[D&D 5e] Dragon Heist

edited November 2018 in Play Advice
Split off from Wherin I debrief 5e.
I have been disappointed with most of the canned adventures for 5e from Wizards, with the exception of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, which I've only read, but is the most brilliant adventure module ever written.
I'm intrigued, particularly as there's a pretty negative review by Justin Alexander/Justin Bacon here.

Could you or anyone else elaborate? What makes Dragon Heist so good?

(I'm not asking anyone to defend their taste. I haven't read the module, so I have no horse in this race. I'm merely curious about the enthusiasm it generates.)

The art and the four villains' lairs alone might be worth the price, but what I'm particularly interested in is the viability/payoff of its structure.


  • Ha ha, that review sure makes me grateful for not being in the target audience. That sounds exactly as if trad game design hadn't budged an inch in 30 years - something like that could well have come from TSR in the early '90s, and probably did.

    But yes, now I'm curious, too. In fact, I'm generally curious about 5th edition adventure design: if I read between the lines correctly, this Dragon Heist gives us what amounts to an early '80s Call of Cthulhu adventure, except with messy D&D regalia on top. Is this perhaps a consequence of taking influence from Pathfinder adventure paths, does anybody know? Are all 5th edition adventures sort of like this, or do they also do set-piece combat dungeons like was the norm for 3rd and 4th edition adventures? What's happening in the 5th edition D&D adventure design culture?
  • Yeah; I've heard nothing good about this adventure either, so I'm kinda interested in hearing another perspective...
  • Okay, in a bit, I'll explain why I like the adventure. First, though, I just read Justin Alexander's gripe about it and I want to critique the critique. Also, I've only read Dragon Heist once through and not with the depth of analysis Justin did, so he may have spotted a lot I didn't.

    He got a lot right. There are some continuity and timeline issues and a lot of opportunities for railroading. A lot of "strange coincidences" and "perfect timing." This is no different than almost anything Wizards has put out for 5e.

    However, there's also advice NOT to railroad the players and to let things progress organically. For example, Justin says:
    the “DM picks the villain before the campaign starts” structure is pretty heavily embedded
    No, it really isn't. In fact, the book tells you that you can change your mind who the villain is at any time. With a little work, I think you can have more than one of them in play at the same time. I mean, they all have motive.

    The reason Chris Perkins gave for having multiple villains was something like, "a single stray Reddit comment could give away who the villain is, so we thought it'd be cool to have four possible villains." Essentially, you'll be guessing even if you think you know. As far as I can tell, it had nothing to do with "rewatchability," as Justin uncharitably suggests.

    There's a product on DM's Guild called Chapter 4: Dragon Season that deconstructs Dragon Heist and gives DM advice for running the seasonal part of it. It points out a bunch of flaws in the adventure and recommends how to work with them. So yeah, there are lots of flaws.

    Justin says:
    In many ways, Dragon Heist feels like the shattered remnants of a broken development cycle. It feels as if they were aiming for something ambitious, didn’t achieve it (or maybe it fell apart in playtests), and they ended up kind of cobbling together something that was at least mostly functional out of the wreckage.
    I'm not sure they playtested enough, actually. With four paths, maybe they only got one good independent playtest out of each one. The other three paths aren't wasted material! Those are three fleshed out villain factions that you can use to run future city adventures in Waterdeep. Same with the lairs.

    It's ambitious nature of the module that I love, but more on that later. As a skilled DM, I also feel like I can smooth out any of the adventure's warts on the fly.
  • Now why I love Dragon Heist.

    It has the most amazing tone. It's a caper, and for once, the stakes aren't world-ending. It's fun and exciting and funny and light in many ways. It's a big city, full of wonderful and diverse people and great opportunities. There's this MacGuffin idea of ONE MILLION GOLD PIECES just sitting there, waiting for a group to take it. We'll all be rich, I tell you. There is a faction of swashbucklers!

    The four villains allows you to tease your players, having different factions poking at the adventurers, but ultimately coming down to one group. The four lairs are sandboxes, waiting for a time when the party can handle it. The villains are huge and powerful. Of course, a group of 1st-5th level characters aren't gonna take on a very powerful (CR 13) beholder. The module throws plenty of mooks at the party instead, but also some dangerous henchmen. At the same time, it suggests an Achilles' heal for that particular boss...

