Preliminary Book (Game?) Review: Dungeons and Dragons: Dragon Heist

Author’s Notes: This one is a bit out of left field, even for me.  But, given my prior output on this blog, some of it about books (fantasy or otherwise) and some stuff about TRPGs, this seems fitting.  Also, this adventure book releases on September 20th, I bought a copy early at Rose City Comic Con from a store that was selling advance copies.

Tabletop RPG fans are living through something of a renaissance these days.  The medium is more popular than ever.  A lot of that has to do with accessibility, and a gradual change in image.  In the past, Tabletop RPGs used to be played on their namesake in person.  But with the advent of certain technologies like the website Roll20.com and the Discord App, it’s easier than ever to put together a group of players.  Even more important though are the games themselves and the game leading that charge is the grandfather of the entire medium, Dungeons and Dragons.  Now in its fifth edition (called DnD 5e), Dungeons and Dragons has never been easier to learn or more accessible as a product.  On September 20th, Wizards of the Coast will release the newest in a long line of adventure books for Fifth Edition: Dragon Heist.

Over the past several years (since about 2008 if we’re being exact), Wizards of the Coast has adopted a business model of releasing one big adventure every year.  Since the launch of 5th Edition in 2014, Wizards has released 4 epic stories that follow plots to save the world of Faerûn.  These stories (which include entries like The Rise of Tiamat, Storm King’s Thunder and Tomb of Annihilation), are big, grandiose things that cover world-spanning adventures and follow characters from humble beginnings to heroes.  These archetypal plots admittedly play into Fifth Edition’s philosophy of accessibility but in a lot of ways, Dragon Heist represents a distinct shift in this priority.

Firstly, the game is not nearly as long as those prior adventures.  Where The Rise of Tiamat covered characters from level 1 to level 15 (incidentally, if you don’t know Dungeons and Dragons, levels are how you determine the strength of a character, new abilities are usually unlocked at every level), Dragon Heist only covers one third of that.  And instead of an adventure that sees the players tromping through a variety of biomes, Dragon Heist takes place in one city, Waterdeep.  Granted, Waterdeep is a pretty big city and it’s easily one of the most famous cities in modern fantasy (it even has its own board game).  But it can’t help but be stated that this is a $50 dollar book that contains only about four chapters of adventure.  And given that a sequel is coming out this fall, it’s worrisome that Wizards is beginning to flirt with exploitative sales practices.  What’s more, if you intend to run the game online through Roll20, and want a hard copy of the book for reference, you’ll be paying twice, which is frankly inexcusable.  I’m a fan of comic books so I’m already used to digital products costing the same as physical ones but there’s still no excuse for this gouging, especially when the Roll20 resources are sold as a “bundle,” and could be dished out a la carte if the publisher so desired.

In terms of design, Dragon Heist feels like a bundle of contradictions. In a more positive light, you could say it’s an scrappy mutt of an adventure.  On one hand, the setup could not be more classic Dungeons and Dragons.  There’s a dungeon hidden somewhere in the city of Waterdeep and inside is a fantastic treasure.  The players are tasked with finding it that treasure before someone else does.  On the other hand, the game feels like a pretty big departure from its predecessors.  Instead of one predetermined antagonist, the game presents players with four distinct options for antagonists and all four (technically five since one choice is a couple) feel wholly unique.  What’s  more the motives of the villains run the gamut, ranging between egomaniacal and pragmatic, with at least one choice being almost sympathetic. While the villains of Dragon Heist are all movers and shakers on the world stage, they aren’t threatening the world.  They’re crime bosses and corrupt politicians instead of warlords or apocalyptic cult leaders.  Despite having access to more combat prowess than your low level party can handle, most of them will fight you using their accumulated clout, and resources.  I can see a more hands-off antagonist being a challenge for someone running the game, especially a first timer looking to cut their teeth.  But at the same time, it makes the villains feel like a distinctly different threat when compared to Tiamat, or Acererack from prior adventures.  I’ve genuinely had a difficult time deciding which foe to throw at my friends once I start running the adventure.

