Waterdeep: Dragon Heist (5e) Review
By MARK WILSON
RPG System: 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons
I read this book multiple times in order to do a Very Long Video on it, and am currently running it for my group of four players. As I write this, we’re just about finished.
I’ve also run other campaigns in Waterdeep, so I have a familiarity and love of the setting. It’s what pulled me toward running this, but it also gave me high expectations for it.
Spoilers ahead, of course. I also detail what I did with my group, to show how I tried to pivot around problems I encountered with the adventure as-is.
I loved running this (my group is pretty badass, so that helps too ), but actually don’t like the adventure as it exists in the book. I felt that I had to do a ton of work to bring the setting and adventure to life in a way that the premise promises and implies. I didn’t mind doing that work, and even enjoyed parts of it, but it also means I can’t recommend it in a general sense.
A truly absurd amount of gold has been embezzled by Waterdeep’s former ruler. This is known as The Dragon Hoard (dragons being an alternate name for currency in Waterdeep). The player’s become embroiled in the race to find and obtain it.
The DM picks one of four possible villains to be the primary antagonist who is also after the hoard. Ostensibly, all four are after it regardless of the DM’s villain selection (two villain factions kick things off in Chapter 1 warring over it) but the remaining three are meant to fade into the background.
There are a number of factions that players can align with; Adventurer’s League players will be familiar with most, and the book throws in a city faction (Force Grey) and drow mercenary faction. The result, ideally, is the possibility for a lot of political intrigue.
This is an urban campaign, and runs from level 1-5. There are threats the PCs will never be able to face in open combat (including all but probably one of the main villains). Thus, many of the necessary solutions to problems will not involve simply killing their way through things. The presence of faction allies gives most groups an obvious route to this.
With all due respect to Baldur’s Gate, Waterdeep is THE urban setting in D&D. It’s New York City or London. Anything that can exist there, probably does, and the number of lore manuals for the city is easily in double digits at this point, stretching back to 2e during Ed Greenwood’s heyday.
This can be equal parts exciting or intimidating for a DM. There are 100’s of ways you could take a Waterdhavian campaign, which affords you lots of freedom, but also potentially a lot of work. One of my chief concerns was how this adventure would balance those.
There’s a pronunciation guide (which is ok, but I like arguing over weird names), an overview of the adventure, some notes on the seasons and villains, and notes on each of the factions.
The faction notes are most useful, as your players will be interacting with at least a couple. Choice of villain determines the season, but despite some season-related chase complications thrown in, the season never really matters. It’s mostly a cosmetic decision.
Lastly, the PCs can select an ally in the famous opening tavern, The Yawning Portal. Some of these provide a plausible way to hook players into the faction quests. Others are more tied to Dungeon of the Mad Mage, which is the 5-20 adventure that’s meant to follow Dragon Heist. If you don’t plan to run Mad Mage, these allies are dead weight.
Chapter 1: A Friend In Need
A straightforward rescue mission that attempts to familiarize characters with the setting, provide them an entry point into the titular quest, and give them a base of operations by the end of the chapter. It does each of these admirably well, winning no points for originality, but also doing nothing poorly. I’d prefer a bit more of a tour of the city at this point (they end up in a sewer before long) and a few more expository elements about the main plot (which the NPC Renaer could easily deliver, though they give him precious little info to impart to the PCs). But those are small gripes. The players should emerge at level 2 having saved a noble of the city and with a fixer-upper tavern to renovate and play with. Few groups will balk at such a cool opportunity.
Lastly, a note on The Code Legal handout, a series of city laws that the book instructs you to give to the players on multiple occasions. The laws are…let’s call them harsh, at times. I frankly don’t see how a DM could strictly enforce each law and run a campaign that doesn’t end with the PC’s banished from the city for life, or serving a life sentence in jail. If I had to do it over again, I’d edit the laws to my liking, since I (and many like me) will have to “hand wave” over some of them to run a campaign that isn’t tedious. YMMV.
What I Did:
This was the only chapter I ran close to as-is. The complications come later.