    Dragon Heist's starting hook wasn't any more railroady than most module hooks. In my experience, players bite on these things without any problem. I love how the book basically says, "And now, probably the group goes on some side quests. Do what you normally do, DM."

    I love that the PC's patron pays them with a deed to a run-down tavern. It gives the characters roots and discourages them from leaving Waterdeep. This is how you have city adventures. The neighborhood block around the PCs' tavern is fleshed out with fantastic NPCs.

    The product is amazingly inclusive. It has a strong sidebar talking about the wondrous diversity of the people of Waterdeep, and not just "race" in the D&D sense, but also gender, sexual preference, and so on. It's amazingly diversity-positive, represented in the game by a pair of gay genies, for example.

    The art is great. I love the continuity of the three urchins appearing in different scenes throughout the book. The city comes alive in all the pictures.

    Could Dragon Heist be improved. Assuredly. I think more playtesting would have smoothed out the rough edges. The Dragon Season supplement I mentioned above talks about how the module completely goes in the wrong direction for a rooftop chase in winter:
    With advantage against complications, continuous Dash
    actions, 66 hit points, and a blizzard limiting visibility,
    Vevette has all the tools she needs to get away. However, this
    might result in her getting away a bit too soon, in which case
    the campaign book suggests that the party can ask people
    along the way. It seems more logical that the party can find
    their way to the theater by following her footprints in the
    snow on the rooftops.
    Right? But that is so easily solved at the table. Players: "Did she leave a trail of footprints?" DM: "Oh, of course, yes. Jumping from roof to roof." Players: "We follow those..."

    Maybe some of the continuity or timeline issues are more problematic, but most player groups aren't going to construct a careful timeline as much as just run headlong into each problem.

    I just think that Dragon Heist is going to be rip-roaringly fun to play. Yeah, the DM might have to smooth out some rough spots, but geez, it's worth it.

    Did Adam Koebel start livestreaming it? I'm curious if he's having any of the same problems that Justin raises.
  • edited November 2018
  • This is pretty interesting. I went and read a couple of other reviews:

    * One was glowing, and, in my opinion, entirely uncritical (it didn't even address any/many of the issues being brought up here). Seemed more like advertising than a review.

    * The second was also quite keen on the adventure, but agreed with the criticisms we're discussing here.

    From reading those reviews, it sounds like the "four Villain" design IS intended for "replayability" in some odd way (which makes no sense - are you really going to play the same adventure again with the same players? why?), but I like Adam's take on it as a "Schrodinger's Villain", instead. (The way the chosen villain determines the "season" of the adventure makes me think that Adam's interpretation isn't the intended one, however - for starters, knowing the season would immediately give away the "real villain", so that's not a good way to do things.)

    My conclusion (or rather, guess) so far (after reading three reviews) is that it's a pretty old-school, railroaded and inconsistent adventure, but one with lots of fun Colour and ideas. Rewarding the PCs with a tavern is a nice touch, and the basic concept of the lost gold is cool; the details of how to make an adventure out of it sound rather forced and unhelpful, in contrast.

    However, I can see how a creative GM with lots of time on her hands could use all this material to make more of a sandbox environment - basically, restructure the adventure to have all of these plot threads in play, and allow events to unroll according to the players' initiative. It would require some deep thought and rewriting/replanning, which makes me wonder why I wouldn't just start from scratch instead of buying a $50/200+ page book, but I could see *someone* being totally into that. (Especially someone who really likes having cool art, NPCs, and various Colour provided for them.)

    Is that the potential you see here, Adam? Or would you run it as written?

    There's multiple mention of clever "chase sequences" and other design features (encounter chains?) in these reviews. Are any of these exciting, from a design standpoint? If so, what makes them cool or unique?
  • edited November 2018
    Quick update:

    Adam Koebel has been running "Dragon Heist" on "Roll20 Presents", and, apparently, his approach is to show as much of the "DM side" to the viewers as possible, including various spoilers.

