D&D 5E Waterdeep: Dragon Heist Post-Mortem (Spoilers)

Retreater

Legend
Each time a campaign ends, I try to learn from it. This will be about my Waterdeep: Dragon Heist campaign.

About the Group and Selection of the Campaign

This group of players contains the core players from my college days. We've been gaming together for over 20 years, starting with 2E, through 3.x/PF, and now into 5e. They were the original playtest group for my first published adventure. We've been the best men at each others' weddings, cried on each others' shoulders as our friends have passed away, bought each other rounds of drinks to commiserate job losses and divorces. We even tried 4E together. Can our friendship withstand the Dragon Heist? Read on to see.

The group consists of an OSR-apologist/mad scientist/contrarian, a casual player who rolls emotion dice to sprinkle interesting dynamics into the game, a guy who went so all-in with Pathfinder that he's only just now trying 5e, and another player who loves being the party leader/face - and sometimes gets a little bossy with how others play his characters.

Somehow I'd gotten the reputation in the group for being good at running city adventures. The group had been wanting to play in Waterdeep since 2e, so several requested Dragon Heist. I had my reservations because I knew that it had gotten mixed reviews. But I was sure I could make something good (enough) out of it.

Preparation

I did my homework. I read the Alexandrian's blog about the adventure and picked the Cassalanters as the enemy faction, knowing my group of players would like to deal with corrupt nobles. I also got out my old copy of Volo's Guide to Waterdeep, scanned in the full Waterdeep map and loaded it into Roll20 (where we were going to be playing the game). I was ready to make a rich, vibrant world, ready to sandbox in the city. I put in a map of the Yawning Portal Inn and created a bunch of tokens and NPCs where the party could come and draft different followers to help them on their excursions.

A Pretty Good Start Leads to Little Involvement

We had several solid sessions at the beginning as the party investigated a warehouse and a thieves guild. However, it started to fall apart when the party got possession of the haunted tavern to set up as a base of operations. Wanting to keep a low profile, the party decided to not get involved in this business venture.

Don't Go Chasing Railroads

Where the adventure really starts to unravel is the chase scene where the Macguffin is stolen and the PARTY ABSOLUTELY CAN'T GET IT EARLY - NO MATTER WHAT. But the characters made excellent skill checks, followed very logical patterns, came up with very creative solutions. I let them get the Macguffin midway through the chase scene. I found no sense in artificially prolonging the chapter.

The Anti-Climax

After utilizing the Macguffin, the party was able to find the hiding spot of the treasure. Navigating a few easy traps, the party came to a non-combat encounter with a good-aligned dragon and were able to talk it out of the gold. No big fight, and they couldn't even keep the treasure. The group, so bored with the last few sessions, were more than happy to let the campaign fade out.

Lessons Learned

Sometimes, reading reviews tells you all you need to know about an adventure. Dragon Heist was truly a half-baked idea. Yes, I could've reworked it and made it decent, if I put in as much (if not more) work than I would typically spend in designing my own adventure. But I'm left wondering, who is this adventure for? It's very "advanced" for a DM to try to run. Why would you want to play it four different ways? Are you going to run it for the same group that many times? Why not just view it like an Escape Room or a "legacy" board game - your group plays through the mystery once, and you get your money's worth. What could they have done had they focused on only one group - like the Xanathar's Guild - created an in-depth multi-faceted mystery with eyes everywhere ;).

What Came Next?

After this campaign, one of the players offered to run a dungeon crawl in Old School Essentials. That game deserves another thread.
 

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I always appreciate reading other people's experience with adventures I've run, or am thinking about running... but...

You read the Alexandrian review and the Remix and ignored them and then are surprised that the reviews were true? Come on, you knew it was going to fail if you ran it as written, right? But you didn't want to put in the work to to use the Remix or otherwise make it work?

Dragon Heist works, mostly, but only if either your party is fine with a poorly written railroad or you alter or remix it. I have to say, I would never dream of running it as written. Now you know why :)
 

Mistwell

Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
We are right now (as in session ended a few minutes ago) in the process of a potential total party kill while fighting an invisible Xanathar in his lair.

