Four Months in the Borderlands: D&D Encounters

With DDXP next week, and other obligations the week after, tonight is my final session of D&D Encounters, just shy of the big finale of Keep on the Borderland: A Season of Serpents. I volunteered to DM for a few reasons: I wanted to support the program, I wanted to see what my friend Chris had in store for countless adventurers, I know that skilled DMs are in demand for local players, and finally, I think pretty highly of my own skills as a D&D DM.

I’m no stranger to running games in public venues for people I don’t know. I’ve been running games at conventions since I was hand-scribbling character sheets with made up systems, been involved with game company demos, ran a local con’s gaming room, and so on. What I didn’t have was experience with RPGA/LFR: I haven’t been involved with it since second edition. Thus, even with all that experience, I still felt a bit of trepidation week after week. How would the adventure go? Who would be playing? Would I flub a crucial detail? Even with everything already planned out for me, I still spent time re-reading the encounter, getting together any materials I thought crucial to getting the encounter “right,” and mentally preparing myself.

After 18 weeks of running (with a few gaps) here’s my impressions of how it went and the program itself.

The Setup

D&D Encounters is one encounter a week, playable in about an hour, with an ongoing storyline, from modules shipped to the store in advance. Each player shows up with a character, and the DM runs for whomever’s there, whether they’ve attended previous sessions or not. This game store used the Gamer’s Syndicate to manage the sessions (the same fine folks who run synDCon) and so there was an online signup form requiring registration for the different slots available. Often times, we’d have people show up who hadn’t signed up… even if they knew about the signup form. Only a few times can I recall this being a problem: there’d often be another DM in my group who could split off if need be, and I’m happy to take on new players (more about that later). Still, those few sessions of 7 or 8 players were not the best experience for anyone.

There are some fiddly bits too. Players getting DCI/RPGA numbers isn’t that big deal, though what I wouldn’t give for a system to just directly input names into a computer and look up their numbers or register them on the spot. There are also “renown points” (didn’t bother with them) and I hand-waved XP since the adventure tells you where PCs should level up anyway. I understand this will change in the next season, which has its pluses and minuses: it was difficult when players came in without characters to get them into higher than first level characters quickly, so starting everyone at first does address that. However, tracking XP always comes with problems for those that lose characters, lose track easily, change characters, and so on. I also eliminated XP in my game since there’s very little to be gained by having unequally leveled characters in play, which will come up. Magic items are also a bit weird to handle, offering up such things as a “Common Level 4 weapon” which would be easier to give out in a home group where I knew the characters better.

One final fiddly bit: this season of Encounters had instructions for players to make their characters using Essentials rules. Initially, only the players using pre-gens followed this. There were those that just didn’t know the difference and were just choosing options in their character builder, and some classes that were farther out (like one psionic character.) I didn’t have a problem running these characters, though they seem to be particularly strong against the 1st level threats. As the season went on, more characters became Essentialized, though it was almost always elements from across the game. In the store where I was running, it’s pretty clear that it’s tough to communicate those kinds of restrictions to players, and there is lingering confusion over just what Essentials is.

The Adventure

I have no experience with the original Keep on the Borderlands. A lot of the classic D&D modules were before my time, and I’ve only recently started delving into them for use in 4e, and Keep just hasn’t come up. So I have no idea how faithful or not it is to the original, and frankly, I don’t think it matters that much.

The basic plot (minor spoilers)- the adventurers are looking for work, are approached by a kindly patron and sent on adventures, then eventually betrayed by that patron- is a classic one. In fact, I daresay it’s the plot of every Shadowrun adventure I’ve ever played in. That works well enough, and some roleplaying scenes in between the encounters helped play up how jovial the patron is and made it even stronger when the betrayal happens.

Each week featured a combat encounter, though there were several that intermixed skill use and skill challenges to make them more interesting. One particular early encounter featured a building on fire that was pretty engaging, where water basins could be kicked over and arcane flamethrowers could be extinguished. It helped that I used these beauties from Litko to show the fire spreading in the house. I was also quite happy to see that many of the encounters featured both roleplaying suggestions for the bad guys and “outs” to end the combat early, even if many of them were just the standard “intimidate a bloodied opponent into surrendering.”

