Part one of our campaign journal and design notes for Waterdeep: Dragon Heist…
1 GM, 2 Players, 5 Villains & 500,000 Gold Dragons
Unlike most D&D campaigns, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist doesn’t take place in a dank dungeon or a trackless wilderness, instead it’s an urban adventure set in the Sword Coast’s famous ‘City of Splendours.’ Appealingly, the setting hints at an adventure built as much on 5E’s so-called ‘social pillar’ as it is on combat.
I was actually introduced to Dragon Heist while perusing The Alexandrian, an RPG design and GM1 advice blog, written by Justin Alexander. It is fair to say that Justin’s (much lauded) Dragon Heist Remix is a masterclass in node-based adventure (re)design2 and I found the notion of a flexible scenario, that emphasized role-play, enticing.
In fact, I’d been looking forward to running the remix since I first read the series and, when my family’s, then current, campaign came to a close, I found myself with an opportunity to step into the GM’s seat. My wife, Hailey and our good friend, Ellen, joined the game to play Rheis and Qi’da; our adventure’s heroes.
Spoiler Alert: What follows is a record of our game: part campaign journal and part design notes. It pre-supposes some familiarity with both the original adventure and the remix, but you shouldn’t have any trouble following along even if you haven’t played either. However, if you are planning on playing Dragon Heist in the future you should probably stop reading now.
And now, without further ado:
The first part of The Miniature Mage’s Adaptation of The Alexandrian Remix of Wizard’s Of The Coast’s adventure, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
GM’s Note: Adapting The Remix
No plan of operations extends, with any certainty, beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main force.Moltke the Elder
It is a truism that role-playing games, like Dungeons & Dragons, can be conceived as series of ‘in-character’ choices. Both players and GMs alike make choices — and different choices lead to divergent outcomes. As a result, even a reasonably linear adventure, like the original Dragon Heist, becomes unique each time it is played. And, the modifications introduced by Justin’s remix open up even more opportunities for choice.
As we progress (as of this post, we are on our ninth session), I will be adapting the remix to accommodate our specific choices. Obviously (?) the majority of these alterations will not be made more than a few sessions ahead of time (and some will be improvised on the spot). I’ll use these GM’s Notes to point out these deviations, as they become pertinent.
SESSION 0: The Player Characters
GM’s Note: Creating The Heroes
Before Hailey and Ellen created their characters, I gave them a little forewarning about the adventure’s idiosyncrasies. Basically; that it would take place, almost entirely, in the city of Waterdeep, that there would be a fair bit of roll play, and that it would likely involve more skulking about than the average campaign.
- Player: Hailey
- Race: Half-Drow
- Background: Noble/City Watch
- Class: Cleric (Trickster)
Rheis was born and raised in the elven city of Silverymoon.
His mother, Ayla — a drow courtier at the High Palace of Silverymoon — had a short-lived romance with Lord Maddan Magaster, a minor noble of Waterdeep. Soon after, Maddan returned to home to Waterdeep, and was quickly married. He did not learn he had a son for several years.
GM’s Note: The Setting, Silverymoon, & Jarlaxle Baerne
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is set on the mythical continent of Faerün — which I suspect is 5th Edition’s best known setting. That being said, Hailey, Ellen, and I don’t actually have more than a passing familiarity with the various cities of the Sword Coast. Which, of course, is how we ended up with drow courtiers in Silverymoon’s High Palace. And, while a few minutes of research revealed that silvery-drow are anathema to the official cannon, this ‘inaccuracy’ inspired a recasting of another dark elf; Jaraxle Baenre. Rather than leading the Bregan D’aerthe mercenaries, our Baenre will be the commander of a detachment of Silverymoon’s Silver Knights.
Additionally, on the off chance Hailey or Ellen might recognize his name, I dropped Jarlaxle’s first name and made ‘Baerne’ a female drow. She will be scheming for Silverymoon’s preeminence in the Lord’s Alliance, rather than Luskan’s admittance (since Silverymoon is already a member), but otherwise her personality and methods will remain unchanged.
This replaces Luskan with Silverymoon as Waterdeep’s perpetual frenemy, which has the advantage of tying both PCs3 to one of the adventure’s main ‘villain’ factions. So, it seems likely that, at some point, Rheis and Qi’da are going to find one of Baerne’s trademark black and silver notes, summoning them to a meeting, pinned to their door with a silver dagger; A meeting where Baerne will undoubtably attempt to exploit their (supposed?) loyalty to Silverymoon.
