Dust off your crowbar, polish your lock picks and put on your padded slippers, because your expert handler, Hipsters & Dragons, is about to mission debrief you on a series of 13 sensational heists from the D&D multiverse.
Yes, a mere 7.5 months after its release (I have a day job you know!) I’ve finally found time to properly delve into Wizards of the Coast’s latest anthology of original adventures: Keys from the Golden Vault.
And, as with Candlekeep Mysteries and Journeys through the Radiant Citadel, I’ll not only be providing my thoughts on the product as a whole, but I’ll be reviewing and rating each adventure in the collection, to give Dungeon Masters a detailed insight into the anthology and perhaps help them select the most suitable stories for their table. Here and there you might even encounter some “Hipster Remixes”, where I saw some easy(ish) ways for DMs to improve the adventure as written.
Adventure Rating System
As will my other reviews, I’ll be using a simple 5 star rating system:
5 stars: Überhip – hand me my f***ing dice!
4 stars: Très chic – a well-crafted offering.
3 stars: Passably cool – a flawed, but still worthy, adventure.
2 stars: Somewhat shabby – a disappointing effort.
1 star: Downright lame – I want my money back!
For a bit of fun, I’ll also be compiling my final rankings of the anthology’s top adventures, to see how they stack up against one another.
Obviously D&D is a game of opinions and personal preferences (I’ve seen more than one adventure panned online, that waltzed into my own top 5), so take all reviews with a grain of salt and perhaps check out some other hot takes too… I provide some links at the bottom of this post.
*BONUS HEIST* I also wrote my very own Key from the Golden Vault to accompany the anthology, called The Incredible Balloon Bamboozle… so make that a series of 14 crazy capers available for your 5th edition campaign!
*SPOILER ALERT* This post contains plenty of spoilers (i.e. DMs only!)
Keys from the Golden Vault: Intro
The opening chapter of Keys from the Golden Vault is short but sweet. A simple five pages that offers advice on running the adventures within, a cool patron in the titular Golden Vault, and some examples of heist complications you can throw at your party, with the biggest word count dedicated to a rival crew and their possible motivations.
My favourite part of this short intro is the lore on the Golden Vault itself, because introducing an organisation that “rights moral wrongs, supports virtuous underdogs, and handles delicate situations that local authorities won’t touch” allows DMs to offer good-aligned parties the chance to take part in plenty of cool capers in a neat and credible way. The music box that comes alive to debrief operatives, once a key is inserted, is a nice touch and provides a Mission Impossible vibe that should help players get in the zone.
There’s not too much more to get our teeth into here, so let’s press on to the meat of the book – the adventures!
Before we dig into the individual adventures, it’s worth noting that each module within the anthology follows the same format: kicking off with the Adventure Background, then Mission Debriefing (Adventure Hooks), then a section on Planning the Heist, before providing room by room descriptions of the heist location. Each adventure is then wrapped up by a Conclusion that states what happens if the players succeed, or fail, in the heist.
Each adventure also comes with a players’ map of the heist location, provided to the party by an NPC, that should help the party plan the heist. Most of the time this device works well, but occasionally I felt like it would be better if scouting the location, or obtaining a map, was part of the player prep and not casually handed out to them.
In general, I felt that the planning phase of some of the heists involved simply giving the players all the intel. they needed to get started, rather than stimulating the party into casing the joint themselves, researching potentially useful info, or shopping for specialised equipment. DMs seeking to run any of the Keys as a one shot might appreciate that the scenarios tend to put the players in an advanced state of readiness, or suggest ways in which to carry out the heist, however DMs working with experienced players might want to hold back on some of the info provided and / or make the party gather their own intel.
A quick final note: I’m not sure why the adventures’ authors are credited en masse in the book’s opening leaf, and not next to their stories, where they should be. This means that, for the most part, I haven’t been able to credit many of the authors for their specific contribution to the anthology. However, here and there I’ve managed to work out who wrote what and provide credit.
1. The Murkmire Malevolence
Retrieve a mysterious egg ensconced in a museum to avert disaster (level 1).
I read a review somewhere that dismissed The Murkmire Malevolence as a kind of basic, run-of-the-mill heist that offers little in the way of surprises, which seemed harsh to me on first reading, and on a second read seems even harsher still / downright inaccurate.
Yes, TTM delivers – as one might hope in the starting entry of a heist anthology – a classic caper, as the party are tasked with stealing a rare artefact, the Murkmire Stone, from the grand, guarded and alarmed, Varkenbluff Museum; but this stereotypical scenario is not only incredibly well-designed, but also bursting with fun flavouring and memorable moments waiting to happen.
Arguably the adventure’s strongest point is how open it is to different approaches. There are front doors, back doors, windows and skylights to break in via, while the party might try hiding in the museum while its open to the public, or even attempt the heist during the Opening Gala (which in turn is a great device that allows the party to gather the necessary intel to carry out their mission). I think pretty much every D&D party is going to approach this one differently.
As for those memorable moments I mentioned, there’s the chance to go full Indiana Jones and swap the Murkmire Stone for a slab of jade of similar bulk and weight, the possibility of releasing an animatronic dinosaur on unsuspecting museum guards in order to create a distraction, and the likelihood of having to crawl out a vent when the doors in the Gemstone Wing slam shut on any would-be burglars.
The fact that the Murkmire Stone is actually the egg of an eldritch horror offers rich potential for complications or follow up quests. In the adventure as written the players know this going in, but – see Hipster Remix below – it might be more fun if they didn’t.
Hipster Remix: I think it would be cool if the Golden Vault give the players this mission in good faith, but if Dr. Dannell hides the fact that the Murkmire Stone is actually an egg about to hatch. In true ALIENS-style, she is happy to risk a few lives in the name of scientific research. DMs can then use birth of the eldritch horror as a nice surprise, whenever the time is right.
Author: T. Alexander Stangroom.
Pages: 11-25 (15 pages)
Final Rating: ★★★★★. The perfect introductory heist to kick off this anthology.
2. The Stygian Gambit
Rob a Nine Hells-themed casino built with stolen money (level 2).
