A DM’s Guide to Dragon Heist: Intro and Chapter One
As with any of the hardcover adventures that Wizards of the Coast have been releasing for D&D 5th Edition over the past few years, Dragon Heist has its ups and its downs. This segment of Here There Be Spoilers will go over my insights and suggestions for running Dragon Heist, in a general way. I’ll also take a closer look at Chapter One of the adventure and try to make some constructive comments.
Think of It As a Campaign Setting…
Let me first say that both I and my players had a great time with Dragon Heist. We just didn’t play it quite like it was written by the team at WotC. The version that we played was essentially based on their version of the Dragon Heist story, and it incorporated a lot of the same friends, foes, and villains as the official version. We used many of the same locations, and I got to make use of the maps in the hardcover instead of having to come up with my own. Having the city of Waterdeep laid out was also great, and Volo’s Waterdeep Enchiridion in the back of the book was good enough for me to buy the five-dollar PDF on DM’s Guild so that I could give it to the players for optional reading.
But, ultimately, Dragon Heist was less of an adventure for me to run than a neat premise, a general plot progression, and a lot of nice resources to work with. I think of it as a campaign setting, like the ones that they used to release for earlier D&D editions, or the one that Matt Mercer (All Praise Be To His Holy Name) put out for his homebrewed setting from Critical Role. The campaign settings gave you the groundwork for the world, and saved you from having to invent absolutely everything in order to create your own original adventures. That’s Dragon Heist: it’s the Waterdeep Detective Story Campaign Setting. And that’s not a bad thing, really. You just need to realize as a DM what you’re getting into.
If you want to think of this in terms of stars for a review, I’d give it about 4.5 stars if you’re a DM who wants to use the adventure-as-written as a jumping-off point to make something better than what you’ve been given. If you’re a DM who wants to sit down and just run the adventure flat-out, I’d give it more like 2.5 stars.
Gripes and Complaints
As far as the introduction goes, I really don’t have a lot of serious problems, but I have a few nitpicky ones. One of those nitpicky problems is that there are guns in Dragon Heist. Not everyone has them, but a lot of the drow gangsters do. Of course, they use the magical propellant “smokepowder” to fire their bullets. I’m not going to get into this here, but you can look forward to a soapbox post all about how guns do not belong in D&D. Let’s just say that finding them integrated into the adventure took me by surprise. My solution was to change Drow Gunslingers into Drow Strikers. Drow Strikers are identical to Drow Gunslingers, except that they use hand crossbows like any self-respecting drow knows how to do.
This next item is not so much a complaint as it is a caution. The maps in Dragon Heist are pretty minimalist compared to previous hardcover adventures. They’re basically black-and-white line-drawing maps, instead of the super-glossy full-color-lookdown maps. It’s basically the difference between using the street maps setting on Google Maps as opposed to using the satellite look-down setting. Because you don’t get to see little miniature versions of the stuff in each room (like in the Tomb of Annihilation maps, for example), you’d be well advised to take a colored pen or pencil and write on the maps what each room is when you make your photocopy of the map to work with. I shouldn’t have to tell anyone that you ought to make a photocopy of any map you plan on using, so you don’t have to flip back and forth in the book. Anyway, annotate your photocopy like crazy. I actually used three colors of ink: green to name a room, blue to call out any important features, and red to mark enemies and traps. I would advise you to do the same, at least for the room names.
Something important that gets left out of the introduction is just how long ago Dagult Neverember embezzled the half-million gold dragons from the city coffers. The book really doesn’t say. I decided to go with about two months: recent enough that people are still talking about it, and not such a long time for the Xanathar Guild and the Zhents to be having a gang war over it. A really protracted gang war didn’t seem to fit in with the law-and-order mood of Waterdeep. Figure out what timeframe works best for you, but figure it out early. I had to decide in a hurry because a player asked me, and I hadn’t actually thought about it. Don’t make my mistake.
Also, when it comes right down to it, the title of the adventure is misleading. The “dragon” bit at least makes sense, because the Waterdavian gold coin is called a “dragon”, kind of like in the United States a ten-cent coin is called a “dime”. However, no heist occurs anywhere in the story. The hoard of dragons was not obtained by a heist; Dagult Neverember embezzled them. And the PC’s will probably not be taking part in a heist, either. They don’t steal the treasure hoard, they just locate it. Even if for some reason they end up storming a villain’s hideout to recover the hoard to save the day at the last minute, it wouldn’t be a heist, it would be home invasion and robbery. And, let’s face it, home invasion and robbery totally lack the flair and panache that are evoked when you talk about a “heist”.