That leads me to one of the big questions I’ve received: does the program encourage roleplaying, or do characters end up just choosing a power and rolling? The answer is… both. As I’ve said numerous times, roleplaying starts with the DM. By describing how the bad guys react, having monsters choose their actions based on what the PCs do, and taunting/talking to the players in character all brings it out of people, even from the most combat-focused. The interludes between encounters was a good opportunity for this as well- something that was easy to skip by, but when it was played out in full, the players responded well as a group. Additionally, having a “say yes” philosophy helps a lot here. Monsters that can be distracted/dealt with through clever play encourages that clever play and thinking outside of just what your character’s sheet says.

At the same time, it is easy to fall into old habits, especially if things wear on and the evening gets late. Some players are very tactically-minded and want a chance to show off how awesome their build is. That’s OK too! While not every encounter was exciting and filled with lots of roleplaying opportunities or interesting fights, they still worked, and I can’t think of any sessions that completely imploded. That’s a win right there.

Now, with all that said, would I recommend Keep on the Borderlands: A Season of Serpents for a home group? I’d probably say no UNLESS you’re planning on having a similar setup to an Encounters game. If I were running a 4-5 hour block like many games are, it’s be a little much to have back to back 4 encounters at a time, even if they do each have a conclusion. From the way they’re designed, they really do work best spread out. Really, it might make an ideal candidate for a lunch game, if you were lucky to have such a thing. Ultimately, the adventure is a straight railroad by necessity, which for a longer home group, might get a bit tiring to not have a lot of choices to make in your path.

I actually think a more sandbox-style adventure for Encounters could work pretty well, and would accommodate the ever-changing party idea better. The party has a home base, they venture out for  a specific adventure from a list, then return at the end, and a DM marks that one off. After a certain number of adventures are finished, something big happens, possibly tied to what order they took the adventures in (and success and failure of each one.) A little harder to manage and plan, especially since it makes it hard for a prep-heavy DM like myself to get ready, but could be interesting. Might I recommend a 5×5 campaign for such a thing?

The Players

To state up front: I had some very cool players. I have to tread carefully on this part, because any time you start talking about player attitudes or experiences, there’s always a chance what I’m trying to say won’t get communicated well enough, and I certainly don’t want anyone I played with to take offense or think I didn’t like them. This is the honest truth: every single person was enjoyable to play with and brought something different to the table.

Most of the players, at least initially, were RPGA players who had played in other events at the store. New players trickled in throughout the season, many of whom went on to play other events in the stores, and in some cases, joined gaming groups with some of the other Encounters players. That all I would call a big success for the program. Just a few times, there was a player who would show up for one week then never be heard from again. Whether that was based on their experience at the game or just scheduling, who knows.

Like you might expect, there was a diverse amount of experience and styles at each table. Some players were decidedly more tactical, especially when it came to working with their character. Some players had a pretty good idea of what they wanted to do but didn’t always know the rules or have a good enough grasp of the situation to fully play it out. Some players were spotlight hogs, and others just rolled and moved on. Perhaps most importantly of all in success for individual encounters, some players were big on teamwork and others were not. While some battles- actually, many- were rolled over with no problem, there were some weeks where characters did not want to coordinate, ended up splitting up, and then in trouble. As Chatty DM has opined previously, the secret synergy bonus can make all the difference, even at level 1 without minmaxed characters.

One uncomfortable area for me were the players who had no qualms about pirating the books they were using (or the character builder) and encouraging others to do likewise. For all the talk about how piracy hurts or doesn’t hurt sales, here were instances in the real world of what was actually happening. Here were players (plural) who were unabashed about not paying for their products, in the middle of a store that sells those products and were provided space and other resources for them to play for free. This is to say nothing of me knowing the people who work on these products who deserve to be paid for their work. Reasons cited were not being able to afford the books and dissatisfaction with the Essentials books “changing the rules” to encourage you to buy them to keep playing. Would these players buy them if they had more money? Or would actually using these products in play convince them to buy them later? I have no answers. More complex is the one player who had printed out pages for a character from a PDF from a scanned book, who demonstrated the utility right there of having a PDF available, and made me wish I had one- for which I have no legal way to obtain.

