This was without a doubt the worst week I’ve ever had at D&D Encounters. The problem had absolutely nothing to do with the players and everything to do with the encounter. I suspect that I’m not alone with my criticism of this week’s encounter. Let me explain what happened and why I felt that things went so very, very wrong.
I run D&D Encounters at two FLGS in my area. The game played on Wednesday night is the one I usually write about. However, when I can’t make the Wednesday night game I recount the session I played on Monday night with my other group. This week’s field report will follow the Monday night crew. For anyone following this season’s podcasts, don’t worry we still recorded the adventure. However, you won’t recognize any of the voices but mine.
On Monday night we usually have enough people to run two tables; however our second DM was unable to play this week which meant I ended up running one massive table. We started with seven players. Not great but definitely manageable. Within 10 minutes two more players showed up so we ended up running a table of nine. But believe it or not the overflowing game table had nothing to do with the overall problems we faced this week.
The party consisted of a Goliath Fighter (Battlerager), Kalashtar Paladin, Gnome Bladesinger, Warforged Druid (PHB2 build), Tiefling Battlemind, Tiefling Warlock, Human Bard, Eladrin Cleric (Valenae per-gen), Human Wizard (enchanter).
Throughout this article there’s a really good chance I’m going to come across as really negative. My intent is not to turn this into a rant (although I suspect it will become one). After all I’m a huge supporter of D&D Encounters program. I write an article about D&D Encounters every week and I play the adventure twice a week. Although I may have some incidental criticisms once in a while, my overall feeling is that it’s an excellent program. That being said, I felt that this week’s encounter was one of the worst ever in six seasons of D&D Encounters. I realize they can’t all be gems, but this one was riddled with problems.
The problem that really came to a head this week was the blatant railroading that is happening in this adventure. The PCs are in the middle of a political power struggle and are forced to take sides. They’re given the illusion of choice but in the end they have to choose Lord Neverember’s side. Since most of the PCs just arrived in Neverwinter they have no history, personal politics or allegiances. There’s no good reason to force them to be on one side or the other. The adventure even gives them badges from both sides and depending on which one they wear some skill checks are helped or hindered. But in the case of this week’s encounter it didn’t matter. Even if they PC wore the Lost Heir’s badge they still ended up in a fight because they were seen as Lord Neverember’s stooges.
The other huge problem with this week’s encounter was the requirement that the PCs had to go to the House of a Thousand Faces. The mission the heroes accepted from Lord Neverember was to find the Lost Heir or find solid, reliable information to support or discredit his claim on Neverwinter’s throne. Yet during week 4’s encounter they were sidetracked.
If you recall when the PCs arrived at the Wall a group of Bandits had killed the guards and were trying to open the gates. Obviously the PCs stepped in and stopped the Bandits, but this was not really part of their mission. It was a distraction at best. After the combat Seldra the Half-elf explained that these bandits were working for the Dead Rats. Again, this is nice information to have, but not relevant unless the Lost Heir is also a Dead Rat. Unfortunately the adventure railroads the PCs into following-up on this lead even though they have no real motivation to see it through (other than to just do the right thing).
This week’s encounter began when the heroes arrived at the House of a Thousand Faces. The Eladrin and Half-elf running the inn and tavern are kind and welcoming. They’re willing to talk but don’t seem to have any relevant information about the Lost Heir’s or the Dead Rats. They suggest talking to Charl to learn more. Charl is happy to talk about the Lost Heir but clearly knows nothing useful. He has information about the Dead Rats but the adventure says he won’t reveal it unless he’s begging for his life (which at this point isn’t relevant).
In order for the combat part of the encounter to begin Charl has to accuse the heroes of being Lord Neverember supports (which he has no proof of at this point). The heroes are in turn supposed to be offended by the taunting to the point where they’ll want to fight Charl. When this happens Charl and his men attack the party.
This group of heroes has taken special care not to wear the badges they received from the Lost Heir or Lord Neverember. They have done everything they can to remain neutral. Neither Charl nor any other observer has any reason to believe that these heroes are working for Lord Neverember. If anything they might even think the PCs will support the Lost Heir since they did fight by his side against the white dragon. The adventure even gives PCs a substantial bonus to their skills when interacting with Charl if they present the Lost Heir’s badge. There is no reason for this fight to happen. Yet it inevitably does, because what’s a week of D&D Encounters without combat?
