“Waterdeep: Dragon Heist” is less of a heist and more of a detective story, but it delights nonetheless. The name suggests a tale of high-stakes burglary, but instead this campaign book delivers a series of interwoven mysteries that are deeply gratifying to solve, making it an excellent introduction to “Dungeons & Dragons.”
Released on Sept. 18, “Dragon Heist” is the “Dungeons & Dragons” publisher Wizards of the Coast’s latest campaign book, used by a Dungeon Master (DM) to help run a “Dungeons and Dragon” campaign. It provides a story outline and character information that a DM uses to prepare a game for a group of players. “Dragon Heist” is the successor to several other books such as “Storm King’s Thunder” and “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” that all take place across the mythical continent of Faerûn.
In this campaign, players seek out a vault hidden beneath the fictional city of Waterdeep. An ex-lord of the city, Dagult Neverember, has embezzled half a million gold pieces and hidden them within that vault. He records its location in an artifact called the Stone of Golorr and uses a spell to erase the information from his mind. However, Neverember’s plans go awry and the stone (and by extension the vault) incites a conflict between four local villains: the Callasters, devil-worshipping nobles; Jarlaxle, a dark elf carnival master; Xanathar, a crazed crime lord and many-eyed monster; and Manshoon, the clone of an ancient wizard. Before claiming the vault’s riches, the players become embroiled in this conflict and eventually face off against a chosen villain.
The adventure opens with the players’ characters meeting in a tavern where a patron named Volo asks them to rescue his friend. This first chapter is very straightforward and mostly denies players freedom of choice, but it is an effective tutorial for new players. In the chapter’s conclusion, the players become permanent residents of Waterdeep when given the deed to a rundown tavern. Refurbishing this tavern and building a reputation within the city form the basis of chapter two, which affords players much greater agency.
While chapter two lacks a clear direction, it makes for engaging gameplay as each player gets the opportunity to further develop his or her character. Players are now contacted by factions who have heard of their successes and want to recruit them. These factions are “Dungeons & Dragons” at its best. They give players a reason to care about Waterdeep while personalizing their experience. The factions are diverse and players should have no issue finding one that suits their character. For instance, the Harpers are a group of spies who contact characters associated with espionage. Characters that join this group can look forward to side quests like infiltrating a fancy party and shaking down a talking donkey for information. As they complete more missions, characters can gain renown within a faction and advance through the ranks, tightening their connection with Waterdeep. Other options include the nature-loving Emerald Enclave, the mystical Gray Hands and the morally dubious Zhentarim.
“Dragon Heist” is only as strong as the villain at its core. When first planning the adventure, DMs are prompted to choose a main villain who will supersede the other three. My personal favorite, Jarlaxle, has the most potential for character interactions — he can form alliances with players and conspire with them against the other villains. Plus, he can control a giant mechanical sea turtle that makes for a whimsical yet cinematic boss fight. Xanathar and the Callasters, two of the other villains, are just as fleshed out as Jarlaxle and have compelling motivations. However, Manshoon is noticeably drab by comparison. His motivations are unclear and he barely exists as a character outside of a boss fight. Luckily, by virtue of the adventure’s design, certain villains can play a greater role to compensate for ones that the DM may not find as compelling.
The tail end of the adventure is resolved through an “encounter chain” that differs depending on the DM’s chosen villain. These encounter chains are an economical way to plan an adventure, as encounters are reused and reordered across different villains’ paths. They make it easy to adjust the adventure on the fly to compensate for an unexpected character decision or to pursue a more engaging plot hook. This section has players travelling across Waterdeep, fully developing the city’s personality and eccentricities.
Each encounter chain has players hunt down the Stone of Golorr. In this way, players act as detectives instead of thieves. Encounters revolve around tracking the stone’s movement rather than planning an actual heist. Strangely, in an adventure called “Dragon Heist,” the players never actually need to steal anything. Despite this, the encounter chains make for a fast-paced, high-stakes quest leading to the secret vault.
Before venturing into the vault, players also have the option to enter their villain’s lair and confront them. These battles are challenging, but they offer worthwhile rewards and can greatly impact Waterdeep as a whole. The lairs themselves are well-designed and feature a wealth of different encounters, from combat to puzzles.
Reaching the vault, players traverse one last dungeon before encountering the vault’s guardian. This hidden boss gives players the chance to engage in an epic battle or to exercise their diplomacy skills. Regardless of the manner of resolution, obtaining the vault’s riches is a fulfilling reward.
The book’s ultimate chapter details the history and culture of Waterdeep. It gives DMs ample content with which to embellish the city — but it should belong in the front of the book. Placing it at the end gives the impression that this section is an afterthought, when it would actually have been a brilliant first look at the city.
“Dragon Heist” is an excellent adventure for new players and veterans alike. Despite never giving players the opportunity to plan a high-stakes heist, it delivers a plethora of different gameplay opportunities with an unprecedented level of customizability.