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Breaking into Keys from the Golden Vault: An In-Depth Review

While not a direct tie-in to the D&D: Honor Among Thieves movie, Keys From the Golden Vault is a smart release a month before the movie opens.

While not a direct tie-in to the D&D: Honor Among Thieves movie, Keys From the Golden Vault is a smart release a month before the movie opens.

KftGV Alt Cover.jpg

Execution is Everything​

Both the movie and the adventure involve heists, so it's a nice bit of corporate synergy. Customer feedback has repeatedly indicated that adventure anthologies are popular, especially when they can be dropped into any setting and used individually or turned into a campaign, so KftGV was designed to fit that bill perfectly. But execution is everything, so let's take a look at how KftGV turned out and whether it'll suit your group. Please Note: This review contains spoilers.

Stygian Gambit—PLAYER’S MAP THE AFTERLIFE CASINO_ Art By Mike Schley small.png

Starting With the Basics​

One of the first things people always ask me about new D&D books is, “How many new creatures do we get?” That's followed by some combination of “Do we get any new subclasses? Backgrounds? New spells?”

If those questions are your main driver for buying D&D books, KftGV is liable to be a disappointment. It doesn't contain any new spells, only three new magic items, and only eight stat blocks, most of which are for NPCs. Two are for clockwork creatures.

Not getting new subclasses isn't surprising. D&D has mostly put those in books like Xanathar's Guide to Everything instead of adventure books. They didn't give us any for the 5E version of Spelljammer: Adventures in Space, even though that setting could have justified it. For a heist anthology, while new subclasses could have been created, the existing subclasses work just fine, especially when combined with the various background options.

Similarly, there aren't any “heist mechanics” in KftGV. That doesn't bother me since the usual 5E mechanics work just fine for everything your players will need to do. There is a suspicion option for one mission, however, and another comes with mini games.

What does KftGV have? A solid structure for each adventure and plenty of seeds for expanding for continuing the stories in the book. However, this makes it a book purely for DMs, not one players will be interested in.

Stygian Gambit—THREE-DRAGON ANTE INVITATIONAL By Andrew Mar small.png

The Heist Formula​

In terms of genre, heist adventures have a clear, consistent formula: The assignment or inciting incident for the heist, planning stage, action stage, and conclusion. KftGV makes sure that all 13 adventures follow those four steps, described as Mission Briefing, Plan the Heist, Execute the Heist, and Conclude the Heist. They also include a section for “Using the Golden Vault.”

That's because the title isn't a reference to a generic vault or one in just a single plot. While each adventure can be used by itself and dropped into any campaign setting, official or homebrew, with little to no modifications, KftGV also offers a patron organization known as The Golden Vault to either add some flair to the story or to help weave multiple adventures into a single campaign.

The Golden Vault organization reminds me a bit of the TV show Leverage. Its missions may break the law but always for the greater good and a just cause.

KftGV is filled with winks to pop culture heist and espionage shows like that. If a group becomes operatives of the Golden Vault, they're given a special music box operated by a key. When the group has a mission, a key arrives. When used to open the music box, a message plays that spells out the assignment. If they choose to accept the not-so-impossible mission – sound familiar? – the key disappears and the music box closes.

KftGV_Art by Anna Pavleeva small.png

The Missions​

“The Murkmire Malevolence” starts things off with an adventure for 1st level characters. A stone found in a recent dig is being displayed at a gala – only it's actually an eldritch egg, not a stone. It needs to be retrieved and placed in a crystal box to make it dormant again or else it will hatch into an eldritch horror and ravage the area. The story has severe potential consequences if the characters fail.

“Reach for the Stars” (3rd level characters) provides an example of the sort of variables a DM can choose from. Markos Delphi has been possessed by an entity from the Far Realms. Characters could have been hired by a sage to retrieve The Celestial Codex, which is needed to allow the malevolent entity to take physical form, or by Markos' family.

In “The Stygian Gambit” (2nd level characters) the players have been hired to infiltrate the Afterlife Casino during the Grand Minauros three-dragon ante tournament. A disgruntled gambler wants them to steal the statue and golden that are the tournament's prize.

“Prisoner 13” (4th level characters) sees the characters hired to infiltrate a prison in the frozen north for the most dangerous captives. The aforementioned prisoner has a key they must retrieve to a stolen treasure. Whether you run this adventure or not, Prisoner 13 could be used as a shadow figure in your own campaign because the dwarf runs a far-reaching network of spies from her prison cell through the use of her magical tattoos.

In “Tockworth's Clockworks” (5th level characters), the clockwork automatons that guard the svirfneblin town of Little Lockford are malfunctioning. Townspeople had to flee when the creatures attacked. The characters are hired to retrieve a security key and use it to activate a fail-safe device that will turn off the automatons.