Some adventures just scream “run me!” to my DM’s brain, and The Stygian Gambit is one of them! Heists are very much location-based adventures, and it would be hard to find a much cooler hang out than the Afterlife Casino anywhere in the D&D multiverse.
Guests arrive at this Nine Hells-themed gambling den via a tributary dubbed the River Styx, after which they can try their hand at Three Dragon Ante, rat racing, or the slot machines, while a spa and baths, a circus, two bars and a restaurant provide plenty of opportunities for relaxation and intrigue (note: you’ll have to insert the latter by yourself though, as the adventure is a little bare bones in that regard).
Visiting the casino would prove a fun gaming session in itself, however the players have a job to do… steal the Erinyes Statuette that the casino’s owner, Quentin Togglepocket, plans to award the winner of his Minauros Invitational Three Dragon Ante tournament, in order to embarrass the two-timing gnome trickster (the players are most likely employed by the casino owner’s former business partner, Verity Kye, who was double-crossed by Quentin).
A bit like with The Murkmire Malevolence, the adventure is smartly designed to encourage players to first conduct a stakeout of the target location, in order to plan their heist, while they’ll also have a fun dilemma to chew over… whether to hit the casino’s vault, or just settle with trying to snatch the statuette from its glass display cabinet.
Once they’ve got their pilfering paws on the loot, there’s really only one way out of the Afterlife… and that’s by taking a running leap out of the casino’s 100-foot-high waterfall.
Hipster Remix: To bring this to my table, I made a bunch of minor changes, such as creating a grittier adventure hook to go with my Waterdeep campaign, dialling up the devilry, inserting some intrigue, and adding a few bells and whistles – like rules for the rat racing track and a hell-themed cocktail menu. Check out my running notes here.
3. Reach for the Stars
Search for The Celestial Codex in a mansion warped by the Far Realm (level 3).
In Reach for the Stars the players are charged with travelling to a remote family home to retrieve The Celestial Codex, a book that contains far too much dangerous knowledge to the be in the hands of a scholar possessed by a Far Realms entity. In doing so they will have to stop a ritual that will glue a slug-like fragment of the aforementioned entity onto the headless body of one of the last band of adventurers that came this way.
Reach for the Stars is a solid D&D adventure that revels in the creepier side of D&D (slaad tadpoles, crawling crawls, and gibbering mouthers are amongst the monsters lurking in the mansion) and nails that particular theme. It also boasts plenty of nice design touches – such as an eldritch surge table that creates a shifting environmental affect and should keep players on their toes.
However, this adventure doesn’t really get my dice itching. Firstly, a box-shaped mansion feels like a rather bland location after a sprawling museum and a hell-themed casino, and secondly Reach for the Stars isn’t really a heist…. it’s a room by room dungeon crawl, where encounters wait in stasis for the adventurers to arrive. There’s no planning stage, no dedicated security body, no getaway. The players are forced to smash their way through the mansion to find what they’re looking for, and the MacGuffin is secondary to the villain of the story.
A more niche gripe would be that the way players are handed a map and information at the start of the adventure feels like a wasted opportunity for me… make them earn it somehow by some clever investigation, or some skills checks at the very least.
Author: Unknown (to me)
Pages: 41-53 (13 pages)
Final Rating: ★★★½. A decent enough dungeon crawl, and probably worth 4 stars in any other anthology, I’m marking this down for it’s lack of heistiness.
4. Prisoner 13
Obtain the key to a vault from a spymaster imprisoned in Revel’s End (level 4).
A prison break adventure at the infamous Revel’s End prison!? Hell, yeah! Well, ok, you don’t actually need to break the prisoner out of Revel’s end, you do have to break in… and get some info from a crime boss known as Prisoner 13.
This is a proper heist indeed, with a fantastic location (a hexagonal, panopticon prison in a frozen wasteland), with various points of entry and detailed security measures. There’s even a nice little ‘suspicion’ mechanic that DMs can lean into, to raise tension (and punish bad moves / rolls, without instantly raising the alarm).
While the adventure rather pushes the characters towards an infiltration based on disguise (as various prison staff), once inside Revel’s End there are plenty of ways this heist could unfurl, and the author has done a great job of subtly, or not so subtly, presenting some options on how players might find a way to approach Prisoner 13 and get the info they require. Actually, I should note too the disguise plan is well designed because it should split PCs into guards and chefs, and also allows for the possibility of smaller characters hiding in crates. This could lead to a very cinematic session where the DM cuts from group to group.
There’s also a complication built into the heist, which is that Prisoner 13 doesn’t want to be broken out of jail. She wants the info in the warden’s office. This will play out a lot better if the characters are undercover in the prison, and not just breaking and entering, otherwise it will be quite an ask to sneak through a barracks with 50 guards and get it.
The one thing I didn’t really like about this adventure is the set up. We are told Prisoner 13 is a master criminal… but one who was caught almost immediately. The Axebreaker Clan managed to get her incarcerated but we are told they can’t secure her release, or contact her themselves. The whole vault thing seems rather unconvincing… why would the stolen money be kept in a vault? It can be laundered easily. Couldn’t the dwarves just cast passwall, anyhow since they know the vault’s location? We also never learn why the prisoner files are more important to Prisoner 13 than the vast treasure she is willing to trade it for. It’s not that the back story doesn’t make any sense, or these questions couldn’t be explained away somehow… it just doesn’t convince me as much as I’d like, esp. given how credible I found the prison itself.
Hipster Remix: I would like for the quest-giver to be a lot shadier. Maybe an ex-inmate at Revel’s End (hence they are able to provide a prison map), who ascertained that Prisoner 13 was saving up a vast treasure horde from behind bars, and is convinced that it’s location is tied to one of her tattoos… however, while inside, they never managed to get a close enough look. There’s no way this ex-inmate can sneak back in themselves, so they recruit the PCs with promises of mega-riches.
