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Dragon Heist: Session 0 and Rats of Waterdeep

City of Waterdeep illustration

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is an urban mystery campaign for Dungeons of Dragons 5th edition. It takes a party up to level 5. In theory you could then run Waterdeep: Dungeons of the Mad Mage to take the same characters up to level 20, but I am less into a megadungeon crawl than into an urban mystery. I’m likelier to steer my party towards Ghosts of Saltmarsh for some swashbuckling high seas adventure or towards Eberron: Rising from the Last War for a more steampunk urban adventure. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. We’re just starting Dragon Heist now. No plan survives contact with real life.

Instead of running vanilla Dragon Heist, I’m choosing to run the Alexandrian Remix (spoilers) which combines the four mutually exclusive plots into one player-driven sandbox. I’m also plotting to add some excellent heists from DM’s Guild to the plot, but more on that later.

What is Session 0? It is an opportunity for your players to make sure their characters are compatible with the campaign, and that their characters are compatible with each other. For example, in our previous campaign we had a character who didn’t believe in the concept of money — this was delightful in Tomb of Annihilation, but it wouldn’t work in Dragon Heist for all sorts of reasons. Sly Flourish has written an excellent guide to Dragon Heist Session 0.

Waterdeep Background Hooks

One additional thing I’m using is Waterdeep Background Hooks. It adds connections for each character to the setting, much like the ones that existed in Lost Mines of Phandelver and in Out of the Abyss. I think it’s important for the player characters to be of the world. Background hooks are one thing I missed in our previous Tomb of Annihilation campaign, and I love the hooks added in this supplement.

Dragon Heist includes a much more basic version of this via the Friendly Faces at the Yawning Portal handout. I think it’s less interesting because it doesn’t tell you how or why the player character knows those people. Still, it’s not a bad secondary connection. Fitzchivalry has created alternate art for the Friendly Faces (spoilers), but what I really like is the snarky version below. Unfortunately I’ve lost track of who created this and I haven’t been able to track down the author after searching through the Reddit group and the two Facebook groups:

For sessions 1 and 2, I ran my players through Rats of Waterdeep. This is not because Dragon Heist has a bad start — Dragon Heist starts strong. This is because Rats of Waterdeep is a well written noir mystery adventure for level 1 characters in Waterdeep. Will Doyle who co-authored Rats also wrote the official Tomb of Annihilation campaign.

Note that our sessions are 2 hours. If your group has 4 hour session, Rats is a one-shot.

What works:

  • The narrating detective gives a great noir flavour.
  • The Dock Ward gets a strong personality.
  • The Waterdeep City Watch is introduced.

What needs tweaking:

  • Xanathar picking a fight with level 1 nobodies made no sense to me, so I delegated the blowhard speeches and roughhousing to Nazca as his lieutenant. Nazca is everyone’s favourite crossbow-armed dwarf. I also delayed the Xanathar Guild fight until after the party had spotted their first cranium rat to give Nazca a motivation.
  • The combat balance is a little off. I think the fight with Nazca’s goons is too tough, while the watchman escort should be a veteran and not a mere guard.
  • My party always goes for diplomacy first. Rats of Waterdeep is a little light on details for what happens should the party be especially good at reconciling starcrossed lovers.

Finally, one thing that distinguishes Waterdeep as a setting are its newspapers. The Press of Waterdeep gives a good overview of the written word, from the official Waterdeep Wazoo to the fashionable Cliffwatch Galleria and the gruff Dock Ward Dispatch.

Two of my players chose the Rosznar noble family as their background, and one of those chose Bad Press as their background hook, so I made sure to go full J. Jonah Jameson. Our heroes: threat, or menace?

Waterdeep newspaper

Additional Resources for DMs

Waterdeep Dragon Heist subreddit including the excellent Megathread: Resources by Chapter.

For unclear reasons, there are two duelling Facebook groups:

There is also a Facebook group for budding Waterdhavian journalists.

I highly recommend the aforementioned Alexandrian Remix.

Chris Perkins ran the Dice, Camera, Action crew through an I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Dragon-Heist adventure starting around episode 95. I’m catching up with the podcast using Podkicker on my Android phone.

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