“Masterpiece Imbroglio” (5th level characters) sees the characters hired by the Cognescenti Esoterica, a group of scholars, to retrieve a magical portrait the group had purchased but then was stolen by a thieves guild. As with “Prisoner 13,” the thieves guild in this adventure could be repurposed for your own adventures whether you run this mission or not. Likewise, Constantori's Portrait could be dropped into another campaign on its own.

In “Axe from the Grave” (6th level characters) a mandolin known as the Golden Axe has been stolen from the grave of a renowned bard, so infuriating the spirit of the musician that it has risen as a zombie, terrorizing the countryside. To put the zombie bard to rest, the characters must track down the thief, a music school owner, and return it to the bard's grave.

Characters are hired to steal a ruby diadem from “Vidorant's Vault” (7th level character) because Vidorant's prior partner believes it belongs to him. During it, the characters will run into Vidorant herself, who makes a counteroffer.

“Shard of the Accursed” (8th level characters) is a reverse heist. The adventure could begin a few different ways, but ultimately, the players need to return the cursed item to the ancient tomb where it belongs. However, a crime syndicate controls that territory, making the task difficult.

In “Heart of Ashes” (8th level characters), the town of Ghalasine has been cursed by an evil sorceress. The only way to break the spell draining the life from the town's residents, the players must break into Castle Cinis and steal the heart that fuels the curse.

“Affair on the Concordant Express (9th level characters) requires the players to break onto the multiverse-spanning train and get a list of true names of several powerful demons. The list was memorized by the prisoner being transported to stand trial.

“Party at Paliset Hall” (10th level characters) is set in the Feywild, so nothing is quite what it seems. The characters are hired to steal a magical diamond during an annual gala.

The goal in “Fire and Darkness” (11th level characters) is to steal the Book of Vile Darkness from an efreeti tyrant before it can be used. Betrayal is an aspect of this adventure.

Afterlife Casino by Daarken.jpg

The Good​

I am an enthusiastic fan of heist adventures, as well as mysteries and intrigue, so conceptually, KftGV is right up my proverbial alley. The adventures have enough variety to keep them interest. I like the flexibility of the anthology format and the variables presented, and they're all solid adventures. The adventure for first level characters works especially well for new players to give them a sense of what D&D can do.

I also like the idea of a patron organization that ties everything together. Even if you don't use that option, a DM could use the Golden Vault as an organization in their world, either pulling other strings or even being rivals to the players.

I also like the Heist Complications section. Among other things, it gives some good advice on when and how to use a rival crew. KftGV provides one-sentence personalities for six possible rivals and then a chart of what stat blocks to use from the Monster Manual, depending upon the level the rivals need to be. Motivations for the rivals gets another chart. This section also has information on how to complicate the scenario by moving the MacGuffin. That's a good option for challenging the players if everything is going too smoothly.

And while KftGV is light on new creatures and magic items, if you like to repurpose content for your own campaigns, it has a lot. The Afterlife Casino could be used in other adventures as could the Concordant Express. The Cognescenti Esoterica could be a resource in another campaign or a thorn in the side of the players. The maps, created by Francesca Baerald and Mike Schley, are well done and could easily be repurposed for other adventures.

Speaking of the maps, KftGV generally contains two kinds. One type looks hand drawn and is for the players' use. Some may be more accurate than others. The other maps are for DMs only and very polished.

I really like the chart of the guard descriptions for “The Mirkmire Malevolence” It adds some potential variables instead of having generic guards. I also like the mini games in “The Stygian Gambit.” You can borrow those for any casino-set adventure.

I also like that you can customize the train in “Affair on the Concordant Express.” A few train cars are required for the adventure, but you have options to change the rest to suit your preference. As the train travels through the realms, other things change and some curveballs occur.

I'm also really happy that KftGV features genuine heist adventures. One of my few pet peeves about Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is that it's much more of an investigation/mystery adventure than a heist. Even getting into the vault doesn't quite follow standard heist tropes. It was a fine adventure that needed a different title.

And we FINALLY got an index! I'd prefer one that was a bit more thorough, but even a basic index is a huge help for DMs, no matter how you use the book. It's a bit ridiculous that we haven't had an index since the core trinity books, but I'm glad to have.


The Bad​

I didn't really hate anything in KftGV. I am disappointed by a few things.

For example, that section on “Moving the MacGuffin” doesn't ever define what a “MacGuffin” is. Yes, it's a fairly common term, but I've run into plenty of people who have never heard of it. A few words or one sentence would have been an easy solution.

The blue maps from Mike Schley are very cool. They would be easier to read if the lettering was closer to white to create good contrast. Not every D&D player or DM has perfect eyesight.