It’s easy to become pretty insulated in our D&D games, especially for those of us who don’t do LFR and instead play a lot of home games. The people we play with tend to be our primary sources of information, both in terms of what’s happening the larger world of roleplaying games and what does and does not work in our own games. When getting into a situation like Encounters (or trying to get together a new group from scratch), the experience is quite different. There’s opinions of what’s broken, what’s fun, what the heck is going on with Wizards of the Coast, etc. I’m pretty lucky in that I’ve spent a lot of time staying “in the know” about D&D and have gotten insider knowledge as a result. So to start playing with another group, only some of whom have any kind of connection to each other, is pretty enlightening. There’s a lot of opinions about what they’d like to see, what’s being done, what isn’t being done, what their character should be able to do, what this edition does that others don’t and vice versa. It’s clear that D&D gamers are an opinionated lot, and there’s a lot of messages being sent around, many of which are getting lost in the process.

What I have yet to hear are people in any of my games talking about playing another RPG… including Pathfinder or even going back to 3.5. I haven’t heard any indication they want to play anything but D&D. They may not be happy with where the game is or where it’s heading and have no problem telling everyone that, but at the same time, they’re still playing D&D. Heck, even my attempts to sell them on Gamma World don’t seem to have had an effect, even though it shares quite a lot with D&D.

There’s a lot to be said about the power of the D&D brand name, and all that comes with it. My experiences with Encounters have shown me that there’s a diverse player base out there, one that is different but overlapping with the home play groups like mine and what I think of as the invisible majority of D&D games being run at home that barely ever touch a blog or forum.

Is Encounters a runaway success? I couldn’t say that from my own experiences. Has it gotten new and lapsed players into the game? Definitely. Is it a good tool for teaching D&D? It’s OK: not as good as a dedicated demo, but workable, especially with help from other players. Does it get more people into game stores? Yes. Do they buy anything? Not as much as the store would like, that’s for sure. Has it given me more (passive) insight into the way more people play D&D? Decidedly yes.

For a detailed week by week recap of the latest D&D Encounters season, be sure to check out the series over on Dungeon’s Master.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.

Comments

  1. Wow, nice post! I haven’t been able to attend since before season 3 started, its nice to see where the program is now.

  2. Great post, as ever.

    I guess overall it does show the value of LFR and similar programs. It’s a chance to see the game through eyes other than those of your own (all too often insular) gaming group, and that’s always a good thing.

  3. Awesome post! Thanks for writing it up.

    I am curious about your opinion of one other thing: For a new DM, would the encounters program be a good place to start to learn how to be an effective DM?

    I’m not a new DM (by any stretch of the imagination) and I learned how to play and DM in a home game with my brother. I suspect that is where the great majority of people learn to DM. So I am wondering if the encounters program could mix that up a bit and help a newbie learn good DMing habits? Your thoughts?

    Cheers,
    Sam

  4. I’d dearly love to score a copy of Keep on the Borderlands. The campaign I’m running for my kids starts off in the Chaos Scar and they’ve actually been to Restwell Keep. If I can’t get a copy, I’m going to have to reverse engineer the adventure from WotC’s summary site and blog posts. Actually, that sounds kind of fun!

  5. Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s helpful in learning the rules since it’s pre-planned, and presented in discrete chunks to run one at a time, so even if a session bombs, it’s not that long and you can learn for the next one. On the flip side, it’s not a good place to get feedback on how you’re doing, or learn to plan your own stuff. So it’ll only take you so far.

    From a more pragmatic perspective, if they really want it to be the event for new and lapsed players to give the game a try, a new DM doesn’t necessarily show off how great the game can be.

    For new DMs and Encounters, I’d recommend first playing and learning what you can from the DMs already running it, ask questions, get things straight, and then maybe try one. Could be cool- one thing the program doesn’t do but possibly could is provide a path from player to DM.

  6. “one thing the program doesn’t do but possibly could is provide a path from player to DM.”

    Yes, this is exactly the thing I was getting at. The program seems to do really well at getting players excited and teaching them the rules. I think WotC has the knowledge and ability to implement a ‘Player-to-DM’ type of program – perhaps we can convince them to give something like this a try!

    Once again – thanks for the great article and the great site!

    Sam

  7. This series could be the basis of a good home mini-campaign if you can get your mitts on the books. The existing locales and encounters can become part of a larger milieu that offers the players more freedom than the Encounters format offers.

    I, for one, would love to see the adventure repackaged as a setting book like Hammerfast. That’d offer a lot to the Nentir Vale and Chaos Scar setting.

    Anyway, thanks for this post, Dave. It is such a pleasure to see people playing and talking about something I helped create.

