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.
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.
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.
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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