Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is a published D&D adventure for fifth edition. While I have played Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and also created DM’s resources, sidequests and more for the adventure, I have never actually sat down and reviewed it. So, even though I’m a bit late to the party, here’s my review of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist!
In this review, I will focus on five things:
- Setting – how evocative and immersive is the world presented in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist?
- Story – how compelling is Waterdeep: Dragon Heist’s story and plot?
- Structure & Pacing – is Waterdeep: Dragon Heist well-structured and how is it’s pace?
- Accessibility – how easy or difficult is Waterdeep: Dragon Heist to run?
- Accessories – what is the DM given to work with in terms of handouts, maps, etc?
Of course, this is all highly subjective, so to give you a chance to see if you will have the same opinion as me, I’ll try to explain the basis of my opinions as I present them. Note that this review is meant for DMs only – there will be spoilers ahead!
Without further ado, let’s get into it and try to answer the question: should you run Waterdeep: Dragon Heist?
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is, quite unsurprisingly, set in the city of Waterdeep in the Forgotten Realms. I am personally a fan of the Forgotten Realms – mainly because it’s been our table’s setting of choice for years and there’s a ton of resources for it available – and Waterdeep is as rich and diverse a city as one will find in the Realms.
While your players should find plenty to do in a city as big as Waterdeep, the adventure doesn’t really stretch beyond the city. So, if you or your players are fans of adventures that feature more travel, new fantastic locations, and so on, you may want to look at Tomb of Annihilation, Storm King’s Thunder, or Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus instead.
Another thing that really works well in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is the heavy focus on factions – the Zhentarim, the Harpers, etc. – which can really make the setting come alive for the player characters. Having various factions competing with each other – and getting the characters involved! – serves as a backdrop to the main story that makes Waterdeep and its inhabitants feel real.
All told, I find that Waterdeep: Dragon presents a compelling setting, that is also presented in great detail in the book’s big Waterdeep Enchiridion. The adventure also utilizes the city well, as it gives the characters an opportunity to claim a central base early on – something it does fairly well, and which I think many tables will get much fun out of. There’s also ample opportunity to have recurring NPCs the characters can develop relationships with, something that is often missing from travel-intensive adventures.
So, if you’re ready for an urban environment, I think Waterdeep: Dragon Heist’s setting deserves a solid 4.5/5 rating.
When it comes to the story, there are some high-points and low-points. In essence, the characters are just minding their own business, when they are suddenly dragged into a gang-war, a big embezzlement scheme, and must – in the end – get directly involved to claim a dragon’s hoard of treasure stolen from the city before one of four villainous factions beats them to it.
While the adventure starts of fairly generically – in a tavern – the hook for getting involved in the adventure is compelling enough and the way the story escalates toward the adventure’s conclusion makes sense. There’s a lot of interesting characters, locations and encounters sprinkled throughout, which should keep the players entertained.
One of the things that makes Waterdeep: Dragon Heist ‘unique’ is the option to choose your villain – one of four factions. And while this does give the DM a lot of control of the story, the story also suffers because of it. Because the main plot has had to be written in a generic enough fashion to accommodate four different villains, the villain’s role becomes relatively minor, and perhaps even somewhat impersonal. If you run the adventure as it is presented, there’s a good chance that the characters never face the main villain or visit the villain’s lair (which are laid out in great detail in the books) – and that’s a shame, because all four villains are actually pretty cool.
As a final note, one of the biggest critiques of the adventure – and rightfully so – is the lack of an actual heist, if you run it as written. This is especially frustrating, because we’re given everything we need for a heist – cool villains and villain lairs, valuable objects, etc. – except for more information about why to include a heist and how to run the heist. I would also have liked more puzzles, riddles, and traps in the adventure’s various dungeons.
All this is not to say that the story in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is bad. It’s a more down-to-earth, get-the-money type of adventure, as opposed to the epic save-the-world adventures we are used to seeing from WotC. That can be a breath of fresh air, especially since the adventure only runs from 1st to 5th level, which isn’t realistically where characters actually go around saving the world. The various holes in the story, as well as the villain’s role in it, is something a dedicated DM can fix if they’re willing to work with it a little – and something we cover in our DM’s resources for Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.
