From the bar brawl at the start to the showdown at the end, this is a well-paced adventure that isn't afraid to let slower moments in as well. Dragon Heist is a solid and replayable event-driven urban adventure for characters of levels 1 to 5, but whether it is for you depends on what you and your group are looking for.
While Curse of Strahd holds a special place in my heart, Waterdeep Dragon Heist comes in a worthy second place. Less a heist, and more a race to find hidden treasure, it's full of useful aids, handouts, pronunciation guides, and flowcharts to help the DM run the game. An urban setting is a welcome change, and one I'd love to see more of.
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is a tricky product to review. It’s almost as large as a regular storyline adventure, but there’s really not much there. It has four different story-ettes, but none stand alone. You can easily run it twice, but likely not for the same group as at least half the content is going to be identical. It’s nice to have an alternative introductory adventure to the one in the Starter Set, which covers a comparable level range, albeit for half the price.
The investigations are sadly very linear: you go to two locations and then follow a variable chain of encounters before engaging in a short dungeon crawl. There’s certainly room for the adventure to go completely off the rails and some writing is spent detailing key locations if it does, but there’s not much advice or suggestions for the plot in that instance. This could have been a much more interesting adventure, with more divergent plot lines and an investigation whose flow chart actually flows. And frustratingly, none of the assumed adventures truly involve a heist. This *should* be called “Waterdeep: Dragon Hunt“.
Judging the product based on what it actually does rather than what it could have done, the actual story is fine and should play well at the table, with a moderate mix of investigation and combat and small dashes of dungeon crawling. The early chapters are somewhat freeform and left to the DM to built atop the various faction’s missions. There’s some fun moments, interesting characters, and decent locations that should capture the imagination. The adventure doesn’t end in a cliffhanger and things wrap up neatly enough, but the party should be left in a decent position to continue their adventures in Waterdeep. Which is a good thing, what with the second part not coming out for two more months. And there’s more than enough information here to get started on a Waterdeep campaign that eschews the depths of Undermountain and instead focuses on bringing down a devilish cult, Thieves’ Guild, or simply focuses on keeping the tavern afloat and the patrons happy.
For any DMs planning on running this right away, I’d advise you to just take your time and let the story breathe a little: it’s still many weeks before Dungeon the the Mad Mage drops and you could probably blow through this book in four sessions. Take it slow. Let them enjoy some tavern life and really build on those small sidequests in Chapter Two.
read my full review here
-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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. [/B]
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.
[FONT="]Waterdeep: Dragon Heist provides a solid level 1-5 adventure. The city setting is very evocative, with lots of hooks for great stories. Over the course of four main chapters (all of which are very strong, although chapter 2 has some caveats I'll get to in a bit), the adventure sets up a treasure hunt in the city. It provides four different villains that can oppose your adventuring party, and each villain receives a custom written version of events for your players to work through. There is also a great section at the end that gives an overview of the city, providing nice details to help understand life and major locations in Waterdeep. And to cap it all off, there is a beautiful fold out map in the back of the book of Waterdeep that is very well crafted.[/FONT]
[FONT="]Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with this book. First, despite the promising title of "Dragon Heist," there is no real heist contained in this adventure. Finding the hidden treasure smacks more of Indiana Jones than it does Ocean's 11. It is still very entertaining, but for those seeking something a little different, this will require quite a lot of customization to bring it in-line with expectations.[/FONT]
[FONT=Amazon Ember, Arial, sans-serif]The next issue is the maps. In this edition, Wizards has switched cartographers from Mike Schley to Dyson Logos. This is polarizing to say the least. Schley's maps were rich in detail and color, but some people complain that they were overly complicated and difficult to understand or reproduce at the table. Logos' new maps are the opposite of that style. They are spartan and bare bones sketches with very little detail or nuance. I personally much prefer the style of Schley over Logos (especially for online or digital tabletop play), and feel the new maps fall short in what is otherwise a premium product. Your mileage will vary depending on how you feel about the styles. Either way, this feels at a minimum like WotC made a mistake in their pre-release marketing by not setting expectations, and at the most like they made a poor design choice for their product. (Please note, these criticisms are not aimed at Dyson directly. I appreciate the work of Dyson for the gaming community over the years, and he is certainly a master craftsman of his style of maps. His trove of free maps available on his website are a bounty of riches for tabletop DM's. However, to me his maps feel out of place in the context of the book they find themselves in - they are rather more suited to Adventurer League or DM's Guild type titles and feel out of place in a premium product that has already established such rich visuals through the previous volumes.)[/FONT]