    If anyone has the time and patience to both a) read the adventure, and b) watch the series, please let us know to what extent he's running the adventure as-written as opposed to changing things on the fly to make it more palatable.

    (I've managed to watch just the very beginning of the adventure, and it starts with the characters gathered at the Yawning Portal, which, apparently, is or contains an entrance to the Underdark, and hence gets its name. Of course, immediately, one of the players says, "Ok, straight into the dungeon I go!", and then the group has to laugh and heckle a bit, and then explain that's not the right adventure, and that option isn't on the table. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but it's clearly not "sandbox" play by any stretch of the imagination.)
  • edited November 2018

    From reading those reviews, it sounds like the "four Villain" design IS intended for "replayability" in some odd way (which makes no sense - are you really going to play the same adventure again with the same players? why?)
    Storm King's Thunder, another 5e WotC adventure, does this as well. There are like five chapters in the middle of the adventure, only one of which will be useful to a given run-through of the adventure, based on which Giant lord the players decide to take on. It's like they're *trying* to make a nonlinear sandbox (which is appreciated), but the only way they know how to build one is with linear-adventure tools.

    Dragon Heist smells similar.

    It's worth noting that D&D podcasters and streamers are starting to show up in the credits of these books (James Introcaso, Matt Mercer). You'd expect if they wanted to actually make nonlinear adventures they'd work with OSR people.
  • Of course, immediately, one of the players says, "Ok, straight into the dungeon I go!", and then the group has to laugh and heckle a bit, and then explain that's not the right adventure, and that option isn't on the table. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but it's clearly not "sandbox" play by any stretch of the imagination.)
    I think the right reaction to that is to tell the player that his character would know that most adventurers don't come back from that easily, and that various NPCs would warn them to wait till they have a bit more experience before they dive into the pit in the Yawning Portal.

    Or, you know, let him. I can't recall what the Dragon Heist text says to do there. I think, soon enough, something comes out -- that is, the dungeon comes to them.
  • I don't think it was designed for replayability. Honestly, what I remember someone saying (either Chris Perkins or Matthew Mercer) was that a single stray comment on Reddit mentioning Xanathar or whoever could ruin the "who is the villain?" part of the adventure.

    Sure, if you know what seasons are tied to which villains, it's "spoiled" for you, but to get to that point you need a lot more than a stray comment. You have to go looking for it. (After all this discussion, do you know what season Xanathar is in?)

    Could you replay it? Yes! I don't see a single group replaying it, but if you'd played in the Xanathar season before, you could play with a different group and replay it, and just warn your DM you'd played that part before. Or a DM could replay it with a different season and a different group and feel like it was a different experience.

    I think it's kind of cool that different groups will have very different play experiences, too. "Hey, did you play Dragon Heist?" "Yeah! We fought Xanathar's faction. It was fire." "Oh, we had to deal with a bunch of cultists..."
  • Paul,

    Yeah, it's a big sandbox kit, but it's also a good adventure. It has flaws, but they're not fatal. I would play Dragon Heist as written, smoothing out wrinkles, as needed.

    I don't think there would be much trouble at the table. I don't think it has to be terribly railroady. If the players want to go off and do side quests or whatever, they can.

    Ultimately, there's the lure of a MILLION GOLD PIECES. If an adventuring party doesn't keep thinking about that, then I'd be surprised.

    But let's say they're all altruistic types. Then there's the faction system that Dragon Heist puts front and center. I forgot to talk about that. It's the faction system used in Adventurer's League games and it got a reprise in Xanathar's Guide to Everything, but it gets a full treatment here, too. In Dragon Heist, PCs bump into the agents of all kinds of factions, good and evil, and all of them have agendas. Most of them want the MacGuffin or the 1,000,000 gold pieces, obviously. They'll hire or bribe or coerce the characters into helping them get it.

    Once the PCs have it in their heads that they need to be on this quest, then it's a caper. Are there Benny Hill chases? Sure. Capers have those. Are some of them stupid? Yes. (Chase a Kenku and catch him--oh no, he threw the MacGuffin to the next Kenku, and now you have to chase that one!) But those are easily fixed.