I like to see that sort of risk taking coming out of a well-established game design studio like Wizards of the Coast.  While I’ve played in and enjoyed their prior adventures, I’ve never wanted to run one of their games.  As a GM, I like to keep my players guessing  and while Rise of Tiamat and Storm King’s Thunder were fun adventures they didn’t leave a lot of room for improvisation or surprises.  In contrast, Dragon Heist is versatile, and highly modular.  It gives game masters options that have an impact and there’s more than enough room to make the story your own.  An entire quarter of the book is given over to giving the players a chance to build relationships with Waterdeep’s various factions.  In turn, this really lets the game master cut loose and add his own unique flavor to the adventure.  While I haven’t started running the game yet, I can’t imagine any point in Dragon Heist where the game master is reduced to being the computer spitting out enemies and calculating damage, the fear of all GM’s when running a module like this.

All of this freedom never feels like it comes at the expense of tight, effective game design.  Despite the modular nature of the adventure and the expansive options for customization, it never feels like Lead Design Chris Perkins or his team lost sight of their goals.  Chapter 4 of the adventure in particular reads like a very impressive exercise in game design efficiency, ensuring that no matter what choices the GM made, all players will get to experience most of what Dragon Heist’s climax has to offer.  That said, it’s impossible to see everything that Perkins and crew put into the game in one go, making Dragon Heist easily one of the most replayable games in recent memory, if not ever.

If there’s a distinct problem to be had, then it’s in the book’s tone and construction.  The game’s primary goal seems to be making the city of Waterdeep as much of a character as any of the actors in the story.  There’s definitely shades of Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork in this version of Waterdeep, a city on the cusp of modernity and dealing with the fallout of decades of fantasy disasters.  But while the plot contrives means for the players to find themselves integrated into the city, game masters might find themselves high and dry.  The book itself is divided pretty clearly between game adventure and tour guide to the city and for what it’s worth, it’s a very good tour.  The book explains the ins and outs of Waterdeep in a comprehensive and fun way, while staying in character since the section is literally a tour guide written in-character by one of the city’s many colorful locals.  But the fact that it’s more or less completely separate from the story makes it hard for a GM to weave that flavor into the tail.  This isn’t a problem unique to Dragon Heist, and indeed could be considered one of the biggest hurdles from most TRPG rulebooks and adventures.  Still, it’s a minor quibble for an overall solid book and adventure.

So to the question of if you should buy Dragon Heist, the answer is…it depends.  I don’t know if it’s a great game to run as a first time game master.  The complexity of the villains’ motives, and the conspiratorial plot could be a bit confusing for a first time game master.  There are a lot of plates to keep spinning in this plot.  That said, as an introduction to Dungeons and Dragons I think Dragon Heist might be unparalleled.  This sort of goes back to why I recommend that fans of superhero movies get into the comic book source material.  Because comic books have been going for a long time and have a smaller audience, creative writers and artists can do interesting things with classic characters that go against the grain of popular conscience.  Nobody’s going to make a blockbuster about Batman fighting against a secret cabal of Gotham’s rich and powerful, but in 2011 Scott Snyder did just that in the comics.  The same goes for Dungeons and Dragons.  While the idea of a world-spanning adventure might be fun, where else can the average person experience an urban adventure in a high fantasy setting with as much history as Faerûn?  It’s not necessarily Game of Thrones, but it doesn’t need to be.  And if you’re a long time fan of Dungeons and Dragons or an adherent of fifth edition with an established group?  Well, you’ve probably already preordered a copy and set up a group for September 20th.

It’s worth noting that this is all a preliminary review.  I hope to return to Dragon Heist in a few months, after I run the adventure for a more complete and thorough review.  Hopefully, in the mean time you can pick up the game yourself and experience the urban fantasy fun for yourself.  Thanks for reading.

Dragon Heist is available as a piece of physical media on September 20th, and now on both Roll20 and the DnD Beyond Marketplace.

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