5 out of 5 rating for Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
I'll do my best to avoid spoilers or let you know when they are coming with this review. This is based on running this game for my players and finishing the material.
I picked this up out of nostalgia for the days of yore and love of the old school Waterdeep setting, I was not 100% certain I was going to run it. When it arrived and I read through it I have to admit I was overwhelmed by some parts and underwhelmed by others. My first impression was "Well, no, way too complicated for my group and the material is disorganized and unusable, but I like the key concept." It sat on my nightstand for a few days and I digested what I had read, then gave it another look and things just clicked. I got it. This was not an adventure I could run with 5 minutes of prep time (your use may vary), I wanted notes, if not flow charts. In the end the first sections of the adventure were easy enough to run in a session or two and I took special care to keep track of everyone the players ran into and what the overall impression of those interactions were - positive, neutral or negative.
W: DH is designed to take the group from first level to fifth and it does a great job of doing that. I added a lot of material, didn't play some of what was suggested and expanded on other bits to create a more involved campaign for the group. The adventure is divided into four chapters, I know the book has more, but in my mind I've compressed them a bit into easier to digest parts:
- a simple request for help, for the promise of money.
This one is easy and can be run in a single session, it introduces the players to several key players in the city and sets the stage for the trials and tribulations to come. I liked this as an introduction to the city of Waterdeep and made sure to give my players the chance to interact with several npcs that they would be running into for the rest of the adventure. The players loved it, the reward at the end was good and it made everyone want to be there next session to see where things went from there. At the end most characters were level 2.
Chapter 2 -
semi-random quest phase.
The players all had plenty to do, the relationships they had established in chapter one provided them with many opportunities for side adventures and I used this to add in a lot of NPC's and a few minor magic items for the things to come. My plan here was to make sure everyone was at last level 3 before hitting the next chapter and for my game that meant 2-3 sessions. This was a bit of work from a DM stand point, the quests had to make sense with what was going on in the city (time of year) and the group ended up spending quite a lot of time outside the walls completing custom made adventures. I probably spent more time on chapter two than on the others, this is due to the fact that I am planning on running The Dungeon of the Mad Mage and I want the group to have ties to the city, to 'care', so to speak. It seemed to work very well and player morale was high as they blazed through the challenges I set before them. When all the players were 3rd or 4th level I moved on to chapter 3.
Chapter 3 -
This is where things went fast and though it didn't take me as much time to prepare for this, I did make sure to map out everything clearly, statting each challenge out on its own page that I could flip through as fast as the group met the challenges. The group LOVED this chapter. It was like an action movie jumping from one scene to another and figuring out clues and recalling who in the city might help to move to the next step. As a group we have some very memorable moments from the two sessions it took to play through this. By far it was my favorite part to DM, not just for the ease of it, but also it is nice to see the players putting the clues together and doing so correctly...most of the time.
By the end of this chapter the players were mostly 4th level going on 5th.
Chapter 4 -
the epic conclusion.
From a DM's point of view this was also a simple chapter to play. It can go a lot of ways and depending on who your group knows and how they solve problems: it could easily have crashed and burned. Fortunately, my group had on their 'team' shirts and played nice together and got things done. The end was mildly anticlimactic from my point of view -- it seemed too easy, however when I put it in perspective with all the action in chapter 3, well, it worked just fine. The group ended with most of them being 5th level.
Here be spoilers, I'll keep them modest, if you're planning to play in this adventure I advise you to scoot on out of here and let the world builders get a better idea of what to expect.
I ran this adventure using Castles and Crusades as the core rules, conversion of 5E material to C&C is of so little consequence that it is hardly worth mentioning, I am doing so only because some of the examples I might give may not match up to 5E rules.
The adventure is a handful to read and prepare for, it starts in a season of the year of you or your player's choosing, I let my players choose and one of them said, "Spring!" so that's when we started the game. I was happy with that. Why is it important? Well, which season you start in determines which adversary the players are up against. I was happy with the foe, and much, much happier now that I have my grubby paws on The Dungeon of the Mad Mage as the villain will be taking a substantial role in the ongoing game. Let's just say there is history to build on to keep things interesting. My players, for whatever reason, leaned heavily toward fighting types, no Wizard, no true cleric and...no rogues. I got the impression they were trying to make things challenging for me as a DM, but this adventure is all about relationships and networking and they had zero problems without having all of the traditional classes available. I can see this adventure being solved by unbalanced groups easily enough.
I did not read much of the water deep information in the book, there is a rather hefty section detailing the city and how it is run, but honestly that is just filler for the DM to build from. Chapter 2 uses the idea of factions and I created a couple more and mixed and matched the faction jobs to weave a tapestry of adventure for the players to run through. The faction rating (just a number that increases or decreases) was of great interest to the players. I turned that book keeping over to them, just letting them know their reputation had gone up one with the 'Tempest Faction' or the 'Emerald Enclave' as it happened. There was some effort by the players to take jobs for the faction(s) they favored, which made me want to develop each one more, so I did. There are evil factions too, given what the players bellied to the table with I was really expecting them to go for the bad guy factions. (everyone was neutral, save for one hold out who was CG.) The reality was the group played their characters as LG or, at worst NG and were on their best behavior too, working together better than I've seen in years, there was only one death of a player caused by another player and that was indirect (the archer shot into combat, biffed their roll and dealt 9 points of damage to a fighter, who then got slammed and killed by the monster they were fighting.) The group had several fights where they could have lost characters, but that death I mentioned in the last line? It was the only one, which was stellar -- my group brought their 'A' game, for sure.
The group may become property owners over the course of the adventure and mine did. As a DM I just have to laugh when we start playing "Homes and Housekeepers" from within the game, property is a money suck that ties murder hobos down! In this case they got into refurbishing their property and it took them a long while in Chapter 2 to build up enough cash to start making renovations and they were in the middle of that when Chapter 3 started with a bang...a bang that killed several of the neighbors and street vendors they knew. Oh, hell hath no fury like a party on a quest to revenge the death of a favorite nosy neighbor who was the source of rumors and goodwill of 'their' hood! The group. Got. Her. Raised. The foe that killed their neighbors, was the same one responsible for taking out the fighter later, so there was extra incentive to stay in that combat and see it through to the bitter end.
Enough random game stories, what about the end? Well the end reward is a huge amount of gold, protected by a guardian that, imo, could easily ace a group of 8th level characters (let alone 4th level ones) and I have to admit I was a bit worried things would come to fisticuffs, but it didn't end that way, they were able to convince the being to give the money to the city and for that they received a substantial 'finders fee', not to mention a ton of good will at the highest levels of society. Depending on how you run it, the group could end up with all that cash (and absolutely no goodwill), so you might need to plan for that if your group leans that way.
Also there is a minor artifact that, no doubt, one of your players will end up with. It is evil, my advise is to play it to the hilt, it is sentient and won't lie, but that doesn't mean it has to be helpful. My group has retain control of this artifact...for now. It will have an impact on the game going forward and I just love when this happens. It's evil, it's useful, it was stolen from a powerful person who wants it back, the character who has it (a druid) wants to keep it. I take so much pure joy from these simple things situations.
W: DH is a well put together supplement that worked great for me and my group. I work full time and don't want to spend 40 hours between sessions prepping, I would say I spent about 12 hours on prep time for the entire adventure, which I ran over the course of 14 sessions, not bad at all. A lot of this time was spent customizing quests for the factions and putting some effort into bringing the area around the group's property to life, efforts that will be used going forward, so I'll still be getting mileage out of it for the character's next fifteen levels.