Wizards of the Coast Review: What even IS Waterdeep: Dragon Heist? More than you think.

In our third WotC official review we take a look at the brand new book Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. There are some misconceptions about the usefulness of this book – being it is an adventure from 1st to 5th level. But what if I told you that there is more to use in this book than any other Wizards of the Coast adventure to-date? Want me to prove it to you? Keep reading.

We’ll pick apart the introduction and chapters 1 and 2, as well as an overview of chapters 3+ and the appendices.

All Art slopped from the dregs of the internet is from Wizards of the Coast LLC or taken by hand for review purposes.

The Book Itself

There’s been a lot of concern this past year about the quality of books coming out of Wizards of the Coast LLC – binding issues, matte finish peeling or rubbing off, gloss wearing out. Here’s a foreword that we have to have: no book can stand up to the weekly abuse these things endure. I’ve had leather bound $70 journals fall to pieces from being in my bag and getting rubbed/jostled too much. The binding issue, from what I’ve been told, has been addressed and will no longer be a widespread problem. To date, Wizards has been extremely on-point with replacing damaged books (binding or otherwise). I’m sorry I cannot lay any fears you may have about book quality to rest, but from what I see here – this looks like the new production standards we saw in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, which should dampen any concerns.

The cover art has been spread far and wide at this point – a bright and colorful image that is evocative and quite thematic. I like that design has reeled in the over-complicated messy nature of some previous titles for a more movie-poster feel. On the cover we see the four potential villains of the adventure as well as a lake of gold dragons (the gold coins common in Waterdeep).

The reverse gives more of the same with a cascade of very well rendered gold dragons. I really like the attention put on these coins, as it helps establish the general sense one would have about the City of Splendors – Waterdeep. I believe the bright and vibrant aesthetic are aimed toward continuing that splendid theme as well.

The matte finish (black areas) on the covers actually feels a bit different than previous books – more textured and rough, like the rubber back of a mousepad. I’m hoping that’s indicative of a new production method to prevent wear, but I have no source to confirm or deny it!

 

TL;DR: What IS this book? Is it worth the money?

Yes, it’s worth the money. Yes, I disagree with the people saying it’s not.

This is not just an adventure book. It’s got an adventure that spans five levels in 157 pages, a detailed run-down of Waterdeep: City of Splendor for 26 pages, a very robust bestiary with tons of humanoid stat blocks and art that spans 28 pages, and magic items sprinkled throughout the book and one of the appendices.

In short, this is “Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide to Waterdeep” and “Dragon Heist: A Choose Your Own Adventure Module for Characters of 1st-5th level” blended together. With over 60 pages of useful stuff you can use outside of the adventure, this is one of the best starting places for new DMs and DMs who have not run many pre-written adventures. With some ingenuity, what is in this book is enough to easily get your characters to level 10 (where over half of all D&D5e campaigns conclude).

Introduction: A Beginner’s Paradise?

It’s apparent when reading the introduction that Chris Perkins‘ words “a return to civilization” hits the nail on the head.

The set-up within the introduction does a great job of holding your hand and taking you through the earliest steps of a campaign planning phase: a Pronunciation Guide for tricky names you’ll have to use, an overview of the story in a short paragraph, longer more detailed sections on each aspect of the campaign, a breakdown of when and how the “Choose your own adventure” aspect of the book works, even forewords akin to Adventurer’s League modules that explain what the various D&D slang is all about: from Armor Class to XP.

That gentle nature, the reassuring way that the book opens up the doors to the adventure, really make it seem like a great starting place for DMs who are rocky on running published work – or even people who have never ran a published adventure before in their lives.

To further that structure, the book is full of full-page charts showing how the plot and background work in tandem or separate. It’s really quite impressive the lengths that WotC went to in order to make this book a good entrypoint for new people getting into the hobby off of the success of Critical Role, Adventure Zone, and even Dice, Camera, Action.

Some people might find these first pages “a waste,” as I heard one reviewer comment, but they’re still pretty handy to seasoned DMs. The Pronunciation Guide, I’m sure, will rustle some people’s feathers – there is a sub-community of folks in the hobby who believe their way of pronouncing things is “actually correct.” Just say the words how you want to – it’s make believe and no police will be involved.

The later half of the Introduction focuses on a preamble to Waterdeep – things that DMs may need to come back to on several occasions: the various guilds, noble houses, law, factions, and handy details on the starting tavern (yes, you start in a tavern – a call-back if ever I’ve seen one) and the very interesting folks who reside there! It’s also a perfect place to branch out and run any of the various adventures from Tales from the Yawning Portal. Half the group can’t make it one week? Have Durnan sit down with the rest of the group’s characters and tell them the tale of a couple adventurers who traveled to a place called White Plume Mountain.