    Should Dragon Heist be better? Yeah, sure. But it's still amazing for all the reasons I listed. It's not so flawed that people aren't going to have a blast with it at their tables, as is, out of the book.
  • I think it's kind of cool that different groups will have very different play experiences, too. "Hey, did you play Dragon Heist?" "Yeah! We fought Xanathar's faction. It was fire." "Oh, we had to deal with a bunch of cultists..."
    Except that based on Justin Alexander's comments, this isn't really true, because very little actually changes based on who the villain is.
  • I disagree with Justin.

    Enough changes based on who the villain is, that the Dragon Season product ($1.99) has strong recommendations about the quality and outcomes of each of the four seasons. I recommend picking it up, if you want a long list of flaws in Dragon Heist and how to solve them pretty easily.

    Some of the villains are inherently evil and some are not. That changes a lot. Their motivations are different and when/if the PCs find out what drives a "villain," they might change their minds about what to do. One of the villains has a good chance of befriending the party before they find out they're the antagonist. That changes things, no?

    The encounter chains are different. They use the same set piece locations (or really, each uses 8 of the 10 locations in a different order), but the foes they meet at each one are different. Spring has 5 combats and 1 more with a risk of combat, and only 1 chase (on the street). Winter has 3 combats, 2 more with a risk of combat, a street chase and a rooftop chase.

    The different villain encounters have totally different combat encounters. Summer: cult fanatics and devils and some other things I don't want to spoil. Fall: goblins, a half-ogre, duergar, troglodytes, a gibbering mouther, drow...

    Are the chases railroads? That depends on what you think happens if the villains get away. If the bad guy thugs successfully escape, then they take the Stone of Golarr to the villain's lair. Oh, hey, I guess there's a reason those lairs are in the book after all!

    The argument can be made (and IS made by Dragon Season) that some of the seasons are way better than the others. For example, they think Xanathar's season is a bit lackluster and Fall has some logical inconsistencies.

    But to say that very little changes? So wrong.
  • edited November 2018
    Very interesting, Adam. That certainly makes it sound more appealing.

    I found an episode of "Dragon Talk" on YouTube, where Chris Perkins and Matt Mercer talk about designing and writing Dragon Heist.

    It's quite fascinating:

    * First of all, yes, the idea to include four possible villains was very explicitly thought up as a strategy to avoid people on Twitter or Reddit or whatever giving away the mystery, spoiling it for other players.

    It came out of the question of, "How can we publish a mystery adventure, and not have it spoiled immediately?"

    (You're probably right that associating seasons with villains is just too obscure to worry about.)

    * They playtested the adventure with about 200 groups, and the feedback had all kinds of funny and oddball outcomes (e.g. a group becoming completely obsessed with a shop barely mentioned in a few lines of the adventure, and that becoming the main focus of the campaign, to the exclusion of the actual "plot"). They see that as a feature, not a bug, however. ("Working as intended.")

    In the process, they would also locate stumbling points (like an encounter killing one or more PCs or being too difficult) and "fix" them.

    * Chris Perkins speaks about how he started writing adventures by imitating, as closely as possible, adventures he saw written for 1st Edition D&D. He continues to say that this is, basically, what he is still doing today, just with better presentation. (This makes me think think of some of Eero's comments, upthread, about this style of adventure design...)

    * They speak a bit about how the style of D&D has changed over time: that in the 80s, there was a lot of "walk into a room, kill all the monsters there, repeat", but in modern D&D there is much more of a sense of story and narrative, which the players get to experience. (The way they speak about this sounds very much like the "middle school" D&D approach we've been discussing here on Story Games, especially 2nd Ed. AD&D and adventure writing from the 90s.)

    They speak of the narrative heights of the game now as a major achievement, and something they're very proud of.

    * Interestingly, the GMs discuss how they carefully plot out events and make contingency plans for if the players do this or that or this other thing... but they also say that, despite the prep, the most exciting and creative and fun play is when the players come up with something the GM hasn't thought of and isn't prepared for, and has to improvise, instead.