The tattoo is not actually a key, but more like a code or even a map, leading to some Count of Monte Cristo-style secret stash, that Prisoner 13’s network is constantly topping up. You could even run this for a good-aligned party just by having the shady inmate tell a bunch of lies about Prisoner 13 and the intended purposes of her gold. Then, during the heist, you could have Prisoner 13 reverse engineer the inmate’s offer. She will agree to share 10-20% of her stash in return for freedom, the warden’s files and help dealing with her former inmate and his band of thugs.
Maybe as well, I would force the PCs to waylay the staff they are going to impersonate… which, by the way, would need to be entirely new staff, and not just rotating staff, as the adventure suggests. (Because if it’s rotating staff, then the PCs would need to enter the prison in impeccable disguise and be able to pull off their voices, personalities etc.). Another option could be them effectively applying for the job, by answering some kind of recruitment call for new prison staff.
Author: Unknown (to me)
Pages: 55-69 (15 pages)
Final Rating: ★★★★★. I love the gritty and grim vibe around this prison heist, with Revel’s End and the memorable Prisoner 13 competing to be star of the show.
Infiltrate a VIP party, aboard an airship, in order to steal the blimp’s blueprints (level 5-6).
In this adventure by Hipsters & Dragons, the players must infiltrate the Sky Party on board the Dragonbowl Airship. This invite-only bacchanale marks the start of the Blood Games gladiatorial festival and is renowned for its ribald behaviour and as a place to do shady business deals.
To aid them, the Harpers (working with the Golden Vault) have waylaid several folks on the Sky Party’s guest list, and the players can choose which of these invitees they wish to impersonate in order to board the blimp (or they can come up with their own plan!). Luckily no one at the party knows the waylaid guests too well, so the adventurers stand a decent chance of pulling off their impersonations, although they will face certain challenges not to arouse the suspicions of Dragonbowl Security.
Once they’ve successfully integrated into the party flow, they need to find a way to sneak up to the isolated upper sections of the dirigible, where the blueprints are kept. Teleportation circles, with employee-only access keys, precarious maintenance ladders, or plain old subterfuge might help them, although they will still need to search the Head Office and crack the safe to get their hands on the prints.
Unfortunately for the players, they’re not the only ones with a special interest in the airship. Xanathar and his goons, however, are less focused on how the technical marvel works and more intent on crashing it out of the skies, with everyone on board.
The Incredible Balloon Bamboozle is a pulp action heist featuring heavy social interplay, OTT drama, and a final epic combat rife with beholders, repeating ballistas to fire and flying disks to commandeer.
5. Tockworth’s Clockworks
Liberate a svirfneblin town besieged by clockwork automatons (level 5).
If I was impressed with panopticon prisons and hell-themed casinos, Tockworth’s Clockworks introduces an equally awesome location in the form of a svirfneblin (deep gnome) mining town overrun by hostile automatons. I love everything about Little Lockford from its magma lakes and clock-face stalactites to its snappy district names (Turbine Heights, Smoldertown) and retractable bridges. Perhaps the best feature however is the slagline of swaying steel buckets, which are screaming out for players to hitch a ride in.
The story here revolves around a troubled tinkerer whose body experiments started to worry her fellow townsfolk. Instead of heeding their advice, however, Tixie Tockworth set her army of automatons on the villagers and drove them out of the settlement. The players are charged with sneaking back into town and pilfering Tixie’s security key in order to activate the fail-safe device that powers down her constructs. Their main challenge in this quest will be avoiding the Clockwork Observers (effectively propeller-enabled flying security cameras) that patrol Little Lockford, and which can raise the alarm and turn the quest into a deadly combat scenario.
Tockworth’s Clockworks is a brilliant adventure for me, brimming with creativity, from the artfully evolved location, to the crazy villain (and her imaginary friend) intent on turning herself into a machine. The adventure also benefits from an open design template, and the party can choose to make their way through Little Lockford in a few different ways, each potentially offering some encounters that might aid or hinder the party’s quest.
Do I have any gripes? Maybe one or two tiny ones. For example mimics posing as dead gnomes is a bit too ‘gotcha’ for me, and in general I felt like there might be too many locations with fights in them that could slow down the heist, or make it impossible for the party to remain stealthy. (Then again, players are extremely unlikely to call by all these locations so maybe even my gripe is not really valid).
Meanwhile, as much as I love the slagline, this feature could make the whole heist rather too easy… so DMs should prepare to throw in some Dexterity checks for climbing in and out of the buckets and consider some other complications (“you hear what sounds suspiciously like a chain link cracking open…”).
Author: Unknown (to me)
Pages: 70-85 (16 pages)
Final Rating: ★★★★★. Ride a steel bucket suspended over blazing hot magma, avoid the flying clockwork eyes and confront the deranged half-gnome-half-machine to save a svirfneblin village… what’s not to love?
6. Masterpiece Imbroglio
Infiltrate a thieves’ guild to retrieve a stolen painting (level 5).
The Thomas Crown Affair meets The Picture of Dorian Gray in the adventure Masterpiece Imbroglio, where the heist’s Macguffin is a priceless magical portrait of the world’s most beautiful man. So far so good, and the set up gets even better because the picture has already been purloined and now the party have to get back from the thief, and they have a captured lookout to pump for information and a good lead on a guild member, who should prove an easy target to waylay / impersonate / steal keys from.
What irks me about this adventure is the heist location is an actual thieves’ guild house. For me a thieves’ guild is like a black market. It’s not an actual location you can ask directions for and visit. It’s a nebulous network of agents and contacts. A guild of thieves might have a secret meeting place, but they don’t all kip together in a nice mansion – that would make ending their operations rather easy indeed. The sell gets harder owing to the guild house’s apparent location in some rural village or small town, and one wonders how a large criminal organisation would go about their work unnoticed.
Aside from that, Masterpiece Imbroglio is elaborated a bit too much like a dungeon for my liking, with encounters waiting in stasis for the players to arrive, and probably too many cool but superfluous details for running a good clean heist. The prime example of this is the basement training area for new guild members, which potentially pits players against a dungeon-style hazard but is only a false lead for the portrait’s actual location.
Back to things I like about the adventure and I really appreciate the author’s habit of predicting what abilities players might use in certain situations. As a DM I always appreciate being forewarned and forearmed.
