by Mike Shea on 18 February 2019
Note, this article contains spoilers for Waterdeep Dragon Heist.
This is one of a series of articles covering the hardback Dungeons & Dragons adventure Waterdeep Dragon Heist. You can read all of the articles here:
Running a session zero for any new campaign offers many benefits. Session zeros help us and our players all get on the same page about the campaign we're about to play in. During a session zero we describe the overall theme of the campaign to the players and let the players develop their characters together around this theme. It gives players a chance to tailor their characters for the adventures ahead and bind their characters together into a group before hte game begins.
Before the first die hits the table or the first scene of the campaign takes place, we all have an idea about the general theme of the story we're all going to experience. Session zeros are written in detail in chapter 17 of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.
Moreso than other adventure, Waterdeep Dragon Heist will likely benefit from a session zero with you and your players before you actually start the adventure. In today's article we're going to look at some areas to focus on that help build the right expectations for your players and help them build characters that will have the most fun in the adventure. Let's dig in.
Though called a "heist", Waterdeep Dragon Heist is much more of an investigatory adventure. This is more Sherlock Holmes than The Sting. Some compare it to Oceans 11, but I would say it's much more like LA Confidential or Jackie Brown.
When this adventure begins, the heist has already taken place. The Waterdeep dragons are hidden and a handful of factions are seeking it out. There are some heist-like moments in this adventure but characters in this adventure will be spending much of their time investigating situations and talking to people.
It is thus important to tell your players that this adventure, more than most, is an adventure of urban investigation. They will seek and find clues. They will uncover mysteries. They will interview people. They will shake down criminals. They will sneak into hostile places. They will likely get into a few scrapes but combat is definitely not the focus on this adventure.
Waterdeep Dragon Heist is a stark contrast to the previous published hardcover adventure Tomb of Annihilation.
Thus, when managing your players' expectations, clearly reinforce the following points:
To set the stage for your session zero, consider describing the big "facts" that matter for this campaign. Here are the ones I sent to my own group:
It's been five years since the end of the War of the Dragon Queen. Numerous villages, towns, and cities lost tremendous amounts of coin when raided by the Cult of the Dragon. Much of it was never recovered.
Due to his negligence and preferential treatment for Neverwinter, Lord Degault Neverember lost his seat as the Open Lord of Waterdeep to Lariel Silverhand, the current open lord of Waterdeep.
Crime is on the rise. Numerous criminal factions in Waterdeep appear more active, going so far as to fight one another in the streets. In response, the High Wizard of Waterdeep, Vajra "Blackstaff" Safahr, has activated her independent enforcers, Force Gray and the Gray Hands.
Because of the nature of this adventure and its possible outcomes, it may be best to consider this a one-shot campaign in which the characters end their careers at the end of the adventure. Given the vast riches the characters might acquire, it becomes difficult to keep them hungry for further adventures and not simply buy themselves an army to solve whatever adventuring problems they have.
If you and your players know up front that the characters in this adventure are focused exclusively on this adventure alone, it gives you more freedom to focus the story and the direction of the characters within it. It means they can have a big impact on the events that unfold without some ham-fisted reason to take away all of their potential riches if they acquire it. It also means the characters can focus on this adventure and don't need to worry about then moving off into another completely different type of campaign when you're done with this one.
It might not be intuitively obvious, but this clear focus on a beginning and end of a small focused campaign can be a great deal of fun if its established up front.
Adventures go more smoothly when characters have clear ties to each other and to the adventure itself. Here are a number of bonds you might offer to the players when they make their characters for Waterdeep Dragon Heist. They might share a bond with another character to better connect these characters together and to the group. The "X" in the following bonds represents the other character with whom they share the bond.
Waterdeep Dragon Heist assumes that you will be introduced to one or more factions during the course of the adventure. Thus, it works best if the characters aren't already predisposed to any particular faction before the game begins. You'll want to mention this to players if they seem eager to have a connection to an existing faction ahead of time.
There are quite a few great products on the DM's Guild that can make our Dragon Heist game quite a bit more fun. Here are a couple recommended in a Twitter thread on the topic.
Waterdeep City Encounters. This PDF and print-on-demand book is packed with random city encounters written around Waterdeep, a bunch of location encounters, and even a random weather generator. This product can really make Waterdeep feel alive.
Blue Alley. A short deathtrap dungeon perfect for dropping into Chapter 2 of Dragon Heist, Blue Alley is written by MT Black, one of the most prolific and popular writers on the DM's Guild. This is a fun four-hour side quest adventure we can drop in to give players a chance to go outside the story and enjoy an interesting dungeon-in-a-city.
As part of my weekly series of Lazy DM Prep videos I recorded a video specifically on the session zero for Waterdeep Dragon Heist in preparation for my own weekly game. You can watch it on Youtube or down below. Note, the Dragon Heist portion begins roughly 18 minutes in.
The beauty of Waterdeep Dragon Heist is that it isn't a globe-spanning adventure against world-threatening foes. This is a small and focused story involving a missing treasure and the factions who seek it. Focus the expectations of your players on the theme of this adventure and you'll all have a wonderful time watching the story unfold at the table.