  8. “what I wouldn’t give for a system to just directly input names into a computer and look up their numbers or register them on the spot.” The Wizards Event Reporter (WER) is pretty close to that. Ask your store to have it on a PC so you can look up forgotten RPGA/DCI numbers and register quickly. It is much better than the web site for entering results as well.

    On the overall post, excellent job. I really enjoyed the first two seasons and I highly recommend Encounters to both new and old DMs. The changing player base keeps things fresh. The short duration provides easy prep. The nature of the program begs DMs to make minor adjustments based on the players and play styles, so it can actually be a good learning tool. I really felt my DM skills improved with Encounters – more so than with RPGA where I have to largely stick to what is written. Here I could add scenes, skill challenges, etc. You can see my additions to the first seasons on the WotC forums.

    On selling product, I worked with my store to have raffles. Everyone in a 2-week period that purchased D&D material had their name thrown in a hat and 1-2 lucky gamers then received something like an old gameday adventure. I also passed out slips of paper with a bit I wrote on why you should support your local gaming store. It all resulted in a lot of purchased product and a bit of a change in mentality. This store is your friend, and you should be loyal. Negotiating a 20% discount on D&D stuff on Encounters nights also helped.

  9. Yeah, part of my lament isn’t that the software isn’t there (good to hear it is!) but the store isn’t setup for it. I wouldn’t have minded Wifi for use at the start of the game either, if only to check who was registered.

    I’ll readily admit that people not buying things may be partly from the store as well. I’d generally pick up my just-released materials from them since it’s a premiere store that gets it early, but almost never saw anyone else buying it.

  10. The issue I saw with Encounters is that it depends heavily on the people (I know, duh, right?). I have been unable to play since the early weeks of Season 2, so my information may be dated. The issue for me was that the player base was so diverse that each week was a total wild card for me. One night might be awesome; the next might be abysmal. I think the idea of Encounters is wonderful, but it lacked something in execution for me. Your mileage may vary…

  11. I have to say, it takes big stones to show up at a store that is granting you free playing space on a weekly basis, with a stack of pirated pdf’s.

    Unbelievable, and you know what, the store has every right to take steps against that. There are two losers there, D&D and the store owner. Not cool.

    Do I have pdf’s? of course. Would I be so cavalier about pulling them out in a public forum like a freakin’ game store that’s giving me free space to play? No way, if anything just out of respect for the poor guy trying to make a buck with his store.

    Not cool.

  12. The PDF thing definitely isn’t cool. It’s not just a matter of legality, either; that someone would openly flaunt having pirated the books instead of buying them at a game store while playing a game through the generosity of that store display a mind-numbing lack of empathy and social grace.

    If nothing else, the fact that players were actually encouraging other players to go out and pirate books instead of buying them is directly harmful to the store, and an employee should have respectfully asked them to leave.

  13. I was one of the players in Dave’s group. I thought he did a very good job in running the sessions. I liked his decision to have a say yes attitude. Saying yes made the game more interesting and allowed the players to try some fun things. I’m a returning player from 1e, so 4e was completely new to me and I enjoyed being able to try out new builds and tactics. Some weeks I would bring a couple of different characters just in case the party was missing a role like Leader.

    I share the frustration of the format not being the best place for role playing. It was a real challenge at times to not fall into a roll the dice and move on mentality. It takes a fair amount of time to get comfortable with a group and develop a feel for the dynamics and the characters. Plus the changing party members would make it a bit more difficult to have continuity from week to week.

    I’ve bought all my materials from the store. However, they do have some problems with stock levels. They will get in a good initial supply of product and then you wont see it reordered for weeks after the last product is sold. I haven’t seen a Rules Compendium on the shelf for over 3 or more weeks. This doesn’t justify using bootleg character builders and pdf’s, but I don’t think the store is working real hard to capture business from the players who show up for Encounters.

    I have some reservations about the changes for the next season. I think having mixed levels in the same party is an issue, especially for the new person who shows up and is told they automatically have to start out lower than all the regulars who play every week. I want to see how wotc balances the encounters to challenge players who have leveled up without making it too lethal for the new person who just showed up.

  14. Welcome back to D&D, Chris! It is awesome seeing players return.

    With regards to challenge level, the DM should be able to adjust for that and I think encounters should provide enough info for DMs to make the adjustment. The harder part is shining. A new player with a level x PC can feel like they do less (and have less fun) than a PC with a level x+2 PC. That’s the part I least like about the new rule. Then again, it is good for WotC to experiment.