When you use the word “heist”, it brings up associations of “The Sting” with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, or “Ocean’s Eleven” (or “Twelve”, or “Thirteen”, for that matter, not to mention the 1960 Rat Pack version), or “The Italian Job” with the stunt-driving Mini Coopers. Those are the ones I think of; pick your own favorites, but you know what I mean. Get it out of the way up front and tell your players that if they’re expecting to be part of a heist, they’ll probably be disappointed. That was one of the comments I got from my players at the end of Dragon Heist: they had a great time with the detective story and murder mystery aspects of the adventure, but they found the absence of an actual heist to be a let-down. They were looking forward to that heist, and then it never happened.
Choosing a Villain
This is a neat feature of the adventure. At first, I thought it would even allow for some replay value, but it doesn’t really. Your chosen villain might be mentioned in places during the story, but unless something goes terribly wrong, your characters probably won’t meet the villain in person until the very end of Chapter Four, just a breath away from the end of the adventure. The choice of villain won’t even make a difference until the beginning of Chapter Four. I’ll get more into Chapter Four when we get there, of course, but suffice it to say that the choice of villain is only good for replay during Chapter Four and if you’re the DM. Chapters One through Three play the same no matter which villain you choose.
Your villain goes with a season of the year. Four villains, four seasons. It has a nice sense of wholeness. However, the season of the year also doesn’t make much difference until Chapter Four, when there are some environmental effects that are determined by the season: look at pages 58 – 61, and you’ll see “Weather Effects” described at the end of the encounter chain summaries (again, bear with me, we’ll get to those in the Chapter Four installment). When you pick your villain, you might as well pick the season that you like the weather effects for, because that’s all the difference it will make. I suppose the occurrence of certain Waterdavian holidays might be a reason to keep the villain’s original season, but there’s also no reason you can’t move around the dates for the holidays. It’s not like anyone is going to call you on it.
My advice on choosing a villain would be to pay attention to the villain’s style, and also decide which villain’s hideout you think is the coolest. Chapters Five through Eight contain very detailed room-by-room fully-mapped hideouts for the villains. It’s really too bad that you probably will have no cause to use them if you go with the adventure as written. Anyway, I chose Jarlaxle Baenre, because I thought that lots of double-dealing and deception would be a good vibe for the story, and because I thought that his hideout being the three ships was a neat idea.
It turned out that I ended up not using Jarlaxle himself or the ships, but the deception and double-dealing was great for tying the story together as I rewrote it piece by piece. So now we’ll talk about that.
The biggest problem to get out of the way when you’re going to run Dragon Heist is that the backstory is full of holes, and the motivations of the main NPC players often don’t make a lot of sense. This wouldn’t be much of a problem in a normal adventure, but in a detective story like Dragon Heist, you can’t expect the players to be good detectives and make the right deductions if the story and the characters don’t make sense. So, I ended up rewriting most of the backstory, and a lot of the NPC’s ended up doing the same things as in the original story, but for different reasons.
The main theme that ties together my modified version of Dragon Heist is that the love of money is the root of all evil. Radix malorum est cupiditas. Sorry, had to get that snooty Latin phrase out of my system. Moving on, then.
Quite independent of the fact that the Stone of Golorr is an evil artifact, every single NPC (in my version of the story) who ever possessed the Stone either got it through treachery and violence, or lost it through treachery and violence, or both. It’s an easy pattern to follow, and it creates patterns of behavior that the players can recognize: anyone who gets the Stone tries to use it to claim the hoard for themselves. And that’s what an unscrupulous person would actually do. It rings true, and that’s very important for a mystery story.
I’ll get more into the story changes I made as we go through the chapters, post by post. For right now, the most important thing that has to be changed from the very beginning is how the Stone of Golorr works. In my Dragon Heist, only a Neverember could attune to the Stone and get the information about the hoard. If not for that restriction, you would have a really hard time as a DM trying to find reasons why whomever currently has the Stone doesn’t just attune to it and go get the treasure. Making the Stone picky as to who can use it fixes that, and of course the PC’s become friends with Renaer Neverember, who can unlock the secrets for them at the right time in the plot.
The good news is that you don’t have to figure out your story changes all at once. I sure didn’t. My story changes pretty much got made during the week before I started running any particular chapter, and it worked out fine. Because the players are figuring out little pieces of the big picture as the story progresses, you don’t have to have a fully-developed grand plan from the very beginning. That being said, I feel like I procrastinated too much, and that I would have had an easier time fixing the story if I had worked a little further ahead. But, of course, I didn’t really realize that I was going to have to make changes until I was already in the thick of the plot. If you’re reading this article, you’ve got an advantage that I didn’t have going in.
Chapter One: A Straightforward Story
Chapter One of Dragon Heist has the redeeming virtue of being quite independent of the rest of the story. As long as Renaer Neverember comes out of the chapter alive, it doesn’t really matter what else happens. If you take my advice about Neverember blood and the Stone of Golorr, you really need Renaer to survive. Fortunately, he’s pretty hard to kill, and makes a good tagalong for the party as they struggle through at first level.
