Roll20 Review – Waterdeep: Dragon Heist

The urban adventure takes place entirely within Waterdeep, and features four different villainous paths and a disappointing new map style.

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A press review copy of the module was provided. Find more Roll20 Reviews on my website and YouTube channel. Support my reviews via Patreon.

roll20 reviewIt’s been a full year since the last Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition campaign book. I had high praise for Tomb of Annihilation, and it’s been a long time since D&D fans have had any official new content to savor.

The urban adventure of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is far removed from the more exotic locales of Ravenloft, Chult, and the Underdark. Waterdeep is the largest city on the Sword Coast with plenty of content to offer, but it’s more about warehouses and gang wars than, well, dungeons and dragons.

Unfortunately the minimalist blank ink on graph paper map style is exacerbated in a digital format like Roll20. Combined with the fact that it’s solely a Tier 1 adventure for levels 1-5 with the price tag of a full campaign book and Waterdeep: Dragon Heist has the dubious honor of being one of the weakest – if not the weakest – fifth edition adventure yet.

MAJOR SPOILERS – DM’s only!

The following content is included in the $49.95 Waterdeep: Dragon Heist module:

  • 4 Add-ons to use when choosing a path in Chapter 4: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter.
  • 16 5-ft battle map with Dynamic Lighting (for Roll20 subscribers) and options for Advanced Fog of War.
    • 4 10-ft battle maps that have been half-scaled to 5-ft.
    • 1 20-ft map that has been half-scaled to 10-ft.
    • 1 non-gridded, non-scaled city map.
  • 73 unique named NPC character sheets with matching tokens and GM descriptions (49 w/ pics & player handouts).
  • 118 Generic NPC monster sheets with draggable tokens, vision, and separate player handouts.
  • 64 Magic Item player handouts (30 w/ pics and handouts).
  • Alphabetized token page of all NPCs and creatures.
  • Additional relevant supplemental rules from the Dungeon Masters Guide, Player’s Handbook, and Dragon Heist books.
  • Rollable tables for optional random encounters, chase complications, and rollable tokens for shapeshifters.

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The adventure kicks off with the PCs at the famous Yawning Portal tavern, meeting with the equally famous Volothamp Geddarm. He offers them a quest to find his missing drinking buddy, who in turn was embroiled in a kidnapping scheme between two villainous factions, the Zhentarim and the Xanathar Guild.

This initial hook offers a series of investigations, role-playing, and some light dungeon crawling. It’s a solid level 1 introduction to the flavors and dangers of the city.

Upon rescuing his friend Volo gives the PCs a deed to a rundown manor in Trollskull Alley. Giving the PCs their own fixxer-upper is a nice way to make the PCs care about the city and their social standing. It also offers them several friendly NPC allies in nearby buildings, including a very useful rakshasa detective.

The main quest still hasn’t really started yet as we enter chapter two, where a bunch of factions come to court the PCs, all with their own mini-side quests. I would’ve much preferred more quality than quantity here, as none of them are given more than a few sentences, yet each faction has half a dozen quests to undertake, most of which involve talking to someone or killing some creature.

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The adventure finally starts in chapter three when a fireball explodes outside of Trollskull Manor, killing several NPCs, including one who was carrying a very important artifact. It’s this murder and subsequent missing item investigation which finally kicks off the main series of events as the PCs have to track down who the victims are, who the killer is, and the various hows and whys and whos.

Eventually the PCs will discover the sinister machinations of one of four villains, equated to one of the four seasons, including the beholder crime lord Xanathar, some demon-worshipping nobles, and a charismatic drow. The villains themselves operate behind-the-scenes but the events and enemies the players face are tailored to that villain, such as a rooftop chase with spined devils for the evil nobles.

But this also means that players will only see about 25% of the last third or so of the campaign. It’s structured a bit like Storm King’s Thunder, where the PCs decided which of the giant tribe lairs to assault. I’m not a fan of that style of design. Give me everything and let me choose what I want to include!

The villain lairs are very cool dungeons but they’re not even used in this adventure, even though they are fully mapped out. At the PCs relatively low level of 3-4 they’re not exactly meant to take on one of these major famous villains of Waterdeep, but I guess it’s nice to have the lairs there if you want to incorporate them some how.

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Once the path is chosen the players are railroaded into a series of chases and small areas where the artifact they seek changes hands several times until they can finally get their hands on it. Once they do they can locate the Vault of the Dragons, an underground treasure horde beneath Waterdeep, supposedly filled with embezzled money from a previous masked lord of Waterdeep.

The title of the adventure is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s not really a heist at all. The PCs enter the vault, which is disappointingly tiny with only a few optional traps, and confront the gold dragon guard. This is meant to be a social encounter, as the PCs shouldn’t be capable of anything but a TPK against a fully grown gold dragon.

Whether they get the money or not is not really a big deal (well I suppose it is for the PCs!) but either way they’re accosted by some of the villain’s henchman when they try to leave, making the whole thing a bit anticlimactic.

The adventure teases out the follow-up book, Dungeon of the Mad Mage at the end, which promises to continue the story and reach 20th level! As far as I’m aware, no fifth edition adventure from Wizards of the Coast has actually reached 20th level. That would be quite the feat as this one ends at 5th level, making Dragon Heist more in common with Lost Mine of Phandelver than any of the previously published adventures.

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I’m quite disappointed in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. There’s some fun elements in there and it does a lot to flesh out the city. But it still feels very light on content and scope, considering large chunks of the adventure are basically unused by virtue of selecting a single path/villain. I’m not at all a fan of the ink map style and they don’t exactly look good on Roll20. The adventure isn’t really the fun heist romp I was expecting, but more of a series of chase sequences and investigations whose entire main plot takes up all of two chapters.

