D&D 5E Keys from the Golden Dragon Heist (With a little Undermountain) Mash Up *Spoilers*

TheSword

Legend
Stop reading Ryan, Cat, Bob and Andrew!

In Beth’s review of Keys From the Golden Vault I raised the opportunity of combining it with Dragon Heist and coming up with some nefarious trickery around the Golden Vault organisation.

Perhaps controversially I really enjoyed Dragon Heist and think it gets a really bad rep. I’ve ran through it once with a group different to my usual one. Reasons I like it? Firstly it’s set in my favorite fantasy city, secondly it features four awesome evil factions to face off against. Lastly the premise - everybody chasing an immense fortune - is a really fun one.

There are issues - not insurmountable one - but definite issues. Firstly there isn’t a heist as written. In principle the party is expected to sneak into the Xanathar’s lair or one of the other foes to steal a McGuffin but it’s very forced and doesn’t follow heist conventions. Secondly the NPCs are very ‘fire and forget’, they could be intriguing but seem to either be intended to interact with near the very end of the adventure or be met once and never seen again. Finally (and this is my big beef) it tries to cram everything in 4 levels but simultaneously manages to be very sketchy in areas. Chapter 2 and 4 are really little more than plot outlines and a few maps as is chapter 5.

Now clearly Dragon Heist is intended to catch players up to level 5 so they can tackle level 1 of Undermountain. The problem is, at level 5 Undermountain becomes a doddle for any reasonably competent party. I know, my PCs were level 3 and found it easy. Undermountain is also pretty dull as a simple adventure and is much better used as a setting for other adventures in my opinion - with the traps and denizens of the dungeon used as a backdrop (kind of like the Zombies in the Walking Dead - there is a lot of dross/filler in Undermountain but there are also some really cool parts.

Keys from the Golden Vault is very enjoyable to read. It has heists a-plenty and some very interesting scenarios. What’s more many would fit very well in a city adventure as they have a notably urban feel to them. It’s chief problem is the same suffered by all anthologies - the lack of continuity - again NPCs are fire and forget. It could also get quite repetitive if the same formula is used for an entire campaign.

So here’s the premise. Stretch Dragon Heist out into a 1-10 level sandbox campaign. Use a selection of heists from Keys from the Golden Vault (but adapted to feature NPCs from Dragonheist/Waterdeep) to replace the poor chapters 2, 4 and 5. Chapter 2 is about building the characters knowledge and reputation in the city. Chapter 4 is about initially obtaining the Stone of Grolor and chapter 5 becomes about gathering the four keys (with four different heists). We throw a little Undermountain into the mix and all of a sudden we have a really interesting varied campaign set in the city of Waterdeep (and below) with great organisations, locations and NPCs… an interesting plot - but one that can underpin exploration of the city rather than force everyone to keep up with it.

The nature of the Golden Vault means that heists of increasing difficult could be offered which build and reinforce the NPCs allowing them to combine in unusual ways. If it’s going really well there would be the opportunity for the party to take over the Golden Vault themselves and take on multi-planar heists of much greater complexity for some truly epic stuff.

In later posts I’ll break down my initial thoughts. As always don’t read it you’re one of my players. Let me know what you think.
 

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TheSword

Legend
The Initial Heist.

I thought I would dive straight into my thoughts for the first heist before talking about the wider campaign.

I’m going to open with the first heist of Golden Vault, rather than the opening of Dragon Heist. The reason for this is simple - it’s a great way of bringing the party together. The mysterious Golden Vault has brought the party together because they have useful skills. The initial heist is a test as much as anything else. Each PC has received a purse with 10 gp, and instructions to arrive at the private room of a tavern. When they reach the tavern there is a music box on the table and four golden keys spaced evenly around it. Placing any of the keys into the music box will activate a magic mouth spell that explains who the Golden Vault are (up to a certain point, and explaining their first mission). It also instructs them if they accept the mission to each place one of the golden keys somewhere on their body.

