Hey everyone! I posted this review on my website a while back, but I wanted to share it here because of how active discussions are. Give it a read, if you played, let me know what you thought from Wizards' sandbox adventure.
What it says on the tin... (amended for brevity)
WELCOME TO WATERDEEP
A fantastic treasure trove is yours for the taking in this adventure.
Famed explorer Volothamp Geddarm needs you to complete a simple quest. Thus begins a mad romp through the wards of Waterdeep as you uncover a villainous plot involving some of the city’s most influential figures.
A grand urban caper awaits you. Pit your skill and bravado against villains the likes of which you’ve never faced before, and let the dragon hunt begin!
For 1st level characters.
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. The name is both misleading and aptly named. Waterdeep is the star of this product. The heist is where things get complicated.
A dragon is what the city calls a gold coin. The heist is what the villains hope to do with half a million of them. What starts as a mission to save D&D’s most Realmsian NPC “Floon Blagmarr,” quickly unravels into a hunt for the MacGuffin that opens the vault.
This adventure is a sandbox with plenty of non-linear elements, but rarely ventures beyond Waterdeep’s shadow. Which is fine. Waterdeep is downright massive.
If you want to know whether or not you should buy Dragon Heist, scroll down to the bottom. Everyone else, put on your gloves, we have a lot to unpack.
Before we open the box, we need to go back to what it says on the tin.
The player characters will not be going on a heist. The treasure trove is not for the taking. The dragon heist is what the villains are doing, and the book assumes the player characters will try to beat them to it.
There’s a segment in the middle of the book where they break into a manor, but it doesn’t have the gold the book claims is “yours for the taking.”
Obviously, we can ignore everything the book says about the treasure, and let the characters sprint away with it, but the book’s characters (good and bad) make that very difficult. Could we ignore them? Of course, but every time we ignore a part of this book, paid-for-pages go unused.
I buy these products because I want some approximation of what it says the game is about, even if my players go off the deep end, I expect the promised adventure to have been a possibility.
Dragon Heist cannot deliver its promise unless you decide not to use it most of it.
But it’s not all bad… I promise. There’s still plenty to steal.
This cover is my favorite of Dungeons & Dragons adventures. The ensemble of villains, arranged like a movie poster, gives it a style far away from traditional fantasy stories. It does exactly what a cover should do. Not imply just tone, but the approach, pace, and play style.
Inside, the production stays strong.
In addition to great illustrations, there are black and white maps made by famed OSR artist, Dyson Logos.
He’s well-loved for a reason. The maps are hand drawn and have bespoke imperfections. And, because they’re black and white, they’re quick to understand, easy to modify, make notes, and print for the table.
I love full-color maps, but for most groups, the DM is the only person who sees them. Full-color can price groups out of using them. With no-color, the odds of getting to the table increases, and they’re easier to transcribe. Your players will delve into at least 10 of these maps. Most of them no more than an encounter’s worth, but every so often you’ll find a sprawl between five and two-dozen rooms.
In the back, there’s a poster-sized map of Waterdeep in color. One map side is for the players and the other for the Dungeon Master.
This is less great.
There’s very little information on the DM side. In fact, some like the Yawning Portal, feel like they should be on the player side. Why is the location of the city’s most famous tavern, the most important location in the adventure, a secret to the players?
The map is two-sided, too, so only one side can be used during play. And because it’s full-color, it’s very difficult to make notes or highlight specific sections without post-its, tape, or pins.
It’s a great addition, but it doesn’t live up to the potential other features do.
This is an urban adventure. Which means abandoning the old paradigms of traditional D&D stories.
Instead of rooms in a dungeon, we have locations and scenes in the city of Waterdeep. What I don’t like, is that the “hallways” that lead from one location to another can be very hard to telegraph to players.
In order for players to logically jump from one location to another, they need to be able to craft a logical series of ideas for what to do next. And Waterdeep: Dragon Heist sometimes doesn’t distill information or obscures it on accident.
For example, most of what is causing the MacGuffin to move through the story is backstory players won’t know, so events can feel random, and because the setting is unfamiliar to most players, they can’t link these snippets of new information to something old.
That means the DM needs to rely on factions giving them orders, npcs acting like tour guides, and incompetent baddies kicking the door down whenever the trail goes cold.
These are techniques every Dungeon Master should use in RPGs for moving the plot, but if they’re the only techniques, they can rob players of agency. It makes their characters feel stupid – or worse – the players.
When players have no agency, more energy is spent understanding the story than building on it or basking in the impact of their actions. It also makes them reactive, which is very easy to do, because they’re in a city filled with distractions. This is all on the front-end that the players have to contend with. It doesn’t scratch the surface of issues for the DM.
First, there are plot holes. Why and how events came to be don’t correlate with any npc who would want to be successful. Their decisions and actions are almost always the worst possible ones they could make. Villains seem determined not to succeed, while allies for reasons that defy reason, want to put all their eggs into one basket – and that basket is the 1st level adventurers whose only endorsement is a rich kid and Volo, Forgotten Realm’s most famous moron.(pssst, I love Volo.)
