This article contains major spoilers for Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is the sort of adventure designed with replayability in mind. Its low-level range and short playtime (only about 10 sessions or so), coupled with its multiplicity of potential villains makes it rife for second, third, even fourth playthroughs. This is great for Dungeon Masters who have several different groups that they want to run this adventure for, because it allows them to run it over and over again without getting bored. But it’s also a boon to groups who finish the adventure and, several months or years later, want to play it again! Maybe it’s the same DM running the game for a similar group of players, or maybe one of your group’s players wants to try DMing for the first time with a familiar adventure.
Dragon Heist’s four villains definitely gives the book a certain amount of replay value, but this is concentrated primarily in Chapter 4: Dragon Season, the chapter in which the characters chase down the Stone of Golorr, and Chapters 5 through 8, the villains’ lairs. This leaves Chapters 1 through 3 largely the same, which makes for a very slow start.
A veteran Dungeon Master can hand-craft enough new material from scratch to make repeat playthroughs feel fresh, but DMs without a lot of free time, DMs who haven’t run a game before, or DMs who don’t have a lot of confidence in their own skills could all use a starting point. Here are some suggestions for how to modify the opening chapters of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist to give your group an instantly engaging new adventure.
Remixing Chapter 1: A Friend in Need
Chapter 1 is easily the most important part of this adventure to alter when starting a new Dragon Heist campaign. Obviously, this chapter is the first part of the story your players will experience, so it needs to hook them. Its content needs to shout in their faces: “This is a brand-new story!”
The introductory chapter of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist puts a lot of emphasis on the gang war between the Xanathar Guild and the Zhentarim—with a special focus on the Xanathar Guild. This works great if Xanathar is your game’s primary villain, and it still works fine if Manshoon is your villain, but it’s a bit weak otherwise. You could change the Xanathar henchmen to Asmodeus cultists and the Zhentarim goons to Bregan D’aerthe pirates to mix things up a little, but I highly recommend creating an all-new scenario to make it clear that this is a new adventure with new villains.
Your new introductory scenario should take place in a specific location or locations, based on which villain or villains you’re setting up as the main antagonists. This sets up this location as important to the story at large, and makes it clear that the characters are on the right path when they return there later in the adventure.
- Cassalanters. The Cassalanters’ cult of Asmodeus should have a base of operations in or near the Sea Ward, but with no obvious ties to any one noble villa—especially not Cassalanter Villa! This makes it clear that this cult is one of means, while preserving the mystery of who’s pulling the strings.
- Jarlaxle. The Bregan D’aerthe should have a hidden base of operations somewhere in the Dock Ward, perhaps in a dive bar like the one in the original chapter 1. The drow involved take great care to maintain their human disguises, but should probably lose them by the end of the adventure so that the characters know dark elves are involved. This scenario should never let on that the Sea Maiden’s Faire is involved, only that seafaring drow are causing trouble.
- Manshoon. Manshoon's base of operations is in Kolat Towers within the Trades Ward. This vast market district is also a great place for underhanded Zhentarim activity. Since the Kolat Towers are impregnable without specific magic, you can integrate them as an ominous landmark that will stick in the players’ minds in the otherwise unremarkable Trades Ward.
- Xanathar. The original chapter 1 wisely sets the confrontation with the Xanathar Guild in a minor hideout in the Waterdeep sewers. I would recommend keeping the sewer locale if you intend to create a new Xanathar-focused start for this adventure.
Remixing Chapter 2: Trollskull Alley
Fortunately, it doesn’t take too much to make this chapter feel new. I personally love the NPCs in this chapter enough to keep them the same, and have the player characters create different relationships with them. Likewise, the myriad faction missions in this chapter allow you to completely change up the sidequests you offer your party as they settle in. Just make sure that your characters don’t overlap with their old factions too much—but even if they do, you can just pilfer missions from other factions and change a few details around to make them fit a different faction.
Remixing Chapter 3: Fireball
This is easily the most difficult chapter to take apart and put back together again, for the simple fact that mysteries are hard to write for D&D, and even harder to run. One simple way is to keep all the main events in place, but replace all the major characters with different ones. Dalakhar and the plot with Lord Neverember can remain the same, but swap out the meeting with Zardoz Zord for a meeting with Manshoon, the Xanathar, or the Cassalanters. Swap out the Gralhunds for another group of nobles; it could be exciting to stealthily make you way through the villa of a group of Harper-aligned nobles like Lady Remalia Haventree, in search of a nimblewright that has taken stock in the old halfling adage “the closer we are from danger, the farther we are from harm.”
If you want to completely rewrite this chapter from scratch, you’ll want to go back to storytelling 101. Since mysteries are hard to pull off well in D&D, you want to give your players a very clear structure for their minds to latch onto. Think of a three-act structure; the fireball and the initial sleuthing is the first act, the search for the perp is act two, and then cornering the perp is act three.
Zooming in to the finer details, your best bet is to completely change the main players of this mystery. Get rid of the forced meeting with Zardoz Zord, eliminate the Gralhunds and the nimblewrights, and even consider getting rid of Dalakhar and replacing him with a more beloved NPC. If the characters are part of the Lords’ Alliance, maybe Jalester Silvermane wanted to give them the Stone of Golorr, but his enemies caught up with him just as he was turning the corner into Trollskull Alley. If you cut the Gralhund Villa invasion, you could modify one part of the Stone of Golorr hunt from Chapter 4 to suit your needs.
Speaking of which, your needs for this chapter will be completely different from everyone else’s. Think of your players. If they like mystery, give them mystery. If they like straightforward action, make sure the clues are straightforward; maybe even have Barnibus Blastwind and Saeth Cromley take charge of the investigation and have them hire the characters as “off the books” muscle.
Remixing the Vault of Dragons
Fortunately, Chapter 4: Dragon Season and the villain lairs in Chapters 5 through 8 were all designed with replayability in mind, so they don’t require any legwork on your part. The Vault of Dragons, however, could use some punching up. The easiest way of doing this is to swap the vault out for another one-shot dungeon from the DMs Guild or from a third-party publisher like Kobold Press.
If you really want to get your hands dirty and make a brand new dungeon, you need to understand the purpose of the Vault of Dragons. It’s a very short and linear dungeon purposefully designed to build hype for the upcoming climax at the depths of the vault. Its difficulty is really rather low, so as not to kill the characters prematurely and give them a wilted anticlimax. With this in mind, a simple Five-Room Dungeon should do the trick.
See this Advice in Action!
My friend Will Doyle and my fellow Dragon Heist co-author James Introcaso recently collaborated on Dragon Heist: Forgotten Tales, a book with the express purpose of making it more fun to replay this adventure. If you found the advice in this article helpful, but want to see these ideas put into practice, complete with maps, art, and professional-level writing, you should check out Forgotten Tales on the DMs Guild! It includes:
- A new Chapter 1 that focuses on the competing goals of the Bregan D’aerthe and the Cult of Asmodeus, instead of the gang war between the Zhentarim and the Xanathar Guild.
- A guide to remixing Chapter 3 and providing a new villain behind the fireball attack in Trollskull Alley. Rather than the Zhentarim-backed Gralhund family, this chapter focuses on a Bregan D’aerthe deserter.
- A completely new Vault of Dragons dungeon filled with puzzles and traps that will surprise even seasoned Dragon Heist
- A bank heist that replaces the Vault of Dragon entirely, allowing Dragon Heist to truly end with an Oceans 11-style bank heist!
What would you do to remix Waterdeep: Dragon Heist to make it even more replayable? Sound off in the comments!
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 their prophetic kittens Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.