D&D Encounters: Keep on the Borderlands – Report Card

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 4, 2011

Now that D&D Encounters: Keep on the Borderlands is finished its time to look back on this season and provide some honest feedback.

The Name Game

When I first heard that season 3 was going to be called Keep on the Borderlands I was immediately excited. The classic adventure of the same name is one of my all time favourite D&D modules. Borrowing the familiar name was a good way to get some old-school gamers excited about D&D Encounters.

However, when I finally sat down to play the game I was a little bit disappointed. Aside from the name, this had nothing to do with the original Keep on the Borderlands. I was expecting an expedition to the Caves of Chaos, but instead we got the Chaos Scar. I still enjoyed the adventure, but I felt that Wizards pulled a bit of a bait and switch.

Meet the Pre-Gens

Berrian, Eldeth, Hagen, Quinn, Merric and Sola. After 20 weeks I feel that I really know these six adventurers. At our table four of these pre-gens were present throughout the entire run of season 3. The other two made regular appearances as well. Although players were strongly encouraged to make their own characters, and many at our FLGS did, those using the pre-gens were quite content to play them, myself included.

The characters were well built and well rounded. They weren’t just min/maxed for combat. They actually had balanced scores and decent power selections. When comparing these six pre-gens to the previous ones provided for seasons 1 and 2, I have to say that these were far superior. Clearly Wizards of the Coast put a little bit more thought and care into creating these characters. I’m sure the feedback Wizards received about how much people disliked the other pre-gens motivated them to make these ones better.

I was a bit disappointed, although not surprised, that Wizards didn’t issue level 2 or level 3 versions of their pre-generated characters. I didn’t expect new laminated cards, but I was surprised that nothing was made available on their website. How hard would it be to provide the Character Builder files for these six characters on the Wizards of the Coast website for download? Even if they’re not going to level them for us, make the level 1 versions available and we’ll level them ourselves. Many of us ended up entering all of the data into Character Builder anyway.

I suspect their number one reason for not providing leveled characters or the Character Builder files was to encourage people to make their own PCs. I get that. But I think they missed an easy win by not giving us the CB files.

Pre-generated Character: 8 on a d10

Rewards

D&D isn’t a game that you win in the traditional sense. But one way that you know you’re on the right track is by receiving treasure. Everyone likes to get loot, especially magic loot. In this area I felt that Keep on the Borderlands really fell short.

During a traditional game in which you play many encounters in one sitting there’s always some kind of reward at the end of the night. At least that’s been my experience. Even LFR gives everyone the choice of a treasure bundle at the end of an adventure.

Playing only one encounter a week meant that it was a long time between rewards and this really stung. When we finally found a magic item everyone wanted it (and I don’t blame them).

The monetary rewards were inconsequential. None of the PCs earned enough to buy anything more than the occasional potion, but no one at my table even did that. In a couple of cases there was no time in-game for the PCs to make purchases once they had coin because the story didn’t allow for a break.

Considering that the vast majority of people will never play these characters again anything that didn’t provide immediate gratification was useless. I know that I didn’t even track money on my PC. I got a healing potion early in the adventure and didn’t end up using it until encounter 20.

One thing that the adventure didn’t seem to take into account (and maybe this was an isolated incident at my FLGS – although I doubt it) was that some players we not present every week. We had a few players participate in the early chapters, collect a magic item, and then not return for subsequent weeks. This meant that the magic weapon the party should have possessed was missing. In the grand scheme of things a +1 here or there might not have made that big a difference, but you never know.

Another issue we had was that our average party had 6-8 players. This meant more monsters during combat (which is fine) but it didn’t provide additional treasure. I will admit that the DM was good about letting players who joined in chapters 4 and 5 begin with a common magic item.

My suggestion to Wizards is to reduce the amount of gp rewarded to PCs and throw in more consumables or even another low level magic item or two.

Here’s a list of all the magic treasure rewarded throughout the entire 20 weeks.

  • Chapter 1) Healing Potion
  • Chapter 2) common implement (level 2)
  • Chapter 2) common armor (level 5)
  • Chapter 2) common weapon (level 4)
  • Chapter 2) common neck (level 3)
  • Chapter 2) Healing Potion
  • Chapter 3) common arms (level 2)
  • Chapter 3) uncommon weapon or implement (level 2)
  • Chapter 3) Healing Potion
  • Chapter 4) common arms (level 4)
  • Chapter 4) common armor (level 6)
  • Chapter 4) uncommon weapon or implement (level 5)
  • Chapter 5) common item (level 5)
  • Chapter 5) Healing Potions x2

Each PC earned the following consumables and coins.