It’s hilarious, but this comedy of errors doesn’t make it an easy adventure to run.
Players act off theories they have. If the evidence is there, they’ll probably list the correct theory in addition to some incorrect ones, but as soon as they try to think from the villain’s point of view, they fail.
If the backstory had the villains as they’re described in the introduction, one of them would have already succeeded. They should be competent enough to thwart 5th level characters. The only logical conclusion, therefore, is to assume that they must be getting in each other’s way, but the game makes you choose a timeframe where they’re chasing the MacGuffin at different times making it illogical for them to be butting heads.
This puts all of the logical impetus on the Dungeon Master. The backstory isn’t a tool for them. It’s a puzzle.
Let’s talk about the tools to help them solve it...
When you forgive the story desimeta-designok’s meta design – from grid layout, to flow charts, data architecture, and appendices – has made the book an adversary.
A lot of the DM’s energy will be spent flipping and summarizing the book’s details like who is who, how characters intersect, what is dungeon room C9 again, are they missing anything?
Counter for the counter-argument: It should be a choice to not use something in the book. Not being able to find something they paid for is not the same as choosing not to use it.
The book provides brief flow charts of what can happen in the adventure, but they’re linear in a non-linear story. If an inexperienced DM tries to get back on the flowcharts, they’ll fall into a trap of railroading players.
I don’t like how this product can engineer that behavior and then be blameless because DM fiat is the solution. People want to use the things they buy. By presenting these flawed designs, the book doesn’t help newbie DMs, and instead leaves them with false evidence that things didn’t happen like they were “supposed to.”
So they reach into the bear trap.
Something less linear like the villains’ motives and plans on one page would serve play better than a diagram that relies on players having no impact on the storyline.
Meanwhile the npcs, this adventure’s bread and butter, leave something to be desired.
Starting with the most mechanical detail, characters are introduced with an inconsistent amount of information. For some, the authors give immediate overarching ideas for who they are and what they do. Meanwhile, for others (even some of the villains), readers are given information as breadcrumbs in the appendix, encounter descriptions, and initial appearance.
This presentation is jarring when it harms the product’s villains.
It would have been a boon for antagonists like Manshoon and Xanathar to be separated from the alphabetical list of pawns. Placing Waterdeep’s most famous beholder next to a NPC players will punch to death is bad information hierarchy.
All of this compounds another problem: the characters’ names. With allegiance listings, uniform layouts, and bullet points it might be easier to help Dungeon Masters and their players learn the cast, but without it, the names weaponize.
They don’t follow linguistic structure. Some are random combinations of Z and X to make them sound cool.
When Tolkien made Middle-earth, he designed a language first.
This means every name in that fiction makes intuitive sense. Learning one name makes it easier to remember the next name, but in the Forgotten Realms every name is unconnected by a single language. Most of them don’t even stem from a language, which means all those brain synapses we developed in childhood are useless when remembering this cast.
Buy or not buy?
Maybe, but not as an adventure.
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is part campaign and part sourcebook. You should buy it for the sourcebook.
Inside the book is an in-character travel guide, major locations, important npcs, the factions, and art to make it all pop. And the adventure, while flawed, is a great novella of how all of those elements interact. It’s one thing for a sourcebook to describe the seasons, it’s another to see the seasons from the eyes of street urchins stuck in the crossfire.
If you love Waterdeep, buy Dragon Heist. It was written with love and makes you love it too, but it’s not the adventure this industry needs right now.
+ Great outside product presentation
+ Amazing characters and locations
+ Great out-of-play worldbuilding
+ Inclusive writing the culture needs
- Narrative design is filled with holes
- Gameable information is inconsistent
- Presentation is confusing/unintuitive
- Not what it says on the tin...
And with that, I'll close the lid on Dragon Heist. What did you think? Your opinions are just as important and exciting to hear about. Let me know! And bear with me if the writing was clunky – I'm always sharpening my words.
That game wasn't half bad...
...no, it was ALL bad! Dohohoho!!
I made a super long video on DH, and came to much the same conclusion. It's a clunky adventure as-is, but if you're enamored enough with the setting (which is excellent), there's enough here to make something worthwhile.
I'm about four sessions deep into running this, and I've GM'd a lot of sessions that took place in Waterdeep. So the city is familiar territory to me. We're not deep enough in to have encountered some of the issues you mention (they just got the Manor and got the tour of the city from Volo). But I'm optimistic that I can sidestep the more onerous aspects of it.
Cheers on the excellent review, though! Thanks for sharing!
Having a pre-existing knowledge of Waterdeep is a massive boon for this adventure! It's easier to gloss over unfamiliarity in some products like Phandelver or Storm King's Thunder, but this setting is so rich, and its cast so iconic, it can be downright terrifying to run with other D&D fans.
I was lucky to run it with novices. It sounds like you'll be able to get by just fine.
Justin Alexander https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/41217/roleplaying-games... is doing a remix of Dragon Heist and it's awesome. 10 times better than the original.
Thanks for that link, that’s an amazing remix I’ll definitely use if I get round to running this.