We were not prepared and had no idea we were blundering into his lair. My rogue is asleep, under the effects of fear, and charmed. And that's in round 1, having been hit by three rays. RIGHT after he killed the goldfish. Meanwhile some invisible drow is lobbing 4th level spells at us, and we already expended some resources taking out a grell. Oh, and our wizard wandered the wrong way looking for a shortcut from behind into the lair and ran into a pack of kua toa.

We have a possible escape plan, but I will be rolling up a spare character just in case in preparation for next session.
 

TheSword

Legend
Can I ask why you didn’t use the villains lairs? Even just the Cassalanters if you didn’t want to use the Alexandrians advice and link in all four lairs?

The Lairs/main villains are about a third of the book. The heist part is about trying to con these power players out of what is needed. The three keys are there to allow you to send the players into some cool areas if needed.

I don’t think there is any harm in getting the stone early. My group got it after Grahlund Villa and I missed the ‘chase’ entirely (in my opinion the poorest part of the book). I repurposed some of the more interesting locations for when the players were trying to find the villains hide outs.

To me, Dragonheist is full of great city locations, great NPCs, some very good ideas. But it needs work to tie it together into a campaign. It’s not ready to go out of the box for a party with high expectations.
 
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I am getting a sense that you wanted the adventure to fail in order to prove it was badly written.

Now, I haven't read it, so I'm not going to defend it, but if I don't think an adventure is up to snuff* and I don't want to put in the work to fix it I wouldn't run it in the first place.


*which is most of the time, I have read far more bad adventures than good ones.
 

TheSword

Legend
We are right now (as in session ended a few minutes ago) in the process of a potential total party kill while fighting an invisible Xanathar in his lair.

We were not prepared and had no idea we were blundering into his lair. My rogue is asleep, under the effects of fear, and charmed. And that's in round 1, having been hit by three rays. RIGHT after he killed the goldfish. Meanwhile some invisible drow is lobbing 4th level spells at us, and we already expended some resources taking out a grell. Oh, and our wizard wandered the wrong way looking for a shortcut from behind into the lair and ran into a pack of kua toa.

We have a possible escape plan, but I will be rolling up a spare character just in case in preparation for next session.
YOU KILLED THE GOLDFISH 😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱

Oh lord. I hope your character hasn’t got any kids, or loved ones of any kind.
 


Lyxen

Great Old One
I have written time and time again how this is a really bad published adventure, for me the worst by far from WotC in 5e, and this just confirms it. Remix it heavily, stick with the remix, otherwise even your best efforts will not save it.
 

Hussar

Legend
I had a largely similar experience. Decent enough start but it kind of petered out. I think a large part of my problem is that about half the group had zero interest in the inn or any of the factions or, frankly, anything to do with the setting at all. I mean, I spent a great deal of time setting up the mansion, used a very excellent little adventure I found online to spice it up, played it out, and then... nothing. The players did absolutely nothing with it and couldn't care less if it burned to the ground. The only comment I got was, "Oh, look, there's a sewer entrance nearby."

So, I think that the adventure can work, but, you need very pro-active players who want to actually engage with the setting. If you have a group that is mostly interested in you rolling up the plot wagon each week and doling out the fight du jour, then, no, this adventure won't work worth a damn.

Something to really remember though, is that this is only a 5 level adventure. It's SHORT.
 


I am getting a sense that you wanted the adventure to fail in order to prove it was badly written.
Hard to say. I've gotten stubborn about things and decided to run them "As Written" because I wanted to see for myself and make my own judgements before changing things around. But at the same time, I recognize that scientific desire is somewhat counterproductive to the entire table having fun (unless they are into and willing to do the same thing). And I try not to be surprised if and when I discover fire is indeed hot.
 

Hussar

Legend
And that's another problem that I have with it, it's a complet book for a short adventure with a replayability level of zero with the same group, and assuming that, after all its defects, you might want to run it THREE more times is simply silly.
I don't look at it like that to be honest. I look at it as a fantastic Waterdeep supplement that has a nifty adventure in it for really grounding a group into Waterdeep and Forgotten Realms. As this was the first ever adventure I ran in Forgotten Realms, it worked pretty well for me that way. It introduced me to a lot of the elements of the setting and gave a great deal of context rather than most setting guides which are just sort of encyclopedia entries without anything linking them together.