If they do this the key dissolves onto their skin leaving a magical tattoo of a key. The character then gains a permanent Rary’s Telepathic Bond with anyone else who has done this with one of the four keys. The bond can be muted at will.

The Murkmire Malevolence works on several levels. Its designed for level 1 PCs which always helps. It’s also a classic heist formula so that sets the tone for the whole campaign. The gala offers a great opportunity to introduce casually a host of important NPCs, the Cassalanters, Davil Starsong, Mirt, Laerl Silverhand, Volothamp Geddarm etc.

One of the two material NPCs in this campaign is Alda Arkin the curator of the museum. She is the principle antagonist but this is a good time to introduce my first maxim of the campaign…

“Every NPC has to be either repeated through the campaign or linked to one of the key factions in the campaign, or ideally both.”

In this instance Alda Arkin is secretly an operative for either the Zhentarim or the Xanathar, she helps them identify items of unknown provenance and also provides leads for old ruins to ransack. She is also a sponsor of one of the rival adventuring parties that the PCs may come across in the campaign. a party that will form part of her retaliation if the heist goes to plan. I want her to be an inveterate snob - who can illustrate one of the tensions in the city - particularly the decadence of the nobility vs most non-noble citizens. Alda also helps to reinforce the second maxim of the campaign.

“Every Heist must be perpetrated against someone who deserves it, or to achieve a great good, ideally both.”

The second NPC is Dr Dannell. Who instigates the heist. Waterdeep doesn’t have a university but it does have archeologists. I don’t really buy the fact that she’s ignored because she’s interested in the occult. In a world with demons and monsters that stretches things a bit far. So I’ll make her the daughter of a ship who spent her inheritance studying. She’s ignored because of good old fashioned snobbery (and the fact that Alda is trying to raise the price of Stone so it can be auctioned). I do like the idea of weaving Far Realm elements into the campaign and I’ll follow the lead in the book that the far realm is dismissed as a myth by almost all wizards and academics. The far realm could be an existential risk later on down the line that good and evil factions may have to work together to stop. Dannell can become a resource for information about Far Realm threats along with a useful sage in the fields of history, the occult, aberrations and anthropology. Dannell will also be a member of the harpers. She acts as a spy for them in academic circles, performs research for them, and operates a small safehouse in the city for agents. The harpers will handle the stone once it is contained.

It’s worth at this point discussing the third maxim…

“It’s ok to fail a heist and the party can chose to ignore an element of the campaign if they want to but both have consequences.”

What that means is that events progress even if the PCs choose not to get involved with them. In this case the Murkmire Stone ‘hatches’ and the juvenile horror bursts into the city. Dozens of people will die or be inflicted with madness. The PCs may even be in a position to help defeat the creature even if they don’t take part in the heist - or not. Either way they will see the effects of their inaction/failure. Eventually it will be destroyed. But Alda will be seriously affected by the event and become obsessed with tapping into the power of the Far Realm. She will spearhead a Zhentarim/Xanathar effort to tap into the power of the Far Realm with potentially disastrous consequences. Even if safely contained the Murkmire Stone remains a dangerous and disruptive weapon suspended as it is.
 
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TheSword

Legend
Roles

The advice in Golden Vault is really sound. It talks about the roles that would be useful if not essential for a heist campaign. But I’ve also been binge watching Leverage and I really like the way they have assigned roles. It’s a different way of looking at it. Of course roles can and should be combined!

