Keys From the Golden Vault Review: A Mixed Bag of D&D Heists

Keys From the Golden Vault provides Dungeon Masters with a host of new heists for their players to run, but these adventures falter in providing the necessary tools to engage more experienced or crafty players. Out this week, Keys From the Golden Heist is a new anthology of adventures containing 13 small adventures focused on stealing and/or retrieving various items from fortified locations. Heists are a classic D&D sub-trope, although they can be tricky for DMs to run due to the amount of planning that goes into setting up a tough location to infiltrate and the number of moving parts that come into play once the heist enters its operational phase. 

Other tabletop RPGs (most notably Blades in the Dark) have found great success in shifting how a heist is presented, leaning a bit more heavily on the exciting parts of a heist – namely the high tension moments when things can or do go wrong – instead of making the players trudge through every minutiae of infiltrating a keep and extracting a treasure. However, that somewhat runs counter to the dungeon-crawl mentality at the heart of Dungeons & Dragons, so all 13 adventures contain pretty detailed layouts of the locations players will be infiltrating, with room by room descriptions of potential threats and challenges along with a handful of wrinkles to throw at players once the heist is underway. 

(Photo: Kent Davis/Wizards of the Coast)

One of my biggest worries going into Keys From the Golden Vault is that its designers would miss what makes a heist story so exciting – the unforeseen complications. Luckily, most of the adventures contain some kind of built-in complication that provide the DM with a twist to unleash at their leisure. For instance, the "Reach for the Stars" adventure involves stealing back an eldritch book, but players will also discover a dark ritual taking place in the manor and will need to decide whether or not they should stop it. The Prisoner 13 adventure (which is a tie-in of sorts with the upcoming D&D movie) forces players to not only break into a prison, but also barter with an infamous prisoner in order to collect the Macguffin they've come for. The adventures that are more than just a location with an item to collect and a villain to defeat are the strongest ones in this book and the ones that will likely get the most use by DMs.

I also enjoyed the rather Planescape-y feel to some of the adventures in Keys From the Golden Vault. While most of the adventures are deliberately set in generic settings, many of the adventures have some sort of tie to another plane or the wider D&D cosmology. One adventure involves robbing a Nine Hells-themed casino, while another involves infiltrating a mansion warped by the Far Realms. You'll board a magic train bound for Mechanus, venture to the Feywild, or make contact with an organization from Sigil who is looking to put down a cosmic threat. As someone who feels like Wizards has really undervalued its cosmology during 5th Edition, I like that the adventures tapped into some of the weirder bits of D&D lore and made heists that felt like D&D adventures instead of generic fantasy heists.

Unfortunately, the adventures from Keys From the Golden Vault suffer somewhat from the parameters they were likely built around. These adventures generally assume that the players are aligned with the forces of good and thus many of the adventures use a similar "steal back the stolen item" hook to get things started. None of the individual adventures suffer from using the same hook, but a DM trying to use the anthology as the foundation for a campaign might need to use a bit more creativity to prevent the premise of a few of the heists from feeling too similar. 

Several of the adventures also struggle to provide DMs with meaningful clues that help the players feel like their planning has really paid off. If you've ever run a campaign that has players who like to strategize, you know that you want to reward the players somehow for taking that extra step of immersion into the games. Whether it's having a guard with a gambling problem who might be more susceptible to bribes or a secret passageway that's only discoverable by searching through architectural records, you always want to have a little bit more for the players to find beforehand. Unfortunately, the "Planning the Heist" parts of many of the adventures consist of a map and a couple of helpful hints that a friendly NPC provides regardless of the amount of work the players put in. I feel like this was a big miss, although maybe it's assumed that most players won't want to do more than a cursory check of their job and thus such extra details are superfluous. But if you're playing with a group that goes the extra mile when it comes to casing or planning, you'll have to do a bit more work to making sure that your players' get what they put into planning for a job.

(Photo: Kai Carpenter/Wizards of the Coast)

The other major disappointment in Keys From the Golden Vault is the lack of DM tools or additional information for players. Frankly, if you are looking for anything besides heist-themed anthologies, you won't find it in Keys From the Golden Vault. Unlike last year's Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel anthology, there's just not a lot of extra "stuff" in this book. The description of the Golden Vault organization consists of five paragraphs, and while a Rival Crew section provides some sample NPCs to use in a crew, the majority of the NPCs use the same generic statblocks. Considering that we had a group of rival adventurers in Call of the Netherdeep last year, so I was expecting something a bit more….interesting from a toolset meant to help DMs.

All in all, Keys From the Golden Vault contains some neat heist-themed adventures, but DMs will need to put in some extra work if they want a heist that takes more than a session to resolve or if they have a group of inventive players who actually want to dig into the heist and do more than surface-level reconnaissance. The DM tools in this anthology are a bit lacking and if you're looking for a more robust anthology like last year's Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel, you'll be disappointed.