Hipster Remix: Overall, I like Masterpiece Imbroglio’s core concept (the theft of a sentient portrait from an arch-thief) and I actually do like the location and its maps. I would just rather reimagine it as Guildmaster Dusk’s private country residence. Perhaps she poses as a reclusive noblewoman who employs various animal handlers, butlers and other servants (loyal guild members who double up as guards). After that I would give a bit more thought to round-the-clock security (as written the security is lax to the point of incredulity), and I would probably make staking out the villa part of the heist. Guildmaster Dusk needs a few tricks up her sleeve too, to help defend her ill-gotten gains.
Author: Unknown (to me)
Pages: 86-101 (16 pages)
Final Rating: ★★★½. Like Reach for the Stars, I think this is a well-written adventure that isn’t quite heisty enough, while the thieves guild house location doesn’t convince. There’s a lot of usable material here though and I would definitely enjoy remixing and running Masterpiece Imbroglio for my group.
7. Axe from the Grave
Recover a stolen mandolin to lay a dead bard’s spirit to rest (level 6).
In Axe from the Grave, the adventurers are charged with recovering a stolen instrument of the bards from an unscrupulous director of a music conservatory, and returning it to the grave of the hero from whom it was robbed.
Sythian Skalderang, to give the director a name, founded the conservatory when the Skalderang olive orchards were mysteriously poisoned, as a way to pay off the family debts he inherited. Sythian remains oblivious to the fact that it is his ‘muse’ and conservatory hanger-on, Joster Mareet, who was responsible for blighting the fields. Mareet poses as a handsome tiefling, but is in fact an incubus who serves the demon lord Graz’zt. Mareet believes that a music school for kids of rich and influential families offers more fertile ground for a new cult of Graz’zt than an olive farm, and is working towards that goal.
So far so good… we’ve got an original location (the music conservatory is beautifully mapped over four floors) and a rich backstory, with a dash of mystery behind it. What I’m not so confident about is whether we have a heist, at least in a traditional sense. Security at the conservatory is nothing special (for a 6th level party), while the adventure seems to throw in too many easy wins for the players. They are told, no roll or special investigation required, that Sythian is terrified of frogs and toads (possibly trivialising his combat threat… although he would rather flee than fight), the conservatory’s students can easily be persuaded to leave (possibly forcing Sythian to give up the instrument voluntarily), and the servants aren’t fond enough of their boss to stand in the players’ way. There is a reasonably formidable demon (a chasme) that guards the roof, and some lurking quasits, but really the only major obstacle to completing the heist is the players not knowing the precise location of the instrument.
I’m left a little unsure how the author saw this one panning out. It feels like the maximum fun potential of Axe from the Grave is geared towards an infiltration mission, whereby the party pose as budding musicians and interact with the various students and staff, in order to learn more about the whereabouts of the instrument – and in doing so hopefully get caught up in the mystery of the poisoned olive trees at the same time and the nascent cult of Graz’zt. However, the adventure, as written, rather sh*ts on the chances of pulling off such an infiltration, with a cranky Sythian requiring a DC 20 Performance check just to allow a single character to stay even one night.
I actually love the scenario depicted on the anthology’s front cover, of adventurers rappelling down from the conservatory skylight, Mission Impossible style, into the music hall, where (unbeknownst to them) three quasits await. But this episode in itself might not play out so well on the table: the invisible demons will be almost impossible for the players to detect and avoid, and, as soon as they attack, the conservatory would be placed on full alert, turning the heist into a combat mission. Also the adventure’s cool backstory won’t be revealed and would rather go to waste.
Still, I think most DMs will be able to handle these moving parts instinctively to get maximum drama out of this fresh and fun scenario, but the fact that Axe from the Grave neither seems to invite a straight up burglary, nor a more prolonged infiltration mission, makes a nervous Dungeon Master like myself worried that my players will either score an easy win and/or miss the juicy stuff. If you like throwing scenarios at players and just seeing what happens, then you should have no such concerns.
A final word about Axe from the Grave is that I love the timetable approach to locations that tells DMs which NPCs to expect in which rooms at any given time of day. This feels much more like heist-oriented design than encounters waiting in stasis.
Hipster Remix: I think if I was running Axe from the Grave I’d try to nudge players towards infiltrating the music academy, by a) reminding them they don’t have a foggiest where the mandolin is located and b) beefing up the visible security around the building, maybe with a few Graz’zt-worshipping thugs (how about some minotaurs?) or other nasties patrolling the grounds. I would make Sythian less suspicious of the characters’ intentions and more concerned about what tuition fees they can pay, at least to begin with. It might be fun if he forces each player to audition for the academy and then charges them according to their (lack of) talent. The first month’s fee need to be paid up front, naturally.
The students I would make bratty and resentful of these new arrivals, and jealous of any attention Sythian pays them (perhaps with the exception of one friendly soul, who they might court as an ally). In this way we can build up a nice tense roleplaying situation, in which the characters have to remain undercover as budding musos, while trying to gather covert intel on the mandolin, all without raising suspicion. This will work better if the NPCs are more powerful than the party (the players should be afraid of getting caught!), and so the addition of the thugs/cultists/minotaurs, or other threat, will be key here (note: another solution would be just to play the adventure at a lower level!), while the mystery of the cult of Graz’zt is likely to come to the fore now and give the adventure additional depth. Maybe the students are slowly being corrupted during midnight rituals, and developing demonic powers, hence them behaving like @ssholes to the new arrivals.
Author: Chris Perkins (see also Book of the Raven, Waterdeep:Dragon Heist, and many of my favourite 5e adventures)
Pages: 102-117 (16 pages)
Final Rating: ★★★★½. It needs a little work, but Axe from the Grave feels fresh, with a lot of potential for fun roleplaying – and possibly a cultish clash for a climax.
8. Vidorant’s Vault
Retrieve a stolen diadem from the vault of a notorious thief (level 7).