  • The Grifter - anyone with high enough deception and possibly the Actor Feat would would great at this.
  • Distraction - no skills required just good ideas but a bit of illusion magic could go a long way.
  • The Burglar - acrobatics, thieves tool proficiency, athletics, and stealth skills. Bonus points for invisibility/movement magic etc
  • Pickpocket. Sleight of Hand plus the ability to get yourself into position (this is skill that could come in handy for a lot of characters)
  • Hacker. Magic is the technology of the Forgotten Realms (plus a bit of lantanese Gond work). The ability to detect magic, scry, dispel magic etc covers a lot of elements of this trope.
  • Gadget person. Magic items baby! I think good working magic item purchasing rules will be important in this campaign. Partly to give PCs something to spend their money on but also to assist with heists. I’ve just bought Eventyr’s excellent magic items supplement so my plan is to roll with that.
  • Muscle. This campaign will still be 5e D&D and there will be a lot of combat as well as cons. So having a character who can take some damage and dish it out will be important. I don’t expect a plate armour wielding great weapon master but someone who can hold their own would be very helpful.
  • Mastermind. This role can really be split into two elements - the knowledge skills that will provide exposition about the world and the planning of elaborate schemes which is covered by the players themselves.
  • Backer… the mysterious Golden Vault.
 
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TheSword

Legend
A Note on Mind Control

In Waterdeep it is a crime to use magic to influence a citizen without consent. By this we mean changing a persons behavior through magic. It doesn’t include stunning or paralysis but it does include spells like suggestion, charm person, domination, and even the relatively simple friends spell. Such magic is viewed an a level with coercion and blackmail, and in serious cases where the subject is directly controlled (like suggestion, modify memory and domination) akin to rape. Punishment can include fines of around 1,000 gp and an edict prohibiting magic within the city limits. Importantly the punishment for any crime you influence the target to commit is also added to the sentence.

While this doesn’t stop this kind of magic being used entirely (the law only applies when used on citizens and if you’re caught). It also doesn’t apply to spells like but it certainly does put a dampner on the party using it to circumvent the some of the core challenges of heists. Good parties should not be considering this magic as a matter of course. It also makes it all the more heinous when unscrupulous rival parties use it.
 
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TheSword

Legend
Factions in the Campaign

Dragon Heist works best in my experience when multiple factions overlap and interact in unusual ways to create a crazy competing storyline of alliances and betrayals. The factions add some real grounding to the otherwise overwhelming task of running an Urban Campaign.

There are 8 factions in total for this campaign which should cover enough character types.

The Black Network Zhentarim: Ruled by the Archmage Manshoon their goal is nothing less than control of the city. Gaining leverage over enough secret Lords of Waterdeep to ensure Manshoon is chosen open lord and therefore commander of the city watch that can be replaced with his own followers. Manshoon’s Zhentarim look for wealth, information and control and there is very little they won’t do to gain it. The Zhentarim will be a major sponsor of rivals for the party.

House Cassalanter: The very picture of corrupt nobility. Philanthropic, respectable and utterly wicked. Worship the Devil Prince of Trickery they can move across many layers of Waterdeep Society. They want and need wealth - and to an extent influence too. They want to save their heirs with a sacrifice to Asmodeus but if they can become powerful in the process they will take every opportunity. The Cassalanters will be at every lavish party and cultural display working the crowd and leveraging favors… and corrupting souls.

Braegan D’Aerthe: The drow mercenary company is filled with ne’erdowells, exiles and misfits. They have perfected the art of the double cross and are kings of preparation. They want to be recognized as a legitimate mercenary company and are willing to provide huge sums of money to become such (just as soon as they have stolen it). They are always prepared and their leader Jarlaxle is an audacious mastermind.

Xanathar’s Guild: Waterdeep’s pre-eminent crime organization ran by a mad-beholder. The guild are the wildcard. There’s nothing they won’t do, no taboo too that can’t be broken and no limits. Their war with the Zhentarim has been induced by Manshoon’s encroachment into their territory.

The Lords Alliance: Learl Silverhand heads up this collection of the benign settlements of the Silver Marches. As the Open Lady of Waterdeep Laerl keeps the status quo and does her best to keep the peace between the powerful interests of the city and looks out for external and internal threats. She has complete control over the city watch and has the support from many other organizations such as the Watchful Order and the temples. Her role as head of law and order in the city means she could a thorn in the party’s side - even if they are advancing her interests.