    (Although the logical consideration or question - "why not play that way all the time?" - never rears its head in their discussions. There is very much the assumption, it seems to me, that the GM's job is to limit possibilities for the PCS, and then prepare for every possible outcome, and the more ground you cover, the better a job you're doing. However, when that fails, really fun play results, but we must not consciously seek that fun. Fairly typical RPG thinking from 25+ years ago, I would say - as I have discussed more than a bit in our earlier thread on Critical Role.)

    * I love the evident passion for the project and the amount of work put into it, from everyone involved. I find the sort of geek/nerd obsession with spending months establishing background details (in this case, about the history of the city and its factions) quite fascinating; almost Tolkienesque.

    (Although it also shows a remarkable lack of awareness of what is useful or practical in gaming and what is just world-building out of habit - to me, another "typical" trait of dated RPG thinking that I was happy to leave behind long ago.)

    I'd love to hear about my earlier questions:

    Are the ways the chase sequences and encounter chains are set up clever, groundbreaking, ingenious? Is there some cool game design tech there that's worth checking out? What are they like? Several reviews hint at them, but don't give away much more than that.

    Is the cleverness of the encounter chains simply in that they recycle the same locations, for instance? Or is there more to it than that?
  • (Sidenote: I have no idea whether this is 100% applicable to this thread, but it reminded me of a discussion Sandra and I had about using linear modules for non-linear play a while back:


    I'd almost forgotten about that discussion. It was a good one! It makes me want to try running a few "linear" modules in combination to see what comes of it.

    I wonder how amenable Dragon Heist might be to some of these techniques? Is the material within it interesting enough on its merits to stand for such a dissection? Or is most of the fun in the module specifically about the roller-coaster of the "encounter chains", the various sequences of chases and clues, and so forth?)
  • A small note just to say this : Day of the Destroyer (Champions, not D&D) made a clever use of multiple solution plot. The evil doktor (INT 40) could have come up with 3-4 decoy leads. The players could counter this being quick, numerous (including via troupe play) or clever. Only when they reached the climax of each lead was it established that it was the correct one. or not.
  • The encounter chains aren't that special. I think it's the first time I've seen it done, so there's that. But all in all, it's just eight linear encounters -- or thinking about it another way, seven ways for players to get "lost" off "the plot." That means lots of built-in GM Force, even if very subtle, to get things to go the expected way. One clue leads to the next thing, and it's sorta obvious that the PCs are "supposed" to go that way.

    Still, hella fun.

    The way I see it, it's not really a mystery adventure. It's a caper. The players aren't supposed to really solve anything, so railroading that part of it is fine. Most everything else is not railroaded, really. All purchased adventures require some kind of wink-and-nod for the players to at least take the opening hook, right?

    The fun is in the caper stuff: wild combats and chase scenes, fun role-playing encounters with memorable characters, and a hell of a backstory to discover.
  • Thank you for elaborating on this, Adam, particularly given the difficult context (Here's a negative review. You like this, don't you?).

    Your points definitely make sense to me and I might just pick it up, as I was already tempted by the artwork in Storm King's Thunder. Dragon Heist seems to offer that and much more!

    That said, I'd definitely pick & choose bits and pieces rather than run it as written. Paul's reminder of his and Sandra's discussion on making linear adventures work in a sandbox is much appreciated.
  • And one more time, if you do run it, check out those supplements on DM's Guild that explain what's wrong with Dragon Heist and how to fix it.
  • Updating this just a little, I managed to watch the first session of Dragon Heist.


    * I enjoyed the 'urban mystery' angle of the adventure, and the colourful locations.

    * The adventure, for my tastes, is full of REALLY cliche D&Disms, like starting in a tavern where - surprise! - a brawl breaks out, a monster shows up for no real good reason, and then getting hired by a famous and powerful NPC to chase after an adventure hook, and haggling for money (a funny throwback from old-school D&D, right? I don't see fantasy fiction heroes tend to haggle so much for their price to go on righteous adventures...).

    * It seems to play as a sequence of scenes and events that the players are supposed to follow. I didn't see any railroading (because the players didn't try to "stray off the path"), but it does seem fairly linear.

