A DM’s Guide to Dragon Heist: Chapter Two
Chapter Two of Dragon Heist is either really useful and critical, or else just a complete waste of time, if you go with the adventure as written. This article will discuss why that is, and give some advice on how to play out Chapter Two for your group, depending on the sort of outcomes you have in mind for the adventure as a whole.
It All Depends on the Ending
I’ve really been trying to keep my comments on the different chapters of Dragon Heist separated according to the chapter, but I’m going to have to skip ahead a little bit in this article in order to give any kind of useful advice about how to go about running Chapter Two. We need to look at the very end of Chapter Four, and form some opinions on whether the ending in the adventure-as-written is a good one or not. Just to put it out in the open, I think it’s a lousy ending, and when I ran Dragon Heist for my group, I cut it down to the bare bones and rewrote it into something that I thought my players would actually enjoy.
However, you might like the ending, and that’s obviously up to you and what your players like. I’ll try to be equitable, but if I sound like I’m slamming on the end because I have something against it, then I probably am, because I do. On we go, to the very end of Chapter Four, where the party finally locates Dagult Neverember’s hoard of gold dragons. Here’s how it plays out in brief:
The PC’s find their way into and through the ancient dwarven vault, and finally end up in the very same room as the fabulous treasure: half a million gold pieces in a giant, ten-thousand-pound pile of wealth. Unfortunately, there’s a complication: the hoard is being guarded by an adult gold dragon. He initially shows up in a polymorphed form, but he’s a dragon. A big one. Just so you don’t have to look it up, an adult gold dragon is CR 17. At this point in the story, the PC’s are about level 4. And the dragon isn’t willing to hand over the gold without a fight.
There are actually some ways written into the book that the PC’s might be able to use to convince the dragon to give up the hoard, but they are unlikely to work, just from a numbers standpoint. You need some amazing charisma to outfox a dragon, and the Legendary Resistance feature will make any spells with saving throws more or less useless for charming or otherwise persuading him.
Anyway, the party will probably end up leaving the room without the gold, which will still be guarded by the dragon, and this will be very disappointing and frustrating, because what were they supposed to have done, anyway? But, they don’t have long to feel disappointed, because at this point the main villain of the story either shows up in person, or sends some hand-picked henchmen to the vault to intercept the PC’s. If the villain is Jarlaxle, he offers them the chance to walk away empty-handed but alive. If it’s any of the others, then the badguys try to kill the characters right then and there.
This is not a winnable situation. But wait! If the characters made friends with the factions in Chapter Two, then the factions will send extremely powerful NPC’s to resolve the situation. And it gets resolved, violently or otherwise. The end. Exeunt omnes.
And this is why you have to choose how you’re going to run Chapter Two based on how you want to end Chapter Four. If you want powerful NPC’s to show up and save the day for your players when they find themselves outnumbered and overpowered, then you’d better play Chapter Two mostly the way that it’s written. Otherwise, you can completely change Chapter Two and make it something that you like better. There are reasons to go either way.
Why To Use Chapter Two as Written
There are a few good reasons why you might want to stick with the way Chapter Two works in the actual Dragon Heist hardcover. Essentially, Chapter Two is about completing faction missions to earn renown with the various factions who have a presence in Waterdeep. The five standard factions are each available with a set of missions: the Harpers, the Emerald Enclave, the Zhentarim, the Lords’ Alliance, and the Order of the Gauntlet. Also available are missions for the Grey Hands/Force Grey, as well as the criminal syndicates Bregan D’aerthe and the Xanathar Guild.
As mentioned previously, if you intend to play the end of Chapter Four as written, you’re probably going to need powerful friends to intervene on the characters’ behalf if they’re going to survive, much less succeed. That’s one reason to stick with Chapter Two the way it is. Be sure to take a look at what sort of assistance the different factions might provide, in case you need to gently steer your players toward a particular faction. As I recall, the assistance sent by the Emerald Enclave is unimpressive, but if you buddy up with the Lords’ Alliance it’s possible for the Open Lord herself to come to your aid. Keep that sort of thing in mind, and remember that many of the main NPC’s have their own stat blocks in Appendix B; be sure of what level of firepower they represent.