[FONT="]Villains and their lairs each get a separate chapter in the book, which is great. These lairs are very well designed with lots of fun options, and are maybe the closest thing to a heist the whole book has. The only downside is that if your party sticks to the adventure as written, they will likely never venture one foot even remotely close to these lairs. These are kind of last-resort settings (or options for a resourceful DM who wants to customize the adventure), a way to wrap things up if your party fails at the main "heist."[/FONT]
[FONT="]Last but not least is the page count. Clocking in at 224 pages, it is well short of the 256 pages used for Tomb of Annihilation. It feels like those last 32 pages could have really been used to flesh out the city of Waterdeep beyond the basic primer that is included, or to really flesh out Chapter 2. The second chapter of the book details the running of a business that the players will receive, and also focuses on side quests for the various factions that are represented in Waterdeep. Each quest is a paragraph of description that sets up a problem and includes the DC of the success roll to solve whatever problem is presented. While I love the idea of this section and can't wait to run players through this open-world portion of the adventure (which seems like the whole point of being in a city setting), it is also a bit disappointing that more pages weren't devoted to developing the city or those faction quests more so this part of the adventure could really open up. Someone cynical could assume that WotC might have kept this section light as a push for DLC on the DM's Guild. Hopefully that isn't the case, as a city setting already has the potential for unlimited amounts of expansion.[/FONT]
[FONT="]All in all, I really do like this book. It has a few major flaws that are worth pointing out, but it is still a case of the good out-weighing the bad. The city feels lively in the pages, and is a great setting for an adventuring party to start in. It is a good adventure to take a party from level 1-5, providing a good alternative to experienced DM's who want something different than Lost Mines of Phandelver from the starter set. This book is a good start for a new campaign (especially for moving on to Storm King's Thunder or Princes of the Apocalypse, both of which it could very easily flow into) but it could have been Starter Set Version 2 good with a bit more care and work. As is, it would be hard to recommend to new DM's or those looking for a complete out-of-the-box experience. For anyone else, it should be a good adventure - just be prepared as DM to do a little more heavy lifting than you might have expected to fill in for some of the shortcomings.[/FONT]
There's a lot of good story ideas here that could really make for a compelling adventure. My issue with it is that as written, the adventure is very railroaded and a DM should probably do a lot to spice it up. As others have said, despite its name, it's not actually a heist, but rather a hunt for a treasure (technically, mostly a hunt for a McGuffin that will point them to said treasure). This may seem semantic, but "heist" carries certain connotations that can be misleading. To me, it's like renaming Die Hard to Nakatomi Tower Murder Mystery. Yeah, there's murder(s) and there's some mystery (what are these guys after?), but you're definitely going to have some very confused expectations based upon the title.
Once again, as others have said, it feels very much like an Indiana Jones adventure where you're trying to get an item that will lead you to ultimate reward while others are trying to get the same thing. One weak comparison, however, is that part of the rationale for the adventure (especially if the PCs are Good) is to keep the money out of the hands of the other factions, which doesn't have the same impetus of keeping a powerful artifact out of their hands. In fact, one of the Antagonists is just going to turn around and give the money to the city as a PR stunt, and another is going to use the money to buy back the souls of their children from devils.
I'm also not a fan of the "re-playability" features of these official adventure modules. They're not different enough to be really re-playable for the players, and only work to give the DM some variety if they're running the same adventure for different groups. While some may not seem any harm in it, I think this "feature" tends to impact the clarity of the adventure for the DMs. This is particularly true in this adventure, as the alternative variants for Chapter 4 are intermingled for every encounter in such a way to require an obnoxious amount of flipping back and forth.
As I mentioned earlier, I think an issue with the adventure is its very railroaded nature. While the PCs have some options on a macro level about how they want things to turn out, a lot of the encounters are designed with one solution in mind. If the PCs do not perform that solution, the adventure comes to a stop and the DM has to scramble to figure out how to connect them back to the plot. The book's states several times that the solution is to just have a friendly NPC show up, or maybe a rival NPC who will take a bribe. A lot of times, the solution for an encounter is not obvious and/or requires them to successfully make a certain skill check. If the PCs fail to keep up with an NPC they're chasing, fail to make the appropriate Investigation/Perception/etc. check, the PCs have fallen off the rails and the DM has to write up a solution for how to get them back on the track. It just seems like the adventure is happy to punt the PCs astray and make the DM figure out a solution each time.