If you’re going to run this adventure via Roll20, you’re going to want this module. But I’m not sure I would recommend running this module in the first place.

The Pros:

  • The gigantic map of Waterdeep is wonderfully detailed and beautifully drawn.
  • The city and the events in the story feel very reactive and alive, with multiple factions in direct competition with one another.
  • Early on the PCs are rewarded with their own base of operations in Waterdeep, which serves as an excellent means of giving them additional resources, friendly NPC allies, and real ties to the city.
  • An interactive GM campaign page helps you stay organized with where the PCs are in the narrative.

The Cons:

  • The ink-graph maps look awful, and translate very poorly to a digital tabletop format like Roll20.
  • Much of the last 1/3 of the adventure is divided into four separate stories, only one of which you’re supposed to actually use.
  • The nifty villain lairs aren’t really used in this story at all, even though they’re completely mapped out.
  • The adventure “ends” (until the foll0w-up book at least) at level 4-5, putting Dragon Heist closer to Lost Mine of Phandelver than any of the main published campaign books, and vastly limiting the scope of this adventure.

The Verdict: The zany, crime-filled MYSTERIES create a compelling urban narrative, but the poor maps and ultimately shallow content make Waterdeep: Dragon Heist a difficult campaign to recommend.

A press review copy of the module was provided. Find more Roll20 Reviews on my website and YouTube channel. Support my reviews via Patreon.

Author: roguewatson

Freelance Writer

5 thoughts on “Roll20 Review – Waterdeep: Dragon Heist”

  1. Thanks for the review. Everyone else out there seems to be raving about this adventure, while I have many reservations. I’d give it an A for concept, and a D- for execution.

    “But this also means that players will only see about 25% of the last third or so of the campaign. It’s structured a bit like Storm King’s Thunder, where the PCs decided which of the giant tribe lairs to assault. I’m not a fan of that style of design”

    You see a lot of people raving about this design style from all of the previous adventures, and I just don’t understand it. People gush about the “replayability”. Really, do you typically rerun the same adventure for your players where just 1/3 of it is different and ends the same way? I can maybe see a group retrying the adventure a second time, as long as they did it by restarting at the Chapter 4 instead of the real beginning, but I couldn’t see anyone putting up with doing all four variants. And not only does that mean a large chunk of the book is unused (maybe a whopping 75%, if you include the optional Chapters 5-8!), the alternate sections you aren’t using are spliced amongst the sections that you *are* using in a way that makes encounter flow very difficult, like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

    “I would’ve much preferred more quality than quantity here, as none of them are given more than a few sentences, yet each faction has half a dozen quests to undertake, most of which involve talking to someone or killing some creature.”

    Amen. Also, even though there are 8 different factions, it seems like some of them are pretty exotic/specific for the PCs to take (Xanathar’s Guild, the Drow, Emerald Enclave), and a lot of them have a lot of bleedover (Force Grey, Gauntlet, Lord’s Alliance, Harpers). If your character isn’t a Thug/Drow/Druid, isn’t terribly inclined to chase down evil or serve the city of Waterdeep, you are pretty much left with the Zhentarim.

    My biggest gripe with the adventure as written is despite the fact that it’s set in a city, it’s very railroaded, in a very bad way (Chapter 2 notwithstanding). Instead of giving the PCs a list of various locations, and various ways they can learn information to progress the plot, everything is about getting specific information to get from Encounter A to Encounter B, from B to C, etc. If the players don’t ask the right questions or fail their skill check (Persuasion on an NPC, Perception to see object dropped, Constitution to keep up with the NPC fleeing from them, etc.) the game just stops as the PCs have fallen off the railroad tracks and the DM will have to scramble on the spot to figure out a way for the PCs to get back on the tracks so the adventure can continue. Pretty much every encounter is set up for one way, and one way only, for the PCs to get the information to find the next encounter. The adventure acknowledges this, and gives a general “have a friendly NPC approach them, or one of the enemy factions approaches them looking for a bribe”.

    The absolute worst, and this is really, really crappy adventure design, is when the module tells the DM that if the players are somehow ingenious enough to get the McGuffin earlier than anticipated (end of Chapter 4), it will consider that the PCs haven’t *earned* it, will find a way to leave their possession, and will wipe their memory of it until they go through all of the steps for Chapter 4. Argh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! I’m glad you specifically picked apart the story issues I had, as everyone on YT was commenting on the map issues (which was definitely an issue for me as well).

      I’m generally very positive and optimistic when it comes to my reviews and I’ve loved almost everything WotC has put out, but this one was just a big disappointment all around.

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  2. Well, the last published thing I used was Tales from the Yawning Portal, where the maps were TOO detailed, where it was hard to see the lines. They’ve just gone the opposite extreme here, where I can’t even tell what some things are on the map very easily. Is that a door? Is that stairs down?

    After mulling it over a bit, I think what I’m going to do is focus on seeding more information in Chapter 2. It’s weird how they don’t get into the aspect of the chosen villain until Chapter 4, because it ends up feeling like you’re introducing the villain in the 3rd Act of a movie. So, they’ve done a good job with introducing the Zhentarim/Xanathar escalating feud, but I’ll make sure to add on details pertinent to their particular villain for good foreshadowing. I think I’ll also have a sample parade using the Hall of Gond Nimblewrights during Chapter 2, so having the PCs think to start looking there in Chapter 3 will come less out of left field. Finally, I think it would make more sense to focus on information sources in other parts of the city as opposed to knowing who your neighbors around the tavern are. After all, your neighbors aren’t going to be terribly relevant in Chapters 3 and 4. The local neighbors are useful information, and good for world-building as long as the players are interested in that aspect of the game, but not actually part of the adventure IIRC.

    Liked by 1 person

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