Chapter 2: Trollskull Alley
Chapter 2 is an odd duck. How DMs use it will make or break many adventures. It gives the DM details on the neighborhood surrounding the PC’s new tavern, a quest chain for each of the factions, with notes on how the faction introduces itself to the party. There is a quest for each level for each of the factions. The quests are summarized in a couple sentences; if you want to run them as more than a quick scene, you’ll need to flesh it out. Lastly, there are notes on operating expenses and running the tavern, as well as some potential complications for the business.
So. There’s a some stuff to play with. But also nothing that’s technically necessary. The DM could intro the factions, allow the party to pick 1-2, give them the level 2 quests (none of which are terribly involved, even if they’re fleshed out), then move on to Chapter 3. The whole chapter could be run in half a session.
The danger with that is that once Chapter 3 kicks off, there aren’t many opportunities to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. And thus, not many opportunities to actually bring the city to life. This is complicated by the problem of level, since your group likely doesn’t want to spend 10 sessions stuck at level 2 while exploring the city. I bet some groups never come back to faction quests once the plot starts rolling downhill in Chapter 3, which is a shame.
The faction quests run from cool-sounding to dull, but none are fully realized, requiring a lot of work. They’re little more than 1-3 sentences that you’ll have to bring to life. The other – more dour – observation is that very few are related in any way to the main quest, and some have no fulfilling payoff other than a bit of gold. Some, like visiting a monk on a mountaintop for an obscure riddle that only applies to one of the four villains (and therefore has a 75% chance of being worthless to your campaign), are comically pointless. I actually ended up using that quest, but it was tied much more closely to one character’s story progression. She and the monk had an extended conversation. So it worked, but it wasn’t anything like what’s in the book.
I actually like this chapter because of the freedom it implies for adventurous DMs. The possibility is clear. It’s just not realized without going significantly off-book.
What I Did:
Much has been done by the creator community to beef up the faction chains, and it’s very, very necessary. I mixed and matched faction quests, removing the ones I disliked. And I inserted others that don’t exist in the book, which I purchased from DM’s Guild (notably, Blue Alley, which was tons of fun). I also created some side quests from scratch, tying them to realizations about the main plot. And I leveled the PCs to 3 somewhere in the middle of all this, before the Fireball, so that we could explore the city more fully before the Fireball.
More specifically, I introduced a Notice/Job Board at their tavern (which I literally hung on my game room wall) with a mix of homebrew side quests (many of them designed specifically for particular PCs) and other quests that came with the job board supplement on DM’s Guild. This was very successful for change-of-pace quests that I could prep and cater to the PCs. However, like the faction quests, none were actually fleshed out with the supplement, so you have to build them from scratch.
I also got a newspaper supplement (The Press of Waterdeep), which is fabulous. BUT. It again gives you lots of potential hooks without fleshed out adventures for them. And there are sometimes multiple ways to interpret an article, so your players may pursue a hook that you didn’t think existed. Additionally, there was an implied expectation that some would be tied to the central conflict in the city surrounding the Dragon Hoard. Which isn’t the case unless you make it so. If you want to stretch your improv legs, do this. If not, avoid at all costs. My experience with it was largely positive, but there were a couple moments of wide-eyed nervousness as I slapped together NPCs and hooks.
I also created a couple things whole cloth, like a rave at a nearby warehouse, where they helped plan it and hosted the afterparty. Great fun!
Collectively, this also gave them a lot of choice, and they definitely turned down several quest opportunities in the process. It made the city seem much more alive as a result.
So there are solutions. But they aren’t in the book. As a result, this was a great period in our campaign, but was more or less 7-8 sessions of homebrew.
Chapter 3: Fireball
The titular fireball starts this chapter off, leading players into a search for the McGuffin. There are a handful of ways to keep them on-track, and I don’t see issues with plot holes like some others have said in reviews. It’s very likely that they’ll end up at the Temple of Gond and eventually Gralhund Villa. Plus or minus some details, these are the only relevant stops.
What I do have issue with is the lack of agency in this (and the next) chapter. The Fireball event arrives at their doorstep. It’s not because they hunted down a lead related to the McGuffin or the factions. The temple then gives the PCs a device that basically acts as their radar. Forget finding clues or making inferences from previous encounters. They can literally just wander the city for a number of days waiting for it to go “Ding!” Then, at Gralhund Villa, the construct they’re following simply escapes again with the McGuffin. There’s no chance to catch him via some cleverness, no chance to upend the sequence that the book has laid out for you. He leads you to the next exposition, then disappears via plot device on to Chapter 4.