Dragon Heist is filled with factions — each one vying for the players’ attention — and the remix doubles down on this web of NPCs4 by having every villain in play at once. Arguably, the adventure’s complexity is a feature, not a bug, particularly if your sessions are intensive multi-day affairs. Our small group however, tends to play for a couple hours every week or two — the shorter sessions and slower pace can make it challenging to keep the various groups straight. In an effort to limit the time we spend recapping who is who, I’ll be pairing down some of that complexity when the opportunity presents itself. Since Hailey and Ellen are likely to remember (and care about) a place they built into their character’s backstories, substituting Silverymoon for Luskan struck me as just such an opportunity.
Ayla raised Rheis alone. Maddan visited his son occasionally when he had business in Silverymoon.
When he reached adulthood, Rheis, wanting to know his human father better, moved to Waterdeep. However, he found a cold welcome in his father’s household. Disappointed, but reluctant to leave the city, Rheis enlisted in Waterdeep’s City Watch.
Several month’s later, he discovered that his half-brother Graydon had amassed a substantial gambling debt. Rheis made a reckless oath to the Goddess of Luck and won a wager for his brother’s obligations. However, the experience left him bound to Tymora.
Finding himself a conduit for the fickle Lady Luck’s divine power, Rheis resigned from the City Watch and spent several weeks as a supplicant at the Tower of Luck.
GM’s Note: Customizing Rheis’ Background
Rheis’ backstory suggests a number of possible backgrounds: the Courtier, the Noble, the Waterdhavian Noble, the City Watch, and even the Acolyte. So, rather than choosing a single background, we combined the Noble and City Watch backgrounds; taking the most applicable parts of each background. Thus, Rheis can (to some extent) wield his father’s name in polite society and his status as an ex-watchman gives him (limited) pull with members of Waterdeep’s law enforcement community.
Two days ago, a childhood friend, Qi’da, found him and told him his mother had passed away. This afternoon, Rheis bumped into Yagra Stonefist, an acquaintance he had met during his time with the City Watch. Needing money, and a distraction from his grief, he agreed to take a job she offered to broker.
- Player: Ellen
- Race: Drow/Dhampir
- Background: Courtier
- Class: Rogue (Arcane Trickster)
Qi’da was raised among the nobles and courtiers of Silverymoon’s High Palace.
Her mother — also a courtier — was dear friends with Rhies’ mother, Ayla, and as children Qi’da and Rheis were inseparable. Although they were not related by blood, they were often mistaken for cousins.
Destined to follow in her mother’s footsteps, Qi’da developed a knack for the less reputable facets of palace intrigue: eavesdropping, lock picking and generally skulking about in the dark.
When Rheis’s mother died, Qi’da travelled to Waterdeep to bear the news to her friend Rheis. However, as she neared Waterdeep, she was attacked by a vampire. She escaped with her life, but found herself strangely changed — and with a growing thirst for blood.
Three days ago she arrived in Waterdeep and two days ago she tracked down her childhood friend, Rheis; delivering her sad news. This afternoon, her funds much depleted from her travels, she agreed to help Rheis with a job an acquaintance offered him.
GM’s Note: Vampires, Demons, & The Cassalanters
When Ellen declared that her character had been bitten by a vampire, I immediately began to look for ways to incorporate these blood sucking undead into Dragon Heist. However, since the remix already features five separate villain factions, I was reluctant add yet another group of baddies into the mix.
I wanted, instead, to re-skin one of the existing factions. The Cassalanters seemed like an obvious choice; as devil worshipers, they already have a monstrous component. Also, Rheis and Qi’da are unlikely to meet them until after the fireball in Trollskull alley, which means I have time to make the necessary adjustments to their lore.5
To start, I erased the traditional D&D law/chaos alignment boundary between devils and demons. Instead, these fiends will be lumped together as ‘dark powers’ and will act, according to their self interest, as circumstance dictates.
Moreover, particularly strong dark powers, such as Asmodeus, will have the ability to change their followers; remaking their bodies and granting them demonic abilities. Many of the lesser fiends, vampires, and various other monstrous beings are the result of these changes.
