What Do I Know About Reviews, Keys from the Golden Vault, Conclusion (D&D 5e)

330482_PRISONER 13—PLAYER’S MAP REVEL’S END_ Art By Mike SchleyWe’ve reached the end of the book, so it’s time to look back over everything inside and make some broader observations. One of the things that I wanted to address right up front is that I noticed a lot of skepticism about this book online. Much of it was criticizing the concept without actually addressing the execution.

There are other dedicated heist RPGs on the market. They often have their own specific setting, and even if they don’t, they have their own assumptions about how the universe works. In many of those games, magic is a much more subtle force. Additionally, in many of those games, while there may be elements of the supernatural, and there may even be supernatural realms, those realms are very rarely visited by the protagonists of those stories.

As an example, I am a fan of the following RPGs (which are not all-inclusive of heist-related RPGs):

  • Blades in the Dark
  • Dusk City Outlaws
  • Dishonored (Modiphius’ 2d20 RPG)

The problem is, wanting to play a heist is only part of what someone may want from a campaign. None of those games is going to let you play a Githyanki Soulblade trying to score it big to make a home for her family of deserters from Tu’narath, or a kender bard that keeps getting recruited for heists because people assume they are good with their hands, if you know what I mean. None of those is going to scratch that itch if a player wants to play a Trickery domain cleric that lights up a target with Guiding Bolt, hoping that her crew will take out the guard before it can alert the rest of the patrols.

Edge of the Empire has an adventure called The Jewel of Yavin, which is a heist story that takes place on Bespin. While Edge of the Empire is about people living on the edge of the law in the Star Wars universe, it doesn’t have any special mechanics for resolving heists. There aren’t any special flashback mechanics or engagement rolls. But the adventure tells people who are fans of the system, and fans of Star Wars, how to play that specific adventure, presenting that specific heist.

My point is only this: if someone wants to play a D&D character and they want to play a heist-based adventure, then they are going to want to play D&D, even if the game isn’t solely optimized for heist gameplay. Someone that enjoys the mechanics of Blades in the Dark may end up playing out a scene where they have a straight-up gang war in the streets, or need to destroy a monster endangering their home, and playing out those straightforward combat scenes with a game optimized for heists doesn’t invalidate the group’s choice to pay Blades in the Dark any more than wanting to play D&D and participate in heist based adventures is somehow an irreconcilable mismatch.

Anthology Versus Sourcebook

I’ve seen a few other comments online that have shown disappointment over the scope of this product. I’ve seen people that wanted D&D-specific rules for flashbacks or planning/engagement. I’ve seen people disappointed that there weren’t new stealthy/criminal-themed subclasses. I’ve seen people that wanted more monsters, spells, or magic items.

I love all of those things. If you want to give them to me in a product, I will take them. However, a project needs to have a focus and a scope, or it never gets done, and it may not do what it was primarily planned to do. This is an adventure anthology, so its primary purpose is to deliver a range of adventures on a theme.

I’ve seen some comparisons to Journeys through the Radiant Citadel, which did have more setting information as well as a few more new creatures. I don’t think this is a fair comparison, because the focus of Journeys through the Radiant Citadel was to present a diverse group of creators and their adventures, as well as showcasing cultures that have not been featured in D&D as often as European influences, as well as cultures that have not been envisioned and detailed by people of those cultures in the past.

The primary purpose of Keys from the Golden Vault is to be a themed anthology of heist adventures. The secondary purpose of Keys from the Golden Vault is to provide a campaign framework for someone to use if they wish to use the anthology as a campaign. To compare Keys from the Golden Vault to a more appropriate anthology, it’s doing something similar to Candlekeep Mysteries. Candlekeep Mysteries had a theme of mysteries with a connection to Candlekeep, and did a little more setting building in presenting Candlekeep, but provided less of a cohesive structure for using all of the adventures in order for a single campaign. On balance, both anthologies are doing something similar, with the dials adjusted a little bit one way or the other.

Dungeon Master Comfort

Another area of concern I have seen revolves around the comfort level of DMs running heist adventures. This is always tricky for me, because not every product can be for entry-level DMs, and sometimes, especially in an anthology, some entries will be easier to run than others.

That doesn’t mean I think beginning DMs should be left to fend for themselves, but just that at some point, a good adventure-based product may require some familiarity and comfort with aspects of the game that aren’t evident the first time you sit down to run a game.

There are some adventures in this anthology that, while they revolve around stealing something, have a more straightforward D&D adventure structure. PCs may not want to go in making a lot of noise and killing everything in sight, but it’s easier to plan for discreetly engaging opponents and challenges without a lot of planning other than taking things slow and easy.

The following adventures have a more straightforward structure to a location-based adventure or a dungeon crawl:

  • The Murkmire Malevolence (1st level)
  • Reach for the Stars (3rd level)
  • Tockworth’s Clockworks (5th level)
  • Shard of the Accursed (8th)
  • Heart of Ashes (8th)
  • Fire and Darkness (11th)

That doesn’t mean that all of these will be easy to run, but it does mean they probably won’t be any more difficult to run than a standard adventure for characters of that level.

Affair on the Concordant Express (9th) isn’t a traditional D&D adventure, but due to the linearity of the locations (literally the order the train cars are arranged), a lot of that adventure will hinge on presenting the PCs with the situation on that train car and seeing how well they improvise or how they react to what’s in front of them.

Big Score

Overall, I really enjoyed this anthology. There are some extremely well-crafted adventures that do some clever things at the intersection of D&D and heists, and those are going to make some memorable stories. While there are so many strong entries in this volume, Affair on the Concordant Express is probably the standout for being so on point with both the heist theme and use of D&D-isms, while presenting an adventure people are not going to forget.

The Twist

I did want just a little bit more detail on the Golden Vault, and I would have loved to have seen STEAL get a few paragraphs in the introduction instead of only being detailed in Affair on the Concordant Express. It did get a bit repetitive having the Golden Vault pay out only in magic items. I know magic items can be really valuable, but it feels like an elite crew of thieves, even ones that are doing what they do to help others, may want to live comfortably with ridiculous sums of gold and gems.

The tone and theme gets away from a few of the adventures. Reach for the Stars, in the context of a heist-themed adventure, almost feels like a bait and switch, because it’s really a “stop the cult from performing a ritual” mission. In fact, I think the adventure works fine if you tweak it for a non-heist-themed campaign, with the PCs just being hired to investigate the house. Everyone has a different threshold for humor, but Axe from the Grave felt really tonally inconsistent to me. You are dealing with an undead whose main threat is being disturbing in public and smelling bad, you are inundated with silly small-town quirky tropes, and whoops, there’s a cultist of Graz’zt.

Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

There is definitely more that works for me in this anthology than doesn’t work for me. Where it delivers on its theme, it delivers hard, and it delivers often. It’s useful for multiple purposes, as it works as a campaign on it’s own, but along with the other anthologies released for D&D 5e, it provides a great toolbox for either custom mixing and matching a campaign, or filling in whatever gaps a DM may have in their own campaign’s plan.

Some of these adventures synergize well with other campaign-length adventures put out for the game. For example, Little Lockford could fit into an Out of the Abyss campaign, the added details on Revel’s End can contribute to Rime of the Frost Maiden or even Storm King’s Thunder, Shard of the Acrused fits right in to a Radiant Citadel campaign, Ghalasine could be worked into Ravenloft either as part of an existing domain, or as it’s own, and Affair on the Concordant Express, with its focus on True Names, might be a good follow up to Descent into Avernus.