If you want to run all of the adventures as a campaign, the only option presented is to make the Golden Vault the players' patron. That works fine but, when combined with the very limited information on the Golden Vault, doesn't give you much to work with. Filling it in is easy, but it's extra work for DMs. I sometimes feel like the D&D team, while trying to provide flexibility and room for DMs to customize content for their table, veers too much toward being skimpy.

I don't love the standard retail cover Anna Podedwoma created for the book. It's not bad, but the framing and positioning of the design draws the eye to the creature on the lower right when I think the focus should be on the two characters breaking into the building. It's also a cover that doesn't draw my attention if placed on a bookshelf, and plenty of people still shop in brick-and-mortar bookstores and game stores. I think some of the interior art would have worked just as well or better as cover art.

And I still hate that the art credits on individual pieces of art are place in the seam and in such small type, it's hard to read. I'm similarly disappointed that no writers' names are associated with the individual adventures like they did for Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel. Credit the creatives.

Concordent Express by Bruce Brennaise.jpg

The Beautiful​

Art director Kate Irwin has consistently delivered beautiful D&D books, and KftGV follows that pattern. Taken as a whole, KftGV might be one of the prettiest, even though the art sets the tone for delving into dark vaults, dangerous prisons, etc.

The detail in the many keys showcased throughout the book is just stunning. It's the first time I've noticed art by CoupleOfKooks, but I doubt it will be the last.

I love some of the pieces by Kai Carpenter (“Axe from the Grave”), Daarken (“The Stygian Gambit”), Bruce Brennaise (“Affair on the Concordant Express”), and Anna Pavleeva. Art by Zusanna Wuzyk (“Vidorant's Vault”) and Kieran Yanner really reinforces the heist tone.

The game store exclusive cover by Simon Meyer is just stunning. Unlike the other cover, it makes you want to pick it up and flip through the book.

Cover_Front_KftGV small.png

Summing It Up​

If you and your players like heist capers, KftGV is an excellent choice, whether you run it as a whole campaign or just use it to supplement your existing campaign now and then, as well as for mini campaigns featuring just one adventure in the anthology. While I have some quibbles, none are major, let alone deal breakers.

Keys from the Golden Vault is easily a solid A. The only reason why I'm not giving it an A+ – and I debated this decision – is because compared to the other books I gave an A+ to, such as Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel, Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, and The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, KftGV feels solid and quite excellent, but doesn't quite shine as brightly in terms of inspiration or innovation. KftGV is very close. KftGV stands a hair behind those A+ books and gets an A.

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Beth Rimmels

Beth Rimmels

Loren the GM

This is definitely a strong book. I think almost all of the adventures are well crafted, and the theming is well implemented (good maps, well laid out information, and a strong emphasis on heisting not combat to solve the situations).

For those who would have liked to see new mechanics around heists specifically, I'd highly recommend Here's to Crime: A Guide to Capers and Heists from the DM's Guild. It is an adaptation of Blades in the Dark heist mechanics for 5e, and pairs very nicely with the adventures in this book. From the product description:

Your guide to running "Ocean's 11" style capers and heists in 5th Edition D&D!

We all love watching Caper films, but it's hard to capture that same excitement at the gaming table. Planning sessions can devolve into tedium, and the caper itself feels like a normal dungeon crawl, without any twists or surprises.

Capture the energy and mood of our favorite heist movies with this special rules supplement, which is strongly informed by the new classic RPG "Blades in the Dark", by John Harper and Evil Hat Productions. This guidebook hacks the “Blades in the Dark” approach for 5e, reaching a middle ground between John Harpers heavy narrative focus, and the mechanical robustness of 5e.

(Seriously, though, go buy Blades in the Dark, it’s so good)

-A Planning Phase keeps the focus on character first, planning just enough of the caper to let players influence the narrative, but still leaving room for surprises

-The Caper Phase lets PCs overcome heist challenges through combat, skill checks, and a special "Flashback" mechanic, mimicking the feel of our favorite films.

-Then, in the Score Phase, it all comes together as the team executes their plan like clockwork, working together to get the prize and get out, before anyone is the wiser....hopefully!

the Jester

Thanks for the review!

I have high hopes for this. However, I found JttRC to be disappointingly thin, with the adventures all seeming very easy to me. While they're okay, none seem too challenging. Are the Golden Vault adventures likewise pretty easy, or do they seem challenging to you?


If you want heist games, play Blades in the Dark.

I've felt that D&D adventures seem a bit bland and pedestrian. Third party books are far more dynamic and interesting.

Agreed, the cover is not super. The smiling halfling seems odd, the creature placement seems odd too. It's not immediately clear that they're going for the instrument on the table, I think?
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