Waterdeep: Dragon Heist has been widely touted as a perfect adventure for first-time Dungeon Masters, but crafted with enough depth and nuance to excite even veteran DMs. The involvement of Waterdeep’s factions is an element that highlights how the adventure can be easily adjusted to suit all playstyles.
Factions, So What?
For most players, their party is the only organization they need. In fact, some more selfish characters chafe at even that much camaraderie. But factions need not be omnipresent guides. In Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, the player factions are a source of information, side hustles, and sometimes even major magic items.
To quote the Dungeon Master’s Guide:
[Factions] can play an important part in the lives of player characters, becoming their patrons, allies, or enemies just like individual nonplayer characters. When characters join these organizations, they become part of something larger than themselves, which can give their adventures a context in the wider world.
In Chapter 2: Trollskull Alley, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist encourages player characters to join one of these factions. This is a blessing for both the characters and the Dungeon Master, as it allows the DM to provide the players with sidequests when the main plot has become overbearing, and allow faction representatives to prod the characters in the right direction when they’ve lost the scent of the investigation. For players, it creates opportunities to explore the city they’ve become a part of and create a network of NPC allies that can help them when their need is dire. This support is loosely detailed on a faction-by-faction basis in the Introduction to Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.
Dragon Heist is an adventure that pits rookie adventurers against truly legendary foes. Attacking the Xanathar head-on, even at the very end of the adventure, would be the height of folly, and the same goes for Jarlaxle, Manshoon, and even the Cassalanters. Being associated with a faction helps put a city-sized conflict into context. Even if the characters can’t take down such mighty foes directly, they can use wit and guile to foil these villains such that they never gain the upper hand in this power struggle. And if you do want the players to have a big, climactic fight against the Xanathar, giving faction-aligned players a little help from a legendary hero of their own faction such as Laeral Silverhand (Lord’s Alliance) or Vajra Safahr (Gray Hands) could make for a suitably epic conclusion. It did in my playtest game!
Finally, factions are one of many tools the DM has help the players feel like their characters are truly a part of Waterdeep’s community, rather than mere drifters with swords. Every faction has a major lore character in the city of Waterdeep, and dozens of other agents that can really make the players feel like part of a family. And likewise, players can use this relationship to encourage the DM to give them a personalized story. While Xanathar may want beat the Zhentarim and make himself the best crime boss in town, you can insert yourself into the limelight by personally antagonizing this beholder by becoming a symbol of the faction he hates so dearly. If the beholder kingpin has a vendetta against not just the Zhentarim but your your Zhentarim-aligned character in particular, suddenly you have a very interesting story on your hands.
Factions Motivated by Leverage
The Dungeon Master’s Guide indicates five major factions at play in the Forgotten Realms: the Harpers, the Order of the Gauntlet, the Emerald Enclave, the Lords’ Alliance, and the Zhentarim. These organization have a long and storied history in the Forgotten Realms, and many fifth edition D&D players may already be familiar with them, thanks to their prior appearances in adventures like Lost Mine of Phandelver and Rise of Tiamat. Of these five factions, the Lords’ Alliance and the Zhentarim take center stage in the main story, with some not-insignificant appearances by the Harpers. But there’s more to it than that.
These five factions have played nice in recent years, thanks to the overbearing threats of forces like Tiamat, rampant Demon Lords, and a Death Curse. But Waterdeep: Dragon Heist shakes this dynamic up in two ways: first by removing the world-shaking threat, and second by adding two new factions into the mix. While a hidden cache of 500,000 gold pieces would instantly change the life of any one person (or four people) who discovered it—see “What to Do with 500,000 gold pieces” for more specific details—to major factions, the gold is not money. It is leverage.
Thus, the factions’ main reason to care about the half-million gold is purely preventative. It hardly matters that they have it, so long as everyone else doesn’t. Individual, power-hungry members of the factions may see it another way (and Laeral Silverhand firmly believes that this is taxpayer money belonging to the people of Waterdeep), but on the whole, the factions are engaged in a war of deterrence. They’ll play nice… but only to a point. Once you shift the balance of power too far in the wrong direction, the gloves come off. Especially when it comes to less forgiving factions like the Zhents and the Lords’ Alliance.
Additionally, the two new factions in this political stew are the Bregan D’aerthe—who may very well become the players’ untrustworthy allies so long as they don’t oppose Jarlaxle—and the Gray Hands, a faction unique to Waterdeep. The Gray Hands are an order of apprentice heroes that may one day join the vaunted ranks of Force Grey. (Yes, Gray Hands is spelled with an A and Force Grey is spelled with an E. We don’t know why; probably a clerical error turned tradition.) The Gray Hands, like Force Grey, are led by Vajra Safahr, one of the greatest mages in all of Faerûn and the bearer of the title “Blackstaff.” Vajra is on shaky terms with Laeral Silverhand, who thinks the “youngest to bear the title of Blackstaff” can hardly measure up to Khelben Arunsun, a legendary former Blackstaff and Laeral’s late husband. Despite this sourness, Vajra and her factions are unflinchingly loyal to Waterdeep and would never betray any of the other factions, unless their actions directly threatened the city’s safety.
Which Faction is Right for You?
All of these factions have different flavors, and provide their aid to players in different ways. A party of many different squabbling factions will have a very different sense of cohesion than a party made up entirely of one faction. It’s the DM’s prerogative to send faction invitations to the players’ characters, but the characters can always seek out a faction representative on their own if they wish to join. You may wish to pick a faction that aligns (even slightly) with your character’s interests and goals.
