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

Hussar

Legend
Sure, players often like to be given direction "This way to the epic story ->" but they don't like to feel that there decisions don't matter. And eventually even the most biddable players are going to make a decision that the AP writer didn't anticipate. The longer the path, the more likely that becomes. An experienced DM will deal with that and create new content that reacts to the new timeline, but some DMs will try to force the party to follow WHAT IS WRITTEN DOWN.
You're kinda missing my point. My point is that there are absolutely players who have zero problems with their decisions not mattering. They have no problem whatsoever being lockstep shuffled from one encounter to the next without any input. These players most certainly do exist and they aren't rare. I've seen players like this come across my table over and over again, regardless of age or edition.

When you have players like that, presenting them with choices is actually counter productive. Faced with a choice, they basically shut down and look at you, waiting for you to tell them which way to go. They are there to experience the ride and expect the DM to provide the experience. They have zero interest in "creating stories" or any form of authorship at all.

Hell, there's even a term for it - pawn stance play.
 

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Retreater

Legend
So as you know I’m also running it. How is it a railroad if you don’t mind me asking?

I mean the prologue gets the PCs to Bogenhafen in a pretty hamfisted way but really that’s just the set up of the campaign.
We've only played through the first half of the first book. And it did open up once they reached Bogenhafen, especially when I started adding in the sidequests from the city guide. They don't mind not having dungeons - in fact they were very hesitant to go into the first one.
The one event that really reinforced the railroad (and it may have been how I handled the situation):
I wouldn't let them charm or convince the Bounty Hunter they weren't in league with the Purple Hand. He wouldn't call off the attack for a peaceful resolution.

As for Bogenhafen the adventure fully predicts that the adventure could go pear shaped and details potential consequences of getting it wrong. Bogenhafen is one of those rare adventures where PCs failing is possible and described - also acknowledged in later sessions.
Yeah, they aren't feeling that way now. On top of the investigation in Bogenhafen, I have so many side quests going on, they're getting almost overwhelmed. Some are asking to play solo adventures so they can deal with their own missions and interests. For example, I had a squire disguise himself as a noble to compete in the jousting tournament and win a cash prize. A warrior priest of Myrmidia is trying to track down the stolen "lance" from the chapel. Meanwhile, the group just discovered "the door" and are getting ready to face something very, very awful.
I think they're hooked at this point, but the first couple sessions regularly required me to say "hang on, you guys are really going to love this once it gets going."
 

Retreater

Legend
What do people actually mean when they call something a railroad?
When I criticize DH for being a railroad, that's predominantly because of the Chase chapter (which is a pretty important section of the adventure). The other sections are largely either freeform or at least not any more railroady than any other adventure. But that Chase chapter is something else. It doesn't matter how good (or bad) rolls are; it doesn't matter how clever (or dense) the characters are. The same thing happens regardless.
 

Retreater

Legend
For me, honestly, that's the worst design ever. The Deck of Many Things is a relic of a past where basically this forces you to play russian roulette with your character to advance in the adventure. Absolutely hateful, I would stop playing the adventure at that point.
It's been a long time since I ran that one (too long to do a Post-Mortem haha). I do remember it being one of the better produced adventures for 4e (which might not be saying a lot).
I can't recall if it was in the adventure or my own thought, but I didn't run it like that was the actual Deck of Many Things. Kind of an experiment gone wrong. It felt like a funhouse dungeon like "White Plume Mountain," which was a good change of pace.
I do remember a part where cards were posted on doors and opening the doors would trigger the effect. I allowed the party to roll to identify the cards and their effects, do skill challenges to minimize (or completely avoid) the traps.
 

Retreater

Legend
Thanks for this, always interesting to hear how other groups go with an adventure. Out of interest, what was the party in terms of race/class.
I'm glad you're enjoying reading it. It's been helpful for me to write these Post-Mortems.
I've run a lot of games since this one, but I think I remember the basic party composition.
Elf bard, gnome illusionist, half-elf trickery cleric, and half-orc barbarian. The player of the half-orc barbarian was a little irregular with attendance due to work, finishing up grad school, etc., so I'd play an NPC at times to help round out the party. Normally this would be a human warlock noblewoman.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
I’d really prefer these adventure books to have 3 or 4 separate adventures for the different tiers. So a water deep adventure book would have some tier 1, 2 & 3 adventures (tier 4 seems a bit weird for urban adventures and groups rarely make it that far), the DM is then at liberty to connect them or not. In fact it would be great if there were 3 tier 1 adventures 2 tier 2 and 1 tier 3.

I really don’t like the fact that these adventures are always on track to fight some great threat from step 1.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
I do remember a part where cards were posted on doors and opening the doors would trigger the effect. I allowed the party to roll to identify the cards and their effects, do skill challenges to minimize (or completely avoid) the traps.

If it's not completely random and there's some choice, it's slightly better. Still traumatised from early Gygaxian randomness, I suppose...
 

Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
Supporter
I’d really prefer these adventure books to have 3 or 4 separate adventures for the different tiers. So a water deep adventure book would have some tier 1, 2 & 3 adventures (tier 4 seems a bit weird for urban adventures and groups rarely make it that far), the DM is then at liberty to connect them or not. In fact it would be great if there were 3 tier 1 adventures 2 tier 2 and 1 tier 3.

I really don’t like the fact that these adventures are always on track to fight some great threat from step 1.

You might like Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. It has fairly discreet tier 1, tier 2, and high 2-into-low-3 sections that can be run independently from each other.

If anything, it has the exact opposite problem in that the connective tissue between these sections can feel a little weak.
 

For me, honestly, that's the worst design ever. The Deck of Many Things is a relic of a past where basically this forces you to play russian roulette with your character to advance in the adventure. Absolutely hateful, I would stop playing the adventure at that point.
The Deck of Many Things is certainly polarizing. I don't think it's a relic. It's an unusual piece of game design. Many people don't like it -- but some people do.

The high stakes, all-or-nothing aspect of the Deck has always intrigued me. But I could never find a way to introduce it without the risk of wrecking the characters or the campaign. You could mitigate the risk by literally stacking the Deck, but that goes against the spirit of the exercise.

So I decided to center an entire campaign around the Deck itself. The players knew from the very first session that their goal is to collect all the cards and draw from the Deck. All of the player characters have connections to an older adventuring group that was undone by drawing from the Deck. The promise and peril of the Deck is the central theme of the campaign. The draw will be the second-to-last event of the entire campaign. No matter what happens after that -- for good or ill -- the campaign will be finished and complete.

But "worst design ever" and "hateful"? Only time will tell if it creates a memorable experience at the table (as I hope) or not. We'll let the Deck decide.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
The Deck of Many Things is certainly polarizing. I don't think it's a relic. It's an unusual piece of game design. Many people don't like it -- but some people do.

For sure, I was only stating my opinion.

The high stakes, all-or-nothing aspect of the Deck has always intrigued me. But I could never find a way to introduce it without the risk of wrecking the characters or the campaign. You could mitigate the risk by literally stacking the Deck, but that goes against the spirit of the exercise.

Yep, and as long as some wrecking risk remains...

But "worst design ever" and "hateful"? Only time will tell if it creates a memorable experience at the table (as I hope) or not. We'll let the Deck decide.

Well, I would not take the risk. :p
 

Hussar

Legend
When I criticize DH for being a railroad, that's predominantly because of the Chase chapter (which is a pretty important section of the adventure). The other sections are largely either freeform or at least not any more railroady than any other adventure. But that Chase chapter is something else. It doesn't matter how good (or bad) rolls are; it doesn't matter how clever (or dense) the characters are. The same thing happens regardless.
I guess that's the point I was working towards. It's a single section, and not a particularly long one at that - the earlier sections took much more time to play out - and it's a chase scene. A chase scene is extremely hard to do well and is linear by nature. The suggestion to "keep the macguffin out of the player's hands as long as possible" is perhaps bad advice (although not unredeemable) but, if you ignore that sidebar and simply let things fall where they may, it works fine too.

IOW, for me, it was a single session out of a module that lasted a dozen sessions, thereabouts. Meh, not something I get too tied up about, and, frankly, there's no real way that the players would know any of this anyway unless the DM gets really heavy handed about it.

So, in my view, you have a significant portion of the module that is pretty wide open, with a single session that's very linear that directly connects two other sections. Of course it's going to be railroady. Writing a chase scene like this that directly connects two parts of an adventure will always be a railroad.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
I guess that's the point I was working towards. It's a single section, and not a particularly long one at that - the earlier sections took much more time to play out

No, they don't. Sorry, but for them to take time, they would have to be engaging. And they are not. The factions are extremely artificial, and the quests are not even worthy of WoW level 1-10 beginners quests. As for the tavern, it's again extremely artificial. So they did not take a lot of time at all to play.

- and it's a chase scene. A chase scene is extremely hard to do well and is linear by nature.

It's not a chase scene. It's a succession of 10 interactions in which whatever the players do is completely ignored. Because it seemed to be the core of the adventure rather than some non-engaging fluff, we put some effort into it, and try to actually find things. In vain, because in the end, whatever we did, we were doomed to fail, all our efforts ignored.

The suggestion to "keep the macguffin out of the player's hands as long as possible" is perhaps bad advice (although not unredeemable) but, if you ignore that sidebar and simply let things fall where they may, it works fine too.

And then the major part of the adventure, you know, actually related to the heist instead of being uninteresting filler just disappears, leaving you just with the filler and a 5 rooms dungeon. How great !
 

Hussar

Legend
Again, @Lyxen, I did not have any of the problems you did. My problems stemmed from the fact that the players were completely disinterested in Waterdeep. For me, the mansion was a ton of fun, the first three chapters were fantastic for grounding the players into the setting and showcasing Waterdeep.

