Latest Dungeons & Dragons campaign hits the streets of Waterdeep

Review by Art Schmidt

Dungeons & Dragons continues to enjoy an increased popularity among gamers and folks open to roleplaying experiences, and continuing the excellent line of campaign adventures is the latest offering, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. This is an excellent 224-page book and contains a large fold-out map of the massive city of Waterdeep in the back.  The folks at Wizards of the Coast have listened to their community of players and dungeon masters, who have lamented past maps, which provided the DM with a numbered and heavily marked map–not that useful for players as it displayed all areas of interest.  The map in Dragon Heist is two-sided: one side marked and numbered for use by the person running the campaign, and the flip side unmarked and for use with the players.  Huzzah!

Waterdeep has always been the “City of Splendors,” once the most important and influential city in the Forgotten Realms, the imaginary world where the adventures of the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons all take place (but not for long!).  The adventure Dragon Heist takes players from 1st to 5th level during a heavily investigative and dynamic mystery involving a missing treasure and evil villains who want to beat the players (and everyone else) to the prize.  Unlike other adventures, Dragon Heist contains multiple paths to progress through the story, depending on the dungeon master’s choice of villain to pit the characters against.

This latest “season” adventure was announced during the live streaming weekend event The Stream of Many Eyes where several actors and D&D aficionados along with the Wizards of the Coast staff and some high-profile game streamers all played several games of D&D and discussed the new campaign book and associated gaming paraphernalia.  Joe Manganiello (Rampage, Magic Mike XXL, True Blood), Deborah Ann Woll (Daredevil, True Blood, The Punisher), Matthew Lillard (Scooby-Doo, Bosch, Twin Peaks (2017)), Ashley Johnson (Blindspot, Teen Titans Go!, Marvel’s The Avengers) and Matthew Mercer (Critical Role, Attack on Titan, Overwatch) were just some of the celebrities involved in the three-day extravaganza.

Dragon Heist is the first in a set of two hardcover adventures, the second being Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage (available November 13, 2018).  It follows the adventurers as they perform a favor for famous explorer, raconteur, and part-time scoundrel Volothamp Geddarm.  The favor nets them a base of operations in the middle of Waterdeep, and from there things escalate as the characters are caught up in a grand mystery concerning the whereabouts of a lost treasure hoard of golden coins (called “dragons,” hence the name of the adventure).  The characters investigate some mysterious happenings and eventually can discover the whereabouts of the hoard and must battle other interested parties to try to claim it.

The adventure takes a cue from the previous hardcover campaign Storm King’s Thunder, offering dungeon masters four alternate ways to run the adventure for their groups.  This choice comes in the form of four different villains which the party is pitted against in their race to discover what is going on in Waterdeep and eventually recovering the hoard of gold dragons.  Each villain is assigned a season (winter, spring, summer or fall) and this choice dictates not only the time of year in which the adventure takes place, and the main villain, but the order in which various locations around the city are visited while in search of the clues.

The adventure storyline becomes a bit murky and hard to follow here, with each section describing the cities’ various locations split into five sub-sections; one describing the generic location and its inhabitants, and then four other sections describing how that section differs depending on the season/villain chosen by the DM.  It provides more replayability, but at the cost of a lot more prep work for the DM and lends itself to accidentally leading the characters to the wrong locations and/or clues, which has the potential to muck the storyline up for a group who is heavy into roleplaying and cohesive narrative.

The adventure also feels like it flows in fits and spurts, with sections of heavy narration and railroading, followed by large swaths of sand-boxy type play where the characters can do whatsoever they please.  Whereas previous seasons provided tons of locations which could be visited in almost any order (Princes of the Apocalypse, Storm King’s Thunder, Tomb of Annihilation) Dragon Heist is more narrowly focused in the beginning and then toward the end, with a set “chain” of events in the middle which can be deviated from but only if the DM allows and can manage it.  Given that the adventure is only for levels 1 through 5, this isn’t a major concern, but it may feel stale or railroady for some groups.

In addition, the four main villains all have detailed lairs, but they aren’t actually meant to be explored and conquered by the party.  Rather, they are provided to give flavor to the adventure and the potential for light exploration without much actual combat intended.  The villains themselves are far too powerful for a party of 4th or 5th level adventurers to contend with, and their minions are equally so.  The intent seems to be to provide realistic villains which the party can thwart without outright defeating, and potentially be allies and/or adversaries if the party continues on into the next book, Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, which continues this adventure up through the 20th level.

Dragon Heist differs from other hardcover adventures in three major ways.  First, the levels covered only go up to 5th, unlike all previous hardcovers which provided players the ability to take their characters up through at least 8th level (The Rise of Tiamat) or 10th level (Curse of Strahd, Storm King’s Thunder, Tomb of Annihilation).  In addition, it provides a twenty-two page section in the back on Waterdeep itself, along with a couple dozen pages of NPC and monster stats, making it an excellent sourcebook for anyone running adventures in and around the City of Splendors even if they don’t use the Dragon Heist adventure material provided.  Lastly, this adventure provides black and white maps designed in a hand-drawn style that harkens back to the early days of the world’s greatest roleplaying game, but are of higher quality and excellently done.  Some may yearn for the highly detailed, colorful maps of Mike Schley and others from previous editions, but as most DMs simply re-draw these on battlemats or describe them to players, these are of little use beyond looking “cool.”  The maps provided work fine–as they are meant to.

The follow-up to this adventure takes the campaign beneath Waterdeep itself, into the infamous Undermountain dungeon which is also known as the Dungeon of the Mad Mage.  This hardcover boasts over 23 dungeon levels of Undermountain, the largest and deadliest dungeon in all of D&D lore.  Adventurers who have either completed Dragon Heist, the evergreen boxed set adventure Lost Mines of Phandelver or have attained 5th level by any other means, can play to 20th level of ability, the highest level currently obtainable in the 5th edition of D&D.  Advance press by Wizards of the Coast on this next adventure promises twenty-three unique, distinct levels of dungeon and an adventure for all players to enjoy.  No hardcover adventure has provided adventuring opportunities this high since way back in Season 1 in the Tyranny of Dragons campaign where characters fought against the evil dragon god Tiamat herself for control of all Faerun.  Given this, Dungeon of the Mad Mage will be a welcome addition to the D&D experience, allowing players to exercise the highest level spells and most powerful character abilities they can find in the game.

As with the most recent adventure seasons, Wizards of the Coast has partnered with various companies to produce accompanying game materials and “lifestyle” gear for Dragon Heist and Dungeon of the Mad Mage, including randomized miniatures sets in the Icons of the Realms line by WizKids, specialized NPC miniatures and a Dragon Heist DM Screen by Gale Force Nine, and new dice sets by the Wizards RPG Team.

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is available now here at Amazon and at your favorite online or local game store, as are the Icons of the Realms miniatures, dice sets, and other gear.  Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Made Mage is available for pre-order here at Amazon now, to be released November 13, 2018.

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