I recently finished DMing the Waterdeep: Dragon Heist campaign and wanted to share a few thoughts about it. I had five players, and the adventure lasted for 16 sessions, which is not too many, but it is more than I had originally anticipated. The sessions were about 4 hours long each. I let the characters roam free wherever they wanted, doing whatever they wanted, without any boundaries.
What is Waterdeep: Dragon Heist?
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist (WDH) is an official D&D 5e adventure published by Wizards of the Coast. It is intended for characters starting at level 1 and should take them as far as level 5.
As the name suggests, the whole adventure takes place in Waterdeep, so it’s an urban adventure focusing on investigation, roleplaying, and combat.
I found that it helps a lot if the DM knows not only the adventure quite well, but at the very least Waterdeep to a certain level. The best is if the knowledge of the city is not limited to what is available in the adventure. It’s a metropolis, and the characters should not feel confined to certain parts of it!
Resources I used to familiarize myself with Sword Coast and Waterdeep:
- Chapter 9 in the book, called Volo’s Waterdeep Enchiridion. It is suggested that the characters, and thereby the players, can also get this, and they can read it (if they want to)
- This interactive map by Jason Engle was quite helpful to me: Waterdeep Interactive Map (aidedd.org)
- Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide (SCAG) by Wizards of the Coast
- The information found at Waterdeep | Forgotten Realms Wiki | Fandom and pretty much the whole forgottenrealms.fandom.com
I dug into these resources because my characters appeared not to care about the roads created by the adventure and wanted to do their own things. What a bunch of annoying freaks!
A few years back, Lord Dagult Neverember was the open lord of Waterdeep. While he was in office, he embezzled 500,000 gold coins (called dragons in Waterdeep) from the city and hid them in a Vault. He trusted a gold dragon, Aurinax, to guard the treasure and locked his own memories of the place and its defenses in an artifact called the Stone of Golorr. Before Lord Neverember was relieved of his duties, he hid the stone in the palace, and after he left, he arranged it to be returned to him. They killed the spies he sent for the stone, and then the artifact wound up in the clutches of Xanathar, the criminal mastermind beholder.
Xanathar had no idea what the stone was, and when he realized it, it was already too late. Lord Neverember’s trusted spy, Dalakhar the rock gnome, stole it.
Xanathar blamed the Zhentarim for stealing the artifact, and thus, the struggle between the Zhents and Xanathar’s Guild broke out.
As you can see, the Dragon Heist is about finding half a million dragons or gold coins. Clever choice of title (I was going to say clever pun).
Recommendation: I would encourage reading the adventure thoroughly to see that it is lacking. Then either invent your own fillers if you have the luxury of time on your hands or take advantage of what others have already come up with. If you decide on the latter, go to Dungeon Master’s Guild, and purchase some relatively cheap additions and extensions to this campaign. Buying support material is what I did at first, and then I also had to write many things myself.
The stuff that I bought were things created by Eventry Games Dungeon Masters Guild – (dmsguild.com). There are other things out there, of course; I am just giving you what I used.
The party I had the fortune to tell this tale to consisted of the following characters:
- an eladrin paladin
- a dragonborn wizard
- a human rogue
- a human fighter
- a half-elf warlock
All characters started at 1st level, with 0 XP. Some of them reached level 6 by the time the adventure finished.
Before the adventure starts, the DM needs to choose a villain, which will also decide the season of the year in which the play takes place. There are several different options (Jarlaxle, Xanathar, the Cassalanters), but my choice fell on Manshoon, which took us to winter.
The adventure starts in the Yawning Portal tavern and almost immediately with a fight. The characters may also learn right here that there is some power struggle or conflict between the Zhentarim (the Black Network) and Xanathar’s Guild. They also meet some of the representatives of both factions, plus some local NPCs.
They also meet Volo, who sets them out on their first quest and puts them on the path leading to the Vault of Dragons in the end.
The only thing I changed in the first chapter is the fate of Floon Blagmaar (Aaron Goofball). You see, the characters decided on taking a long rest before going down to the sewers. There is no time pressure imposed on the party by the campaign to free Floon. I did not see this as logical. There is Grum’shar and Nihiloor. They are not stupid, and they are looking for information. Why not use what they have? Nihiloor implanted an intellect devourer in Floon’s head, and that is how the party rescued him, ultimately dooming Lord Renaer Neverember, who appears to be a key figure in the plot. I decided that the goal of Nihiloor was to move the intellect devourer from Floon to Renaer and collect whatever information he has.