The Watchful Order of Magists and Protectors: Waterdeep’s Wizards Guild polices it’s own. Not only are all mages beyond apprenticeship (level 3 and above) required to register with the Order, members are also seconded to the city watch. It means that criminals in the city aren’t just dealing with simple pavement pounders but spells like detect magic, locate object, speak with dead. Vajra Safahr the current Archmage of the City and Blackstaff heads the order with diligence and rigor.

The Harpers: Meddlers in Chief of the Sword Coast, the Harpers are dedicated to thwarting evil and ensuring good people stay free. They are secretive, mistrusting and in some cases aloof - making decisions for others that sometimes makes more enemies than friends. Their first priority is always the safety of the Harpers. Mitt the Moneylender is the most highly influential Harper in the city, though they have contacts across the city - particularly the churches of Oghma, Mystra and Lathander.

The Doomrunner Zhentarim: Davil Starsong’s band is part of the more progressive side of the Zhentarim in Waterdeep. A single cell they are uncomfortable with the organisation branching out into open war with Xanathar’s guild and the move away from gathering money and influence toward ruling directly. Arguably he lacks Manshoon’s grand vision but that doesn’t mean he’s without ideas of his own. He is being courted by the Shadow Thieves who very much desire a return to influence in the city.

That’s all the factions I’m going to use. Other non-recurring characters that are part of other organizations are still going to be linked to one of these. The only difference will be if a PC chooses a cleric - in which case that church will become a faction too.
 

TheSword

Legend
Who are the Golden Vault?


A benevolent secret society founded by shape changed gold dragons to right the wrongs in the world that can’t be resolved by legal methods?

…Not likely.

The Golden Vault is a front for one of the four evil organizations. Which one I haven’t decided yet. The most obvious candidates are the Zhentarim (Manshoon is a mastermind after all), The Cassalanters (it’s a very Asmodean style plot to corrupt the actions of the good) or Braegan D’Aerth who are masters at getting someone else to go the work.

The key thing is that each heist while benevolent on the face of it, has to have an underlying benefit to the evil organisation it turns out to be. For instance while superficially the party are stopping a Far Realm Event in the heart of the city what they are actually doing is handing the Golden Vault a time bomb - that they can repurpose as they like.

There need to be some clues that the Golden Vault isn’t all it seems to be but not so many that they refuse to work with them. By the time the party have the stone of Grolor though and are searching for the keys they should have their own reasons to want to find Neverember’s Vault. The final reveal will be in the vault when the city’s only gold dragon explains that dragons cannot enter the city without his permission and his confident assurance that there are no other gold dragons within 100 miles of Waterdeep. At this point things should move quickly towards a resolution. The false Golden Vault moves quickly to put in place it plan - using all the results from the heists to date to obtain the stolen fortune and effect a nefarious plan.

I’ve thought hard - and I think Bregan D’Aerthe are the best folks for this ruse. Their actions in the module lack some of the villainous punch of the other organizations whom the party will want to confront of their own accord. The reversal will be all the better when Jarlaxle uses all the stolen/acquired mcguffins to perpetrate the most daring heist on the party and steal the prize from under their noses. Leading to a great revenge heist against their one time benefactors.
 

TheSword

Legend
The Second Heist Rescuing Raenar Neverember

It’s time to get the ball rolling on the Dragon Heist - the prize to end all prizes. This starts with the kidnapping of Floon Blagmar and Raenar Neverember after a drunken night out with Volo.

It’s really easy to use chapter 1 as a Heist sponsored by the Golden Vault. I think it could be more dramatic if the PCs interrupt the Xanathar raid as it happens but it’s not a deal breaker. The Alexandrian has some good ideas to make the clues leading to the warehouse less linear in remix. Another element I used when running it last time was to have a fire in the Zhent warehouse. This added a nice clock to the section and added a bit more drama.

I will split the troll fight into a separate city encounter as a break between downtime activities. The same for the Zhent/Xan turf war. Meeting Volo can come about through a key from the Golden Vault. He’s an excellent recurring NPC that my players will almost certainly have heard of. I’m going down the Dandellion-with-a-bit-of-Gilderoy-Lockheart route.

