20 December 2018
Treasure-hunting in the city of splendours
The latest hardback campaign for D&D: Fifth Edition shows that you don’t always need world-shattering threats or sprawling trips across the planes to get players invested, managing to draw plenty of drama from just one city, a handful of villains and an enormous pile of gold.
While it may not be the most epic of quests, a limited level range – it’ll take parties from first level to fifth – and a fairly straightforward plot make Waterdeep: Dragon Heist perhaps the best choice for newer GMs looking to get their first campaigns underway. However, don’t let that trick you into thinking that this somehow makes it more limited or less worthy than any of the other adventures out there, as it has plenty of tricks that can catch even the most experienced parties off guard.
A large part of this comes from that fact that, as the first truly urban campaign to come out for the system, Dragon Heist is almost entirely set within the walls of the titular city. Though this doesn’t change the minute-to-minute play of the game too much, it does manage to conjure up a different tone to traditional dungeon-delves and wilderness treks.
For one thing, you’re much more likely to be trawling through rancid sewers and stately mansions rather than trap-filled tombs and lairs, with many encounters and combats taking place in alleyways and rooftops. This creates a unique flow to the action and helps to create a sense of constant danger and opportunity once the villains begin to take an interest in the party, as every crowd could hold allies or assassins. Every trip to buy supplies can provoke a new plot point or lucky meeting, while NPC neighbours and friends are always around the corner rather than hidden away back home.
In fact, the city itself feels like the biggest and most important NPC in the entire adventure, especially as the detailed guide to customs and festivals allows the GM to really make it feel like the bustling metropolis is should be.
It’s appropriate, then, that perhaps the biggest change to the feel of adventuring is the presence of Waterdeep’s city watch. Well-trained and vigilant, they’re a far cry from the ineffective, corrupt or entirely absent police forces present in many fantasy adventures.
The fact that throwing fireballs in crowded markets or cutting down unarmed foes “to be certain” can land adventurers in hot water is something that many gaming groups haven’t really needed to worry about before, and often demands a more measured approach to casual violence. While the presence of fantasy fuzz may not be something that every party meshes with, a great many GMs will struggle to hide smiles when the sticky-fingered rogue finally faces consequences for their chaos they leave in their wake.
The climax of the adventure is a particular highlight for this particular dynamic, as the hoard of gold coins that marks the final goal of the entire campaign isn’t just some ancient loot hidden away in a dusty crypt, but rather the ill-gotten gains of a past ruler’s creative accounting that truly belongs to the city itself. Watching your friends and gamily agonise over what to do with the cash after a couple months of effort is a special delight.
If we’re looking for criticisms to make, some folks may be disappointed that Dragon Heist is much more linear than most of the Fifth Edition campaigns released before it, especially when compared to the continent-spanning Storm King’s Thunder and Curse of Strahd’s gothic sandbox. Several times the adventure is propelled forward by forcing the party to react to some crisis rather than letting them forge their own path, and the narrative has an unfortunate habit of making the heroes arrive at a scene to find that whoever or whatever they were after has just left. This isn’t too hard to forgive, as the core of the story is based around the adventurers hunting down an arcane key, but it can be frustrating when this happens several times in a row.
Despite this, the book manages to pack in a complex web of motivations, NPCs and locations for the heroes to pick their way through if they feel so inclined. Keeping track of who everyone is and what they want can be tricky, especially as the book doesn’t have an index, but it provides countless avenues for the party to spiral their way out of the main narrative and immerse themselves in the business of their new home.
This all comes together to make Dragon Heist feel unique. It probably isn’t the best of the current stable of Fifth Edition campaigns in terms of scope or value for money – unless you run the campaign repeatedly there’s going to be a lot of material left on the cutting-room floor – but it’s a great way to experience something new and run through an entire campaign without having to commit to a full year of gaming sessions.
A compact urban campaign stuffed with personality and danger in equal measures.
Designer: Wizards of the Coast team
This review originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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