Therefore, in our version of Dragon Heist, the Cassalanters have traded Asmodeus the lives of their youngest children for the ‘gift’ of semi-immortality and vampirism. (As per the original Dragon Heist, Asmodeus also transforms their eldest son into a chain devil.) The terms of their pact with Asmodeus dictate they must sacrifice their twin children on their ninth birthday, or be destroyed themselves. If they want to save both their children and themselves, they must sacrifice “one shy of one million gold dragons” and murder 99 people in a ritual to be completed on the twin’s ninth birthday.
As a side note, the Cassalanters, particularly Ammalia, are racked with guilt — they want to save their children — nevertheless, they are unwilling to sacrifice themselves to do so. Importantly, their death voids the pact and avoids the grisly necessity of murdering the children to ‘save’ them from damnation, as the original adventure dictates.
As per 5th Edition’s Monster Manual, vampires can deliberately create, the lesser, vampire spawn. Also, those, like Qi’da, who survive an attack by a vampire or its spawn are at risk of becoming a dhampir.
- Dhampirism. A humanoid bitten by a vampire or a vampire spawn must make a Constituion saving throw (DC 10). On a failed save, they become a dhampire in 1d6 hours.
Dhampirism can be cured with a Wish spell, by a god(dess), a strong dark (or light) power, or by the death of the first of a vampire line. To clarify, if you were bitten by a vampire spawn, killing the spawn won’t cut it, you have to kill the vampire that created the spawn.
A dhampir’s bite is not contagious; however, they must drink a humanoid’s blood at least once per week or suffer one level of 5E’s Exhaustion condition. If they are not currently exhausted, then drinking non-humanoid blood can stave off this effect for no more than two weeks. Only a successful bite (not a long rest) can reduce this form of exhaustion.
Dhampir Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: Strength or Dexterity bonus plus your proficiency bonus to hit, reach 5 ft., one willing creature, or a creature that is grappled by you, incapacitated, or restrained. Hit: (1d4 + your strength or dexterity bonus) piercing damage plus (1d4) necrotic damage. The target’s hit point maximum is reduced by an amount equal to the necrotic damage taken, and you regain hit points equal to that amount. The reduction lasts until the target finishes a long rest. The target dies if this effect reduces its hit point maximum to 0. If the target is humanoid, and if you are suffering from Exhaustion, a successful bite also removes one level of Exhaustion.
DM’s Note: Safeguarding Player Agency
Vampires, and by extension dhampires, are cool. They also tend to be dark, brooding, troubled, or even desperate creatures — being driven to drink the life’s blood of innocents is bound to do unpleasant things to your psyche. I wanted to give Ellen some mechanical support for Qi’da’s blood thirst but, I didn’t want tie Ellen’s hands by — for example — forcing a Wisdom saving throw to avoid having Qi’da attack a random person.
Compared to a GM, a player has relatively little control over a game. What she does control is her character and, in my opinion, a GM should respect a player’s custodial relationship with her character.
5th Edition’s least used condition — Exhaustion — provides a reasonably elegant mechanical solution. Not only does it reinforce Qi’da’s steadily weakening state; but, her growing thirst/desperation is mirrored by Ellen’s increasing urgency to end the condition. And all the while, Ellen remains in complete control of Qi’da’s actions. She has at least six weeks of in-game time to find a suitable victim, or search out a cure.
DM’s Note: Blood Zombies
As per the Monster Manual, a vampire spawn cannot create another spawn; however for our game, those who are killed by a spawn will later rise as undead ‘blood zombies.’ Blood zombies are stock Monster Manual zombies with two additional features: a bite attack and the bloodsheen ability Justin Alexander created for his bloodwights, adapted for 5th Edition.
- Blood Zombie Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one willing creature, or a creature that is Grappled by the blood zombie, Incapacitated, or Restrained. Hit: 3 (1d4 + 1) piercing damage plus 2 (1d4) necrotic damage. The target’s hit point maximum is reduced by an amount equal to the necrotic damage taken, and the blood zombie regains Hit Points equal to that amount. The reduction lasts until the target finishes a Long Rest. The target dies if this effect reduces its hit point maximum to 0.
- Blood Zombie Bloodsheen. Each round a creature is within 30 feet of a blood zombie it must succeed on a Constitution saving throw (DC 10) or suffer 1d4 points of necrotic damage and begin sweating blood. On a successful save, a creature is immune until they complete a short rest. A creature is only affected by the bloodsheen once per round, regardless of how many blood zombies are present. Celestials, fiends, undead, and constructs are immune.
