D&D Encounters: Beyond the Crystal Cave – Report Card

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 23, 2012

Our journey to the Feywild is over. Some loved the experience and some hated it. But in the end we all survived another season of D&D Encounters (although some of our characters may not have been so fortunate). Today we provide our report card on the season as a whole as we look at the good and the bad. Read what we have to say about season 7 and then share your thoughts in the comments section below.

The Good

Role-playing

One of the complaints about the earlier seasons of D&D Encounters is that there was little or no opportunities for role-playing. Every week it was just kill the monsters and take their stuff. Wizards listened to feedback and took great strides to provide more opportunities for role-playing. This season was probability the best in terms of role-playing opportunity. Every encounter gave the PCs some opportunity to interact with NPCs and do some actual role-playing.

The emphasis on role-playing was punctuated by changing the way the weekly encounters were presented. Before this season, the weekly encounters usually began with some setup and role-playing followed by combat. This season we had some encounters begin with role-playing, followed by combat in the middle and then return to a significant role-playing scenario after the fight was over. It was a bold move and one that I applaud. However, I don’t think it landed as well as was expected. In the games I ran it was difficult to get the party to remain interested after the combat ended. For seven seasons the session ended when the fight ended. Trying to get the player to remain focused and go back into role-playing mode after the fight was difficult. Players were more interested in going home than getting back into the story.

Skill challenges and puzzles

One of the aspects of classic D&D that is often criticized for being absent from 4e is the use of puzzles. In this adventure there were some great puzzles. These were meant to challenge the players more so than their characters. It required more than just a roll of the dice to overcome and most players really enjoyed the change, even those who couldn’t figure out how to solve them without the DMs help. I applaud Wizards for bringing D&D back to its roots and actually making the players think.

In addition to the puzzles there were also a few by-the-book skill challenges. These were very well done, in my opinion. They made sense in the context of the encounter and there were actually consequences for failure. For players less comfortable or experienced with role-playing these provide a good bridge between rolling dice and playing the character. Keep the skill challenges coming and keep them meaningful.

In addition to structured skill challenges there were also many opportunities for the PCs to use their skills. The social skills were probably the ones most commonly used, but I think the time the adventure ended there was some opportunity to have used every single skill on the character sheet. This served as a good reminder for some of the power-gamers that there are consequences if you gimp your skills in order to excel at combat.

Don’t kill me!

For many of the encounter it was not necessary to kill the monsters. In fact it was not in your best interest to kill everything. Some of the encounters were especially difficult, but if the PCs tried to get the monsters to surrender when they became bloodied it would end things more quickly. It was clear that many of the opponents the PCs faced were not acting of their own accord. By sparing the lives of enthralled creatures the PCs were rewarded later in the adventure. With so many new players discovering D&D through the D&D Encounters program it was refreshing to see that the encounters encouraged the PCs not to kill everything.

Character backgrounds

One of the most difficult things to do during public-play is to come up with a reason in-game that explains why the PCs are working together. This season the PCs were encouraged (required) to take on of the three backgrounds specific to the adventure. This gave all the PCs a built-in motivation for being involved. This choice was rewarded many times over during the adventure as the PCs encounter NPCs that they knew or at least knew of. It also provided the PCs with bonuses when dealing with these NPCs.

The Bad

Too many NPCs

I’ve already talked about the abundance of role-playing as a good thing, but now it’s time to talk about the down side of that discussion. One of the reasons the PCs had so much opportunity to role-play was because almost every week they met more NPCs. The most common criticism I kept hearing was that there were just too many NPCs to keep track of. The players had difficulty remembering who everybody was, the role they played in the greater story, who was aligned with whom, and what each NPC’s motivation was to the greater story.

Short of removing about half of the NPCs the only other way I can think of to resolve this problem is for Wizards to provide some kind of handout that indicated the dramatis personae. This would have allowed the players to check their cheat-sheet during social encounters in order to get a clear idea of exactly who they were talking to.

Ouch, that hurt!

The monsters were tough. I mean, the monsters were really tough. Most weeks the monsters had sufficient output to kill the entire party. Any week where the DMs dice were hot the party could expect to lose one or more PCs. Regardless of tactics or party composition, the monsters just pummeled the PCs week after week. Fortunately in many cases the PCs didn’t have to kill the monster, they could get it to surrender once it was bloodied. The problem was that by the time it was bloodied it was already too late.

I get that Wizards doesn’t want every encounter to be a cake walk. Challenging the players and their PCs is exactly what we want week after week. But when the party expects to have a PC die every week you know things are not balanced. My recommendation is to have more monsters of lower levels. Curb the damage and use more minions. Let the players feel heroic by putting them in dangerous and exciting situations, but ensure that they have a reasonable chance of success.

