wonder how these random encounters will work in practice. Will the players like them, how many of them do I need to do, when will they get boring? There is a great deal of uncertainty befitting an adventure about Madness and wandering through the dark. When I read Dragon Heist I think, “oh okay, you need to introduce this gnome in act 1 so his death is meaningful in act 3.” The challenges and work I would need to do seem much more direct. I imagine it is less writing and more editing which sounds easier to run.
I was hostile towards this book when I started reading because I saw its problems first. A DM needs to rein in the City Watch. A DM needs to be a fan of the PCs and in turn make Waterdeep grow to be fans of the PCs. A DM needs to get this hidden backstory and great villains (Anyone But Jarlaxle) in front of the PCs. A dungeon adventure like Tomb of Annihilation or even Curse of Strahd is for the most part a recipe. Follow it and you wind up with something pretty good. This is the first time the players and maybe even the DM have been thrust into a City Campaign and it just isn’t the same. It’s a conversation, not a recipe and some people will find they prefer one to the other.
This isn’t to say I’ve turned a lot more positive on the adventure. I don’t care for Waterdeep itself as much as other D&D cities I’ve ready about like Sharn or Baldur’s Gate. Waterdeep and this adventure lack strong hooks. The gold hoard and the bar in Trollskull Alley attempt to manufacture this but they’re islands amidst a bland sea. Waterdeep is kind of generic and while that may be a feature not a bug of the biggest city in this Generic Kitchen Sink Setting it sure doesn’t make me want to run an adventure here. I suspect part of the reason Waterdeep played so little part in the adventures from previous books is because Waterdeep is easy to ignore. It doesn’t need the PCs to help it.
For Dragon Heist a big part of this is because it is low level. The adventure itself covers levels 1-5 although the hideouts of the four villains would suit higher level characters well. I would go one step further and say this adventure is designed for less experienced players more than low level characters. The City Watch and Renaer Neverember are often brought up as suggestions to bail the PCs out if they’re in over their heads. I wonder if this appeal to new players is coloring my enjoyment. At this point I’ve been playing 5E for years and more often than I played previous editions. If I never have to be a level 1 5E PC again it’ll be too soon. For me, 5E D&D starts at 3rd Level and the game starts to get good at 5th level. Being asked to fight a giant rat in the sewer was the closest I’ve ever come to staring at a DM’s question, saying no, and then crossing my arms to wait to see what else they had. I can see the training wheels and they make me want to rebel. I chuckle at the idea of coming back to this adventure for a speed run with high level characters where magic would trivialize many of the obstacles. The game really started to pickup at the end when we felt stronger and more capable. We felt like real adventurers!
I will say that this adventure is a win for putting more diversity in games. There are Trans, Gay, and Nonbinary NPCs and they’re right on Trollskull Alley where the PCs will interact with them on a regular basis.
What we’re left with is a low level adventure in a setting I don’t like but the story is good if you edit it to be clearer and about the PCs more. It is a quicker adventure and smaller story than previous hardcovers and I think their long length is a point against the other published hardcovers. I think I would enjoy running this adventure more than I did playing it. Having played it, I have a hard time giving it a straight good or bad. The villains and plot is in dire need of a few edits to make them work better. The 1st Level section goes on for too damn long. I think the difference here is that we need judge an adventure in two ways. I’ve judged previous adventures for how enjoyable they were to read. But adventures also need to be judged on how they land with the players. Our DM did a good job and I appreciate how transparent they were about the parts of the adventure they didn’t like which made reading this easier.
On the whole though this one leaves me tepid. I said Storm King’s Thunder was a nice tool to have rather than a fun adventure to play and I feel similar here. There are toys in this sandbox but they weren’t that interesting and every twenty minutes someone came along to tell me how The Code Legal says I should play with them.