Running a pre-written module seemed like an obvious choice for me as a 1st time DM. I wanted to try being a DM, but didn't necessarily have a story to tell or a world to build. I've talked before about how I don't consider myself a creative person in that I can't make something from nothing, but can work within pre-defined guidelines and rules. I figured if I had a world already built and a story already laid out that it would free up my mental resources to focus on learning how to DM well. Maybe eventually I'd homebrew an adventure, but for now I needed to know how to play from the other side of the screen.
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist had just released, so it seemed like the safest bet for my group. Some of the players who had agreed to be guinea pigs were familiar with enough D&D that they likely had played other modules or knew enough about their stories that they would already sort of know the plot hooks. By virtue of being brand new, this would be a fresh experience for them, which would in turn give me a better playground for learning what to do.
Now that my group has finally "finished" (I'll explain that in a minute), here's the short version of my overall impression of WDH: I would not recommend it for veteran players, and I think it is formatted in such a way that it would be far more successful as a video game than it is as a tabletop adventure.
When I first read through it, the format of the adventure seemed incredibly useful for a beginner. As the DM, you are presented with a few different tracks to choose from and send your players down. Your choices on this front end set up everything from your main baddie to the behavior of the city at large to environmental factors that could impact their missions. Villains you didn't choose can still be minor characters, possibly even allies to your players. You have a fully functional world already built with rules already established, important figures already named and titled, plots that connect and fill out a rich tapestry of realism...all the things that are daunting about homebrew are done, leaving you to focus on learning how to run the game.
This is a trap.
This rich tapestry of woven plots that make the world feel real and show that things persist beyond what choices the PCs make very quickly convolutes the story. This is why I say it'd work better as a video game, a place where you can have a quest log and if you miss something the first time you can probably get it to happen again. The threads are far too subtle and too numerous. Incorporating anything that is not directly tied to the storyline you've chosen may expand the world, but confuses the players. It is also much harder to draw attention to what does actually matter, and important details get lost in the mess.
The "side mission fatigue" is real, where chasing down conclusions to these numerous threads starts to feel like a slog and ultimately doesn't get them any closer to their end goal. Thanks to the subtlety with which the rest of the actual story is delivered, players start to fear not following this threads at the risk of not progressing their story.
Scenarios are written with a good amount "if this, then that" info on how players might react to a situation. Did they intervene? This happens. Did they remain bystanders and stay out of it? This other thing happens. Sounds like a great framework for someone who has not run a game before and is concerned about reacting to what PCs choose.
This is also a trap.
Anyone with any ounce of D&D knowledge knows that the one constant is players have a knack for finding a course of action you did not consider. This is the moment you find that this tapestry is actually one of those really fragile fabrics where if you snag it even a little bit it royally effs up the rest of it and there's little you can do to repair it. Sure you can kind of smooth things out but the damage will always be visible to some degree.
Players do something unexpected? No problem, just roll with it and change a few things and now you're good. Except because everything is tied together in strange ways doing so has inevitably broken some other aspect of the game. Then you fix that, and find another hole that created. Rinse and repeat until you give up, slap some Flex Seal on the plot hole, and pretend none of that ever happened.
**I've hidden the next section because it does touch a little on the play style the module is built for if you consider that a spoiler, but no plot points or event details are discussed.**
Am I glad I decided to start with a module as a first time DM? Yes. Knowing what I know now would I start with this particular one again? Absolutely not. Would I recommend playing it to anyone else? Eh, depends. I believe the best case scenario for running this is an experienced DM with brand new players. Regardless I learned a lot, both about DMing and what I don't like about running a story, so the experience will still serve me well as we move into homebrew shenanigans.