Because of Maxim 1 NPCs have to be repeated if they’re not linked to a faction. My plan is to use Floon, Raenar and Volo for laughs. They’ll usually be found together repeatedly throughout the campaign: Volo pompous, Raenar earnest and Floon drunk and confused.

Maxim 3 means the PCs need to be allowed not to participate. Of all the quests in the campaign this is the one we really don’t want the party to say no to. For that reason the reward will be excessively generous. More then Volo can afford even - which is why they get Trollskull manor. I’ll judge it at the time but 200gp each will probably be a good start. If they still refuse then Raenar dies in the Zhent warehouse fire. Floon Blagmar is repurposed as a Mind Thrall for the Xanathar and Volo is distraught - he may become a vocal critic of the Party. Trollskull manor could be repurposed as a haunted house investigation could still see them get the deed.
 

TheSword

Legend
The Third Heist: The Stygian Gambit (Into Undermountain)

Once the PCs have Trollskull manor I expect them to be really hankering for cash. They are most likely to be level 3 by this point and coming into their own. I really like the idea of robbing a casino posited in The Stygian Gambit Heist. Good characters - plus the link to devil cultists is too useful a link to the Cassalanter to Pass Up.

The problem is I just don’t see such a casino being allowed in a city like Waterdeep. Not only that, but it’s layout and structure doesn’t really match a city structure (it’s originally designed to be out in the wilderness). It’s perfect for underground… particular underground near a river… like the Sargauth for instance? This casino would fit well on the third level of Undermountain.

Skullport is an evocative and fascinating location, deep on the third level, that could be an adventure location all to itself. It’s also a place that the Golden Vault would want access too if it could. I mentioned earlier that I Undermountain is better used as a setting rather than a dungeon meant to be cleared. So what better quest than set the PCs the challenge of finding Skullport and a shortcut to the surface, from the Well entry on 1st level to the enclave on level 3.

This sounds like a huge ask but the quest givers could start them off with general directions to the goblin market on level 2. They’re on their own from there, but there are enough NPCs to supplement with further directions if PCs are smart. I can easily see this resulting in the PCs gaining a couple of levels on such an epic journey and they could come out wealthy individuals. I think the first few levels of Undermountain are some of the best and it will be nice change from heisting!

The route from first level takes the party through a couple of Xanathar outposts which fits with the first maxim and through a drow settlement with lots of side trek opportunities and places to get lost. Ending at Skullport which deserves a few encounters of its own. From Skullport the PCs are ferried up the sargauth to the Afterlife Casino.

To run the Stygian Gambit for level 4 or 5 it will need buffing up a bit. What I would do is beef up the guards - a few Barbazu that can use the security mirrors and a teleport spell like ability. Quentin Togglepocket the proprietor can be changed to a full on Artificer and summons to hamatula as bodyguards if attacked. Virgil the Minotaur skeleton can be upgraded to an advanced Nimblewright at the gnome artificers command. Quentin can be linked to the temple of Gond (potentially disgraced) maybe he was the creator of the nimblewrights (and not a strange traveler). The greedy selfish gnome as a creator would make the nimblewraith that appears later on more sympathetic - particularly if we see the previous nimblewraith treated badly. Quentin as perfect as a member of the Cassalanter’s devil worshipping cult - and that couple would make excellent guests at the tournament. Perhaps the Cassalanter’s are backers.

All in all, there is a lot that fits into this heist, with the wider story of Dragonheist and Waterdeep. The Golden Vault might learn the secret of crafting Nimblewrights - the true treasure in this adventure? Meanwhile the quest giver Verity Kyle could end up an employee of the party at Trollskull Manor or be linked to the Harpers, or one of the other organizations. The PCs don’t get involved then this is the perfect opportunity to introduce a rival adventuring party who can boast about their deeds and achieve effectively the same ends.
 
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