Another reason to stick with the chapter as written is if you have players who are interested in having their characters join a particular faction, or earn renown in a particular faction. Some factions (I would say particularly the Harpers) resonate deeply with certain players. If you have players at your table who feel that way, keeping Chapter Two as written might be a good idea. A reason strongly related to this one pertains to those of you who might be running Dragon Heist for organized Adventurers’ League play. Being part of one of those five major factions is often a big part of an Adventurers’ League character, and earning renown points for your character’s faction (along with the nifty titles that come with them) can be a major draw.
Having characters who are members of the Zhentarim, Xanathar Guild, or Bregan D’aerthe can create some interesting dynamics between those characters and the ongoing story. This is just because those factions are each active in the search for the Stone of Golorr and the Neverember hoard. If you want to give your players some cause for conflicted loyalties, there are opportunities to lay the groundwork for that in Chapter Two.
The best reason I can think of to use the original Chapter Two is to provide the possibility of a helping hand to your players if they get stuck on part of the mystery. If you want to create a plan to bail them out of confusion, I would get them all to join the Harpers or Force Grey. That way they can have superiors in the organization who can give them specific and concrete orders that will ensure they stay on the adventure plot path. And yes, I think that’s kind of a railroady thing to do, but some groups work best when they have someone handing them missions instead of having to work out all the steps for themselves. If that’s your group, being members of Force Grey and having “orders from the Blackstaff” to guide them along might be a good thing for you.
Why To Scrap Chapter Two as Written
A lot of the reasons to just get rid of most or all of Chapter Two as contained in the Dragon Heist book are just the flip-arounds of the reasons to keep it. There are others, and we’ll get to them, but let’s cover the easy reasons first.
If you plan to have the characters deal with the end of Chapter Four in some other way than it’s written in the book, you don’t need them to gain faction renown, or even meet any faction leaders at all. If you’re planning on completely changing the way the Dragon Heist story ends, as I did, you don’t need factions. I actually discussed this issue with my players after we were over and done with Dragon Heist, and they commented that having a lot of powerful faction allies show up to help them at the end of the story was not something they would have found gratifying. One of them even asked if I would have brought popcorn for them to eat while I sat behind the screen battling friendly NPC’s against enemy NPC’s.
If you have nothing to do with Adventurers’ League play, it’s entirely possible that your players might not know anything about those five factions, or feel any particular need to have them involved in their lives. If that’s the case, introducing additional elements with their own agendas into an already complex story might not be the best idea for your game. That’s also a reason not to get PC’s involved in the criminal-underworld type of factions. I don’t need to expound here on the kinds of trouble you can get into if you have evil-aligned characters in your party, and even if their alignments aren’t “officially evil”, doing some of the faction missions for the criminal syndicates definitely require evil actions.
My favorite reason for just scrapping all of Chapter Two and going with something completely different is that I thought the party would be much better off spending their time doing mini-missions for their new friends and neighbors in Trollskull Alley, rather than doing mini-missions for random powerful people in the city at large. Here are some of the tasks I came up with:
Helping Fala the non-binary elf to obtain some herbalism supplies from a bigoted wholesaler who refused to do business with “that elf thing”. I made the guy a real bastard. They loved to hate him.
Embric the fire genasi smith got into an argument with a customer that ended in a challenge to a duel to the death. Avi the water genasi smith enlisted the party’s help in dealing with the situation, because the customer was a nobleman and significant legal trouble would result from killing him.
Renaer Neverember is in hiding, but needs some personal errands run to keep his cover safe. I had them sneak past some thugs to deliver a donation to a temple of Ilmater in the Field Ward, for example.
Considering that part of the stated purpose of Chapter Two is to get the players to feel settled into Waterdeep as their home before blowing it all up in Chapter Three, I thought being good neighbors was better than rubbing elbows with the city elite, and my group of players agreed.
Problematic Elements in Chapter Two
Quite aside from what we’ve just discussed, there are a couple of problems with Chapter Two that might put the brakes on it for you as far as keeping it the way it is. You can work around these, but it’s going to take some extra attention.
The first issue is that the faction missions don’t only apply to characters who have just reached level 2 after completing Chapter One. Each faction has a series of missions, increasing in difficulty until the final mission, which is appropriate for characters at level 5. Stopping the investigation in order to do some faction missions can be very problematic as far as the Dragon Heist plot. I found that events during Chapter Three and Chapter Four kept accelerating into one another, with the party getting closer to having the whole story of the hoard and simultaneously getting closer to finding it. There just didn’t seem to be a lot of places to stop the action to do an unrelated side quest without breaking momentum. Since Dragon Heist is primarily a detective story, pausing to do non-detective-story things can be a problem. I wouldn’t start into Chapter Two as written without a good plan for how to handle that issue.