I can totally see if someone was a real Forgotten Realms SME that the adventure would be less useful. But, again, as I said, I know very little about FR, having only really gotten into it in 5e.

And, let's not forget, you're supposed to do Dragon Heist as a lead in to Dungeon of the Mad Mage, which WILL take you up to 20th level. And, provides lots more context. I ran the Fall setting because I loved the picture of Zardoz Zord I saw and just HAD to use it. So, the whole drow thing was all new to me and, of course, means you can tie it into the drow section of DotMM if you wanted.

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Hard to say. I've gotten stubborn about things and decided to run them "As Written" because I wanted to see for myself and make my own judgements before changing things around. But at the same time, I recognize that scientific desire is somewhat counterproductive to the entire table having fun (unless they are into and willing to do the same thing). And I try not to be surprised if and when I discover fire is indeed hot.
You can run through how an encounter might go in your head, especially if you know your players, and if the issue is combat I sometimes play it out against myself using stock characters.
 


Lyxen

Great Old One
I don't look at it like that to be honest. I look at it as a fantastic Waterdeep supplement

Honestly, in terms of Waterdeep, there are way better supplements out there. What is in this one that makes it fantastic ?

that has a nifty adventure in it for really grounding a group into Waterdeep and Forgotten Realms.

he adventure is certainly not nifty to me, it's a very poor railroad that fails on so many levels to engage players. There are far better ways to ground a group into the FR if it's what you are looking for.

As this was the first ever adventure I ran in Forgotten Realms, it worked pretty well for me that way. It introduced me to a lot of the elements of the setting and gave a great deal of context rather than most setting guides which are just sort of encyclopedia entries without anything linking them together.

Good if it worked for you, I just don't share the enthusiasm at all.

I can totally see if someone was a real Forgotten Realms SME that the adventure would be less useful. But, again, as I said, I know very little about FR, having only really gotten into it in 5e.

I certainly am not a FR SME, as I don't like the setting at all, honestly, but any other adventure of 5e set in the FR would do a better job for me.

And, let's not forget, you're supposed to do Dragon Heist as a lead in to Dungeon of the Mad Mage, which WILL take you up to 20th level. And, provides lots more context. I ran the Fall setting because I loved the picture of Zardoz Zord I saw and just HAD to use it. So, the whole drow thing was all new to me and, of course, means you can tie it into the drow section of DotMM if you wanted.

If anything, that picture totally killed the module for me.

After that, to each their own in particular in matters of taste.
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
I bought the module on FantasyGrounds because I needed information on Waterdeep and I think it failed there. I got some good locales that i used and I did use a piece of it but I would have got a better map of Waterdeep with at least the street names.

I did not think much of it as an adventure.
 

TheSword

Legend
Honestly, in terms of Waterdeep, there are way better supplements out there. What is in this one that makes it fantastic ?



he adventure is certainly not nifty to me, it's a very poor railroad that fails on so many levels to engage players. There are far better ways to ground a group into the FR if it's what you are looking for.



Good if it worked for you, I just don't share the enthusiasm at all.



I certainly am not a FR SME, as I don't like the setting at all, honestly, but any other adventure of 5e set in the FR would do a better job for me.



If anything, that picture totally killed the module for me.

After that, to each their own in particular in matters of taste.

To be fair, I hate that picture too. Though maybe I’m more comfortable filtering things out. If I didn’t like a single picture I’d just ignore it, it wouldn’t spoil a book for me. If the whole art style was annoying that might be different.

The book has a city warehouse, a sewer hideout, a haunted tavern, ten further city locations, a hidden vault, a wizards tower (plus extra dimensional hideout), a beholders underground gang lair, Two large villas (one with underground temple) and a large ship location (with additional submarine). That’s a hell of a lot of adventure locations. I’m struggling to think of any single book that has that many detailed locations in it. Plus all the NPC’s, magic items, plot hooks, and Waterdeep gazetteer stuff.

