Review: Waterdeep: Dragon Heist

For the fall of 2018, Wizards of the Coast decided to release another two-part storyline adventure, and their first storyline adventure running from level 1 all the way to level 20. The first of these adventures is Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. This part runs from 1st level to 5th and details the recover a hoard of 500,000 gold pieces, which are known as “golden dragons” in the city of Waterdeep. This is to be followed in November with Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage.

What It Is

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is a 224-page hardcover adventure with full colour pages and illustrations but black-and-white line art maps. It’s accompanied by a full colour map of the city of Waterdeep, with one side being for players and the other for DMs.

This adventure covers four levels of play but features multiple different antagonists for the story, giving the DM a choice in what they want to happen in the adventure. Also detailed is the lairs of all four villains, in case the players approach them or have to break or sneak into the lair to recover a lost MacGuffin. I imagine a couple of these locations might also be useful for the second part of the adventure, especially the lair of the Xanathar.

The book also includes a 25-page gazetteer of the city of Waterdeep, ostensibly written by in-world scribe Volo Geddarm, which can be used to expand on the detailed locations featured in the adventure if the party completely zags instead of zigging.

Also being released to support the storyline are a set of miniatures by WizKids, and a dice set with health tracker (due in November).

The Good

The adventure has a lot of support for Dungeon Masters, especially new DMs. This is not limited to the usual table of common abbreviations, but there is a pronunciation table, suggestions for running the adventure and flowcharts not only for the adventure but also a linear flowchart of the adventure’s background. Even the various Adventurers’ League factions are not only present, but serve a purpose in the story and lead to quests that drive an entire chapter of the story. Added to this mix are several new factions tied to the city of Waterdeep or the adventure itself. There’s also some advice on forming an adventuring party and making the PCs fit the adventure and setting, with advice on accommodating guild membership and backgrounds. There’s also half-a-page of information on “life in the city” that provides a brief summary of Waterdhavian lifestyles.

Throughout the book are suggestions for handling the law and legal problems as well as portraying the city watch. Attracting the attention of the constabulary feels like a constant worry or concern, which reminds the DM that events are taking place in a populous city and not a lawless wilderness where the Player Characters can murder-hobo their way through events. Helping the players avoid legal entanglement is the handout at the end of the book listing Waterdeeps’ code of laws.

The plot of Dragon Heist is fairly simple but somewhat flexible, and it’s easy for the DM to tweak to fit their style and desires. It can (sort of) be played four different times, as the climactic investigation section of the adventure has a variable structure with several potential antagonists who have very different motivations and styles. The plot is also relatively flexible, and seems to expect things to go off the rails and not work as expected, attempting to give some support while also not making too many assumptions of what did or did not happen. Most of the antagonists in the adventure are also Name NPCs with a legacy in the setting who have appeared in multiple novels . These are noteworthy foes and not just random mooks or minor players. Locking horns with the Xanathar or Manshoon feels dramatic.

Each of the four different variants/ villains are tied to a different season, which changes the tone of the adventure while also providing a very different look at the city. This also allows the adventure to make use of different holidays and local events while grounding the adventure in the location.

Even if a Dungeon Master only opts to play the adventure once once, the extra content is still useful. A DM can pull out the lairs and unused locations in this book for homebrew adventures. If the DM decides to use the cult of Asmodeus as the Big Bads, they can follow it up with adventures related to the Xanathar’s Guild, and employ that section of the book. Or simply save that dungeon for the lair of a future Thieves’ Guild.

While the maps in the book are simple black-and-white line art and lack details, this makes them useful for the variable locations. The book describes locations like a tower or theatre and provides the map, but each of the four adventures flavours it differently. The simple maps complement this, allowing the locations to be more distinct and different between versions.

The art in this book is solid, with multiple two-page spreads showing great views of the city and the residents. In most of the two-page spreads are a trio of small children, who are recurring characters that pop up in all four variants of the story. These characters help ground the art and make it feel uniform, effectively serving as replacement protagonists in many of the scenes. This is fun, and different from just having the generic unremarkable filler PCs in the art. I also like the multiple scenes depicting the same street at different times of year. That’s lovely.

By having the treasure stolen from the city and in need of being recovered, the adventure also sidesteps the usual MacGuffin hunt problem where the PCs can derail the “plot” and foil the villains merely by getting ahold of the sought item and destroying it or hurling it into the sea. Doing so doesn’t end with the PCs being rewarded. While it’s unlikely the PCs will get to keep all of the treasure (although they can try) it’s also possible that the players can claim some of it as a reward for their efforts.

The Bad

Let’s start by getting pedantic: there’s no heist in Dragon Heist. You’re hunting for stolen treasure that was embezzled and needs to be recovered. You spend most of the adventure hunting for a MacGuffin that will tell you where the treasure is while trying to stop enemy factions from claiming it. That’s a treasure hunt, not a heist. This is unfortunate as heists are fun and interesting but hard to pull off as a Dungeon Master: they’re the sort of adventure you want written by professionals and playtested. But not only is that aspect lacking, there’s also limited advice for running that sort of adventure if you want to add it.