GM’s Note: Qi’da’s Dilemma
It would be a shame if, at some point, Qi’da were not given the opportunity to confront her vampire progenitor. So, her attacker will likely have been a Cassalanter or one of their spawn. (I’ll have to decide exactly who relatively soon.) Killing the Cassalanters (should she chose to do so) will have the added benefit of removing Qi’da’s blood-thirst but, also a personal cost: the loss of her beloved dhampiric abilities.
Session I: Monday, 1st of Ches, Early Evening
Rheis and Qi’da step into the Yawning Portal. Scanning the room, they assure themselves that Yagra has not yet arrived and choose a table near the centre of a triangle described by the tavern’s entrance, its bar, and the circular shaft occupying the heart of the tripple-tiered great room.
Bonnie, a barmaid Rheis knows, appears at the table and asks the pair, “What’ll you have tonight?”
Rheis makes a lacklustre attempt at a pickup line, and when Bonnie rolls her eyes at him, he sheepishly orders a beer. Qi’da asks for water, which elicits another eye roll from Bonnie before she flounces off.
Just as Bonnie returns with their drinks, Rheis spots Yagra entering the tavern.
Yagra Stonefist is a tall woman of half-orc decent. Her pale green skin contrasts sharply with the winged snake tattoo that curls around her neck. The tattoo marks Yagra as a member of Waterdeep’s arm of the Black Network: a loose organization of merchant/mercenary companies, with a reputation for skirting the edges of the law.
GM’s Note: The Black Network
You may notice that I refer to the ‘Black Network,’ or ‘Black-nets’ rather than the ‘Zhentarim’ — which sounds similar to ‘Xanatharian’ when said aloud. Our group found having two criminal organizations whose names were near-homophones just wasn’t worth the effort.
Rheis catches Yagra’s eye, but as she moves in their direction she is accosted by three men.
Their leader — whose shaved head is covered in tattooed ‘eyes’ — shouts at Yagra, “You lot really think you can get away with killing us?!”
As Yagra makes a dismissive gesture toward the men, Qi’da shoots a questioning glance at Rheis. But the half-drow has seen Yagra hold her own in more than one bar brawl and he shrugs unconcern before taking another swig of his beer.
Suddenly, the three men charge Yagra. Two of them tackle her to the ground while the third starts pummelling her.
Qi’da is immediately on her feet and moving toward the fight — with Rheis following reluctantly— but a crowd of patrons block their way before they can make much headway.
Irritated, Rheis calls out at the top of his lungs “I’ve shat myself! Make way! I’ve just shat my pants!” And, almost magically, a path opens up for the pair.
Yagra is pinned to the ground but, despite this, she seems to be trading an equal number of blows with her three assailants.
Rheis curses after missing a grab for the tattooed man. Qi’da, meanwhile, has drawn her short sword and, as Rheis steps back, she jabs ‘Eye-tattoos’ in the buttock.
The would-be hitman gives a howl and scrambles to his feet, whereupon Rheis unceremoniously clocks him in the head with his beer stein.
The three men scurry back from these new combatants — clearly unhappy at the prospect of even odds.
And, into this pause Durnan — the Yawning Portal’s proprietor — bellows, “Enough!”
“You three,” he growls, pointing at the men, “Out!”
Glancing at one another, the trio back warily out the door before turning and fleeing down the street.
“And I’ll have no trouble from you,” warns Durnan, eyeing Yagra, who makes a placating gesture.
Rheis offers Yagra a hand up and, as the crowd begins to disperse, they make their way back to their table.
“Thanks,” offers Yagra as she sits down, “though I could have taken them.”
Now it’s Rheis’ turn to roll his eyes.
“What did you do to those guys?” queries Qi’da.
“Me? I’ve done nothing to those Xanatharians,” Yagra answers gruffly.
And before Qi’da can press her question, Bonnie returns to take Yagra’s order — and to offer Rheis a refill for his spilled tankard.
Fighting the Troll
As the three settle down to wait for Yagra’s contact, voices from the second story begin to chant: “Dip! Dip! Dip!”
Rheis has heard this chorus before but Qi’da’s curiosity is peaked. Glancing up she sees a young man step out onto a balcony jutting from the mezzanine. Slapping down a gold coin, he shrugs himself into a harness hooked to a pulley attached to the ceiling. Once he has secured himself to his satisfaction, he tucks a silver hand-bell into his belt and, grinning back at his companions, he tosses a wooden tankard down into the dark chasm. His friends — who have taken hold of his harness rope — let out a drunken cheer and lower him down into the hole.