My final beef with this week’s encounter is all the information provided to the DM that none of the players ever know about. It turns out that The House of a Thousand Faces is a Harper hideout and that the Eladrin and Half-elf are themselves Harper agents. Fortunately I had PCs at the table with the Harper theme. However, as the Harpers are a secretive organization those PCs did not think it appropriate to reveal these facts to the non-Harper party members. Likewise the Eladrin and Half-elf wouldn’t reveal themselves as Harpers to those not already in the know. So a whole page of the adventure was merely good reading for the DM, but not something that would ever likely come out in the game.
Now that I’ve ranted (damn, I really didn’t want this to become a rant) let me give you some of the details on what happened at the table. The party arrived at The House of a Thousand faces where they interacted with Toram, the Half-elf that, along with his Eladrin sister, run the place. He was cordial but had nothing useful to share when asked about the Lost Heir. The party eventually asked about the Dead Rats and Toram suggested they speak with Charl the Halfling. A few of the nine heroes decided to go over to Charl’s table. Realizing that this could exclude the majority of the players from a social interaction I instead had Toram wave Charl over to the PCs’ table.
Charl also had little to reveal about the Lost Heir. This frustrated the party to no end. Why would they be forced to come here if they couldn’t get the information that the adventure required of them. They asked about the Dead Rats and Charl basically said he works for them on occasion but isn’t a member. By now I was really starting to lose the players. They basically said they were going to kill the Halfling out of frustration. Now I had to improvise.
I had a group of Charl’s associated enter the bar and come over to the PCs’ table to say hi to Charl. While doing this, one of the men successfully pick pocketed a Lord Neverember badge from one of the PCs. The Bandit tried to secretly show it to Charl from across the room but two of the PCs noticed this. As soon as Charl realized that the PCs were working for Lord Neverember he initiated the fight. I didn’t like taking this route, but it was the best I could come up with at a moment’s notice. Charl dropped a smoke pellet and combat began.
I must credit the players because it only took mild prompting for them to realize that these were regular people and that so far no one had been attacked. This was just posturing. The heroes delayed attacking until the Bandits engaged them. After that it was on.
The combat part of the encounter was actually very interesting. I added more Bandits and more manikins. With the confusion already created from the smoke pellet and the six mirrors, it was a very crowded tap-room where the PCs were unsure of which minis were manikins and which were actual opponents.
I deliberately had some of the Bandits remain motionless for a round or two, ignoring the opportunity attacks they’d normally be allowed in order for the PCs not to notice them as threatening. I explained what I was doing to the players and told them that if they used a minor action to make a Perception check they could notice the difference for nearby minis. If a PC ended his turn next to a manikin or Bandit they automatically knew the difference.
As expected the combat with nine PC, eight Bandits and one sneaking Halfling took a long time. The entire session took about 2 hours 15 minutes, most of that being the combat. Charl eventually surrendered when he ran out of smoke pellets and most of his men were unconscious. When the fighting was over the heroes questioned Charl and he told them what he knew of the Dead Rats. Many of the players didn’t care at all. They wanted to know more about the Lost Heir. No one understood why these PC would continue following-up on the Dead Rats. I couldn’t provide them with a good explanation.
I realize I didn’t actually go into the specifics of the combat as I usually do. I felt that taking about the problems was more important. Am I the only one who’s feeling this way? Did I just miss something earlier in the adventurer that would give the heroes the motivation they seemed to be lacking? How are other DMs handing players who want a reason to do this but don’t have one?
I’m worried that frustrated players may give up and stop coming out D&D Encounters or that they’ll instead opt to take on Lair Assault until this season of D&D Encounters is finished. I thought the first few weeks of this adventure were really well done which makes this recent problem encounter so disappointing. What are your thoughts on my situation?
As an added bonus this season we’re recording our D&D Encounters experiences and making them available to you as downloadable podcasts. Listen to the Week 6 Encounter. Bear in mind that these recordings are made in a loud, crowded game store so at time it may be difficult to hear everyone.
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.