This post may contain spoilers for Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
The last “chapter” of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is the most frustrating for me. When I say “chapter” I don’t mean the actual chapter of the book (I think that’s “Monsters and Magical Items”) but the last section of the plot arc of this adventure. Despite being touted as a sandbox, Dragon Heist is actually a pretty linear story at its core with a beginning, middle act, and end.
In the midst of that the PC’s pretty free to roam about a bit, follow side quests, etc. But one of the most tricky transitions is between chapters three and four. This is I think for two somewhat heavy-handed reasons. The first is that the designers want to do this complicated chase process where the PC’s go from location to location in search of the MacGuffin of the plot. This chase varies depending on which of the four archvillains the DM has decided to use, with about 15 different locales being used in different permutations. So if you have one villain, you might use encounters 4, 6, 3, 8, 10, and 7, in that order. Another might use 3, 15, 1, 7, 12, and 11, recycling locales but changing what happens. My cynical suspicion is that the designers are showing off here, giving the audience (the DM) an example of how to re-purpose maps and encounters in different games. I could certainly re-use an abandoned windmill, a mausoleum, or a nobleman’s house in many contexts. But the chase itself seems frustrating and pointless. Unless the DM decides to do something different, the PC’s will be led by the nose from one place to another, always just missing the MacGuffin. In one example (a chase down a street) the text even says if the PC’s manage to kill or capture their target, another will just jump out of nowhere, snatch the item, and keep running. I could see that wearing thin very quickly.
The other possible rationale for the rough transition is that the designers want the PC’s to use more powerful NPC’s for assistance and patronage. I get this is part of the whole Waterdeep culture with its many factions, etc. but I dislike powerful NPC’s for several reasons, not the least of which is that it minimizes the role the PC”s play in the story. My (unconfirmed) suspicion is that by forcing the PC’s to ask for help, they are setting up the narrative where the more powerful NPC basically hoses the PC’s out of the 500,000 gp treasure that is the big carrot at the end of the line, whether by pressuring the PC’s to give the money to a good cause or just outright taking it. Because let’s be honest, there’s no way that 4th level D&D PC’s are going to rake in half a million gold pieces and have it not wreck (or at least seriously derail) a campaign.
I say this thinking it would be fun to roleplay out how much trouble being both wealthy and not terribly powerful in a fantasy game would be (assassins, moochers, schemers, etc.) but I could see that wearing thin too.
Anyways, in my own campaign two things happened: first, instead of relying on a friendly, pre-established NPC patron, the group decided to go off on a completely different tangent for half the gaming session. Then I decided to skip most of the point-to-point encounters and just hop ahead to the end, with some details being fleshed out via our FB group. On the whole, I think my pacing my better, and gets us closer in a robust time frame to the end of this campaign (which will likely be the next session).