The final encounter had the PCs face off against a really powerful foe in the Hag Soryth. In order to give the PC a better chance they had the Bloodstone Amulet. This was an excellent way to have them fight a really powerful foe and not get slaughtered. The amulet made one of the Hags most dangerous attacks, the abilities to have the PCs fight each other, be a little bit less effective. It was still dangerous, but having the -2 to attack you allies and getting a bonus to save against charm effects gave the PCs the leg up they needed to be competitive. If the monsters are going to continue to be this tough then more of these aids to help the PCs need to be used.

Too many encounters

This adventure had 13 encounters – four in chapter 1, five in chapter 2, and four in chapter 3. Four is the absolute maximum number of encounters any chapter in D&D Encounters should have. The PCs can’t handle more than that without an extended rest. There are too many inexperienced players attending the weekly games to assume they’ll have the knowledge necessary to conserve their resources. The adventure either has to allow for more extended rests during the longer chapters or the chapters have to be shorter.

If the story absolutely demands that the PCs continue through more than four encounters before they can take an extended rest then the monsters need to do significantly less damage or the PCs need a way to regain healing surges and other resources outside of taking an extended rest. “A powerful Arch-fey lord arrives and bestows two healing surges on anyone who participated in the previous two encounters.” It’s lame, I know but it’s necessary in the longer chapters.

Reimagining a classic

I like that Wizards is going back to classic adventures for inspiration for the D&D Encounters program. Although I was disappointed with their reimagining of Keep on the Borderlands, I really liked the new Beyond the Crystal Cave. It was a complex story that drew influence from some of Shakespeare’s classic works like Romeo & Juliet, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

When adapting these older adventures the authors want to do a good job. I think that Chris Sims and Steve Townshend did a great job of converting and reimagining Beyond the Crystal Cave as a 4e adventure, the problem was that it was way too complicated for D&D Encounters. When read from cover to cover, the adventure seemed solid. It was a pleasure to read and I could see many groups relishing in the role-playing. However when you go a week between encounters the story cohesion is lost. The players forget and the important details are lost.

Adventures written for D&D Encounter need to be very linear and very blunt. This is not to say boring, just simple. They author needs to remember that players will come and go. It has to be easy for new players to jump in during week 3 or week 7 or week 10 and not be completely lost (which unfortunately is what happened this time around).

Final Thoughts and Recommendations

I think Wizards is doing a great job with their D&D Encounters program. Although I may have seemed critical in this report card I still think the program works and I think this season was a great success. But that’s not to say that there isn’t room for improvement.

Some players only play D&D once a week, on Wednesday nights at their FLGS. For these players there is tremendous frustration that they have to roll up a new character every season. What I’d like to see Wizards provide are guidelines for playing the adventure with characters that are levels 4-6. This would let players continue to develop the characters that they’ve already invested so much time and effort into shaping.

I realize that this is not what D&D Encounters is designed for but the reality is that there are a lot of players who want to see this option available. It doesn’t have to be printed right in the adventure, a one o two page cheat-sheet for DMs suggesting ways to pump up the encounters is all I’m asking for.

If the players knew that they’d have this option then the rewards they receive throughout the adventure and at the end seem more meaningful. The PCs found a lot of coins and material wealth during the adventure, but my players didn’t even bother to track it since they knew they’ll never have an opportunity to spend it. At the end of Beyond the Crystal Cave the PCs were granted wishes. This was a really great way to reward the PCs. However, since they knew that this was the last time they’d ever play these characters some players made no effort to be creative.

All things considered I really enjoyed this season. My groups really liked that the game was set in the Feywild and many really jumped on that aspect of the adventure. The story was solid, although perhaps too complicated for this forum. As the DM I had a lot of fun reading the adventure and running it from week-to-week. Looking holistically at the entire adventurer I’d give it an 8 on a d10.

What are your thoughts on the adventure as a whole? What did you like or dislike about it? What would you have done to improve it? What recommendations do you have for Wizards for upcoming seasons of D&D Encounters?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Frank February 23, 2012 at 11:09 am

Agree with everything you presented here. Exactly my feelings about this season, both the good and the bad.

2 anarkeith February 23, 2012 at 11:56 am

My players also asked to continue into the new season with higher level characters. I told them I was OK with that, and would scale the encounters appropriately. But I also told them to have first level characters on hand in the event I missed a session, and to be prepared to make room for lower level PCs if someone joined the group. (I’ve got six regulars at the table.)

