The Dragon Heist Diary: Part Zero
I have a terrible, dreadful, shameful secret to admit. Until a few months ago I’d never run a published RPG campaign.
Oh, I’d shamelessly thieved from them – taken bits and pieces of published books and slotted them into my home games. I’d run one-shots, mini-arcs and encounters from a dozen different places; I’d slotted chunks of Barovia or Chult into convenient parts of ongoing campaigns. But I hadn’t picked a book off the shelf, cracked it open and just played the damned thing from end to end.
As you may have guessed (because this wouldn’t be much of a series otherwise) this is no longer the case.
A couple of months ago I finally took the plunge and got together a group to run a D&D 5E campaign that appealed to me in a way few others had – Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.
Life in the Big City
It’s a little hard to explain why Dragon Heist drew me in so deeply, but I think that a lot of it can be found in the Code Legal. This is the long list of laws, rules and regulations of Waterdeep, which are handed out freely to visitors to the great, glittering city, and are enforced by a competent, well-trained and (mostly) corruption-free police force.
I think that final part was probably what intrigued me the most.
If you flick through enough fantasy novels or adventure movies, the local authorities are almost always corrupt, incompetent or both. This makes sense, of course. Rebelling against tyrannical authority figures is pretty much the bread and butter of heroism, after all, and most plots need a reason why the main cast need to tackle dangers themselves rather than just calling the cops.
As strange as it sounds, the idea of playing around in a fantasy city with reasonable, competent leaders trying to hold things together in a dangerous world is actually rather refreshing. It shifts the dynamic of the party and forces them to make decisions that are a little more sensible, a little more reasoned.
A few sessions into the campaign the party realised some vital information might be in the hands of a noble family. Their initial instinct – the instinct of classic adventurers – was to head over to their house and kick the damn door in. If there were any guards, they’d kill them. If there were any secrets, they’d find them.
This time, however, the party realised their usual approach just wouldn’t work. They couldn’t prove the nobles had broken the law, and even if they could the job of arresting them was something for the watch to handle, not a band of rag-tag adventurers. Kicking the door in and waving their swords about was a good way to end up in jail, or worse.
If they wanted to get what they were after they’d need to think; to plot and plan and scheme up an excuse for getting into that house.
This may all sound very dull. It may sound all very authoritarian, with a cackling GM planning on thwarting their party not with the traditional collapsing ceilings or Spheres of Annihilation¸ but with the cold hand of the law.
While there might be a wee bit of truth in this, I was honestly just stoked to see how this would make things feel different from the wilderness-focussed campaigns I’ve been GMing and playing in for years.
If you’ve never run into it before, a ‘Session 0’ is the time you get together, either in person on through an online chat, and arrange things for your upcoming adventures. There’s a little bit of story talk, a smidgen of rules chatter and a fair slice of general housekeeping.
As far as the rules go, I kept things simple. I’m not a huge fan of lots of houserules so my games tend to be about 98% vanilla. The only tweak I make to the base D&D 5E ruleset is a change to critical hits.
I’m always sad when you hit a natural 20 for an attack, the room cheers and… you roll a double 1 on your dice. Bleh. No fun.
For this reason, my one house rule is this:
When you land a critical hit, you roll damage dice as per a normal hit, and then add extra damage as through all damage dice had rolled their maximum value. For example, if an attack would normally deal 1d8 + 1d6 + 4 piercing damage, a critical hit would deal 1d8 + 1d6 +4 + 8 + 6 piercing damage.
Technically this little tweak provides a solid buff to a couple of sub-classes, most notably the Champion Fighter – who can crit on a 19 – and Assassin Rogue – who auto-crit unaware targets. However, these aren’t traditionally overpowered choices, so I don’t particularly mind helping them out.
On top of this we discussed when we’d meet (weekly, on a Thursday evening after work), how long we’d play for (3-4 hours per session) and where we’d normally play (my house).
With the practical side of things mostly covered we started chatting about the story. I explained about the urban nature of the campaign and had copies of the Code Legal ready to hand out. This would be a swashbuckling, fun and fast-paced campaign, I promised. I wanted to avoid evil characters unless the players had a damn good reason for playing one,
And finally, I set up a system that I now use to kick off all my mid- to long-term games. Every player, I explained, had to think up a way their character knew (or knew of) the character of the player to the right. They could be a friend, a rival or even just someone they’d met at the local tavern, but they needed to know each other. This was, every single character was connected in some way to at least two other party members.
With that, we broke for the evening. Soon the Whatsapp group was flashing and buzzing away on my desk, brimming with ideas, questions and suggestions.