I’m always wary of adventure hooks that involve a group of experts hiring PCs to do a job that clearly should be well within their own capabilities. In this case, Samphith Goldenbeard of the Silver Fingers Society challenges the players to steal a ruby diadem from his archrival Nixylanna Vidorant, having first gotten her expelled from the society he now heads. Given that “the elite thieves of this multinational organisation pull off impossible heists” it feels weird that their CEO, Goldenbeard, doesn’t take care of this mission personally, particularly as the diadem is a family heirloom that he “desperately wants to reclaim.”
There’s a couple of other things that ring false for me. Similar to the Agile Hands thieves guild in Masterpiece Imbroglio, Vidorant’s Vault doesn’t feel like a really credible location, and, even if I perhaps reimagine it as a secret vault disguised as a barely-used warehouse, Vidorant would have to be pretty foolish not to have shifted all her goods from there the second she got chucked out of the Silver Fingers.
Anyhow, onto the gameplay and I’m happy that the author includes a well developed preparation stage for the heist, which is divided into ‘Gathering Intelligence’, ‘Surveilling The Target’ and ‘Casing the Joint’. Regarding the Gathering Intelligence phase, however, and I’m not too convinced by the fact that any of Vidorant’s army of former guards are willing to spill everything they know about the vault on a puny DC 12 persuasion check (DC 7 if they are bribed!). Vidorant would presumably kill them if she found out they had blabbed, and I feel that they should have a healthy respect/fear of their former employer. Nor do I understand how Casing the Joint would reveal the interior guard rotations. I think, as well, that players doing reconnaissance should have to pass a Stealth check to avoid drawing attention to themselves… fail it and the security alertness goes up for the next 24-48 hours.
Once inside the vault and the players are effectively in a booby-trapped warren of random rooms, with the added danger of guard patrols. I think this could be fun, although it’s giving me more dungeon-crawl vibes than heist ones. Also, I’m not a fan of the passive Perception trap reveals that the author uses (topic of a post one of these days no doubt, but no roll = no drama, and this ruling just encourages players to spam passive Perception and take the fun out of the game).
Vidorant’s Vault finishes strongly. A series of intriguing, glass-encased treasures contain plenty of cool hooks for further adventures, while plenty of hidden alarm spells are likely to alert Vidorant to the players’ presence and when she arrives she is willing to make the players a better offer than Goldenbeard, creating a fun potential story twist.
Author: Kate Baker
Pages: 118-131 (14 pages)
Final Rating: ★★★½. On the one hand this adventure has everything you want in a heist, on the other hand I didn’t quite buy into the hook or the location, so it ends up being one of the less dazzling gems for me.
9. Shard of the Accursed
Use a magical shard to mend a giant’s broken heart and save a town from destruction (level 8).
Shard of the Accursed features an almost mythological backstory, about a (non-5e-rules-compliant) giant who saved the citizens of Oztocan from a spate of earthquakes by weaving his life force into a citadel, which he held above himself for protection. As a result of his sacrifice, the giant was buried in the rock below the citadel, and to honour him a group of heroes fashioned a mausoleum and cult in his name: the Order of Xeluan.
Fast forward to modern times, and the land is beset with earthquakes once more, as a mafiosi mining company are chipping away at the giant’s petrified form and selling the semi-magical stone for profit, thus compromising his protective spirit. Historians agree that returning a (cursed) shard taken from the giant’s tomb would likely stop the earthquakes, and the heroes are employed to infiltrate the heavily guarded tomb-turned-dig-site and replace this fragment of Xeluan’s heart.
This is certainly an interesting and original premise for a D&D adventure, and the module starts heistily enough, as players are asked to ponder one of three potential ways into the tomb – posing as manual labourers, locating and navigating one of two ventilation shafts, or making their way through a cave network and up through an underwater stream.
After a promising start though, Shard of the Accursed becomes less of a heist and more of a mystery story – and a frustrating one at that. Because when the players sneak in and place the shard back in its rightful place nothing happens. Although there’s no way of the players knowing (that I can see), in order to succeed in their quest they will have to find the ghost of the explorer who broke the giant’s heart in the first place. Said ghost will then have to possess one of the characters in order to fix Xeluan’s spliced ventricle – but not before the phantasm forces them to complete a side quest first! What started as a heist turns is likely to turn into a dungeon slog, with players going room to room in the hope of stumbling across the mystery’s solution.
Overall, Shard of the Accursed scores plenty of points for originality and is a worthy inclusion in the anthology; but the gameplay veers away from how a good heist should be written, and more towards a standard D&D adventure, where players perform a location crawl encountering ‘frozen-in-time’ NPCs until the story threads line up and they complete their mission.
Hipster Remix: I think crucial to stopping this adventure from stalling in the tomb will be the introduction of Rilago’s ghost at an earlier point in the story. The ghost should be seen haunting parts of the tomb, but then slipping off before the PCs can address him (possibly mumbling out part of the adventure’s backstory as he goes). This should be enough to tip the players off that there’s a mystery to solve before they can mend Xeluan’s heart, and that the ghost lies at the centre of it.
I would also write down the tomb’s ‘Adversary Roster‘ (probably getting rid of the doppelgangers, or finding a good reason for them to be there) and have important NPCs like Aminta move around the dungeon dynamically. If the players decide to pose as labourers, she could appear on the mezzanine, for example, in view of the PCs, and discuss something shadily with Edino, perhaps eying the ‘new workers’ suspiciously at the same time to raise the tension.
Also, I don’t think I’ll be asking the players to go and complete Rilago’s sidequest just when the story is supposed to reach its dramatic conclusion.
Author: Mario Ortegon (see also The Fiend of Hollow Mine)
Pages: 132-147 (16 pages)
Final Rating: ★★★★. Very cool story and location, and a well-structured beginning, but in danger of turning into a routine dungeon slog at the midway point.
10. Heart of Ashes
Retrieve a king’s heart to save his kingdom from a terrible fate (level 8).
“Ghasaline is under a terrible curse. An evil spellcaster has enacted a ritual to siphon life from the city’s people and reduce the city itself to ash.” So begins Heart of Ashes, an adventure that reads somewhat like a fairytale; as the heroes must travel to the city of Ghasaline, enter a castle being pulled apart by a malevolent void, and rescue the king’s removed, but still-beating, heart, in order to reverse the destruction done to the kingdom.