It’s not what I expect from a campaign with a lot of villainous and political factions vying for information and control, and a massive city that could (or should?) be more open-ended.
Yes, we’re getting into some design theory issues here. As a 1-5 adventure, adding too much open-world depth risks quite a bit. But then why set it in Waterdeep? Less holistically, why not have the Fireball event occur because the players investigate some leads? Why not tie those into multiple faction quests? There are better ways to trigger this part of the campaign.
Lastly, there’s a foe in Gralhund Villa that will absolutely annihilate most level 3 parties (Hrabbaz, the Gralhund bodyguard), and he’s never built up to be more than a glorified grunt. I don’t mind a challenge or player death, but he’s a walking TPK, and I generally prefer to have some way of conveying that risk to players beforehand without being heavy-handed. I lacked such options. A stat adjustment is in order, and I wonder how the hell it got through playtesting.
What I Did:
One of my “sort of faction quest from the book, sort of homebrew” side quests allowed them to put some pieces together and pursue some Zhents (Skeemo, who I gave a much bigger role to than he has in the book). This alarmed other interested parties, and caused them to set off the Fireball event, which in our game happened nowhere near Trollskull Alley. But it flowed from player actions, and didn’t just happen at random.
My players were also very clever (and a bit lucky) at Gralhund Villa. And I wanted to reward that. They managed to work with the city’s griffon cavalry to track down the construct. So rather than the construct magically escaping, I had to pivot into other material, in ways the book never anticipated. Which is fine…the factions and villains are there to provide logical next steps. But we’re never given those possibilities, and are asked to set a pretty hard railroad at several points. In our campaign, once the party had wounded the construct and alerted the griffons, I had a contingent of devils show up to destroy the construct, take the McGuffin, and occupy the party/cavalry long enough for one of them to escape with it (though the party almost stole it back from them). Enough clues at the scene led them to the villain’s hideout (anyone who’s read the adventure can guess which, based on the devils), where the following night the villains were hosting a gala for “charity” that the PCs got to infiltrate. None of which is in the book, but it all feels like it could be in the book based on the villains’ motivations, resources and methods.
As a result, my group didn’t run the Chapter 4 chase. Which is fine, though, because…
Chapter 4: Dragon Season
A frantic chase sequence, that varies depending on which villain you chose. There are a series of keyed locations that lead toward the players or the villain in possession of the McGuffin. It culminates in finding the dragon vault.
First, the layout choice is atrocious here, as you’ll be flipping around the book constantly during this, and having to browse over the text from other villains’ chase sequences to find yours.
I see what they wanted to do here. I think it’s meant to play out like one of those Scooby-Doo chase sequences, with people running about while Yakety Sax plays in the background. And this is likely the ideal scenario. It reads as very, very linear though, bordering on railroad depending on how many times you want to pull the rug out from under your players’ feet. I don’t think this chapter will last long for most groups. But the philosophical issue I had with player agency and the escape in Chapter 3 is writ large here, and I imagine that many DMs will experience a similar crisis of conscience.
The Vault itself is good. There’s one big problem, though: smart groups are going to alert their faction allies of the Vault (unless they’re REALLY greedy). And the book covers this by telling you what the factions will send as aid. But this is laughable. If Vajra Safahr, or Laeral, or Jarlaxle, or anyone finds out about the Vault, the only logical outcome is that they to show up with enough firepower to kill a god. They won’t show up with, say, 2 swashbucklers and an assassin, which is the type of thing the book tells you.
What I Did:
Following the raid at the Cassalanter Villa, they failed to make their save with the Stone of Golorr and decided they’d take it straight to their super-powerful faction allies. Which is logical, but awful for the story, because I don’t want Laeral Silverhand showing up, taking the stone and thanking the party, then more or less ending the campaign.
