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Pulling Off a Dragon Heist in Waterdeep: The Review

Since the majority of official D&D adventures have been set in dungeons (or the equivalent) and wilderness areas, making the latest hardcover adventure, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, a city-based adventure is a breath of fresh air. It's also a great chance to give the Sword Coast's most cosmopolitan city some 5th Edition attention.

WDH-YawninigPortal.JPG


In Waterdeep: Dragon Heist – no spoilers – a half a million gold coins, which are called “dragons” in Waterdeep have been stolen from the city and hidden. It's up to the players to find the stash before the villain can and use it for nefarious means. As with Curse of Strahd, there are options to vary the story, though in WDH the options change the villain, time of year and encounter chains.

Before the players can follow the money, the adventure for first to fifth level characters starts in a traditional place – a tavern. The legendary Yawning Portal is a nice connection between anyone who ran Tales of the Yawning Portal and/or might run the follow-up adventure coming November 2 to WPN stores and November 13 in wide release – Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. The Yawning Portal's claim to fame is the giant well-like opening in the center of the common room that leads down to the first level of Undermountain, the massive complex that lies beneath Waterdeep (the Mad Mage's dungeon).

At the Yawning Portal tavern, the players meet the legendary (as he's quick to tell them) Volothamp Geddarm – “Volo” to his fans. The famed author has a job for the players,which serves as a good introduction to Waterdeep and a chance for them to explore the city and earn a little bit of a reputation. After that task is accomplished, there's a bit of an interlude where the players can gain some downtime while building relationships and contacts within the city. They can also be recruited by various organizations, individually or as a group, which can affect the adventure and their resources.

Then the main plot attracts the players' attention (trust me, they can't miss it), and they learn about the missing money. (I'm avoiding actual spoilers so the article is safe for those unsure as to whether they want to play WDH.) Depending upon the villain selected before the campaign started, the time of year is also set, but the book notes that if, while playing, it makes sense to switch the main villain, the DM should do so while keeping the original time of year.

As a DM who has been running the 5th Edition hardcover adventures since Hoard of the Dragon Queen, I can't wait to finish Tomb of Annihilation and start WDH. I really liked the revised version of Chult (though I have some quibbles), but the ticking clock aspect of it was at odds with the obvious interest in exploring the island. Once we finish the official story, I'll probably use Chult in a future homebrew adventure. But I'm a sucker for city-based campaigns in a fantasy setting and this one is put together much better than Pathfinder's Council of Thieves, in which some chapters – and even maps if you compare the book to the map pack – contradicted it each other.

City-based adventures, especially when the city in question has a vigorous City Watch, can deter murder hobo tendencies in players. WDH has plenty of opportunity for action and combat, but wholesale, casual carnage should be off the menu.

What I especially like about WDH:
  • The pronunciation guide for NPC names (to avoid arguments)
  • Adventure and encounter flow charts (for easy reference and to make it simple for DMs to quickly find the plot thread again if the players go off the rails)
  • Lots of opportunities for role-playing and investigation
  • Factions can really make a difference in this adventure and players can be recruited during the adventure
  • Opportunities for players to put down roots in Waterdeep and have their actions motivated by that
  • The big, full-color, two-sided map of Waterdeep with one side for players and the other for the DM (though I wish the book had a smaller version of the DM map so we can check DM-only material while players are examining their side)
  • Building maps in the book that can be reused
  • The NPC map of the Yawning Portal is charming, especially Matt Mercer's cameo
And, of course, I like the story. Having a choice of four villains not only provides replay-ability (to a degree) but allows the DM to cater to their players' interests or combine it with their own material more.

WDH-interior art.JPG

My only complaint – and it's a very minor one – is that the WDH is less of an Ocean's 11 or The Italian Job heist then an investigation where players are racing against the bad guys. In the heist movies cited while promoting WDH the characters know who has the money. They just need to figure out a scheme to steal it. WDH is more like a Western where someone buried a treasure and then died, forcing characters to find and interpret the location clues before someone else does. It's fun regardless but involves a slightly different sensibility that might be relevant as people make characters.

The book contains some fun Easter eggs. For example, a play mentioned loosely describes Strahd's backstory. Also, Volo mentions his upcoming book a few times – Volo's Guide to Spirits and Specters. Time will tell if that's a future D&D book release. (Please? Pretty please?)

