Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is the newest adventure for Dungeons & Dragons, and I can confidently say it is unlike anything Wizards of the Coast has published in the last few years. Dragon Heist looks to split the difference between a linear adventure and a big sandbox for a Dungeon Master to let players run around in, and the result is both fascinating and potentially difficult to play.
The core conceit behind Dragon Heist is that there is a hoard of coins hidden in the city of Waterdeep that many people would like to get their hands on. Any big bad villain who finds out about these coins in going to want them. This fact of villainous greed allows the writers of Dragon Heist to uniquely hang the adventure’s narrative scaffolding. There are four different scenarios presented for which big bad villain of the city of Waterdeep is going to go after the hoard of gold, and at an early point in the adventure, the Dungeon Master chooses which one they want it to be.
This choice by the DM leads the adventure into four possible paths. Each of those paths takes place during a particular season, and each has a unique tone to them. Choosing the Black Network villain means that there is nefarious wizardry to deal with; choosing the corrupted nobles means that there is conspiracy, corruption, and politicking to do. It is clear that the Dungeons & Dragons team is experimenting with the format of the published adventure here to make sure that each play group can have a different experience even within the context of a pre-written adventure.
This is not the first time that D&D has made a foray into constructing unique experiences in prewritten content. Curse of Strahd, for example, asks the Dungeon Master to pepper in appearances of the vampire lord into various unpredictable moments. Similarly, Storm King’s Fury gave players a bit of latitude when it comes to how they might approach the big issues of giants doing bad things to the world.
For being an adventure that is fundamentally about changeability, the opening sections of Dragon Heist seem very on-rails. The players are in Waterdeep, they get into a brawl, there’s a sort-of dungeon delve, and things are basically linear until a fireball rips through their part of the city and the rush to discover the hoard of treasure gets going.
I’m not going to get more explicit because of spoilers, but I was not surprised to learn that Matthew Mercer, a Dungeon Master famous for his live-streamed games, and Charlie Sanders, a comedian and television writer, are cited as critical parts of the writing team for this adventure. It has the feeling of a honed and runnable scenario that leads you down specific pathways that deliver fun and well-timed thrills.
For some D&D players, that could be seen as a criticism. While there are some specific moments where players could probably swerve and do interesting things, Dragon Heist mostly seems written to keep players in bounds and on the track toward the things the adventure wants to reveal to them. There are even factions, with faction-specific sidequests, to make sure that the party can go do additional work that still keeps them in the “universe” of Waterdeep, its political machinery, and the characters that run that machine. There’s not a lot of room to escape what the adventure has planned for you.
From a Dungeon Master’s perspective, I think the only thing that might get in the way of having a good time with this book is that there are quite a few moments of “if X is the villain, then Y,” and I think if I ran it that I might have to copy pages of this book, slice out the parts that did not fit the villain I chose, and then reassemble them in a folder. After all, there are hidden criminal conspiracies afoot, and they can get complicated. As a bonus for D&D nerds, there is also a short appendix that lays out some amazing facts and locations of Waterdeep that could easily be pulled out and adapted to your home games or cities.
If a strong, contained experience is what your play group is looking for, then I think that Dragon Heist would be a great fit, and I’m curious to try to run some of it myself.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. He’s the weekend editor at Kotaku and a regular writer at Waypoint. His latest game, Epanalepsis, is available on Steam.