One egregious example that comes to mind is when the PCs try to get some information from an NPC, if they're not Harpers, she refuses to help them. The encounter states that the solution is to use magic to get that information from her or to steal a book containing this information from her locked safe. PCs won't likely have access to this magic or will be loathe to use it on her, and they don't know anything about this book existing. Yeah, the DM can determine if the PCs have a viable alternate option, but they'll get no help from the book. There's just a lot of examples like this that frequently puts the DM on the spot in addition to the players, which is pretty challenging if you're new to DMing.
In Chapter 4, a lot of these railroaded encounters are all directed towards trying to acquire the McGuffin (err, Stone of Golorr). So, if you fail to solve an encounter, you're adrift and the PCs and the DM both have to find an alternate way to the next encounter. If they succeed, sorry Mario, your McGuffin is in another castle and you get kicked to the next encounter in the chain (there are 8) to try again. Worst of all, if your players somehow get a really good idea that lets them get their hands on the Stone early so they can skip some of this hassle, the Stone of Golorr decides they haven't properly earned it, will attempt to dominate them and force them to discard it, will wipe their memory of where they dropped it, and the PCs will be forced to get back on the tracks and do the required encounters, dangit!
No, I'm not kidding about this.
As a result, I think I'm going to take a lot of ingredients in this adventure but repurpose them to be more of a sandbox that gives the players more initiative.
I was really excited to run this adventure. It sounded like a lot of fun, and the art is some of the best produced for 5e yet. Unfortunately, I am finding it to be an absolute nightmare. This adventure has turned out to be a hot mess that I feel does not deserve the rave reviews it's been getting.
For starters, the adventure suffers from an identity crisis on several fronts. It calls itself a "heist" when it is really about stopping one. It claims there's a treasure hoard that's "yours for the taking" when it actually expects you to hand it over to the authorities as if you'd found someone's lost wallet stuffed with cash. It also can't decide if it wants to be a linear action adventure or a sandboxy urban adventure.
There are also some serious pacing issues. The opening chapter is pretty action-packed, as are chapters three and four, but chapter two has pretty much no pacing whatsoever. It's mostly just a bunch of half-baked sidequest ideas, most of which technically can't even be run in chapter two since they're meant for characters of levels 3-5 (and, to be honest, given the action-packed nature of the later chapters, it's hard to see how the PCs will have time to do these later sidequests anyway).
What's more, these sidequests vary wildly in level-appropriateness. For instance, the 3rd level Harper quest involves a lone gazer in an old lady's shop. My group wasted the gazer in the sewer in chapter one, and they were only 1st level! Even a single 3rd level PC shouldn't have much trouble with this. What a joke! [I ended up replacing the gazer with a spectator, which still went down rather easily.]
On the flip side, PCs who join the Gray Hands are tasked at 5th level with infiltrating the Xanathar's lair in order to kill a mind flayer. Although the villains' lairs supposedly are designed for 5th level PCs, this could prove to be more than they can handle. [And what's more, it most likely won't happen until after the main adventure is finished -- possibly not even until you've begun a different adventure, since this one can technically end while the PCs are still only 4th level!]
On top of this hodge-podge of faction-related quests, the PCs are given a rundown old tavern. There is a page or two talking about how the PCs can get the tavern up and running again. Players are always wanting to own property. (At least, my players are. Several of them have commented that I'm *finally* letting them own property!) And yet, it seems like a total distraction in the overarching context of the adventure. In addition to the high cost (which my players nevertheless somehow managed to cover at 2nd level) of refurbishing the tavern, the focus of the adventure is elsewhere -- and the main plot can come to fruition in less time than it takes to make one roll on the Running a Business table. The tavern very much feels tacked-on.
Then there's the business rival. He's just a suggestion, and there's a little table showing his plan of attack, but there's really nothing to it. If you want to use it, you'll have to flesh it out yourself.
Chapter three starts with a bang, literally, and gets us back into story mode. This part seems mostly OK.