I gave over 1,000 words to review the introduction of this book because I feel
it is the most polished and well executed introduction to a published adventure we’ve seen since 5e’s launch.
There are pages worth of notes folks would have had to pull from online sources right here –
tacked on just to make your life easier, and I think that shouldn’t be ignored. 

 

Chapter One: Of Train Rails and Plots

Yes, this chapter is on rails. Very very on rails, but a seasoned DM can sprinkle something here and something else there to turn this entire chapter into something completely new. Other DMs might just forgo this chapter completely outside of a few key pieces of information, but if you sit down and run the game as-written, it’s extraordinarily linear… But is that a bad thing?

From here forward, there will be spoilers aplenty!

The introduction sets up something called “familiar faces.” Essentially, each player character knows someone who works/stays at the Yawning Portal Tavern – old friend, business acquaintance, lover, hated rival, etc. So the story starts off with a massive injection of the PCs – as any good adventure should. I think the characters could stay here, in the Yawning Portal, for an entire session and everyone would be happy. The cast of NPCs is diverse and interesting, the city around them is filled to the brim with 20+ years of compiled lore – just look online or in the attached information in the book. Let them play darts with a doppleganger in disguise, let them get into a drinking contest with a Half-Orc woman who just wants to make some coin for bashing people’s teeth in. Live in this moment. 

The weird thing about the adventure starting this way is… the rails don’t seem so forced. A fight breaks out in the tavern. If you help or don’t, it’s no difference to the story. Move along to the next plot, and the next, and the next until you finish chapter 1. But nowhere does it say it has to happen immediately. That’s what I love about this opening salvo – the PCs could spend an entire day here and have a blast, and the next day get pulled on the rails. Knowing and liking the people getting their asses kicked works a lot better than hoping they’ll intervene because they’re heroic.

We also see the return of my beloved flavor text! Man, I missed seeing this in Storm King’s Thunder. The trick here is – if you don’t like it… don’t read it out loud. Just read it yourself and ad-lib. I, personally, want some of this shit on my tombstone – so the more the merrier.

The adventure, even in chapter one, demands a certain level of leading by the DM to prevent the party from spinning its wheels: don’t be afraid to tell them, in earnest, what an NPC is asking of them. Consider having NPCs in this entire book just be very crystal clear and straight forward unless you need them to be conniving or shady – you’ll live 10 years longer.

If I had to guess, Chapter 1 may take a total of 1-2 sessions to complete for most parties. If I ran it, I’d keep them in chapter one for probably 4 sessions, just to set a great foundation to build the rest of the adventure (and subsequent campaign) on.

 

Chapter 2: Homebase

In Hoard of the Dragon Queen – players moved all over the place to setpoints in the world. In Out of the Abyss, they were mired in the madness that is the Underdark. Curse of Strahd had PCs lean on the doting benefactors that remained in the Demiplane of Dread to house them, and Storm King’s Thunder let them build a keep or take a tower, should they choose. Tomb of Annihilation plopped PCs into the dangerous jungles of chult, but gave them opportunity to stay at various places for extended periods if they had to (camps, mansions, etc).

Dragon Heist gives your PCs an open invitation to invest in a property they may maintain over the course of the entire adventure and beyond. The “home base” is well thought out and designed to inspire creative freedom from the players and the DM as they navigate a few sticky situations to call it their own. The intention here is investment. These characters will be here for quite some time if they complete this adventure and journey into Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, releasing later this year. There are included maps, included quests, and even details and a map about the entire neighborhood packed with information about useful NPCs, vendors, locations, and agents of the various factions. Far far more work went into this string of buildings than I’ve ever put into my own small towns and such. If you played a previous adventure, particularly Curse of Strahd, the neighborhood detailed here is akin to the entire town of Barovia. Very well received for me.

Tying the characters and the players to a central location like this is wonderful for a variety of reasons, but regardless, the strong foundation laid out in this chapter is absolute gold. Even if you never run a game in Waterdeep, you can plop this neighborhood into practically anywhere and get 2/3 of all the info you need for it.