  • Chapter 1) 40 gp
  • Chapter 2) 119 gp
  • Chapter 3) 87 gp
  • Chapter 4) 109 gp
  • Chapter 1) Herbal poultice
  • Chapter 3) Herbal poultice
  • Chapter 4) Healing Potion
  • Chapter 5) Anti-venom

Rewarded at the end of the final encounter

  • Chapter 5) common neck (level 6)
  • Chapter 5) uncommon weapon or implement (level 7)
  • Chapter 5) 110 gp each

Rewards: 6 on a d10

The Adventure

Overall I really enjoyed the adventure. That being said I do have some criticisms. Right off the bat I have to say that 20 weeks was just too log for a week-by-week adventure. By the time we got to the final chapter most of us forgot what happened in the first chapter. I applaud Wizards or taking on such a grand challenge, but I don’t think it worked as well as anyone hoped.

This was readily apparent when we had a new player join for week 20 .In order to bring her up to speed we explained what happened so far. I was able to do this in just a few short sentences. Most of what happened in the middle wasn’t necessary for the recap and that, in my opinion, meant that it was probably unnecessary. Again, I enjoyed the entire run, I just think it was too long.

At the beginning of the adventure there seemed to be a lot of railroading. The PCs had to interact with certain NPC and take on certain tasks whether they wanted to or not. I understand that some railroading is required in any printed adventure, but this really felt more forced than it should have. The most blatant part was the hanging of Ferdinand Ronnik. Fortunately Wizards backpedaled and used their “change history” ritual to suddenly say that Ronnik wasn’t hanged, he was just imprisoned.

I noticed and was pained by the lack of skill challenges over the 20 weeks. I wasn’t expecting to go a full week (1 encounter) without combat, but there was a real absence of skill challenges during the adventure. I find that skill challenges encourage role-playing. They also serve as a good reminder that D&D is about more than just hack and slash. For newer players coming to D&D through D&D Encounters Wizards is doing them a real disservice by not showcasing the value and richness of skill challenges.

The combat encounters themselves were very well done. The monsters often had complimenting powers and made use of terrain features. They hit hard, but that just encouraged players to play smarter. By having the PCs fight some of the same monsters from week to week the players could use what they learned during previous fights to make subsequent encounters easier.

The maps were, as usual, great and full of interesting terrain features. Some maps even provided varying elevation giving PCs a chance to fight in 3D. Most encounters used a map that was large enough to allow for tactical movement and a lot of creatures. This was especially noticeable and important during chapter five when there were minions galore.

The thing I’m most likely to take away from this adventure and use in my own game is the idea of the players running friendly minions. Throughout encounters 17-20 the PCs were aided by soldiers (minions) in each fight. The players each got a minion and that minion acted at the same time as the PC. It allowed for a lot more monsters to be involved in the combat without unfairly overpowering the PCs.

Adventure: 8 on a d10

Final Thoughts

I’ve been participating in D&D Encounters since day one and I’m really enjoying the experience. There were some lulls along the way, but I’m a huge supporter of the D&D Encounters program. I believe that it’s been wildly successful for Wizards and I hope for many FLGS across the continent (and around the world). It’s a great way to showcase D&D and draw in new players.

We had about 10 new players on top of our core 6-10 come out and try D&D during this season’s 20-week run. Some stayed and some didn’t but the exposure was there. If not for this program none of them would likely have ever sat down to play. I want to applaud Wizards on a job well done.

I will be DMing the next season of D&D Encounters: March of the Phantom Brigade. I’ve already read through the first chapter of the adventure and it looks awesome. There will be plenty of opportunities for role-playing. The pre-generated characters are available now. I also did an interview for the Shatter Sea in which I provide some thoughts and insights about what’s in store for season 4.

D&D Encounters: Keep on the Borderlands: 8 on a d10

What were your thoughts on season 3? Are you any more or less likely to come out for season 4? If this was your introduction to D&D how did you find the experiences?