So to allow my players to be the ones who decided the outcome, I had to invent a threat large enough to keep those allies occupied. So a temporary alliance of Xanathar Guild and Zhentarim attacked Castle Waterdeep and Blackstaff Tower, thinking that the Stone was at Blackstaff Tower following a raid on Jarlaxle’s ships the night before (which the PC’s were involved in for side quest-y reasons). This led to some hiding out and a fight against a Zhentarim mercenary company. It’s definitely the furthest from the book I’ve been, but it also resulted in them finally getting info from the Stone and having access to the keys.
Once again, it involved having to throw a huge change into the plot to account for player actions, while still allowing it to get back on course eventually. If I had been less willing to homebrew here, they would have placed the Stone in the Blackstaff’s hands and probably been done about a session later. Not ideal.
All of these adjustments weren’t always smooth, and I don’t pretend to have made all correct decisions. In particular, at one point some choices I made kept a player from being able to roleplay her character for an entire session. Not ideal. It flowed from villain motivations and the situation at the time, but it’s on me to find different and better solutions. So there were a lot of moving parts…which is how I think this should be, but it makes it more difficult at times.
I ran the Vault more or less as written, given my villain and the players’ faction allies. However, I had the keys come to life (Unicorn, drow baby and Beholder, respectively) for some goofy fun. This was a decision I made a bit on a whim, but deciding what to do with a baby, talking their way out of an encounter with a Beholder, and inheriting an oddly prophetic unicorn ended up being great fun.
Chapters 5-8: Villain Lairs
The good is that these are all interesting, varied lairs that should feel very different from one another and present interesting challenges to the players.
The bad is that your players may never see any of them. There’s a reasonable chance that they get the McGuffin and never have to visit these lairs. And it’s very likely they’ll never see more than one. For an already-short book, this is a bizarre oversight. I forget who said it here on RPGGeek, but one person I was talking to had this exact thing happen, and his group completed the adventure in seven sessions. Seven! Over half the book is going unused for such groups, a clear waste of design energy and book space.
One nice thing is that a few faction quests do lead PCs toward one lair or another. This is actually really good. It means they could believably have to visit one or more lairs, even outside the main quest. If a DM wants, they can seed these opportunities through Vault keys as well, which the book has you roll randomly for but says you can just select based on interest. It’s a welcome backdoor into the lair content. I just wish it was more obvious.
What I Did:
I decided early on that the villains should all be “active” in the city, so the many side quests revealed stuff about each of them. I also didn’t choose my villain at the start (I did pick a season, but gave myself license to swap villains). I wanted my players’ interest and investigations to determine it, while giving them in-roads to each villain.
So they ended up finding Jarlaxle’s submarine early, and had an interest there. I almost made him the primary villain, but had a side quest involving his circus company that gave it a satisfying conclusion. So I stuck with my original villain (Cassalanters). But I didn’t decide on that until near the end of Chapter 3.
I also used the vault keys to do just what I suggested above. I picked ones that seemed most interesting, and might require them to enter a particular lair (Xanathar’s). They found an alternate way to get two keys, but that’s fine since it rewarded their ingenuity.
Chapter 9: Enchiridion
This is the setting guide, and it’s a good one. I could pick nits and talk about how I think they spend too much time on the Walking Statues and various holidays. But there’s plenty here to bring Waterdeep to life. It’s not as robust as the 2e and 4e Waterdeep books, but it doesn’t need to be.
The issue is the adventure, which gives a DM precious few reasons to introduce much of what’s in this section.
What I Did:
There’s a single throwaway line in I think Ch. 1 about Volo offering to give the party a tour of the city. I imagine most DMs don’t take advantage of this. I was more insistent than usual as a DM in order to make that tour happen, in order to give my group a proper walkthrough of the Wards and their major landmarks, making sure to include minor events and NPC interactions in many districts of the city. This also provided geographic context for many side quests that came up later. It wasn’t the most exciting 30-40 minutes or so, but I think it set the city up as the major presence the book promises it will be, but never quite delivers on.
A. Magic Items
There aren’t too many, and the ones that do exist here largely belong to powerful NPCs or villains. It’s unlikely your players will end up with them. Be prepared to insert your own magic items into the campaign. Aside from Blue Alley, everything the players ended up with was something I included.
