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D&D’s latest adventure is state of the art tabletop design

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is concise, complex, and complete

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Dungeons & Dragons is experiencing a spectacular renaissance. Some credit Twitch and YouTube, others the broader “actual play” movement of performative play. Whatever the reason, the 5th edition of the Player’s Handbook has been locked on the Amazon best-sellers list since it was first published in 2014. Rather than rest on their laurels, the team at Wizards of the Coast is throwing more content onto the pyre. Its latest effort, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, might be the best introductory adventure they’ve ever printed.

There’s a tendency when you have a shelf or two filled with role-playing game supplements to compare the relative size of one volume to another. When Dragon Heist arrived, I was a little put off by the fact that it was among the most slender volumes I’d seen. At just 224 pages, it’s the slimmest introductory adventure since 2014’s Hoard Of The Dragon Queen, which felt a little light at just 94 pages.

But, cracking the thing open, I soon discovered that Dragon Heist is perhaps the most cleverly designed adventures in the entire D&D catalog. It’s more than just a simple, linear ride from point A to encounter C. It’s a pliable canvas designed to give new players a foothold in the game’s larger world, a continent called Faerûn, and a springboard into tabletop RPGs as a genre.

In my opinion, if you’re thinking of starting up a new D&D campaign, this adventure is the very best place to start.

Warning: What follows will include spoilers for Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. Read on only if you’re planning to run the adventure as a Dungeon Master.

When you’re just getting started with a new group of players, whether they’re old hands to tabletop RPGs or just dipping their toes in the genre for the first time, the initial challenge is in setting the mood. Dragon Heist gives DMs an excellent, seemingly innocuous choice to share with their players: In what season should our adventure begin?

The book includes just a few short lines that set the tone for each part of the year in the city of Waterdeep. Spring is described as “cold and damp,” while summer is “comfortable” and “a great time for citizens and visitors to congregate outside.” Meanwhile, in the fall the city if filled with produce and commerce thanks to the harvest. Meanwhile, “cold, howling sea winds” forbode the dangers to come. Finally, winter in Waterdeep is extremely harsh. The streets are bare, save for the giant drifts of snow and “few venture outside the city walls.”

In less than half a page, lead designer Christopher Perkins has given gaming groups a way to imagine the setting that the find themselves in. Every interaction with each of the campaigns non-player character, every journey players make whether across the street or far outside Waterdeep’s gates, will be colored by that simple choice.

So, to, will be the nature of the evil that players fight against.

You see, in choosing the season, your gaming group will also choose the campaign’s villain. There are four in all to choose from, and once settled on one the other three can either fade into the background or become grudging allies to the player characters. From there, the adventure spirals into a gritty, urban drama that culminates in a madcap dash around the city, all befitting the tropes of a proper heist movie.

In addition to the structure of the thing itself, it’s the little flourishes that really make this adventure worthwhile.

There’s a massive, double-sided fold-out map of the city in the back of the book that’s suitable for framing or laminating, giving you an excellent centerpiece and play surface week after week. There’s also a book within the book, written by an NPC in the game world, one that provides players with a traveler’s guide to the city of Waterdeep. DMs interested in creating artifacts to share at the table would do well to transcribe key portions to share as handouts with their players. Dragon Heist also gives gaming groups a foothold in the city itself early on, a place that adventurers can eventually come to call home.

This adventure also provides flexibility. If the players or the DM aren’t smitten with the villain they’ve chosen it’s a simple matter to swap them out for another, or to simply roll the clock forward to the next season that suits their mood. As a bonus, once the adventure is over, the whole situation is primed to leave each of the four villains alive. At its conclusion, you should have a handful of players somewhere around level five... and a boatload of ideas for crafting your own take on the next chapter in the history of Waterdeep.

In the end, Dragon Heist is more than just an adventure. It’s one of the best introductions to D&D that I’ve ever come across, and a fantastic vehicle for familiarizing players with one of the biggest cities on the continent that the original role-playing game now calls home.

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist retails for $49.99, but you’ll likely find it for sale closer to $30. You can get it at your friendly local game store right now. Wider release begins Sept. 18. It’s also available on Amazon, through Barnes & Noble, inside the Fantasy Grounds platform or on Steam, in the Roll20 app and as a digital supplement through D&D Beyond.

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