As the youth disappears from sight, the betting begins:
“Two silver says he doesn’t last three minutes!”
“A gold Dragon if he rings the bell in four!”
“I’ll wager two Dragons he comes up with the cup!”
Yagra raises a questioning eyebrow at Rheis, but he declines to bet.
As the minutes tick by, the betting slows and a quiet tension settles over the tavern. Then, just past the five minute mark, a bell rings out from the depths and a cheer erupts as the young man is hoisted up from the pit. He holds the wooden mug above his head in triumph.
The tavern’s patrons are just turning back to their drinks when an oversized shape heaves itself up and over the the low wall surrounding the hole. Its green skin and elongated limbs mark it as a troll, but as it lands on all fours, a writhing mass is visible on its back and shoulders.
The monster convulses upright and several winged shapes launch themselves from its back, a trail of blood and gore in their wake.
Qi’da leaps to her feet, spilling her chair on the floor, her short bow already in her hands, she lets an arrow fly — pinning one of the flying creatures to the second story balcony — and races towards the troll.
She covers perhaps half the distance before a second airborne creature descends on her. Grasping her cloak with its clawed limbs, it sinks a needle sharp proboscis into her neck.
Rheis stretches out his hand toward the bloodthirsty creature and invokes Tymora’s name. A flame-like radiance flashes down from somewhere near the ceiling, incinerating the little beast.
By this time, Durnan has leaped over the bar and his great sword sings in the air as he hacks at the troll.
Brushing charred remains from her shoulders, Qi’da draws her short sword and leaps in to strike at the troll… and just like that, the skirmish is over.
The sole remaining vampire stirge flaps out the tavern’s open door and into the darkening sky.
GM’s Note: Monsters for Two
You may have noticed that the confrontation with the troll and the vampire stirges doesn’t even last a full two rounds.
Never having run a game with only two PCs6, (and not wanting to kill them off in the first session) I paired down the number of stirges and reduced all the monster’s hit points.
In these early sessions, I made similar adjustments across the board, gradually upping the “danger level” as I developed a feel for what two PC’s can handle.
As Rheis and Qi’da turn away from the troll’s corpse they see Yagra, her feet up on the table in an exaggerated pose of relaxation. Sitting beside her is a well-padded gentleman sporting a verdi beard and a velvet muffin cap.
“Very impressive! Yes indeed, Yagra said you were the pair for me and I dare say she’s right.”
And, pausing to pat his pockets absentmindedly, he asks, “But where are my manners? …Volo Geddarm, at your service. Or rather, asking for your service I suppose!”
Vaguely amused, Rheis and Qi’da sit down and introduce themselves.
Volo goes on to explain that a friend, Floon Blaagmar, of his went missing the previous evening. “Normally I wouldn’t think twice about it, you understand, but his wife tracked me down and she is quite distraught! And I didn’t even know he was married!
“We were drinking at the Skeward Dragon — down in the Dock Quarter — last night. More beauty than brains, Floon but he’s a great drinking companion. Anyway, I called it an early night and headed home, but Floon stayed on.
“That’s the last I saw of him, but his wife came banging on my door early this morning, looking for him. I went straight to Yagra — the Black Network you know, is just the organization for this sort of business — she recommended you, and here we are.
“I’ll pay of course, ten dragons each and ten times that when you find Floon! He’s a handsome man, as I said, shock of red hair, and he wears a huge unicorn’s head amulet, on a string of pearls believe it our not — gaudy thing, but easy to spot!
“You’ll take the job of course?”
Rheis makes an abortive attempt to pry a little extra money from Volo. Embarrassed, Volo explains that he doesn’t have any more money on him at the moment. So, Rheis and Qi’da take the twenty proffered coins and immediately head for the Dock Ward.
- GM stands for game master; the player who controls the game’s setting.
- Node-based design prioritizes player choice over predetermined plots or outcomes.
- PC stands for player character; a character who is controlled by a player.
- NPC stands for non-player character; a character who is controlled by the game master.
- Lore is the history of a setting’s people, locations, objects, or events.
- 5th Edition’s combat encounters are typically designed for a group of 3-5 PCs.