B. Monsters and NPCs
An interesting mix of new stuff for the campaign. Notably, having stat blocks for legends like Jarlaxle and Laeral Silverhand is pretty cool. We need more of this.
C. Handouts and Miscellany
The adventure is light on handouts, so this is a brief section.
It’s probably evident that I added a lot and changed a lot. I included the sections of what I did not to highlight my DMing, but to show how I had to adjust to account for what I thought the faults were with the book.
The linearity is a major issue for me. As is the possibility that you’ll end up skipping half the book. Lastly, the sparse faction and side quest support is a personal blessing for me but potentially a curse for those less willing to coalesce materials from throughout the creator community to flesh it out.
You could conceivably run this without picking a villain. Seriously. If they get the McGuffin in Chapter 4 and you adjust a single minor detail (the Nimblewright’s note), the villain could remain shrouded in secrecy forever. That is very weird for a book with the villains on the cover.
I’m having a blast running this campaign, which may seem at odds with this review. However, because of how I’m handling it, I’m a little unsure of whether or not I’m having a blast because of the book’s materials or all the other stuff. Actually, no, I do know: while I enjoy or don’t mind aspects of the book (everything but Ch. 3-4, really), I can’t recommend it in a general sense. I was looking for enough of a structure to build a campaign around, and it does supply that. But you do have to build the campaign around it…it’s not there in a satisfying form as-is. And while Chapter 2 allows you to build your own urban sandbox (exciting for some), I think adventure books should be able to stand on their own even if you ultimately decide to alter them. I don’t think this adventure can exist without significant work or outside resources, and in the case of Ch. 2 I can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with that assessment.
The intro quest is solid, the setting has TONS of possibility, the lairs are cool and the villain motivations and personalities are interesting (if you can manage to work them in). In contrast, it’s lacking a solid middle, needs lots of fleshing out, and will require some hard choices about maintaining the linear structure through chapters 3-4, depending on how you can pivot based on different outcomes.
Is this for new players?
Sure, actually. The fact that you can’t murder-hobo your way through it is the only possible caveat. The situations never require solutions that are so oblique that a new group can’t solve them. New groups may also not balk as much at the linear elements.
Is it for new DMs?
Probably not. Pick up the Starter Set and run Phandelver. Or even one of the more complete sandbox adventures.
Any recommended supplements for fleshing the campaign out?
Yes, I hyperlinked and bolded the ones I enjoyed the most in the text above. I’ll also use this as an opportunity to plug my own supplement, which provides accurate maps with different versions for Roll20, Fantasy Grounds or to print at your table. LINK.
Speaking of, what about the maps?
Old-school (OS) style maps, courtesy of Dyson Logos. They’re good. I tend to like OS maps at my table, as they’re more functional than a lot of fancier maps. A couple are a little confusing (the Sea Maiden’s Faire ships are notably confusing with what deck belongs with which ship), but I’m getting a lot of use out of printable versions that I made.
Do you recommend this adventure?
Gawd, I dunno. Probably not. Phandelver is a better starter adventure, and Dragon Heist never quite lives up to its setting in ways that other 5e adventures do, like the well-regarded Tomb of Annihilation and Curse of Strahd, or the more recent Ghosts of Saltmarsh (which I’m a big fan of). It’s shorter than all of those, but that in itself isn’t an excuse for lacking the intrigue and possibility the premise implies.
Are you in the minority in that opinion?
Nah, unfortunately, the majority of reviews I’ve seen more or less agree with me. We don’t exactly have a Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic for this stuff, but aggregators like ENWorld’s ratings corroborate this. It’s not among the better-reviewed 5e adventures. Most see some silver lining, but stop short of a recommendation.
Did you enjoy running it?
Absolutely, with the caveat that it was mostly just an excuse for me to build a campaign in my favorite Forgotten Realms locale. Somewhere in everything we did was the actual Dragon Heist adventure, but mine is likely not the best case study because of all the adapted and homebrewed additions. By all accounts, my group loved it as well. It’s proof that anything can be a lot of fun with the right people or the right kind of work, but that’s not always indicative of the overall success (or lack thereof) of an adventure.