Chapter four is the most modular, with a bunch of "encounter chains" that depend on the chosen season/villain. Some are better than others. To me, autumn seemed like the most fun. However, in actual play, it turned out to be more than a little disappointing. The adventure heavily emphasizes obeying the law, so when my group got to the courthouse, they followed the rules, which resulted in the magister stealing their agency by interrogating the criminal on their behalf while they got bored sitting in the waiting room. (Yes, the module allows for players to break into the courthouse to speak with Fenerus themselves, but it also strongly discourages them from breaking the law.) Furthermore, they were rather frustrated that the drow got to the stone first, wondering aloud how they learned where the stone was, and then got even more frustrated when they discovered that there was really very little possibility of them stopping the drow and retrieving the stone. This encounter chain played out with the worst kinds of railroading on brazen display. [What's more, if the PCs somehow do manage to get their hands on the stone early, the book flat out instructs you to make them get rid of it so they have to go through the rest of the encounters before finally "earning" it at the end. This is railroading of the most egregious kind!]
Chapter four concludes with one of the most disappointing anticlimaxes I've yet seen. The "Vault of Dragons" dungeon is small and pedestrian. There's very little to it. And all the PCs really get to do is talk to the vault's guardian. Furthermore, depending on who the main villain is, which faction(s) the PCs have joined, and which high-level NPCs they've convinced to help, there's a real possibility that player agency will once again be snatched away from them as the NPCs resolve the adventure's finale themselves (e.g. Why would the Open Lord of Waterdeep let some low-level nobodies do the negotiating for her instead of doing it herself?). There's also a good chance you could wind up with a massive multi-directional battle full of fiddly, hard-to-run high-level NPCs and their minions. Or you could end up with no battle at all, as Laeral's mere presence is enough to make sure most of the villains are on their best behavior.
Next up are four chapters detailing the lairs and schemes of the four possible villains. These chapters are entirely optional. In fact, the book actually tells you outright that you might not use any of the material here! Say what?! [That aside, each lair is actually pretty cool and could easily be cut-and-pasted into another adventure with ease.]
The book ends with a neat little fluff piece about Waterdeep. This is probably the best thing in the book, and I'm super-glad they released it as a separate pdf on the DMs Guild.
Before starting this adventure, I had run the first two adventures in Tales from the Yawning Portal followed by Tomb of Annihilation. That was a fun but exhausting campaign, and I was struggling to figure out how to follow that up for my group's 11th level PCs. I felt like it was getting to be too much work.
Unfortunately, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is proving to be even more work. So much of it is just a rough sketch. In many places, it's more like an outline than an actual adventure!
Furthermore, there are lots of places where things don't make sense or various elements just don't line up or there are obvious gaps.
Take the Sea Maidens Faire, for example. Aside from the one parade they hold on the Day of Wonders (which won't even happen if you're not running the adventure in the autumn), what exactly do the people involved in the faire do? The third-party Guild Adept Waterdeep Encounters assumes they hold nightly carnivals on board the ships, but this is not corroborated by the adventure. As far as I can tell, they all just hang around waiting.
There are so many cool elements in the adventure that just aren't utilized to their full potential either: The street urchins who appear in much of the artwork, the Black Viper, even Lady Laeral herself. (Speaking of Laeral, why is she dressed in full plate and wielding a greatsword in both the silly Yawning Portal picture and her miniature? She never appears this way in the adventure text.)
What else? The opening encounter is pretty lame: a fistfight between a half-orc and some thugs. The PCs can try to intervene but don't really need to. Then a troll climbs up out of the well! Except the 1st level PCs aren't expected to deal with it. Durnan the immortal barkeeper with his magic sword of slicing will deal to the troll while the PCs can be brave heroes and kill a couple of stirges! Yay! They're so brave that the infamous Volo asks them to go find a foppish friend of his who's been missing for two days and yet is still being tortured when they finally catch up with him!
Stuff I like:
*The art is gorgeous
*The minimalist maps
*Volo's Waterdeep Enchiridion
I'm sure there was some other stuff but overall the bad really outweighs the good in this adventure.
It's definitely *not* an adventure I would recommend to a new DM. It is *not* at all easy to run and therefore cannot compete with Lost Mine of Phandelver as a good first adventure. I mean, I'm a pretty experienced DM, and even I'm finding it difficult to run, whereas I was practically able to run LMoP in my sleep. Heck, I’m even finding Storm King’s Thunder to be easier to run than Dragon Heist!
"Average Adventure; Excellent Tool for Waterdeep Campaigns"
- First of all, the art is stellar, and I'd buy this product as a collectible alone.
- It's a pity, but the adventure is NOT well executed. The idea of a Heist was great, but this is a Treasure Hunt instead. It's still original, but. The actual adventure isn't smooth, on the contrary it's composed of different parts that are just not well linked together. A novice DM will have a HARD time running this one.
