Behold! An Urban Adventure
I was lucky enough to receive Waterdeep: Dragon Heist for Christmas. Having read it cover to cover and run the first two chapters, I thought I’d write a review for it. This will work like all my other reviews, but this time I’ll do something extra: something for Worldbuilder DMs and something for Writers.
Title: Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
Author(s): Chris Perkins (Lead Designer), James J. Haeck, James Introcaso, Adam Lee, Matt Sernett (Designers)
Edition: 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons
Series: Waterdeep (this is part 1, and Dungeon of the Mad Mage is part 2)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast (2018)
[This review contains minor spoilers, so consider this for DMs Only]
Waterdeep (also known as the City of Splendours) is a sprawling urban setting. There is little room for exploring the wilderness or trekking through the mountainside. In this adventure, heroes are faced with cobbled streets, seasonal festivals, business rivals, and Waterdeep’s criminal underbelly. Street smarts and a knowledge of who’s who amongst the city’s inhabitants might serve the heroes better than a warhammer or a fireball (shhh…foreshadowing).
As the DM, you are given a choice of four/five amazing villains that are each tied to a season. This gives the adventure great replayability and malleability.
After the PCs get acquainted with some of the citizens of Waterdeep, they are given a tavern. This not only gives them a steak in what is happening in the wider city, it inadvertently puts them in the crossfire of a gang war.
Soon the heroes will be chasing down the Stone of Golorr – a magical item that knows the location of a gargantuan stack of gold.
Dragon Heist is a what it says on the cover – a gold old heist. Players will have to outwit the denizens of the underworld to either claim the gold for themselves or keep it out of the hands of evil.
This is a great adventure! There is enough room for your own creativity (this might be a con to some) plus some truly amazingly written characters. I love Waterdeep. In this offering, we get to see a lot of it and players are encouraged to go out and effect things (for good or ill).
There is so much in this (relatively) slim publication that won’t be used during the adventure. I – in fact – like this. It gives you a lot of material to repurpose for the campaign going forward. Even the villains you don’t use can pop up somewhere else. The villain bases are particularly useful too, as they can feature again once your party are strong enough.
The right amount of humour and darkness makes for a rich experience. There is a lot of good to be found from players, DMs, and writers.
Compared to the other official 5e adventures, Dragon Heist is relatively short. Granted, the scope of the adventure is only from levels 1 to 5, there is a lot of it that is left to the DM’s imagination. As a writer and a worldbuilder, I love this – it gives me room for my own creations and – most importantly – allows me to put up things that my players find entertaining.
But I name this as a con because this might be a challenge for new DMs. This is especially apparent in Chapter 2 where the players are tasked with fixing up a tavern. They can join factions, certainly, but this is a bit of a strain on new players who aren’t accustomed to the lore. I found myself throwing NPCs at my table of newbies to hook them into joining a faction – something that was more of an annoyance than anything else. Again, this is down to the players and your DMing style.
If your players are interested in running the business (as mine were), you won’t find a lot of help in the book. There are expenses tables and guild NPC suggestions, but that’s about it. The rest is up to you. Either the DM or the players will find this tiresome.
I suggest supplementing this chapter with content from the DM’s Guild (there’s a lot of great things there) or running with a character quest or something. I don’t recommend skipping this chapter, because it is here that you should forge a bond between the PCs and Waterdeep.
Potentially Offensive Content
Dungeons & Dragons materials are usually free of offensive content. Of course, this can change at the table and depends heavily on the people around it. Be that as it may, because of the nature of most table-top RPGs, descriptions of violence are part of the experience.
It is a breath of fresh air. Dragon Heist is not a dungeon crawl or a wilderness survival encounter. This urban adventure takes place in a single location that players will become familiar with. This will – with some luck – give them a sense of belonging. They might develop relationships with certain NPCs and become invested in their successes or failures.
This investment is what every DM wants from their players. If they care about the world their characters inhabit, they will want to keep coming back.
The villains are fantastically memorable. Regardless of who you pick (you have choice of four or five) as the main BBEG your players will remember their encounters with them.
There are many other great things in this publication – from Xanathar’s fish problem to the amazing art and maps. There really is something for everyone here.
For the Worldbuilder
For the worldbuilder, page 163-188 is a godsend. It is a delightfully written description of all things Waterdeep – from festivals to taxes. There are great examples here for building your own quirky, fantasy metropolis. Whether it is for your own campaign or for your sprawling fantasy epic, Volo’s Waterdeep Enchiridion may cover aspects that you haven’t thought of.
Note that this is not a full rundown of the ins and outs of designing a city – not at all. This, instead, is a history that gives texture to a fictional setting. This is the valuable thing about it. You aren’t given a dry, black-and-white table of ‘things in Waterdeep’ (this might be how you design a city, but it isn’t how you present a city).
Therein is the lesson.
The denizens of Waterdeep also add depth to this world. They aren’t merely filler for every citizen fulfils a role (whether for ill or good). This is something that you, as a worldbuilder, should not overlook: don’t forget the people.
Once you start answering questions like ‘why is he here?’, ‘what produce would this stall sell?’, or ‘where do alchemists get their ingredients?’ you start filling in blanks in your world that you didn’t even know existed. Aspects of the world can emerge this way – and so can stories. For example, a dingy corner shop sells rare magical items – how did they acquire these? – they must be fencing for the criminal underground – perhaps the owner is trying to go straight – perhaps he got himself killed now his daughter runs the place – someone is investigating his murder – the city needs a watch or police service – etc.
For the Writer
As stated under Pros, Dragon Heist makes players invested in the city of Waterdeep. It does this by familiarising them with the wards of the city, the locals, and the web of intrigue that connects them. The citizens of Waterdeep are humanised: you discover what they want, or fear and you begin to care.
This is what a writer should take away from this: make readers care.
DMing Dragon Heist gives writers an opportunity to ‘test out’ characters. To see what kinds of characters your players care about. Or which villains they love to hate.
D&D – as I see it – is a testing ground for characters. Not so much for stories, because a campaign ought to be a PC’s story, not the DM’s.
The antagonists in Dragon Heist teach us writers another thing: make your villains worth it. You see, your job as the DM is to make your players feel like heroes – and there’s no better way to do that than giving them a horrible bad guy to play off. Heroism doesn’t come from doing ‘good stuff’ for the sake of it; it comes from beating or being better than the villains.
This can carry over to your writing too: your hero can only be as good as your villain is bad.
Final Score: 9/10
Over to You
Have you run or been part of a run of Dragon Heist?
How did it go?
What did you take from it? Please let me know in the comments below.
Also, if you like the kind of things I write about, be sure to sign up for the mailing list or even become a patron!
I am really getting into D&D and judging by my first post, you guys seem to like the stuff I write about it. As such, I’ll post more reviews and start sharing my Roll20 campaign diary on here.
Until next time – good writing!