“Volo's Waterdeep Enchirdion” is a chapter after the adventure that provides background on the city, its various wards, law enforcement, holidays, currency, etc. It's a highly useful addition for those unfamiliar with Waterdeep as well as providing DM's easy access to key material. A DM could run the campaign purely with what's in the book or prior source material, such Volo's Guide to Waterdeep or City of Splendors: Waterdeep, can be integrated as long as the major players in the city – like the latest Blackstaff – are updated for the current era.

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
is a rollicking adventure that's different than the prior 5th Edition adventures. I really like how the D&D team keeps harkening back to classic locations and/or modules while handling them in new, fresh ways. WDH is a terrific way of updating the City of Splendors.

This article was contributed by Beth Rimmels (brimmels) as part of ENWorld's User-Generated Content (UGC) program. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
 
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Beth Rimmels

Comments


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The Big BZ

Explorer
Very good and fair review. With regards to whether this is a primer for Urban campaigns, it doesn't specifically say 'do x or y' but it is very transferrable and usable. It works as a module and a source book like SKT in a way the OotA doesn't in my opinion. Travelling in the North Sword Coast? Boom, open SKT. The Underdark stuff, like Menzoberrazan is too tied to the metaplot to be reusable in my opinion. You can basically graft a lot of DH onto your campaign as it suits.
 

Burnside

Explorer
So i've read through chapters 1-4 comprehensively (which concludes the main quest) and have skimmed/read sections of the rest.

My thoughts:

Truth vs Advertising

-Is Dragon Heist a "heist" in the style of Ocean's 11, The Killing, The Italian Job or other stories and films that were referenced during hype interviews?

In short, no. The climax is indeed about securing a huge amount of gold, but it's not as if you can learn anything substantial in advance about the location it's hidden in, or gather intelligence about the obstacles you'll face there, etc. that would enable you to "plan" a "heist." It ends in a dungeon, which players will approach and handle in much the same way they handle most dungeons. And since "Waterdeep: Dragon Heist" is an awkward title, i struggle to see why they went with it.

-Does it give you "tools" for running your own "city campaigns"?

No. In fairness, I don't think WoTC ever said it would - this was just something fans decided would be included. There is a good amount of Waterdeep-specific setting info, which you can, if you want, add to the already good amount of Waterdeep setting info that exists out there. But there are no new rules or game mechanics - in fact, the adventure refers fairly frequently to existing mechanics in the DMG in a way that has seldom been done in WoTC hardcovers. Also, it is very much Waterdeep. It's quite embedded in FR lore and factions, moreso than perhaps any other 5E hardcover adventure. You CAN convert it to a generic setting or Eberron or whatever, but that will not be easy. The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide would be a useful companion to this adventure.

-Does it have "great replay value"?

Sort of. For a DM who runs it multiple times for different groups, yes absolutely I think there would be a lot of fresh stuff every time. Is it going to be different enough that a PLAYER would want to play through it more than once? I'm going to say no. It WOULD be more substantially different than the way Curse of Strahd allegedly has "replay value" for players because the treasures might be in different places (which...come on). But it's still going to have enough of the same content that I can't see playing through it twice as a player - not when there are so many campaign options available and so few years to the human lifespan.

Long story short: Chapters 1 and 3 and the climactic dungeon in Chapter 4 would be pretty much the same on every play-through; Chapter 2 and the first two-thirds of Chapter 4 would be quite different.

-Is it fun?

I think so. See below.

Chapter 1
A fun, railroaded city adventure culminating in a challenging starter dungeon. Most DMs could run this chapter pretty much out of the box after one read, which I view as a huge plus. I haven't run it yet, but on paper I would say it's likely to be very enjoyable and could easily run 2 sessions. Milestone level up to 2 at the end of it. Nothing particularly innovative or groundbreaking in this chapter, but it seems very solid.

Chapter 2
A mini-sandbox. This chapter is meant to be self-directed by the players. It's basically "have them spend a couple of sessions doing sidequests until you feel they should be level 3." In theory it's not a bad idea. In execution it's the weakest part of the adventure. It feels like stuff ended up on the cutting room floor here.

Most of the sidequests are driven by the various factions players might join. Each faction has a side quest on offer for a level 2, 3, 4, or 5 party, so as the party progresses through the book they'd be offered increasingly higher-level side quests by their faction contacts.

The side-quests are all one-paragraph thumbnails which the DM is left to flesh out. That's fine, although it kills this book as a good choice for a first-time DM (stick with the Starter Set). But honestly, this chapter could have benefitted from fewer-but-better side quests, and better flavor and especially cooler rewards from the factions. It feels like too many ideas made the cut, and instead the top 10 or 12 ideas should have been kept and expanded instead of like 40 thumbnails.