Chapter 3-4: Probably Not What You Think It Is

At this point, the characters set up on the meat of the adventure, and it’s not what most of you expect. What you’ve been told, falsely, is that it’s a heist movie – like Ocean’s Eleven (or twelve or thirteen or eight) or The Italian Job. Those movies focus on a ensemble cast of characters working together to plan a robbery – they know who has what they want, they know where it is, and they need to find a way to get it and get out without getting themselves killed or worse.

This adventure is less The Italian Job and more Raiders of the Lost LotOfMoneySomewhereInWaterdeep. The adventure is an investigation into where 500,000 gold dragons has been stashed away. I’ll not divulge all of the information about the book, but it’s a lot like playing pinball – the characters are trying to get their group in the right spot at the right time to find the right thing from the right person and track down the treasure.

The hard part for most DMs, I suspect, will be that the PCs will only ever know about 1/4 of all the information given on the page. It goes without saying that players/PCs often don’t know most of what’s going on behind the screen and in the notes for an adventure, but Dm’s running this adventure need to understand that subtlety will frustrate the absolute hell out of players in this adventure. Be blunt with them – what they find, who they would suspect next, etc. The PCs in this adventure are 2 steps removed away from the information being given to them. Your players are another step removed from even that! So be clear wherever possible.

To that end (being clear), I must vehemently suggest that DMs running this adventure read ahead of where they plan on running the game each session. I get it, we’re all busy – I’ve made up entire sessions because I forgot to read what the hell was supposed to be going on – but if you aren’t careful and follow the logically next step you could cause the game to grind to a screeching halt (which isn’t so bad, you can get it moving again with a helpful NPC) or (much worse) you can subvert huge swaths of the adventure by playing your cards too early or putting an NPC in front of the party who isn’t supposed to be there yet. Just skim the chapters before you run them and you should be fine!

These chapters are written in a really strange way, in my opinion, but trying to juggle various options and still make choices make sense… it’s just a bit jumbled. Personally, i’d have liked to see these encounters tied directly in with the chosen villain of the adventure, but as-is they are modular and villain agnostic, which makes them a better investment for people not willing to run the published adventure as-intended in Waterdeep – so I think the layout gets a pass, but it’s still pretty hard to navigate without practice.

Chapter 5-8: Villainous Options Four Fun!

Yes, that was bad. I’m 2,431

words in, what do you want from me at this point?! To know why people are talking about these villains so much? Buckle up.

There are four (4) villains you can choose from in this game: Xanathar, The Cassalanters, Jarlaxle, and Manshoon. Each of them is tied to a season in Waterdeep. I highly, highly encourage you – should you run this adventure – to read all of their chapters and judge which fits best for your players, but I’ll give you a quick overview and run-down of the villains, in case that’s a selling point for you.

The Xanathar (Spring Madness)

Xanathar is a Beholder crime lord who has been robbed of a valuable artifact (the key to finding the 500,000 hidden dragons). His paranoia is now running rampant and urging him to use his faction (The Xanathar Guild) to recover the artifact, find the treasure, and keep it all locked away within his protective gaze. Expect to venture into lairs and the horror-show that is Skullport, a dark and ruthless city beneath Waterdeep.

Xanathar is primarily from a 2e source book called “Cloak and Dagger” but has made several appearances in published stuff from WotC since 2000.

Jarlaxle (Maestro’s Fall) 

Jarlaxle is a Drow “outcast” who leads a powerful group of drow fighters. He’s got claim in the city of Luskan and other places abroad. Jarlaxle is notorious for accumulating wealth (mostly magical items) and needs the gold to oust his competition and smooth his transition to a position of official governance over the city of Luskan. It’s… a very tame reasoning, but Jarlaxle is one hell of an interesting character – and there’s no shortage of lore about him to pull from. This adventure will take you to sea in pirate-style, so if seafaring adventure is for you, choose this one.

The Drow leader of Bregan D’aerthe, Jarlaxle, has been in … just so many books… counter to his not-really-rival Drizzt Do’urden. There’s neigh limitless stuff about him online, so I’ll leave you in google’s capable hands.

Manshoon (Winter Wizardy)

Manshoon is an evil dude. He wants to rule Waterdeep as a tyrant. He wants to control the Black Network of spies and assassins with an iron fist, even after they ousted him. He wants to supplant the good guys and install bad guys to his own ends and uses any means to do it. He’s a blend between Shredder, Thanos, and Lo Pan. Being a wizarding type, this villain is high-magic – interdimensional spaces, wizard towers, clones, spies, the whole nine-yards.

Manshoon has been in opposition of the Sage of Shadowdale for decades, but has always been a very shadowy figure. Look into books by Ed Greenwood – particularly Spellfire.