It’s not impossible to have a heist in Dragon Heist. If the chosen villain gets ahold of the Stone of MacGuffin, the player characters might need to break into their lair and steal it back. Which would be a fun penultimate scene and a good excuse to use the provided lairs. But that’s not set-up in the adventure, nor are there suggested ways of infiltrating the various dungeon-esque locations.

The adventure could also be more flexible at the start. The “Fireball” chapter is crucial to the story and sets-up the treasure hunt, but this is static and every scene in it is essential to advancing the story. There’s little redundancy or variation. This chapter also features some weaker design, having several potential roadblocks, such as if the PCs don’t think to talk to Ranear; it’s very likely that after rescuing Ranear, the party don’t bond with the noble and never sees him again, but part of the adventure only moves forward if they not only visit him but discuss their investigation with him. (Suggestion: make Ranear a reoccuring NPC, perhaps even an investor in their business.)

Most of the villains are iconic… except the Cassalanters. While an established noble family, the Cassalanters are the least remarkable of the villains, not having a long history in the setting or numerous novel appearances. Their fiendish cult ties help somewhat and give them a different flavour at least, while also emphasising Asmodeus: this connects nicely to Tome of Foes. And as the least iconic villains, they are the most expendable: if you want the players to have a more clean victories with their enemies dead or arrested, these might be the villains to select.

Ending with the most minor of quibbles, the adventure starts at a tavern but advises the DM to have the party members already known to each other. This was the perfect place to have an adventure begin with everyone meeting in a tavern. It’s a joke that all adventuring parties are formed in such a place, but I’ve never seen it actually happen.

The Ugly

With 32-pages fewer than (most) of WotC’s other adventure volumes, Dragon Heist feels short. Which makes sense given it’s only levels 1-5. But it’s the same price despite being 85% the size of previous books. It’s a lot of money for a book that might see less use at the table.

There’s no city map in the book: you have to refer to the accompanying poster map. If your players are using the map (or you choose to get it framed) you cannot check the locations of villain’s lairs or other key locales.  

Gold and treasure is very limited in the campaign. If the PCs don’t find a secret door early on, they’ll likely receive almost no treasure for almost the entire adventure. Not only will they be unable to repair their newly acquired tavern, but several of the “keys” to the vault are also very expensive. This can work to the advantage of the DM: if the adventure progresses quickly and takes place over a short duration, the reward earned for finding the stolen golden dragons can be used to rebuild the tavern. But if you want a slower campaign where the player characters leisurely investigate between spending time at their refurbished manor, then you will need to add lots of bonus gold.

I dislike the maps. They’re not bad, per se, but they’re not what I expect in a WotC product where I’m paying a premium price. These maps would be somewhat disappointing in a DMsGuild adventure…. Unlike past adventures, there’s no way to buy prints to display on a device or order as posters, and the DM needs to invent and extrapolate more details to populate the rooms. To say nothing of people playing on a Virtual Tabletop. While ostensibly the simple line art is easier for people to draw, I doubt most DMs’ attempts are going to remotely to look as good. If the map is going to be a pale imitation anyway: why not make it prettier? I expect to see a few map packs on the Dungeon Master’s Guild presenting more detailed examples of these locations. And I already know people who purchased this on Fantasy Grounds were provided alternate maps. But this feels needless for an official book.

Lastly… there are the usual Chris Perkins silly names. A few are good, such as “The Scarlet Marpenoth”, which requires more thought and knowledge while also fitting the world. Others are much, much less subtle and out-of-place. I’m not a fan of most of these, as they’re just a little too obvious. Such as J. B. Nevercott. Or Xardos Xorg. The latter isn’t even really an Easter Egg, as it’s pretty much the direct name of the referenced movie. It’s as subtle as calling a character Frankenfurter. I have enough trouble maintaining the tone of the game and not having the table descend into silly movie references at the drop of a hat without the book just lazily dropping pop culture references. Which just ends up making more work for me as a DM, as I need to invent a whole other alias, defeating the purpose of the published adventure of making the DM’s job easier. Lots of people have problem thinking of interesting names for NPCs but no DM has ever struggled at the table to make a movie reference or say a bad joke. The book doesn’t need to help with that.

The Awesome

I adore the idea of Trollskull Manor. This is an amazing idea. I love the concept of players getting property or becoming business owners. It gives them a stake in the city while also encouraging them not to wander away from town. I just wish there was more thought and pages put into the manor and related adventures. I also hope the map for it (and related handouts) end up on the website sooner rather than later.

There’s some lovely diversity featured in the book, especially with the party’s neighbours in Trollskull Alley. There’s a same sex married couple and nonbinary elf. Most of the neighbours are fun: I especially like the private detective with a tiger themed business. Even if I never end up running this adventure I might steal that character…

As a final thought, who doesn’t like the illustration of the Yawning Portal Tavern in this book. It’s much needed, as a map of the tavern was lacking. Plus, it’s a simply fun little picture crammed with Easter eggs and as many Realmsian characters as they can force into one picture.

Final Thoughts

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.

 

 

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