But, I have a feeling you are not interested in actual discussion but rather would simply vent your spleen on something, so, I'll be stepping away and unsubbing to the thread. Have a good one.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Again, @Lyxen, I did not have any of the problems you did. My problems stemmed from the fact that the players were completely disinterested in Waterdeep. For me, the mansion was a ton of fun, the first three chapters were fantastic for grounding the players into the setting and showcasing Waterdeep.

And for us they were not, for the reasons listed. Tastes may vary, is that a problem ?
 

ZehirDisciple

Explorer
I have heard a lot of bad things about this adventure, so I will not suggest it to my DM. However, I am interested in an urban adventure. Does anyone have any suggestions?
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
I have heard a lot of bad things about this adventure, so I will not suggest it to my DM. However, I am interested in an urban adventure. Does anyone have any suggestions?

I really liked the City part at the start of Tomb of Annihilation. It can easily be buffed to do the equivalent of WD-DH (level up to 5), especially if the characters do some forays in the jungle and come back to the city (this requires not putting too much time pressure on the Death Curse).

Same for the Baldur's Gate part of Descent into Avernus, easy to complete and transform into a real city adventure, and get the characters a bit more prepared for Avernus (which I've extended to level 20 anyway).

And the same for the parts in the cities of Odyssey of the Dragonlords, in particular Mytros, had a really good sandbox here that lasted many sessions, freeing minotaurs from slavery, the "olympic" games, etc.

As you can see, we love city adventures and try to get the best of what we have. This is for official adventures, after that, there are probably a few good third party ones, and I'd like to hear about them too. I think Bard's Gate might be good.
 

Retreater

Legend
I have heard a lot of bad things about this adventure, so I will not suggest it to my DM. However, I am interested in an urban adventure. Does anyone have any suggestions?
Monte Cook's Ptolus has recently been updated to 5e. I used it in 3rd edition, and it was a great setting with a lot of opportunities for adventure. IIRC, there are only a couple pre-written adventures, so the DM will need to augment it with original content.
If your DM doesn't mind conversion, I really enjoyed The Shackled City (from 3.5, the first Adventure Path by Paizo, in Dungeon Magazine and later published as a standalone hardcover).
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Monte Cook's Ptolus has recently been updated to 5e. I used it in 3rd edition, and it was a great setting with a lot of opportunities for adventure. IIRC, there are only a couple pre-written adventures, so the DM will need to augment it with original content.

I think it's always a bit of a problem. The city settings are often good, but it's not that often that you get good adventures, or even less and Adventure Path around the city.

If your DM doesn't mind conversion, I really enjoyed The Shackled City (from 3.5, the first Adventure Path by Paizo, in Dungeon Magazine and later published as a standalone hardcover).

Good suggestion, I ran that one in 3e and it was indeed really good, although I seem to remember that, in the end, although Cauldron is indeed the hub, the adventures are not primarily city adventures. Maybe it's worth checking.
 

My issue with Dragon Heist is that the idea that the players have to steal the hoard of money from one of the four villains is just way more interesting then stopping one of the four villains from stealing the money. That's all there is to it. They said, in interviews, that Dragon Heist was a Fantasy Ocean's 11. Yet, it isn't, and if it was, it just would have been a better adventure.

You could easily have that adventure be in similar parts for the book.

  • Discover the incident via the fireball
  • Get contacted by the Blackstaff because you saw the incident
  • Get Trollskull Manor to use as a base of operations that all four villains visit at some point (or representatives to them).
  • Use clues to find where the hoard is located (which of the four villains has it!).
  • Case the lair, do the heist.
  • All four villains show up for a big finale at Trollskull Manor, and the players have to escape to get the gold to safety/to the Blackstaff.

And boom. An exciting city adventure, lots of room for open-world Waterdeep and stuff in there if you want it, and it feels like a heist.

I just don't understand why they went the route they did. I don't understand why they called it Ocean's 11 but in Waterdeep. It just flies in the face of common sense to me.
 

I have heard a lot of bad things about this adventure, so I will not suggest it to my DM. However, I am interested in an urban adventure. Does anyone have any suggestions?
As others have noted, Dragon Heist can be made into a great campaign -- but it has to be modified. You can't play it straight out of the book. The Alexandrian Remix (google it) is probably the best online resource for how to modify the adventure. I'm running a remixed Dragon Heist right now and loving it.

Building on what Retreater said, Ptolus is the king of urban campaign settings. Regarding adventures, there are about 5 or 6 published adventures -- certainly enough to cobble together a campaign. The best of them is The Banewarrens. In the adventure, multiple evil factions discover and explore a lost dungeon that's a vault for evil artifacts -- and the players have to stop them. It's a perfect blend of dungeon crawl and urban adventure. I've been wanting to run the Banewarrens for years -- and now I finally am. We're 13 sessions in. It's going great so far. (Note that Banewarrens was originally designed for 4th - 10th level characters in 3E, but it's easy to convert to 5E and even scale it down to 1st level characters.)

I'll also put in a vote for Shackled City. I've not played it, but it I own the hardcover and it has some great stuff.

Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk from 3E has some good stuff for urban campaigns, and could be paired well with the Age of Worms adventure path.
 

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