I liked the tougher encounters. My players felt the heat, and entered the finale very low on resources. They still won. As an old-school DM, I used some techniques (accents and go-to phrases) to help make the npcs memorable. It was challenging for both players and DMs, but I enjoyed Beyond the Crystal Cave.
anarkeith´s last blog post ..Three Pillars of Role-Playing Gaming

3 Alphastream February 23, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Excellent review! For what it is worth, this mirrors the type of feedback I give when I playtest such material. I really agree on all your points.

I am glad to see Wizards experiment. And I really think it was important that they try being RP-heavy for a season. Even when it may seem to fail at some tables, I suspect the majority of those learn something and get closer to a balance between combat and story.

My main pet peeves continue to be a lack of suitable information on the DM for scaling the encounter (how to make easier or harder, even mid-combat, and clear information on the target challenge level) and for the PCs to level up automatically (so you don’t have level 1 PCs facing off against later encounters). The length of the season is another issue. I think they need to be no longer than 12 encounters, but probably 3, 3, and 4 for 10 total is where I would aim.
Alphastream´s last blog post ..ODnD and the Challenge of Pleasing Everyone, Part 2

4 Sentack February 23, 2012 at 4:21 pm

Over all, I’ll agree with everything as posted. The roleplaying was great, but suffered from far too many NPC’s. The combats were fun and different but often brutal. The puzzles were a nice addition but some where just too subtle and the solution just went over every ones head.

Over all, I liked this season. Great back story, strong characters and fun encounters. I’m looking forward to reading Elder Elemental Eye next.

5 Alton February 23, 2012 at 4:39 pm

I agree with what you posted here. Another you may have wanted to add is that the season was too busy. I mean, there were a lot of things like keys, chalices, NPCs to keep track of, a lot of detail to remember. What if all your players missed the singing cavern as well as the DM for the week where the music became important, then you were at a loss. I think they address this issue in the next season.

Overall a great module, and one where you can actually start PCs for future homebrew adventures.

Thanks
Alton´s last blog post ..Inspiring Radio for your Gaming Table

6 Kiel Chenier February 23, 2012 at 7:56 pm

I disagree that higher level play should be continued from one season of Encounters to the next.

I love D&D Encounters, but lament that it’s the only night many people are playing D&D. It’s a nice adventure format, but it’s only a taste of the numerous other experiences you can have with the game.

If players want to continue with their existing characters, they should be encouraged to start dungeon mastering and hosting a game of their own for other players. One role of the game should progress into the other.
Kiel Chenier´s last blog post ..Sex please; We’re playing D&D, after all.

7 Joe February 23, 2012 at 8:57 pm

I agree wholeheartedly with this review. To add-on to the fight-pacing thing, I found that when I had a table of inexperienced players (which was frequent), the fights dragged out so long that any post-fight roleplaying opportunities had to be incredibly rushed.

I liked that there were a couple decision options with differing results (the unicorns/bears challenge being the most obvious, but also the “did Orlando die?”, “did you kill Basal?”, etc. I like the idea of giving players the feeling that their actions have consequences, even if the overall story does follow basically the same line.

With regards to difficulty & resource expenditures, just once I’d like them to throw a really hard boss at the PCs at the end of a season, but let them get an extended rest beforehand. Most players will be used to this concept from the many, many video games with a save point before the big boss. I think it’d make players feel empowered to actually throw everything they’ve got at a bad guy, instead of limply lobbing whatever minor powers they’ve got left at the final boss after the previous 3 encounters drained them.

8 Ameron (Derek Myers) February 23, 2012 at 10:40 pm

@Joe
Wish granted. Next season the PCs get an extended rest right before the final big fight.

9 Tabitha K. February 24, 2012 at 1:47 am

I agree wholeheartedly with your review. I also agree with the fact that this is a great lead-in for a home game, as my weekly non-encounters group will be preparing to play a spin off soon.

As for playing higher levels at Encounters….I’m a bit mixed on that. I think that rolling up a new level one is a great way to try out new races and classes, and that allowing higher level characters to play will complicate matters between existing players and new players in regards to power balance and fun. It’s hard for a level 1 to shine when a level 5-6 is hitting harder and more frequently.

10 The Gimper February 25, 2012 at 3:48 pm

@Tabitha K.
Those who want to try a different race/class can role up a new character and play. Nothing’s stopping them. But they would have the option to keep playing a character from a previous season. And you wouldn’t have a level 1 player playing with a level 5-6 player. You’d run a separate table for those who are experienced players and who want to run adventure at the higher level.

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