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.
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.
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?
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.