    * The level of detail and care put into those details is very apparent. Adam even uses a version of the adventure set up specifically for online play, which includes digital versions of all the maps, stats, handouts, and so on. The characters on the map use "dynamic lighting" to reveal parts of the map as they move around (something I first saw in Adam_Dray's D&D game!). Impressive! The future of gaming is here, it seems.
  • All published modules require a certain amount of player buy-in to get started. However, Dragon Heist does have a few places where the players can just walk away, though. In Koebel's game, I laughed when the entire party almost walked away from Volo's offer and when everyone but the dwarf was bored to tears about the payment of a building.
  • The Yawning Portal cliche is literally built on old cliches, though. Like the Comeback Inn (in Arneson's original Blackmoor), it's a tavern where you can actually enter the dungeon. (I did something similar in 1985 with my campaign's "Weigh Inn.")

    And the Yawning Portal is the entrance to the 23-level Waterdeep megadungeon detailed in the Mad Mage companion book that just came out.

    So yeah, it's a cliche, but it's a cliche done well.

    As for the other cliches, well, none of them bothered me! They work.
  • Would love to know what you think of the Mad Mage megadungeon, Adam, if you end up getting that as well.
  • Out of curiosity, I ended up back at the Alexandrian and saw that a lot of people (in various ways and at different levels) agree with the review. It's interesting to read the variety of responses, however.

    Alexander has, thus, decided to rewrite/reorganize the module in a way which he considers more interesting and flexible. You can read about it HERE: although I'm not terribly familiar with the module, certainly some of the things he's saying seem smart (like including all four factions in the plot).

    I'll leave the link here in case anyone is reading or running the module and wants to read someone else's take on it!
  • I've read the intro to Mad Mage and the first two levels. It's good stuff! It's way less fun to read, though. It's primarily built for reference, as it should be. I got my fill of endless megadungeon play when I ran 30-40 two-hour sessions of my own Mirrorrim campaign, so I'm not sure I'm ready to delve beneath the Yawning Portal, but for those who are, it looks solid.
  • I'll read that later, Paul. It sounds cool! There's so much good in Dragon Heist but it definitely isn't perfect, and in a few places, it's not really coherent.
  • Justin's remix is amazing.
  • edited December 2018
    Yeah, it looks good to me (although I haven't read the original module, so I have no point of comparison).

    Any particularly clever redrafting? Or is it simply a case of applying his personal tastes to a product?

    (Are there why techniques we can retroengineer from what he has done?)
  • Thank you for referencing the linear adventures thing! Much apprec!

    Yes, I applied those techniques successfully to a linear adventure, Corsairs of the Great Sea, it was awesome. Extracting locations and NPCs and translating events to "the NPCs really want to do this if they can". And moving "world" events to random dice rolls.

    Man, I had Dragon Heist in my hands and flubbed reading it more carefully!

    I was working on new chase rules and I heard Dragon Heist was gonna have new chase rules (it doesn't really) so I borrowed it and I only glanced at that part.
    Overall we were really hyped for it but my quick glances made it look way more, uh... scripty? than I was comfortable with. Our group already had some problems with the triggers in the Carrowmore part of Deep Carbon Observatory; the events in Carrowmore are triggered by the player's choices but it's so seamless and immediate that it felt to them railroady and pushed. [BTW I love my players for giving me constant feedback. And for other things. Just love them. (We currently have five players + some that want to get in on the game but I have been hesitant to expand the group more.)]

    By comparison I thought the Omu part of Tomb of Annihilation was freaking awesome. There, too, the players wondered if it was scripted but… in Omu there are mechanics for the opposing faction progress. A simple quick die roll each diegetic day to see which of the maguffins the opposing faction had gotten their hands on or not. Made the city feel super alive.

    My first glances at DH kinda scared me off it and I felt embarrassed for being so hyped up for it and all my players got hyped up too. RN the plan for next campaign, if Tomb of Annihilation ever finishes (we're over fifty sessions in at this point but we have so much left to do) is gonna be Ravnica and put it more on the Hillfolky side of the spectrum. (If our al-Qadim campaign was the midpoint, our Tomb of A campaign is more to the side of D&D, the plan is for our Ravnica campaign to be more on the side of Hillfolk.)
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