When My Dragon Heist Campaign Got Real

5th edition’s Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is the first ever campaign book I used. It was also the first ever D&D campaign I ran as a dungeon master. After a little over a year, the campaign is close to ending so writing a post-mortem must wait. Instead, I wanted to talk about how the story got more real than I expected it too.

Fair warning, there are likely spoilers ahead. Avoid if you are interested in experiencing Dragon Heist without my opinions.

This is not a review of the book, but I learned quickly that I a) did not like it and b) do not like the formatting of D&D campaign books. They are written in a style that makes them more pleasing to read casually which, for me at least, meant it was hard to find critical information. 

For example, the second chapter requires the low level party to suddenly come up with a lot of gold to fix up a tavern/business they are rewarded with at the end of the first chapter. There are apparently moneylender options, but that information is included in the stat block for various NPCs referenced in the back of the book. I realized this only after complaining on the internet to people who thought I was stupid for not having read the entire book cover-to-cover several times prior to beginning the campaign.

The book does outline which villain you should use depending on the season. Since we originally began the campaign in winter, I decided to make it winter in-game too. This let me decorate the city to match a not-quite Christmas aesthetic. However, I wanted to try and introduce all the villains as potential threats and to round out my second chapter.

This led me to introducing Victoro Cassalanter, a duplicitous noble who moonlights as a worshipper of the archdevil Asmodeus along with his wife. One of my players, Tanya, is an orphan who was raised on the streets and grew up in a shanty town within Waterdeep we named ‘Chantier’. In secret, Victoro’s goal was to collect as many unfortunate souls as possible for sacrificing to Asmodeus. Using his wealth and reputation, he decided to “adopt” the poor people of Chantier as his own. With their trust, he lured them one-by-one to his underground temple where he chained them up.

Another player, our paladin Calen, is the apprentice to the famous hero of Waterdeep, All Knight (a play on All Might from My Hero Academia). All Knight is a dedicated servant of the god of justice, Tyr, and the type to have a key to the city. He also cares little for day-to-day operations of the temple which he leaves entirely to the treasurer, Sir William Austin. Unbeknownst to All Knight, Sir William Austin has been peddling access to the temple’s greatest hero as a means to fill the temple’s coffers with donations which he skims off the top for himself.

As All Knight’s self-appointed agent, Sir Austin quickly becomes allies to the influential Victoro (though he knew nothing of the secret cult he was running). Victoro and his wife want Sir Austin to convince All Knight to name their son as his apprentice. This is a ruse, of course. All Knight is a powerful hero and would count as a “great soul” if sacrificed to Asmodeus. If the Cassalanters can lure him into their own home through the pretense of training their son, they will capture him.

These two fronts of our story collided in a big way. The people of Chantier slowly went missing and All Knight eventually did too. This led to Calen, Tanya, and their friend Ophelia (our third and final player) to investigate and eventually discover the Cassalanter plot beneath their estate. 

At this point, Jarlaxle Baenre had become the bigger threat in regards to the plot-as-written so I wrote a send-off for the Cassalanter story that I hoped would result in a lot of character growth for Calen and Tanya. In an epic moment where they were totally outmatched, All Knight sacrificed much of his life force as an avatar of Tyr and vanquished the cult of Asmodeus along with the Cassalanters while saving the party.

And this is where the story got real.

When I realized how many cult members were present (that I just instagibbed with holy energy) and that they would be a collective of influential Waterdeep nobles and merchants, it dawned on me what a huge story-altering event this was beyond just my Cassalanter plotline. Overnight, a significant number of Waterdeep elite would disappear forever. Jarlaxle, having the inside scoop through a secret agent (the Black Viper, a noble in her own right masquerading as a vigilante thief), seized the moment.

He turned this into a class war.

When I introduced Victoro, I introduced him as the president of the Waterdeep Savings & Loan. I wanted him to be a banker with deep ties to the noble community both above and below the table. When he and so many others died overnight, Jarlaxle used their disappearance to spread rumors that caught fire when combined with the wipeout of Chantier (almost everyone from there was sacrificed to Asmodeus).

In Waterdeep, it quickly became assumed that wealth and power came from Asmodeus alone. Many middle and upper class families retreated into their lavish homes, protected by their guards and mercenaries. The rest of Waterdeep – those forced to fight and scrounge – rose up to protest and eventually rebel against the shadows of evil cast by Jarlaxle’s plot.

The Black Viper had successfully stolen Victoro’s journal. As Esvele Rosznar (and eventually with Jarlaxle pretending to be Rosznar), the Black Viper used her noble name to stoke the flames of hate further by revealing others accused of associating with the Cult of Asmodeus. These names were carefully selected to do the most damage by preying on the emotions of the upset rather than providing evidence of any actual association.

After making her a hero of the people, Jarlaxle killed Rosznar and tied her murder to the city guard. With her death, Waterdeep itself became a warzone overnight.

Now, the party is caught in a fight to gain the Stone of Golorr, a mysterious object that somehow leads to a vault containing embezzled gold and treasures. With the money, Jarlaxle hopes to uplift his city, the city of Luskan, to membership status in the Lord’s Alliance whilst simultaneously tearing down the city most likely to oppose him. All the while, the city guard, the Lord’s Alliance, and the Harpers fight to keep Waterdeep from burning down and hope to repair the relationship between classes that Jarlaxle has disrupted.

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