I don’t quite get when people expect to run a published module as written. To me the details in the book are just suggestions of what to do or use. If I don’t like something I ignore it. If something is missing, I add it.

This might be why I struggle to see this module as a railroad. My PCs decided to head down to the first level of undermountain at 3rd level and a few days dungeon crawling before getting caught up in the fireball attack. If they hadn’t been interested in running a tavern then I wouldn’t have made them. If they didn’t want to engage with the Stone of Grollor I wouldn’t have made them. There are plenty of other ways to involve powerful NPCs like Manshoon, The Xanathar or the Cassalanters, other than the chase chapter. Fireball could have taken place anywhere at any time.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
The book has a city warehouse, a sewer hideout, a haunted tavern, ten further city locations, a hidden vault, a wizards tower (plus extra dimensional hideout), a beholders underground gang lair, Two large villas (one with underground temple) and a large ship location (with additional submarine). That’s a hell of a lot of adventure locations. I’m struggling to think of any single book that has that many detailed locations in it.

And all are accompanied by a map of really poor quality that looks to have been drawn 30 years ago. Most modules have quality maps for locations, this one does not.

Plus all the NPC’s, magic items, plot hooks, and Waterdeep gazetteer stuff.

Really not impressed.

I don’t quite get when people expect to run a published module as written. To me the details in the book are just suggestions of what to do or use. If I don’t like something I ignore it. If something is missing, I add it.

The thing is that while some modules can be run more or less straight out of the box, this one is the only one with a purely linear story with such a heavy raildroading that it ignores what the PCs are doing. It needs profound rework, more than any other that I've see.

This might be why I struggle to see this module as a railroad. My PCs decided to head down to the first level of undermountain at 3rd level and a few days dungeon crawling before getting caught up in the fireball attack.

That is if you are interested in running a huge dungeon after that. We did not.

If they hadn’t been interested in running a tavern then I wouldn’t have made them. If they didn’t want to engage with the Stone of Grollor I wouldn’t have made them. There are plenty of other ways to involve powerful NPCs like Manshoon, The Xanathar or the Cassalanters, other than the chase chapter. Fireball could have taken place anywhere at any time.

Again, needing another module to make this one palatable is not a great credit to the adventure in itself...
 

TheSword

Legend
And all are accompanied by a map of really poor quality that looks to have been drawn 30 years ago. Most modules have quality maps for locations, this one does not.
Really not impressed.

The thing is that while some modules can be run more or less straight out of the box, this one is the only one with a purely linear story with such a heavy raildroading that it ignores what the PCs are doing. It needs profound rework, more than any other that I've see.

That is if you are interested in running a huge dungeon after that. We did not.
Again, needing another module to make this one palatable is not a great credit to the adventure in itself...
So just out of interest… why on earth did you run Dragon Heist, if you don’t like the locations, the art, the NPCs, Items and monster, don’t want to tie it into other Waterdeep locations and think it’s a railroad?

(Incidentally most of the maps are available full colour in Mike Schley style from DM Guild for pennies)
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
So just out of interest… why on earth did you run Dragon Heist, if you don’t like the locations, the art, the NPCs, Items and monster, don’t want to tie it into other Waterdeep locations and think it’s a railroad?

I did not run it and never will, I pla... no, endured through it, hoping that it would be interesting as I love City Adventures. But it's NOT a city adventure, just a series of immutable encounters set inside a city but it does not feel like it, you are NOT performing a heist, and after reading through it I understood why the DM (who is a great friend from almost 40 years ago but who did not, unfortunately, had the time to do a lot of preparation) struggled with it and why we were so disappointed by the end result.

I understand that with a huge amount of work you can turn it into a city adventure worthy of the name, but you will still end up wasting a large part of the module (because of the absolutely stupid "replay" thing which is basically just a way to fill up pages). And it just goes to show the really poor quality of the production.

(Incidentally most of the maps are available full colour in Mike Schley style from DM Guild for pennies)

Like most modules, there are free enhancements and there are paying ones over on DM's Guild, but it's still not an excuse for the really low quality of the module.
 

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