Standing in their way is the aforementioned evil spellcaster, Charmayne, who is now an elemental and ‘beyond redemption’ (thank f*ck for that… none of this anticlimactic ‘peaceful resolution’ nonsense that was briefly, and very boringly, en vogue in the D&D world!), the heartless king, now a hulking and hostile ashen brute, and various other ashen guards and nasties, including two hell hounds (the king’s one-time mastiffs! Awwww.).
All of these cinder fiends, foes and fellas can be found in the castle (“the characters have no encounters on their way to the castle,” the adventure states rather mean-spiritedly!), and I love the twist the author has given this location by having it be half ripped apart by the void floating above it, leaving several rooms hovering in midair.
Gameplay-wise and Heart of Ashes definitely feels like a traditional D&D fetch quest more than a heist. True, the players must sneak past two groups of four guards that patrol the castle’s perimeter, but, once they’re in, the adventure is (not for the first time in the anthology) designed more like a location crawl than a stealth mission. Perhaps not the end of world, given that the rooms do each have cool encounters built into them, but most of these are unlikely to see the light of day given that the quest-giver tells them where to find the heart.
While the author does build in an incentive for the players to look around the castle (in the form of charcoal figures fashioned from Charmayne’s victims, which might be used against her), if this incentive is ignored the players might easily just make their way directly to the King’s Bedroom, skipping half the adventure content in doing so. Unless I’m missing something, there’s actually no reason for them to make their way to the floating Mage Tower where Charmayne resides…. so there’s a high chance, as written, the players simply won’t encounter the story’s main villain!
This is easily remedied of course, but not ideal. Especially as Charmayne has a rather badass stat block, with Legendary Resistance and three reactions a round (effectively acting as Legendary Actions), which include Fiery Counterspell (oh, the fun us DMs will have!). I would personally up her AC and throw in some resistance / immunity to radiant damage (which “sears the flesh”… but should be useless against elementals / constructs. This should help stop the paladins ruining yet another boss fight).
Hipster Remix: I think the basic adventure structure is all good, but we just need to maximise its cool elements. I think trekking through the ruined city of Ghalasine (instead of fast-forwarding through it), and paying witness to its destruction, while avoiding patrols of ashen guards, would be a great way to anticipate the final episode at the castle… currently the adventure feels like we’ve rushed to bed without any sexy foreshadowing to get us in the mood.
Also it would be cool if, just as the players are heading up to the castle’s second floor (or first floor if you’re British), it detaches from the first floor (ground floor), giving the players a bit of fun challenge – to bridge the aerial gap – and making the ongoing destruction of the castle feel more urgent and relevant, and not just background decor. Hell, you might even pit them against a ticking clock, by making it clear to the heroes they’ve only got x amount of time to retrieve the heart before every last castle brick is sucked into the void.
As for Charmayne, maybe she roams through the castle from time to time (Perception check to notice her humming the twisted fairytale on p.156 as she goes); or maybe she can be alerted to the players’ presence by her minions. Or perhaps we do go and defy expectations a bit here and allow for a final location without a boss fight against the major villain. Only for her to track down the players on their way out of Ghalasine (along with the mounted ashen knights that the author suggests pursue the PCs) just as they’re low on HP and spell slots. Mwah ha ha.
I wonder, as well, if there isn’t a way to ‘gameify’ Charmayne’s wonderful battlecry: “Give me rage, terror, righteous fury! Snarl at me so that I may savor it!” Maybe if a barbarian tries to rage, they must succeed on a Charisma saving throw or Charmayne gains the rage’s benefits instead, as Charmayne steals and harnesses their emotions. Similarly, if someone fails a saving throw against being frightened (obvious we would need to give her a fear inducing ability first) she gains temporary hit points and the player is not only frightened but drained of life (exhaustion levels?). While if someone tries to smite her they must make a Wisdom saving throw or their spell fizzles out and she casts Hellish Rebuke on them, redirecting their righteous fury.
Author: Sadie Lowry
Pages: 148-159 (12 pages)
Final Rating: ★★★★. A great story that nails its theme of ash and corruption, and offers an interesting twist on a classic castle location. The gameplay might need a little sexing up though.
11. Affair on the Concordant Express
Obtain information from a stranger travelling aboard an interplanar train (level 9).
In Affair on the Concordant Express, the players must hitch a ride on an interplanar train in order to obtain the true names of several demons and devils from a prisoner on board. The so-called Stranger is bound for Mechanus to stand trial for their crimes, and – obviously – their price for talking is the players’ help escaping the train’s jail car.
Affair not only boasts the most arresting (pun intended) storyline in the KftGV anthology for my money, but also the most daring design structure as well, as the module allows DMs to customise the adventure by selecting their favourite of several Train Cars provided to comprise the interplanar locomotive, with each Train Car offering a different encounter.
In truth, the idea is a little better than the implementation, as the result – no matter which Train Cars you select – is rather a hodge-podge of random encounters, many of which have little or no relation to the main story. By far the most interesting carriage is the Passenger Car, which sees the players stumble on a murder that is being investigated by the unforgettable Ignatius Inkblot, a mindflayer detective who stylishly smokes an absinth-flavoured pipe. Very cool, but the ensuing investigation looks a bit too hard to solve by deduction alone (a modron confession is the most likely way the PCs learn the culprit’s identity) and in any case, the mindflayer knows who did it, so the players are really only ever playing at detective in a low stakes game. Still, this mini-module within a module is a lot of fun to read, and features several memorable NPCs. It almost feels like a bit of a waste to cram it into the Concordant Express when it might be better served up as a polished, dedicated murder mystery adventure, and in that respect I hope to see Ignatius Inkblot again, but as the star of his own story.
The adventure’s denouement takes place in the Jail Car, when players have to persuade, trick or defeat a deva guard in order to speak with ‘The Stranger’, who in turn will only share the demons’ true names if he’s freed from his shackles and cell. I’ve no idea how this might play out, but it should be interesting.
