I don’t want to waste your time, so here is my quick, spoiler-free review of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.
You should buy Waterdeep: Dragon Heist if you are looking for. . .
- A fun, short urban adventure run by a seasoned DM
- A city primer for how to homebrew a city
- Readymade maps, hooks, and ideas for an urban setting homebrew campaign
- Some large, awesome, mid-tier dungeons to run
You should not buy Waterdeep: Dragon Heist if you are looking for. . .
- An introduction to D&D with a new DM
- A tight campaign to run with friends
- A module heavily featuring dragons
- A module with a heist of any kind
My much longer, spoiler review of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
Okay, now for the long review of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.
Why am I conflicted about this campaign module? After running a few campaigns, including Lost Mines of Phandelver and Curse of Strahd, and getting valuable DM experience, this is the module that finally gave me the confidence to start my first ever homebrew campaign. Like it or not, it was a milestone in my DM career.
But, why did this campaign empower me to pursue homebrew? Because, to make this module work at all, I had to change the entire structure of the adventure, remove half of it, add things, and modify the rest.
The “half a million gold dragon” question
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist raises an interesting question with no objective answer:
When you buy a D&D “adventure” for $30, are you entitled to an easy to run, tight campaign as written? Or, is a book with cool ideas that can be molded into a campaign by someone else acceptable?
I have been playing and running D&D for a few years now, but I have noticed this trend in running or thumbing through books, where the individual adventure modules are divided into three categories:
- A tight but linear adventure that is run as written
- A gaggle of awesome ideas for a given theme that are smashed together and called an adventure
- Curse of Strahd
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is shamelessly in category 2.
Here is the experience that a new DM is in for.
- “Wow this book looks great! Heists! Stealing a dragon?! First level campaign?!?! Let’s go!”
- 85 NPCs to consider, right from the jump
- 44 different guilds and 8 different factions with their own wants and needs
- A bunch of smaller, random quests with little to no direction on how or when to run them
- A murder mystery (one of the hardest things to run in D&D, in my opinion) which goes in a bizarre direction which makes practically no sense and provides few clues to help guide the DM
- A long, drawn out macguffin hunt that jumps all over the book
- Another random macguffin hunt for Vault Keys that is wide open
- Oh yeah, you are supposed to run more of those faction quests now
- “Wait, what are these 60 pages of dungeons about? The adventure is over. . . right?”
- “Wait. . . where was the heist? I guess going into that dungeon was the heist?”
Here is the experience that the new players are in for.
Why are we chasing all of these random people, places, and things around endlessly and aimlessly? We want to steal a dragon!
Yes, I am glossing over the good bits and probably being unfair with the bad. An experienced DM would easily manage the appropriate NPCs, guilds, factions, and encounters for their players. But, if Waterdeep: Dragon Heist was my first experience with D&D, I would probably never play it or run it ever again.
A missed opportunity
The frustrating thing about Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is that all of the pieces are in the book to run a tight campaign that celebrates the freeform advantages of tabletop gaming. The issue is that the structure and execution railroads the amazing content at all stops. It almost seems intentional. You can feel the editor coming in and saying, “People are dumb. Let’s make it stupider for them.”
All of the tools are there
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist starts on a bad note by asking you to select a season of the year, which arbitrarily picks a villain to run, out of four possible choices. I have seen guesses that this is for streaming the campaign online, but that can’t be true, because the entire adventure is pretty linear and same-y regardless who you pick. Why can’t it be organic and still get the intended effect?:
- The bar fight at the beginning and dungeon almost immediately afterwards are perfect opportunities to gauge if the players like and help the Xanathar, Zhentarim, both or neither.
- The trip to the Dock Ward for information at the beginning and the Fireball murder mystery is a perfect opportunity to introduce and involve the Bregan D’aerthe.
- The Trollskull Manor rebuild and guild encounters are perfect opportunities to introduce the Cassalanters as religious nobility with money.
Following this are the faction quests which seem tailored to lead to specific help or complications through the remaining encounters in the book, but don’t.
Oh yeah, how about the massive, unique villain dungeons that take up a third of the entire book but basically aren’t used in the module as written??? I don’t like being a backseat driver in a critique or review, but considering that this campaign module has only three words in it’s title, and one of them is “Heist,” this seems like a great opportunity to honor the name.
In spite of it all, we had a blast
So why am I conflicted on the book after being so negative? Well, it is because I had enough experience to recognize the flaws in the book and reconfigure the entire thing to look more like the above, which was a great layout filled with player consequence and choice.
If this book was called, “City Adventure Ideas,” I think it would make more sense. Seriously, the amount of urban setting material here is wonderful:
- How to structure and lay out cities
- How to run a business
- How to run guilds and ideas for guilds
- How to run factions and ideas for factions
- How to run nobility, city guards, and leaders of the city
- How to run travel
- Different shop ideas
- Guides on running holidays and pantheons in cities
- A city legal code
- Random encounters for a city
- Random urban quest hooks and faction missions
- A number of short urban dungeon crawls with battlemaps
- Four complete, massive urban villain lairs
I just don’t know if that collection of material is worth $30. You be the judge.