Somebody on DMsGuild could fill a much-needed niche by revamping and improving the faction quests here. I like the idea of the characters becoming enmeshed in the fabric of the city, which is the goal of this chapter. But execution is dodgy imho.

Chapter 3
We're level 3 and back on the railroad for a fun investigation/city adventure. On the whole this is a strong chapter and also will be easy for most DMs to run (it's a sequential event-driven romp). There are some weak moments (at one point the only way for the players to pursue the plot is for them, with no prompting, to decide, apropos of almost nothing, to investigate HOW AND WHERE A KEY THEY FOUND ON THE GROUND WAS MANUFACTURED. Yeah, my players aren't going to do that). There are a few bits like this scattered throughout this book which frankly the DM will have to fix or work around (but fortunately only a few).

Complete this chapter, maybe do your level 3 faction side quest(s), and it's time for Level 4 and Chapter 4.

Chapter 4
The climactic chapter is in my opinion largely great on paper (although we'll see how it does on the table). The reason for the utilitarian maps become clear in this chapter. The maps portray 10 different city locations (alley, docks, old windmill, theater, tower, etc). No matter the season or villain, the basic layout of these locations is always the same. However, their purpose, inhabitants, and the order in which they are visited is completely different based on which main villain the DM has chosen.

The bulk of this chapter is a varied and fun chase to get the McGuffin that takes the party to various locations in the city. The hit-to-miss ratio and thoughtfulness of the encounters in this chapter is MUCH stronger than in Chapter 2. There are a few iffy bits, but a reasonably experienced DM can skip or fix them and pick and choose their preferred set piece encounters.

This chapter WOULD be easy to run out of the box EXCEPT that it turns into a real page-flipper as you jump around forwards and backwards in the book from set piece to set piece depending on which villain you're using. Logistically this is SO MUCH EASIER to deal with if you're running the adventure using DNDBeyond. I'd imagine it would be pretty annoying using the book for this part.

Chapter 4 culminates in a shortish-but-fun dungeon which unfortunately ends in a final encounter which I suspect could be kind of a dud for some tables. i think there is a burden on the DM here to make this feel like a big finish - and that really shouldn't be the case. Also, too many instances in this adventure of the characters getting big-footed by powerful NPCs. Ending is no exception to that.

Curiously, the book contains a lot of material which you would presumably run AFTER the main quest is completed. It advises milestone leveling to 5 after chapter 4, so at that point, you could take on the level 5 faction sidequests from chapter 2 or some stuff from Chapters 5-8.

Chapters 5-8
I have skimmed, but not fully read, these four chapters. Each is dedicated to one of the four possible main villains, their lairs, and a couple of season-specific side events/quests that could happen in the city. All of this is entirely optional and players could easily complete the main campaign without seeing any of it. it's hard to imagine they would visit more than one lair during the campaign, but have at it I guess. Most of the villains themselves would annihilate the party in a stand-up fight. There are hints (in some cases more than hints) dropped that some of these areas and characters will be involved, or at least accessible, during Undermountain: Dungeon of the Mad Mage.

Chapter 9
Volo's Waterdeep guidebook. A cute, in-universe, player-facing thing that the vast majority of my players would never bother to read even if I printed out copies for each of them.
 
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gyor

Legend
This book feels incomplete without Dungeon of the Mad Late, it's other half of the Waterdeep Adventure.

And Chapter 2 needs more none faction quest options. It's either deal with the rival of your Tavern, or just make up missions.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Thank you for your open-minded review.

Two things never cease to amaze me:
1) the lengths some posters go to sell WotC's stuff for them, no matter the deficiencies or weaknesses
2) the fact WotC never seems able to create a truly great adventure. They most assuredly are the McDonald's of RPG scenarios...
 



Thank you for your open-minded review.

Two things never cease to amaze me:
1) the lengths some posters go to sell WotC's stuff for them, no matter the deficiencies or weaknesses
2) the fact WotC never seems able to create a truly great adventure. They most assuredly are the McDonald's of RPG scenarios...
I thought "Lost Mine of Phandelver" was great.

But that's one of very, very few - for any edition.
 

Burnside

Explorer
I thought "Lost Mine of Phandelver" was great.

But that's one of very, very few - for any edition.
I would agree that Lost Mine of Phandelver is great. Near-perfect for what it's supposed to be.

I'd argue that Curse of Strahd is great.

