Keys from the Golden Vault is the latest Dungeons & Dragons adventure anthology. D&D 5E has seen a decent number of these over the years, from the aquatic-themed Ghosts of Saltmarsh to the reprinted classics in Tales from the Yawning Portal. The theme in Keys from the Golden Vault is heists – each adventure is its own miniature heist movie, with a single location to infiltrate and an object to be acquired (it is not a coincidence that the D&D movie coming out later this year – Honor Among Thieves – is basically a fantasy heist movie).
Compared to prior adventure anthology offerings, the heist adventure theme of Keys from the Golden Vault is most reminiscent of the mystery theme from Candlekeep Mysteries – a theme on style and mood. Like other adventure anthologies, there is no real connection between the adventures other than the theme. There is one sort-of connection – the Golden Vault. This organization (of good guy thieves, basically) serves the role of Mission Impossible style quest assignments. I think it’s relatively likely to be used because I think Keys from the Golden Vault is relatively likely to be used by playing all of the adventures in a row, instead of just dropping one into an existing game. That’s because the sort of characters who make for a good heist team can be very different from a standard party.
But, you might ask, “go to place A and get thing B” is a pretty traditional Dungeons & Dragons plot anyway. What makes these “heist” adventures different from a normal D&D adventure?
A few things, it turns out. Sure, a standard D&D adventure might involve invading a thieves’ guild HQ to steal something back from them. But that standard adventure plan is probably something like “show up, kill the thieves, take their stuff.” The plan for a heist, on the other hand, generally involves not getting into fights (or only getting into very fast, very quiet ones that don’t attract attention). This is where that different player character skill set comes in. Rogues and illusionists will be at a premium. Casting fireball or loading up on healing spells? Not so much. These are the sort of adventures where every character wants to have stealth and athletics and some social skills – or the ability to bypass that sort of challenge with magic.
But beyond the type of plan, the fact that there’s real planning at all is a difference. Laying out the plan is always a big part of any heist film, after all. To help that out, every single target in Keys from the Golden Vault has a map handout to give the players up front. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not all detailed and accurate like the DM map. But it’s still something.
Keys from the Golden Vault drops 13 heists over 11 levels (the double-dips are 5 and 8) and 200 pages. The heists include:
- Stealing a magical egg from a natural history museum;
- A casino heist;
- Getting a mystical codex from a corrupted mansion;
- Breaking into prison to get information out of a criminal;
- Retrieving a security key to shut down automatons gone berserk;
- Breaking into a thieves’ guild to steal back a painting;
- Breaking into a thieves’ guild to steal back a diadem;
- Retrieving a stolen mandolin;
- Sneaking into a mine to put back a mystical shard to prevent earthquakes;
- Retrieve the dead king’s still-beating heart to stop an evil ritual;
- A train job; and
- Infiltrating a gala to steal a magical gem.
I won’t say which ones because spoilers, but note that one of these 13 is not really a heist, just a dungeon delve by another name. The characters get a map, but they’re just stomping room to room. If you’re angling to try out something that really feels like a heist, the openers (Murkmire Melevolence and The Sygian Gambit) are a good place to start, or at slightly higher levels the two thieves’ guild break-ins (Masterpiece Imbroglio and Vidorant’s Vault). Some of the other ones, like the train job, may sound like a classic heist but aren’t pulled off as well. There are others I like better but don’t feel as much like a classic heist (like the Shard of the Accursed or Tockworth’s Clockworks).
The need for and type of planning is where Keys from the Golden Vault will live or die. Because it’s very difficult to replicate the sort of planning that goes on in a heist film. And it’s very difficult to replicate the way that things go wrong in exactly the right (or exactly the wrong) way to be interesting. Characters in Keys from the Golden Vault are not going to have the ability to do things like precisely time out guard movements or conveniently discover that there’s an air vent that goes from the exact point A to point B that they need. When things go awry the character who’s on hand isn’t always going to have exactly the needed skill to make things right (or, again, to at least make it interesting).
So making Keys from the Golden Vault work is going to be even more dependent on the player group that a typical D&D campaign. There are groups that will – if you let them – spend 30 minutes deciding exactly which spells to memorize and which artificer gadgets to have that day. These sorts of groups are probably not going to take well to the challenge of trying to plan out an entire caper in advance. There’s also a lot of weight on the GM to adjudicate exactly when things go wrong and what happens when they go wrong. These adventures can be very all-or-nothing. Some have very easy DCs to talk past guards. Some seem like there’s no plausible non-magical way to accomplish the task undetected. Some can be almost bypassed entirely by magic and lucky (which is good for the characters, but another way of things going wrong from an adventure standpoint). As a DM, how far should you go to keep things feeling like a heist? Should you add new challenges when things are too easy? Should you back off when things don’t work out? Or do you just let the game devolve into an extended fight scene as more and more guards come running to the battle site, thus reducing the “heist” to a bloodletting/looting?
In my head I keep comparing Keys from the Golden Vault to Blades in the Dark, a highly-respected tabletop RPG that’s all about heists and other criminal activity. And I keep going back to Blades in the Dark because I think the single best mechanic from that game is basically about prohibiting advanced planning. The narrative just jumps into the heist, then there are mechanics about fitting the planning in as you go.
Overall, I like the D&D has been trying to branch out a little bit, including with books like Candlekeep Mysteries. But heists are much more difficult to turn into an RPG than a dungeon delving or solving a mystery. And a heist RPG kind of wants mechanics built around the concept, and D&D isn’t even designed for a nuanced presentation of heist elements like stealth, bluffing your way past guards, or scaling walls. There are going to be groups out there who manage to fall into a sweet spot where they enjoy planning, but don’t get too caught up in it, and then can re-plan on the fly – a combination of player attitude and player aptitude that’s hard to find. I fear that with Keys from the Golden Vault, D&D may have bitten off more than it can chew.
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