I recommend using the proprietor of the Old Xoblob Shop as a witness to the kidnapping of Floon and Renaer. Xoblob is fun to roleplay, and describing his purple storefront will draw any group of players into having a look inside. Having an eyewitness to the kidnapping helps the chapter run more smoothly, because it establishes a sense of purpose and a sense of urgency. You can also use Xoblob to point the party in the right direction: I basically decided that Candle Lane would adjoin some alleyways right across from Xoblob’s storefront, so the PC’s ended up on the right track. It was much easier than having them search for helpful passersby on the street at night in a bad part of town, or else trying to use their survival skills to find the kidnappers’ day-old tracks over cobblestones.
The warehouse encounter played very well. I made sure that when they scouted out the warehouse, the bodies could not be seen from the upper floor. It made for a nice nasty surprise when they went downstairs. It was also easy to get them from the warehouse to the sewers, because there was a big muddy loading yard to provide some big muddy tracks to follow: two sets of footprints, with two dragging-heel marks between them say very clearly that someone was dragged off in this direction.
They didn’t find the treasure room in the warehouse, because I felt like finding a hidden treasure would be a disruption in the very tense find-the-kidnapped-friend sequence. I gave them the same treasure during Chapter Two, because they would have found it in the warehouse if I had let them.
The sewer hideout also played well. Showing the players a mind flayer so early on created a nice bit of panic, followed by relief when he split the scene. The boss fight with the apprentice wizard and the intellect devourers was effective, especially because nobody really knew anything specific about intellect devourers. They just knew that, if they had anything to do with mind flayers, they were probably extremely horrible. Incidentally, that is perfectly true. They are very awful.
I was very pleased that the party did not stop to fight the ooze from the bathroom on the way out. They just ran for it. It’s nice when a group does that.
Motivation and Story Changes
The biggest changes I made to NPC motivations and the overall story in Chapter One were pretty minor, at least as far as the players were able to see, but I got a nice effect for the story by enhancing the case of mistaken identity that seems to be a core component of the kidnapping.
In my vision of it, the Zhents kidnapped both Renaer and Floon because, in the dark, one ginger dandy looks very much like another, and they weren’t taking any chances about getting the wrong one. (By the way, “ginger dandy” was what my players decided to call Floon and Renaer after I described their appearance and mode of dress. Credit where it’s due.) I decided the Zhents actually wanted to get hold of Floon, maybe to recover some gambling debts, and Renaer just ended up along for the ride. So, when the Zhents get the two ginger dandies back to the warehouse, they figure out which one is Floon and which is Renaer. They toss Renaer, who they don’t know, back behind some crates to deal with him later, and begin to go through the whole pay-up-or-you’ll-lose-fingers gangster loan-shark thing with Floon.
The Xanathar Guild, though, doesn’t care about Floon. They want Renaer, and when they storm the Zhent warehouse, they take Floon with them, because they think that he’s actually Renaer. This is the case of mistaken identity that makes Chapter One connect to the rest of the story, and I’ll tell you how.
The Xanathars take Floon to their sewer hideout to torture him for information. They don’t get any information out of him, because they’re asking him all the questions they want answered by Renaer: they ask about the treasure, about his father, and maybe they even drop the name of the “Stone of Golorr”. Floon can’t answer any of those questions, because he’s not actually Renaer, so the torture is going badly. But, even though Floon can’t answer the Xanathars’ questions, he now knows what those questions are. When the PC’s and Renaer rescue Floon, Floon can tell his friend Renaer that the Xanathars are looking for him, and what they want to know.
Renaer does the sensible thing and goes into hiding, but he doesn’t share his suspicions with the PC’s just yet; there’s something sinister going on, and he’s stuck in the middle of it. Floon and Volo are blissfully reunited, and the party now has their first hints into the bigger story based on Floon’s report about the Xanathars’ questions. And we move into Chapter Two, in which the party gets to own a tavern. My players were totally blissing out over having a tavern.
The High Points
So, if you get nothing else from this article, here are what I think are the most important bits. First, be aware that you’re going to need to make some changes to the adventure-as-written, but you won’t need to abandon it entirely. Second, tell your players right up front that they aren’t going to get a heist out of this story, and forestall that disappointment. Third, choose the villain you like the most, but don’t be afraid to change your mind, as long as you change your mind before the start of Chapter Four. And, finally, remember that Chapter One is not strongly connected to the rest of the adventure: my little switcheroo with Floon and Renaer was designed to create a connection, but you don’t need to use anything like that.
If you manage to get the party working together and avoid any PC deaths, you’ll have had a successful Chapter One. You can expect another installment of Here There Be Spoilers for Chapter Two of Dragon Heist, but my advice to you if you have to run Chapter Two before I write the next article is just to run Chapter Two exactly how it’s written in the book. It might not be the best concept the way it is, but it’s good enough to go on. I’ll see you right back here for our next Here There Be Spoilers sometime in the not-so-distant future.