The Harpers are a group of spies that that spread the message of equality and oppose tyrants and all who abuse power. Remelia Haventree of House Ulbrinter is their leader, and she possesses a manse in the North Ward of Waterdeep.
Order of the Gauntlet
The Order of the Gauntlet is a holy order of knights that follows the teachings of gods of justice like Tyr and Helm. They seek to destroy fiends and undead, as well as monsters and cultists that commit unjust deeds.
The Emerald Enclave is an interesting faction to join in Waterdeep, as they advocate for the balance of nature and civilization. In Waterdeep, they are led by a demigod named Jeryth Faulkon. Melannor Fellbranch, the faction representative that the characters will see most often, is the brother of Tally Fellbranch, who runs a shop in Trollskull Alley.
The Lords’ Alliance is as much a political coalition as it is a faction for adventurers. It is predominantly made up of nobles along the Sword Coast in cities like Mirabar, Neverwinter, Baldur’s Gate, and Waterdeep. They are strict and utilitarian, and care more for stability than they do justice. Nevertheless, some members of the Alliance have altruistic motives, such as the Open Lord Laeral Silverhand, who kindheartedly seeks to better the lives of her people.
The Zhentarim, also known as the Black Network, are a criminal organization that has often found itself on the wrong side of history, backing tyrants like Manshoon, Fzoul Chembryl, and the dark god Bane. Nevertheless, the Zhentarim in Waterdeep are split. If Manshoon is your villain, he commands a faction of Zhents who seek to help him dominate the world, whereas the main body of the Black Network in Waterdeep is represented by an elf named Davil Starsong, who only has his own self-enrichment in mind.
This mercenary band of all-male drow is led by Jarlaxle Baenre, and he sells their services to the highest bidder… unless he commits their blades to one of his own cunning plots. The latter is the case in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, as Jarlaxle has a secret political motive regarding the half-million gold pieces. Jarlaxle’s goals are selfish, but not exceptionally evil. He only considers drow for membership in the Bregan D’aerthe, regardless of gender in this case, but he might be persuaded to let a non-drow join if the circumstances were right.
Force Grey and the Gray Hands
Force Grey is a group of heroes loyal to Waterdeep, as is its “feeder organization,” the Gray Hands. Those who wish to join this faction are heroic and patriotic above all other desires.
Running Faction Missions
Once you’ve completed the first chapter of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and joined a faction, your faction representatives will start sending you missions that you can complete for rewards. These missions are summarized as paragraphs in Chapter 2, and are either incredibly easy to run or very challenging to improvise, depending on your point of view. Here are some ways you can run faction missions.
Faction Missions: Basic Set
Most of the faction missions in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist can be completed by finishing a short, level-appropriate combat, or by succeeding on only one or two skill checks. Not a lot of extra detail is provided alongside these missions, and this can frustrate new DMs who want some extra guidance. If you feel frustrated by these missions, consider just cutting right to the chase. Don’t harp on the description of Waterdeep as the characters travel to the mission location or worry too much about setting the scene. If the characters need to make a skill check in a location, just say “You travel to the Dock Ward and find the traitor the Zhentarim told you to hunt down. Make a Charisma (Intimidation) check to try and make him flee or prepare for a fight.”
Simple as that. Run the scene simply, then say that the characters return to their home base and receive a reward the next day. What this method lacks in verisimilitude and narrative panache, it makes up for in simplicity and speed. Once you feel more comfortable running these missions, you can try branching out into more detailed descriptions.
Faction Missions: Expert Set
Each one of these missions provides you with everything you need to improvise a scene or two that will take up about half a session of gameplay, especially if your players are interested in roleplaying. Make sure you’ve read up on the faction missions for your players’ factions beforehand, and taken notes on the characters they involve. These NPCs are probably mentioned in appendix B, or the description you have in the mission is all you get. Make something up and have fun!
The NPCs are either located in a specific ward of the city, in which case you can read Volo’s Waterdeep Enchiridion at the end of the book to get a feel for the tone of this neighborhood, or they are located in a villain’s lair… in which case it would behoove you to study and prepare the dungeon that your NPC of interest is lurking in. Then, when the reward is complete, consider how the player characters now need to return to their home base and how their faction representative will deliver their reward.
This method requires you to be a skilled DM with a knack for improvisation, but that’s the joy of these faction missions. You can make them as simple or complex as you want!
At early levels, this reward for completing a mission is simply renown in your faction, which represents how famous you are among your peers. At higher levels, you can also start earning gold and magic items through these missions, so don’t skimp out on the ones that only offer renown!
DMs, I would encourage you to make explicit how the players can call for aid; what level of renown is needed to call for aid and how frequently an adventurer can do this, as simply getting renown as a reward can feel underwhelming. Either play up how useful faction aid can be or provide some additional gold as a reward, as otherwise I suspect players will consider these missions somewhat underwhelming. Perhaps this could be:
Type of Aid
Moderate aid, 1/tenday per character. A faction agent (see above) helps the characters for 1 day. If this agent dies, the character that called upon the agent lose 1d4 renown unless they contribute to their funeral.
Major aid, 1/tenday per character. A faction agent like a drow gunslinger, druid, priest, or veteran aids the party for 1 day. Or, a faction leader like Laeral Silverhand, Davil Starsong, Vajra Safahr, Jarlaxle Baenre, or Hlam (etc.) aids them in the final extraction of the 500,000 gold.
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his tabaxi hirelings, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.