I'm playing Tomb of Annihilation as a player now, and either it's great or my DM is (or both).

Storm King's Thunder is bad imho. Out of the Abyss is interesting but flawed and horribly organized. Horde of the Dragon Queen is actually I think underrated, but still manages to have all the flaws of a railroad while missing some of the virtues of a railroad. Tales from the Yawning Portal is a very mixed bag. Haven't read or played the others.
 
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I'd argue that Curse of Strahd is great.
IMO, CoS really suffers in comparison with the original, which (also IMO) is enough to disqualify it from greatness.

For the rest - I stopped after "Storm King's Thunder", so can't comment on ToA or, now, W:DH. "Tales..." is slightly different, as I have several of the source adventures, but it was always going to be a mixed bag.

The earlier ones, from HotDQ through SKT are frustrating - a lot of them have some good material (with OotA in particular containing some of the best adventure material I've seen, ever), but they've not yet managed one that didn't also have some very significant weaknesses.

All IMO, of course.
 

Ymdar

Explorer
The party ends up getting to keep 8-10% of it, depending on NPC involvement and what your DM chooses to do.
Sounds like a Shadowrun adventure: You do the dirty work for the high and powerful and then they take your loot.
 

jimmytheccomic

First Post
I do worry the ending will be anti-climactic for a lot of tables. I think a common DM hack is going to be "The vault is at the bottom of the Undermountain!", for a cleaner segue/better climax.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
I do worry the ending will be anti-climactic for a lot of tables. I think a common DM hack is going to be "The vault is at the bottom of the Undermountain!", for a cleaner segue/better climax.
It does seem like the penultimate chapter should be the PCs losing the race to the treasure and the baddie kind of flaunting their failure in their faces. The final chapter then becomes the heist to actually rescue victory from the jaws of defeat... (also fits a heroic arc nicely).
 

I think all of the 5e adventures have been better than anything they wrote for 3 or 4e. I can't speak to earlier, because I only ran homebrew back then. I've run a few of the classics more recently, and I don't see how they're all that good compared to these recent ones. Sure, they've all got drawbacks, but most of them have had some really good stuff, IMO. So far, I think Dragon Heist is great. Haven't run it all the way through yet, though, obviously. Does that make me "going out of my way to sell WotC's stuff?" I dunno.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
This book feels incomplete without Dungeon of the Mad Late, it's other half of the Waterdeep Adventure.

And Chapter 2 needs more none faction quest options. It's either deal with the rival of your Tavern, or just make up missions.
I'm not sure how to handle this chapter if different PCs join different factions, it could divide the party...
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
I picked this up today at a game store near where I work. Nice place that I never even knew was there until I did a google search. Think I'll be stopping there on lunch once in awhile.

I browsed the book, read complete parts here and there and my initial thought was that Id probably never run this straight through but will probably mine it for ideas and encounters, I may change my mind after reading it through. My main disappointment was that the cartography is very poor in my opinion, both the poster map and the interior maps. Other than that I dont regret the purchase, but unless I overlooked them I was wondering where Elminsters comments in the Volos guide section where.
I am surprised to hear that, I purchased the book in part because of who did the cartography!
 

Parmandur

Legend
Thank you for your open-minded review.

Two things never cease to amaze me:
1) the lengths some posters go to sell WotC's stuff for them, no matter the deficiencies or weaknesses
2) the fact WotC never seems able to create a truly great adventure. They most assuredly are the McDonald's of RPG scenarios...
Oh no, watch out, people enjoying things thst you don't and then recommending them! Run for the hills!
 

I am surprised to hear that, I purchased the book in part because of who did the cartography!
I agree. The maps are top-notch. The black-and-white, clear nature of them makes them easy to print out or easy to copy onto a dry-erase mat (whichever you prefer) AND they can be imagined with snow, rain, sun, or whatever they need for the season without the art implying one way or the other. They are overall more useful than a more conventional method. They look more traditional too.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
I agree. The maps are top-notch. The black-and-white, clear nature of them makes them easy to print out or easy to copy onto a dry-erase mat (whichever you prefer) AND they can be imagined with snow, rain, sun, or whatever they need for the season without the art implying one way or the other. They are overall more useful than a more conventional method. They look more traditional too.
I'm somewhat biased because I know the guy who makes them (Dyson Logos). I highly recommend his blog and his products. He publishes series of maps, each of them with an attached story/background (which you can use or ignore). When I'm making adventures and I need a map for, say, a tower, I just flick through the collection until I find something I like and tada, tower map.
 

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