Overall, Affair on the Concordant Express is an adventure brimming with charisma, creativity and plenty of comedy (modrons screaming in existential panic if asked a mathematical question they can’t answer was a favourite moment, as were some of the hilarious true names). I think it might have been even better if the author had created a more coherent and credible train-like environment, with a focus on an interesting cast of passengers, than the modular dungeon design they went for. But the latter certainly opens up a lot of potential for fun and inserting your own Train Cars.
Hipster Remix: It would take some work, but what if the murder in the Passenger Car was actually carried out by the grey slaad sent to kill the PCs (i.e. the one that appears in the Temple Car), and the person he murdered was an ally of the Golden Vault, who was supposed to give the players some item or info to help them carry out their quest. Now we have a high stakes mystery that ties into the adventure… if the players solve it they learn the identity of their potential killer, and retrieve an item / info to help them on their mission. If they don’t, they may get a nasty surprise at the point of seeming to succeed in their quest.
12. Party at Paliset Hall
Snatch a diamond from an archmage in the Feywild (level 10).
If you’ve read my adventure, DRAGONBOWL, then you’ll know I love little more than a good old-fashioned knees up in D&D (the Blood Games festival is a series of non-stop parties, piss-ups and parades, with the odd fight to the death thrown in). Give me all the boozing, schmoozing and carousing the players can handle, because big social events make for great gameplay and nearly always bring out memorable stories at the table.
In Party at Paliset Hall, our heroes are invited to a winter solstice gala in the Feywild. They’ve been summoned by the master of the house to steal his wife’s diamond necklace, as he believes it’s somehow corrupting her. Indeed it is, because (convoluted back story alert) a bodiless far realm entity has found its way inside the magical diamond, known as a shard solitaire, that the wife (an archmage called Zorhanna) stole from a coven of hags, and which contains an extradimensional rift, and which can be used to cast simulacrum – which is what the far realm entity did, simultaneously trapping Zorhanna in the rift within the stone, and leaving her simulacrum in her place. Phew!
Anyhow, the adventure set up is pretty open, and the players can almost choose to treat their mission as an investigation, or as a heist; although neither approach develops as satisfyingly as I would like. If they go snooping around they will likely locate Zorhanna’s husband (the guy who summoned them in the first place), hiding in the guest bedroom, and this one NPC solves the mystery for them and then points them towards the adventure end. After revealing that Zorhanna is a simulacrum, he will encourage them to search the whole of Paliset House (he’s spooked by the architectural anomalies caused by the shard solitaire), which should lead them to a portal in the basement that will in turn transport them to the rift within the diamond where they can rescue the real Zorhanna.
If they try to steal the diamond they will likely get frustrated, as – apart from the inherent difficulty of stealing a worn necklace without being noticed – the necklace teleports itself into a secure vault if removed from the neck of the simulacrum. This doesn’t work very well as heist set up for me, as it’s impossible for the players to plan for this eventuality, and the planning is part of what makes a heist adventure a heist adventure.
Complicating, or possibly resolving, either scenario is the arrival of the three hags from whom Zorhanna stole the shard solitaire in the first place and the cracking (i.e. destruction) of the diamond, which releases an explosive force and expels anyone trapped within it.
Hats off to the author, there’s never a dull moment in this open-ended adventure, and I would also like to stop and praise the wonderful flavour of the Feywild crossing and Paliset Hall itself. The module does feel a little bit messy and convoluted at times however, and I think the author probably should have chosen whether PatPH was a mystery or a heist, and made the gala itself and the NPC guests more integral to the story.
Hipster Remix: I’m not really one for abstract far realm entities, or bizarre extradimensional spaces, and I think I’d rather run Party at Paliset Hall as a good ol’ fashioned diamond heist. The target is the real Zorhanna (no simulacrums required) and if it’s a good-aligned party I’d probably make her and her entourage a bit frostier and meaner; and to be a good heist fighting needs to be out of the question. The hags I’ll keep for sure, but whether they are the quest-givers (disguised as three aggrieved elves), or a rival crew I can’t decide.
To maximise the fun, I feel we need to elaborate the winter gala and give it more structure. A sit down meal, or signature canapes, could be an opportunity to put something in Zorhanna’s food that will make her vomit (“here let me keep that nice little diamond clean for you, while I hold your hair back!”). Winning an ice skating competition could carry a prize of a dance with the hostess, and a chance to get close enough to unclasp the necklace. Or maybe the players come armed with the knowledge that Zorhanna just wears the necklace until midnight, after which she has an outfit change and the jewel returns to the safe (a hidden or wildshaped player might be able to learn the location and password for the vault, during the diamond’s return).
By giving players info on the structure of the gala (which is the same every year), they’ll be able to make a plan for when the diamond is most vulnerable and how they can pull off the near impossible and steal the necklace in plain sight. An alarm that goes off when the diamond is taken outside the grounds of Paliset Hall could be a nice complication to a clean getaway.
Author: Unknown (to me)
Pages: 176-193 (18 pages)
Final Rating: ★★★★½. Lots of great material here and who wouldn’t want to attend a winter gala in the Feywild? However a slight identity crisis costs Party at Paliset Hall full marks.
13. Fire and Darkness
Wrest the Book of Vile Darkness from an efreeti and his lackeys (level 11).
If I’ve criticised some of the previous Keys for not being bona fide heists, then no such criticism can be levelled at Fire and Darkness. In this 11th level adventure, players are given a target object to steal and a map with MacGuffin’s precise whereabouts, while DMs have a detailed plan of the heist location’s layout and security. Only this is not a raid on some noble’s country house to filch the family silver – you’re going after the despicable Book of Vile Darkness itself and your goal is to extract it from the lava-flanked fortress of an efreeti warlord (note: a copy might also be found in Candlekeep’s Vault of Secrets!).
What makes this a great scenario, is that you can easily envision how the players are going to want to sit down and think about how to execute this mission. There are a few potential ways they could sneak into Brimstone Hold (the fortress), and while the adventure isn’t explicit on how much the players know beforehand, the player’s map at the very least should make it clear that there’s a chance to infiltrate the prison via boat, or possibly posing as prisoners, while they might try their hand at walking through the front door as envoys. As the DM, I might have the quest-giver suggest these three options to get the ball rolling, as well as share some info on the security forces (or suggest the players do a reccy).