Visit the Dungeon’s Master D&D Encounters Archive for all of our ongoing weekly coverage as well as other great D&D Encounters articles and resources.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Al February 4, 2011 at 3:04 pm

I just finished my quick read through of S4 and I’ll say this much, I’m glad we got the entire adventure at once because there are a couple of swerves that I didn’t see coming as a DM. Lots of RP opportunities to be had in S4.

2 Alton February 4, 2011 at 3:28 pm

I agree with you Al. I am extremely excited to get under way in this adventure. I think anyone will love it. It is simple enough to run, but complex enough not to want to miss any sessions. The RP stuff is quite good.
Alton´s last blog post ..Goldenshield and the 3 DMs

3 Alton February 4, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Great recap of it all BTW. I just wanted to add that they should have mad up some little cards for the minion soldiers that each player at the table contolled, maybe a little token or something. Keep the soldier alive and you get the token. Something like that.

4 Arcade February 4, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Now that it’s all said and done, what’s your thought on Essentials? Are they fulfilling expectations? Is combat any faster? Are they too limiting for your options?
I ignored Essentials when it came out. But having taken a break from D&D and looked at other games, like the Castle Ravenloft boardgame and Gamma World, I think Essentials addresses many of the 4E issues I had. I wanted to know if they worked in practice how you expected. I’d like to hear any and all opinions. Or maybe we need an Essentials report card?

5 Bill February 4, 2011 at 4:12 pm

I enjoyed Season 3 of Encounters very much. I thought the season presented an engaging story and new gameplay opportunities (e.g. controlling friendly minions during combat).

Also, there were level 1 versions of each of the pregenerated characters available in the online character builder. One simply had to click on the portraits to the right of the main screen (i.e. the “New,” “Custom,” and “Load” screen) and find the corresponding character to load and level up.

6 Adam February 4, 2011 at 4:58 pm

I started out playing this season but started running around session 4. Overall I definitely liked this season. As it went on the encounters got better/more interesting. I liked the variety of abilities for the monsters over the course of the season. I am not a big fan of skill challenges the way they are presented in the rules but I do agree that they would have encouraged role playing, something that was lacking this season. Of course it is up to the DM to pull things out of the module to role play with but this season always seemed that the players had to rush from one encounter to the other. There was hardly ever any downtime aside from the start of a few of the chapters. (Of course that rushing around by the characters did help instill a feeling of urgency for the players.)
I cannot speak to the pregens cause all our regular players rolled up their own. The only minor problem I had with the module was the constant people asking the players to do something without the promise of money up front. Benwick was a big fan of, “You’ll find money after you kill the bad guys.” And, Drysdale didn’t seem to want to state the obvious, “You’ll be handsomely rewarded once we save the Keep.” My players balked at the initial lack of outright rewards, but at least that produced an opportunity for role playing.

7 firkin February 5, 2011 at 8:24 pm

As a casual and irregular player at the D&D Encounters table, I’m shocked at how long this one ran. It seems like a lifetime ago that ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ started. Since then I graduated university, moved to another country, held three different jobs…

So what’s the gist of the next season? Why should I play? What new ideas is Wizards bringing to the table? I have to admit that I’ve grown tired of the linear storytelling, the unavoidable combat encounter and the total lack of consequences. Maybe it’s time Wizards gives the DMs and Players a little more space to breath?

8 Gormal February 5, 2011 at 9:11 pm

As a old/new player played mostly 1st and a little of second edition. It was a great introduction into the geam. So much so that I will be starting my own group soon. I will still be playing encounters as I liked most of the group we played with. Bring it on Ameron and Al. Hehe

9 Sunyaku February 7, 2011 at 12:02 am

I very much agree with your criticisms of treasure rewards, lack of skills challenges, and length of the season. From what I’ve been reading in the module for the next season though, all of these things are going to get a lot better. I’m guessing March of the Phantom Brigade will earn 9 out of 10, or possibly 10 out of 10 on your report card 13+ weeks from now. :-)
Sunyaku´s last blog post ..Shady Personalities

10 Rico February 13, 2011 at 2:45 am

The idea of having the PCs control minion NPCs (thus allowing more monsters) would be good with experienced players. What I found was that with new/inexperienced players it added a level of complexity they didn’t need, and really slowed down the combats.

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