    I actually wish WotC would have shorter seasons for that reason. Put a season out there, experiment, move on. It could teach all of us, including WotC, more about designing encounters for a large audience. Frankly, an Encounters season could very well be one of the most played adventures of all time. Even classics or really good adventures in Dungeon are likely to get lower play numbers. The opportunity for feedback about 4E and adventure design is tremendous.

  15. I’m not in any way condoning or justifying the behavior of people using pdf’s and hacked character builders, but since many people are commenting on the point I wanted to clarify the situation. On the night we play Encounters, the store is generally packed with people playing Magic, Warhammer, board games, etc. On an average night there are probably 60 or more people in there. The noise level is very high and there is one guy to staff the register, plus maybe a guy to sell Magic singles. It’s a busy store. Lots of product is used in the store that wasn’t bought there. The magic players buy boxes online and then use the store to play their games and drafts. I’m pretty sure the Warhammer guys don’t buy all their figs there either. I don’t think the employees police the issue so it’s really on the players to self police the situation. I encourage people to buy the books in the store but it’s hard to make that case if the product is not in stock.

  16. Nice post. These are some of the same successes and problems I’ve seen while DMing for Encounters myself.

    Regarding pre-generated characters at the higher levels, some of the players at the store I go to created higher level pre-gens. This was really easy for them to do because of the Essentials requirements, and they just printed off a few of the half-page character sheets from Essentials, wrote in the stats, and laminated them. This way, once everyone was at level two we didn’t have to worry about the new players who showed up having to either play a level one pre-gen or level a character to level two in a short amount of time before the session. I didn’t have any problem explaining to the players how to build an Essentials character or what the requirements were for Encounters character creation because I always pointed them to the Character Creation Guide of the Events Page of the D&D Website.

    And I agree, printing off PDFs of the books is a jerk move. I didn’t have any problems with this; fortunately, most of the players at my store were generous enough to spend money freely (this was especially nice since the store is very new, and it’s a one-man operation that is still trying to turn a decent profit). The only time I saw any printed pages at the table was from a player who was running a beta-test of the assassin, so these PDFs were through DDI and completely legit to have at the table.

    Regarding the idea of having a “player-to-DM” progarm, I think it could be a good idea. My guess is that they’re already making an attempt at this, since upcoming DM rewards will be included in the public play materials (meaning you have to be right there at the store DMing to receive it), which will give incentive for players to DM for Encounters. However, I don’t really believe that WotC should have to make any more of an effort to turn players into DMs. They already offer incentives and give players an easy way to switch to DMs through public play which makes such a switch very easy. They’ve done quite a bit to provide players a way to switch to DMing, but the motivation has to come from the players. I decided to DM for Encounters because I wanted to improve my DMing. Some of the players at my store have stepped up to DM for similar reasons. I don’t think that there is much more WotC can do to get players to try out DMing.

  17. I think my biggest complaint about this season of encounters was the random dungeon delve (chapter 2) thrown in after Ferdinand Ronnik captured. The delve was barely related to the plot. Partially because of this insertion, the story didn’t make sense to players until the storyline resumed in chapter 3… but 8 weeks is a long time to be confused.

    Although, in retrospect, I think the storyline in this series of encounters held together better than Dark Sun.

  18. Mixed levels, season length:

    For at least the next two or three seasons, they *are* short, roughly 10 or 12 weeks at the longest. That’ll mean that you can change what you’re doing pretty easily if you want, and it also means that there will never be a big level difference between the diehard every-session player and the brand-new player, even at the end of a season.

    DM Conversion program:

    At our store, we’ve had a great deal of success using Encounters as a bridge into DM’ing. We don’t have any kind of official program — we just let it be known when there are good times for people who are interested in DMing to make the switch, and we let them go on `backup status’ if they want, lessening the feeling of big commitment in case they decide that it’s not for them. We’re pretty lucky, though — we have a great, supportive store, and a big program with `enough’ DMs.

    Good for the Store:

    We’ve had good luck helping the store also — we’re in a good location, with a welcoming, easily accessible gaming store with great staff. Arranging a discount (actually, I think it was the store’s idea) for Encounters players on Encounters nights has encouraged players to also become customers. I expect that we’ll see even more tie-in between product releases and Encounters seasons, giving stores (especially premier stores) yet another leg-up on the internet wholesalers.

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