Aside from the glaring omission that there appears to be nowhere to host an efreeti army (luckily they’re all away on duty anyhow), Brimstone Hold feels like a really credible location; and while the foes found there seem way too formidable to overcome, the author provides a few NPCs on the inside that could be manipulated by the players to good affect… with a prison riot, in particular, just needing a little spark to catch aflame.
Escaping looks like a real bitch, with flying Erinyes and possibly a dragon in pursuit, so I’d also encourage players to have a solid plan of getting out, as even the stealthiest posse are likely to rouse security towards the end of the caper.
Overall, this is just the kind of scenario I was expecting when I bought Keys from the Golden Vault. My only criticism of Fire and Darkness is that it perhaps lacks some of the charisma, creativity and surprises of the very best adventures presented in the anthology.
Hipster Remix: Could we steal the concept of area affects from the likes of Reach for the Stars, to throw something new or unexpected at the party once in they’re in the location? Or have a special event like a ceremony, ritual or prisoner execution interrupt every day life at the fortress? I feel like the adventure is missing one tiny piece of the jigsaw to make it picture perfect.
Author: Unknown (to me)
Pages: 194-207 (14 pages)
Final Rating: ★★★★½. A proper heist in memorably dangerous location. Maybe just needs a soupçon of the unexpected sprinkled in…
As you can see I’ve really enjoyed the adventures of this anthology, and I’ve awarded significantly more 5-star ratings to modules from this collection than those from either Candlekeep Mysteries or Radiant Citadel. So ranking my favourites from Keys from the Golden Vault isn’t going to be easy… but there’s no good prevaricating further, so here we go:
- The Stygian Gambit. I had nine hells of a good time running this already, and any caper that ends with players throwing themselves headlong out of a waterfall thoroughly deserves top spot. 5 stars.
- Prisoner 13. Some of the story premises were a little unconvincing, but tidy those up and you’ve got what feels like a real heist here, as the players take on an impenetrable prison and its legion of guards. 5 stars.
- Tockworth’s Clockworks. This might be the most ingenious offering in the anthology and probably only a personal preference for getting my hands on a classic casino or prison heist pushes this down into 3rd. 5 stars.
- The Murkmire Malevolence. Another offering that could easily justify top spot, this museum caper is rich with potential pandemonium and ready to run right out the box. 5 stars.
- Affair on the Concordant Express. It’s hard not to get on board this fun-loving ride that allows you to add your own bumps to the journey with its modular design. 5 stars.
- Axe from the Grave. Contains all the right notes to be a cult classic, but DMs might just have to play around with the composition a bit first, to find the killer riffs. 4.5 stars.
- Party at Paliset Hall. Similar to Axe from the Grave in that there’s plenty of ‘cool’ stuff going on, but it’s not structured for 100% caper contentment. 4.5 stars.
- Fire and Darkness. A well-designed heist featuring epic stakes, thematic baddies and a formidable fortress location. Perhaps just lacking a little surprise. 4.5 stars.
- Heart of Ashes. I love the theme of ashen decay and the idea of a castle slowly being sucked up into a void. 4 stars.
- Shard of the Accursed. As I’m writing this, I’m wondering how such a cool adventure is so far down this list… but it’s placement is more a testament to the quality of the other works. 4 stars.
- Masterpiece Imbroglio. Plenty to love about this adventure, but heists depend largely on their location, and this one didn’t quite convince me. 3.5 stars.
- Vidorant’s Vault. See above! 3.5 stars.
- Reach for the Stars. A well-designed adventure, but not heisty enough for me. Nor are Far Realm flavourings my preferred cup of D&D tea. 3.5 stars.
Keys from the Golden Vault: Final Word
Overall, I love the concept and execution of this product and I’m delighted to have this suite of exciting and varied heists on my shelf.
Probably my only disappointment is the direction that WOTC went with the artwork for a couple of the adventures, that seems to be cheesy 3D videogamey art that I really dislike (I couldn’t bring myself to use them in this post!). The characters in these artworks look horribly artificial to me, like some of the cheap / free stock art that gets uploaded onto the likes of Pixabay etc.. (Note: 3D art can be supercool, if done right… my friend’s airship art that graces the cover of The Incredible Balloon Bamboozle is actually a very elaborate 3D render!). Anyway, those couple of pieces aside, the art is actually stunning and perfectly complements the anthology.
Final Rating: ★★★★★. The best official 5e D&D adventure anthology so far, and DMs will find dropping their favourite offerings into their campaign a cinch.
Buy Online: Keys from the Golden Vault is available on Amazon.com (for a price of just 16.99 USD at time of press!)
Cool Heist Resources
As with any official storyline, you can find plenty of support material on the DMs Guild, in particular if you’re looking for map packs to run on your VTT of choice.
Heroic Maps has a series of maps for several of the best adventures.
Harmony the Bard has published a map bundle containing maps for the anthology’s first two adventures (and two of the best IMHO!).
Elizabeth Van Couvering has produced DMs packs for Prisoner 13 and Tockworth’s Clockworks featuring NPC cards, handouts, running notes and additional material.
Want more heists to run? Then check out Stolen Hearts, an anthology of fun capers by a well-known crew of creators that includes Daniel Kahn and Saga MacKensie.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention Here’s To Crime, the adamantine best-selling product that hacks some of the Blades in the Dark mechanics, like progress clocks and flashbacks, and shows how they can work in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons as well.
The DMs Guild allows you to search by storyline, so you can check out all products tagged with Keys from the Golden Vault right here.
Others ‘Keys’ Reviews
It’s always fun to hear a variety of different opinions on any official WOTC release and see how opinions differ, and concur.
I always enjoy Rogue Watson’s take and the video review format is very engaging (I will have to launch my own Youtube channel one of these days!).
I’ll be back soon with a guide on how to design your own heists and run them!
Meanwhile, check out my other anthology reviews