Victor and Ammalia Cassalanter

…. I saved these dudes (gender neutral) for last for a reason. These two were floundering nobles who sold their children’s souls to Azmodeus to turn their financial crisis around. Now they need the 500,000 gold dragons to finish off a 999,999 gold piece payment to the Lord of the Nine Hells in order to keep their other three kids from being de-soulified… oh, and they gotta murder 99 folks, but who’s counting really?

This shit is dark. So if you enjoy some moral depravity, a little body horror, devils, and cultist pacts – this is the one for you!

The Cassalanter family has been a noble house in Waterdeep for ages and ages – so a few bad eggs have made their way into published stuff in the past, but really there’s not a lot of bonus lore on these two, which is why their story is so distinct in the adventure.

Chapter 9: Volo’s Waterdeep Enchiridion

This is the foundation on which our limitless imaginations can build a story in Waterdeep. This section has enough information packed in it to make its own book.

  • The History of the City
  • Legal Codes in regards to Weapons, Armor, Crime, Taxes, etc
  • The Watchful Order of Mages and Protectors and City Watch
  • Currency and Trade within the city
  • Travel through and out of the city
  • The Upper Nobility and traversing the political sector

Butts! There’s so much. You just gotta read it. There’s over 30 years of lore built up around Waterdeep, but this one section does a magnificent job of giving a TL;DR version of it for all of us. A herculean task that was done admirably, for sure.

Appendices: Weapons, Creatures, and Maps galore

The magic items in this adventure are scattered here-there-and everywhere. Many of them do a few little things (like robotic stilts or a pipe that fills and lights magically), but there are some extremely powerful items in the back of the book, including THE Blackstaff, of Blackstaff fame. If you’re familiar with D&D lore at all, there are some items here you’ve probably seen or heard about, and seeing stats for them in 5e is a surreal and cool experience.

As for the bestiary, it’s… fantastic. Look, I’m a basic betch – I love using Humanoids as my villains. Thugs, swordswomen, thieves, assassins, etc etc – I use 20 humanoids for every one super weird creature like an Umber Hulk or whatever. And this bestiary is teeming with humanoids to use. Not only that, it has some of the absolute best character art to be published. Whoever did the art direction for this book deserves a cookie (in addition to the ones I keep planning on sending to Chris, Jeremy, and Greg). Some of them are incredibly powerful as well. A lot of CR 13+ options back here!

Maps are not my strong suit – I like em well enough, but I’m not as “horny for maps” as some other people I know. Having said that, this book chooses to keep the maps more simple and copyable – which is a huge boon in my opinion. You can scan this into your PC and print it all out to scale without greyscale eating you alive. You can also just hand-copy them (roughly) which is awesome. There is also a gigantic map of Waterdeep in the back of the book to use/frame – always an added plus.

Overall

I love this thing. I think it’s a great resource to add to your Sword Coast material. I think the book has tons of useful stat blocks, cool items, interesting and useable maps, and four villains that you can plug into any game. “There’s a twisted couple of nobles trying to steal the-thing-we’re-looking-for because they sold their children’s souls, bro.” See? It works anywhere.

The adventure is only level 1-5, and I know most DMs do that in 8 or fewer sessions – they want to ramp them up to 5 to get them fighting CR 40 dragons that use wands that fire Archmages at the party – but take a breath and really read this book… there is so much to do and see and learn in here. All the hidden story elements might take multiple sessions to learn about, they can’t even meet all the inhabitants of their neighborhood in two or three sessions unless they decide to just ask their names and run away – which they might.

If I had to estimate – it’d take me 3 sessions to get through chapter one, 2-3 sessions to get through chapter two, 1-2 sessions to get through chapter three, probably 10 or so to get through chapter 4, and then another 4-5 to get through the villain chapter. That’s without adding anything in there of my own fancy. That’s an estimate of 20 weeks worth of play (for me obviously). If you chew threw the adventure as fast as possible, I’d wager you’d still get 8 or 9 sessions out of it. That’s a pretty good investment considering people speed-run Curse of Strahd, quit Out of the Abyss half-way through, and skip 1/3 of Storm King’s thunder to get to the end faster.

Are you excited for these Waterdeep adventures? Will you be running Dungeon of the Mad Mage? Is there another location you’d like to see done up in this manner and why is it Cormyr?

I don’t always advocate rolling, but when I do… be sure you have to Drop the Die.
Review by JB Little, Follow me on twitter for more “useful” information.

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