- However, this product is excellent inasmuch it offers a sandbox base for campaigns based in Waterdeep. It offers a gazetteer of the city adjusted for 5e; describes four great Villains, many many interesting NPCs, organizations and missions for low-level PCs. It really helps a DM to start a campaign in the city. So, in the end, I think that this is the BEST Waterdeep material ever produced for D&D (I didn't read AD&D 2e Volo's Guide to Waterdeep).
I'm happy I bought this hardback. Now I want the Dungeon of the Mad Mage!
I just finished running Dragon Heist for my group. The players had a great time. However, there are significant problems with the module - I'll try to avoid too many spoilers.
My overall impression is the designers were very ambitious, but fell short. There are four possible story lines, which is innovative. However, many of the links between scenes are exceedingly weak. Expect to put on a lot of time fine tuning and prepping the adventure for your group.
I do not love Forgotten Realms or Waterdeep - for fans of the setting I think this is very nearly a must buy. There is tons of information about the city and a big fold out map.
I bought the book for the adventure. The page count of adventuring scenes is fairly short for the cost of the book. I do not regret the purchase, but understand if you are buying it mostly for the adventure you're not getting a lot of bang for your buck. I should have assumed this when I bought it (levels 1-5). I push the action and for my group, and the adventure took us 4 four-hour long sessions.
I purchased the module as a lead-in to the Dungeon of the Mad Mage. While it works fine for this - it certainly is not integral. You could easily run Dungeon of the Mad Mage well without ever seeing Dragon Heist.
The D&D team has said that they want their new products to fill an "empty" slot on a GM's bookshelf, and to provide something unique. The only issue with this approach is that as the bookshelf gets fuller the empty slots get more niche. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist suffers from this in that it feels like an introductory adventure for 1st-5th level written for experienced players and GM's. The main adventure actually takes place after the titular heist and involves a complex story with multiple potential villains presented in a non-linear fashion. It takes place in an expansive city full of possibilities and filled with half a dozen or so competing factions. As such it asks a lot from GM's; cities are hard to run and the choose-your-own villain and non-linear presentation doesn't make it any easier. It also asks a lot from players; rather than giving characters a list of possible choices the problems and questions the adventure poses are more open ended. If your group is up for it then Waterdeep: Dragon Heist absolutely provides a quality experience that can't be filled by any of the other existing D&D products. The villains are interesting, the various factions are well fleshed out, the book contains an excellent overview of Waterdeep, and the open ended environment is a nice contrast to the structured setting of, say, Tomb of Annihilation. Not every group is going to be up for it, however.
I have to admit, probably some elements will never be touched by players, nevertheless it helps DM to get the cosmopolitan feeling and many-layered machinations embedded in Waterdeep's nobles and
Great update of the city to 5e, Getting the DM on the road, able to navigate and lookin gfor specific lore within tons of already published 1e- 3.5e material available.
The adventure by itself is ideal to get players rooted into Waterdeep and provide an impression of the factions, powergroups, and localities. The heist itself is also nice to play through, providing fun. Seasonal approach is interesting and good idea to introduce into the festival days of the city. Apart of that I think an experienced DM could switch sesons and villains at best fits to his campaign.
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:
Chapter 1 - 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 - the rush.
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.
The dragon isn't really a dragon and the heist isn't much of a heist.
The parts of the adventure don't really flow well. Sixty or so pages are dedicated to lairs the PCs will almost assuredly not go to. The adventure requires huge amounts of prep work to ensure the DM understands the connections between the factions and how to work with his players to overcome the plot weaknesses.
There is no way I can recommend this adventure over the splendid and cheaper Lost Mines of Phandelver.
As a source of material for Waterdeep adventures, this book has some use. It offers enough factions, hooks, NPCs, and general setting material to use as the foundation for many adventures. As for the campaign itself, it's a baffling mess. It's needlessly convoluted and makes no sense. The motivations are implausible, the behaviour of NPCs baffling, and it's not at all easy to puzzle out just reading it, let alone running the campaign. I certainly would not recommend to a new DM hoping to run it as written.
However, the way it's presented in discrete chapters and encounters means it's easy to salvage and use to craft your own campaign. I'll be able to use the content in the book to create my own level 1-4 mini-campaign as an introduction to Dungeon of the Mad Mage, which is all I really need.