The second issue is the tavern in Trollskull Alley. If you look at the sidebar box on page 41, you’ll see that the party is supposed to cough up 1,250 gp in order to get the tavern back into operation. At level 2, that is a lot of coin to come up with all at once. My solution was to break the job down into smaller jobs that cost less individually: fixing the roof, repainting, having furniture made, and that sort of thing. If you want to come up with some sort of list, just watch any episode of any house-renovation or house-flipping show from Home and Garden TV, and then take a look at the list of Waterdavian guilds on page 13. It’s not too hard to come up with a list of jobs and who needs to do them that will add up to the total renovation cost, and the best thing is that the party will be able to come up with the money to pay the individual workers a little at a time. If you go with my idea about doing favors for the neighbors, remember that those neighbors are also guild members, and might be willing to provide discounts or free work as a show of gratitude.
I mentioned in the previous article that I gave the party the treasure from the Chapter One warehouse treasure room during Chapter Two. Basically, I had Lif the Poltergeist lead one of the characters to hidden treasure in the Trollskull Alley tavern. It was a nice way to reward the group, and especially the player who went to the extra trouble to be kind to Lif. It also allowed me to put some cash into their pockets without it seeming too arbitrary.
An Extremely Important Final Note
No matter what you decide to do for your Chapter Two, there is one suggestion that I feel I can’t possibly overstate: you need to tell your players that Chapter Two will be over whenever they say it’s over.
I had a lot of interesting tasks for their various neighbors planned, and I had a pretty detailed itemized bill for the tavern renovation, so whenever all of those tasks were accomplished and the tavern renovation was all completed and paid for, Chapter Two would be over and we would move on into Chapter Three, when the mystery detective story would continue.
But, before we even started my homebrewed Chapter Two, I told the players, in as many words, that we would be done with Chapter Two whenever they said so. I would wave my hand, and the tavern would be up and running with all bills paid, and they would level up to level 3, and we would get on with the plot. I warned them that they might miss out on some possible benefits of friendship with their Trollskull Alley neighbors if they didn’t help them with their mini-missions, but other than that, Chapter Two would be over whenever they got bored with it, free of any penalty.
I strongly recommend that you take the same position. Whether you go with Chapter Two as written, or instead modify it a little or a lot, there is not really a fixed endpoint. You just do faction missions or neighborhood missions or whatever you’re going to do, but there’s no point in the chapter where the Dragon Heist book tells you, “okay, now go to Chapter Three where plot things start happening again.” Let your players decide when they’ve settled in enough and are ready to get back into the story: don’t risk letting them get bored and antsy just because they haven’t gotten all of the tavern bills paid and finished all of the little side missions. Players getting bored is (almost?) never worth it, and it’s definitely not worth it in this case.
So, to sum it all up, Chapter Two has a lot of room for customization (if not outright improvement). Figure out how you want the very end of the Dragon Heist story to play out, and use that decision as a guide to how much you want faction missions to be part of the game. Remember that there might not be a lot of perceived time to do additional faction missions when the chase is on and the trail is hot, and I assure you that events will accelerate starting at the beginning of Chapter Three when you drop that fireball into the party’s lap on a quiet morning.
If you decide you don’t need the characters to curry favor with any factions, consider making them the benefactors of their Trollskull Alley neighbors rather than more distant faction leaders. The neighbors are quite detailed and colorful enough to support some interesting interactions, and getting to be friends with them might make the whole “settling into city life” seem more genuine than running errands for the high and mighty.
And, finally, make sure that Chapter Two ends when the players decide that they have had enough of it, and not a moment later than that. It’s basically an interlude between the action of Chapter One and the “real story” that begins in Chapter Three: don’t let it drag on to the point of boredom for your players.
With that, I’ll conclude my remarks and advice on Chapter Two of Dragon Heist. This chapter has the possibility of being a lot of fun, or maybe just being a big speedbump in the adventure. However you decide to run it, this is the chapter that needs to be all about what your players want. If you can get them through Chapter Two feeling entertained and fulfilled, it’ll all have been worth it. Next time, we’ll get to Chapter Three, where events really start to move, and move fast.