The above is exactly what happened. Floon, now an intellect devourer, conspiring with Meloon Wardragon (whose brain was also removed to make room for an intellect devourer some time ago), managed to “move” the intellect devourer from the body of Floon to Renaer. The two intellect devourers made it look like someone broke into the Brandath manor (the home of Renaer Neverember) and there killed Floon one fateful evening. An investigation was launched into this, and Volo was framed. I made it look like Volo was bitter and jealous of Renaer Neverember. He was expecting that Floon would be very grateful and spend all his time with him, but this is not what happened. Everyone saw that Volo was envious and drinking heavily, plus I gave the celebrity wizard a drug problem that he concealed. He spent most of his nights at an opium den (I wasn’t sure if this existed in the Forgotten Realms, but no one objected) and asked “Bonnie,” the maid at the Yawning Portal, to cover for him. “Bonnie,” being a doppelganger, took on Volo’s appearance and made it look like he was going to bed every night. The truth was that Volo was not even in the inn. When the guards and the characters looked in his room, he was not there, and his bed was untouched. These were twists and turns of my own design that I added to the story, of course.
The Troll Skull & Faction Quests
The party that I was DMing took some interest in reestablishing the Troll Skull Mannor into its former glory and reopening it. Still, they did not work too hard on it. It never happened.
They joined some factions and took part in some of the quests. This is the part of the adventure that is sorely lacking in content and design. It is easy to say that it’s intentional, but that does not excuse this painful defect. I relied heavily on my own ideas and the content purchased from DM’s Guild here.
My players enjoyed the parts that were not in the original campaign more than the bits that were. This might have been the case all throughout the 16 sessions, but this might very well be my fault as a DM, so do not be disheartened.
The Peak of the Story
The following bits again went well enough, but I always felt I needed to adjust things here and there. The party was chasing the Stone of Golorr now, trying to find the 500,000 dragons hidden somewhere. I was trying to follow the adventure closely, failing from time to time.
Urstul Floxin did not run away, nor was he killed by the party. He was captured by city guards, taken into custody, and was hung one winter morning a few days later. The party was invited, but they did not go.
To me, the most disturbing, complex, and annoying part of the adventure was when the heroes were literally chasing the Stone of Golorr through half the city, and I had to hand the artifact from one culprit to another, almost as if the Zhents were participating in a relay run race.
This section had meat pies made of human flash, matricide, and worshippers of Bane as well – not sure who was responsible for designing the theme, but kudos! I wish the presentation would have been just as great.
I think 80% of Chapter 4: Dragon Season is about the city chase. It is different for every season (villain). It has ten encounters, all different for every season, and also come in a different order for every season. This is why at the start of the chapter is a flow-chart of how to survive telling this part of the story. Getting through the city chase was a grueling task. I understand what they were trying to do, and it was done this way, but still – knowing the WHY does not excuse for the painful experience.
NOTE: I hate railroad. If Manshoon shows up (and he definitely does in the Old Tower, unless the magic circle is broken) and it is clear that the characters have the Statue of Golorr, he should do his very best to kill the party if they don't run and hide. By that time I clearly told them who Manshoon is, how they can recognize him and that he is very-very-VERY powerful. If they don't run, surrender, hide, negotiate or something, that is their problem. (My party didn't die). Do NOT hold a safety-net for the characters!
Near the End
The party got the Stone of Golorr. They believed they had two major problems:
- What to do with Aurinax, the gold dragon, guarding the treasure?
- What to do with the 500,000 gold?
Now in my version, Renaer Neverember disappeared. He is actually dead, and Lord Dagult Neverember appeared in Waterdeep, visiting the Brandath manor. This move made sense to me, but I decided that Lord Neverember was more worried about Dalakhar missing and the money than his son.
The heroes offered to look for his son; in exchange, he would talk to Aurinax and give them half the treasure. My Lord Neverember was a very strong character, powerful, arrogant, and a bit racist (this is alluded to in his description at a few places on the internet). He did not care about his son and decided that he would give the party 20%. The characters agreed. Well, most of the characters. The paladin went behind everyone’s back and made a pact with Vajra Safahr, the Blackstaff, the Archmage of Waterdeep to leave all the money to her – who would, in turn, relay all of this treasure to the city of Waterdeep (Criss-Cross, doublecross).
That really was what happened in the end. Aurinax took the signet ring and the scroll, penned by Lord Neverember, and let the characters take the money. In the end, however, the paladin summoned Vajra, who took the 500,000 dragons. Most of the heroes were not 100% happy with the outcome.
It was very interesting to see that the last part, the dungeon had almost no monsters at all.
I think if you are relying on the book only to grant XP to your players, they won’t reach the desired level by the end. This might just be my opinion. You either boost the things and hand out XP for quests, ideas, completing personal goals, etc., or you go with the recommended milestone level advancement.
All-in-all, I’d rate this a 6,5 on a scale of 1 to 10. It was not my best experience – that is one of the reasons we will not continue on with Dungeon of the Mad Mage. I got tired and was disappointed by the time we reached the end. My enthusiasm ran out. We were lucky the starting momentum was able to push me through the finish line.