In short, I think that Waterdeep: Dragon Heist’s story merits a 3/5 rating.
Structure & Pacing
While a decently-sized book, the real adventure in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist actually covers only chapters 1–4, or around 80 pages. These four chapters can be quickly summarized:
- Beginning – Chapter 1 – The characters get involved with the story, run through two dungeons, and get acquainted with the city.
- Middle – Chapter 2 & 3 – The characters are presented with a potential home base, as well as several minor side quests that have minimal relevance to the story, in a free-form, sandbox-style chapter, before they are pulled back into the main plot by an explosion!
- End – Chapter 4 – The characters undergo a series of harrowing encounters before getting themselves to the conclusion of the adventure.
There’s a little bit of everything in there, and no chapter stretches out to the point where you tire of it. When it comes to pacing, the characters level up at a realistic pace, and aside from Chapter 2 (which is very much in the hands of the DM), the challenges presented in the various chapters fit snugly into a full day of adventuring, so there’s not many issues with too much or too little going on in a too short or too long span of time.
When it comes to Chapter 2, which takes up as much time both in and out of game as the DM wants, there really isn’t a hard structure. The DM is given a scattering of various quest hooks they can present to the characters, most of which can also stretch into the other chapters. This can be something of a challenge for the DM, but it can work really well – and luckily there’s a ton of products featuring more elaborate versions of the sidequests available to DMs on places like dmsguild.com, including our own DM’s resources.
All told, I’ll give Waterdeep: Dragon Heist’s pacing & structure a solid 4/5 rating.
While Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is an easy enough adventure to run, it is not the easiest adventure to run well. The DM will have to do some work themselves to fill out Chapter 2, make the factions and villains come alive, and really bring the heist into Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.
That being said, the book makes a good effort at summarizing the campaign’s setting and story, presenting the campaign’s structure and background (including a flowchart). It’s also pretty easy to start, as Chapter 1 is quite linear and well-presented to the DM – although it can be a quite difficult chapter for 1st-level characters to actually survive, but that can be remedied with a few minor changes.
Still, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist probably wouldn’t be my first recommendation for new DMs. Not because it can’t be the first adventure you run – it absolutely can – there are just alternatives that are much easier to run, such as Lost Mines of Phandelver from the Starter Set.
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist’s accessibility gets a 3.5/5 rating.
As far as accessories go, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist comes in somewhat light when compared to adventures such as Tomb of Annihilation. Of course, the Enchiridion is good to have if you want to know more about the lore and locations of Waterdeep. The only truly useable handouts are the Code Legal – a list of crimes and punishments – and a map of the Trollskull Tavern, which characters can acquire. As is always the case with WotC’s adventures, the art in the book is great.
Lastly, there’s the maps. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist features maps by Dyson Logos, and while these maps are often detailed and easy to understand, they can feel a bit lifeless and lackluster on virtual tabletops such as Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds. It’s a matter of personal preference and style-of-play, but many DMs find themselves looking for colorized versions of the maps – which is why our DM’s resources feature colorized versions of nearly all the maps in the campaign (you can find some of them for free here!)
All told, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist’s accessories warrant a 3.5/5 rating.
Summary & Final Review
If we sum everything up, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist gets the following score:
- Setting: 4.5/5
- Story: 3/5
- Structure & pacing: 4/5
- Ease-of-use: 3.5/5
- Maps & Art: 3.5/5
So, to get back to the initial question – should you run Waterdeep: Dragon Heist? Here’s how I’ll put it:
Do you like urban adventures? Do you think your players would appreciate a more stationary adventure, where they have the opportunity to interact with recurring NPCs, various factions, and outfit and run their own base? Are you okay with doing some legwork yourself to fill out the adventure?
If you answered yes to all three questions, I’d tell you to definitely run Waterdeep: Dragon Heist! It’s a fun adventure that is (potentially) short enough to be run rather quickly, if it ends up not being your players’ cup of tea. It also has the added benefit of working well as a starting adventure for other published adventures such as Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, Tomb of Annihilation, Storm King’s Thunder, and Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus.
All-in-all, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist gets a 3.7/5 rating from me – a good adventure with the potential to be a great one!