D&D Encounters: Council of Spiders – Report Card

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 25, 2012

I don’t think it’s fair to say that this was the worst season of D&D Encounters, but it’s the one I’m most happy to leave behind. There’s not any one reason that I can point to and say that’s what I didn’t like; rather it was a bunch of little things that all came together at once.

As I’ve done after most seasons of D&D Encounters, I’m going to share my thoughts on what I did and didn’t like about the season that was. This is not an exhaustive list, but it does cover the things that topped the list on both sides of the scales (in my opinion). After reading my take I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments below.

The Good

I usually end up spending more time talking about what I didn’t like rather than what I did like. My intent is not to just go off on a rant and bash the adventure. I think it’s important to highlight what I thought worked well and highlight what I enjoyed this season.

Let’s play Drow

This season was designed to appeal to anyone who enjoys reading about Drow or playing Drow characters. One of the most intriguing things about Drow is the never-ending scheming that happens in a society built on chaos. The politics and the back-stabbing make for great stories. However, it’s difficult to emulate these things in an adventure. D&D is built on the foundation of a party working together in relative harmony to accomplish some greater goal. With Drow this is uncharacteristic. They will kill their own siblings if there is something to be gained from doing so. Yet Wizards decided to roll the dice and put out a Drow adventure. For that I applaud them.

Some people were frustrated or even angry that they had to play Drow or one of the slave races this season. I actually thought this was a selling feature and I’m putting it solidly in the “Good” column. I wasn’t necessarily wild about the fact that everyone was likely to be playing evil character as a result, but that’s part and parcel of playing Drow. I thought it was fun to play the bad guys for once. It’s an experiment that I was glad to try once but not something that I’d want to do again with D&D Encounters.

Conflicting and competing goals

When you play Drow you have different agendas at work. Again this is part and parcel of playing Drow characters in the heart of Drow society. I liked that there were three different Drow factions working together (temporarily) to accomplish a common goal. I really liked that players received different secret objectives depending on which group they were aligned with. Unfortunately one of my parties decided to all be part of the same group which eliminated a lot of potential conflict and role-playing, but that’s always a possibility with this kind of set up. The secret goals added a little bit of extra flavour to each chapter and it was in completing these objectives that I saw some of the most creativity and best role-playing.

Short is good

This is the first time ever that the PCs didn’t run out of healing surges before the end of a chapter. That’s always been a problem for D&D Encounter and this season they finally got it right; or at least did a better job of it. The longest chapter had three combat encounters. I would have preferred four, but I’d rather go under than over in this kind of adventure. In my mind an eight week season should be two chapters long with four encounters in each. Resource management is difficult for newer players so the short chapters let them expend everything they’ve got early and not suffer the harsh consequences (like a TPK) because of it.

The Bad

Too much going on

This was not a good season for brand new players. The D&D Encounters program is intended to be a gateway for new people to experience D&D at the FLGS and hopefully from there start playing at home. This season was complicated and difficult. It certainly offered more rewards to the experienced players who craved it, but I felt it moved a little bit too far away from its primary goal than it should have.

Again it wasn’t any one thing that was a problem as much as a lot of little things. For example the Drow have complicated names. This made it difficult for players to remember who was who. Each group seemed to have their own agenda (which I liked) but it was again complicated for some players to keep the details straight. In previous seasons the story was very linear with a clear objective. This season’s adventure seemed to suffer from this lack of focus. By the time the PCs had a clear villain to fight in the final two encounters they had lost interest and just wanted it to be over. Although the players might recognize Valan from last season their character wouldn’t. It seemed like a waste of a reoccurring villain.

Tough to DM

Normally a DM can pick up the adventure, read it over and an hour later run it cold. This is one of the great things about D&D Encounters. It supposed to be easy. This season it was tough to be the DM; more so than any season I can recall. There was an expectation that the DM had a knowledge–base that a lot of DM did not have. If you’d read the Drow novels or the new Menzoberranzan: City of Intrigue book you were probably in good shape, otherwise forget it, you were probably lost. And when the DM is lost the players don’t stand a chance of putting all the pieces together correctly. I think this is why so many players were so glad when the season was over.

Jaezred Chaulssin, really?

When the PCs rescued Hoshtar Xorlarrin in week 5 they came face to face with a mysterious Assassin. If they didn’t kill him they could talk to him and learn about yet another power group trying to put their fingers in the pie, Jaezred Chaulssin. First of all I’m willing to bet most groups did what my groups did and killed the Assassin as soon as they realized he was an enemy. Secondly who is this group he works with and why am I even interested in them? It seemed like a really unnecessary level of complexity that didn’t add anything of value to the story (or at least the story as the PCs understood it).

Worth and Treachery Cards

I really couldn’t decide if this should be in the “Good” or “Bad” section. In the end I opted for bad in this context. The Worth mechanic is interesting and really helps players figure out how to behave in Drow situations. The idea that your in-game actions will have consequences is great and I really wish we’d have seen something like this sooner. However, I don’t think it was a good thing to use during public-play. Since the only way to earn Worth quickly was to use Treachery Cards it encouraged a lot of players to buy and use the cards. In a home game I can see these cards being very useful. But when the players don’t know one another it comes off as more player vs. player rather than character vs. character. We had a lot of bitterness and table fighting among players this season and it was mostly due to using these cards to screw over another PC. It made for an overall negative experience for a lot of new players which is why I decided to put this in the bad column.

The Ugly

The week 6 experiment (or the all role-playing session)

I’m all for trying new things with D&D Encounters. I really applaud the attempt during week 6 to have a session that’s entirely role-playing. But I don’t think it worked. I know the some groups did have fun with this session and the DM made it work, but the overwhelming majority of what I read on the blogs and forums was negative. At my FLGS the sessions were short and confusing.

I think that if the adventure were played in one sitting, start to finish, this session would work a lot better. For this to work better the PCs needed to have a firm knowledge of the power players in Menzoberranzan, the factions at conflict, the options before them, and the likely consequences. Too many of the players in my FLGS didn’t know and didn’t care. They were willing to try to role-play but they felt lost. They didn’t feel that they had enough background or a clear enough understanding to handle the encounter successfully. A lot of time and effort was put into making aids that were posted on the forums. These handouts certainly helped but they really shouldn’t have been necessary.

Conclusion

Although I really liked the last two encounters mechanically, I felt that the actual ending of the adventure was a real bummer. The PCs defeated Valan and that was it. There was a little blurb that basically said things returned to normal. Given that the city was on the verge of a civil war the ending was less of a bang and more of a whimper. I didn’t necessarily want another encounter but I would have liked a bit more detail that I could have shared with the payers. The best way I can think to describe the ending was rushed. It’s like there was supposed to be two more pages but they got cut at the last second.

What If?

Now that I’ve had my rant I feel it’s my responsibility to offer some constructive criticism. If I was going to run this adventure again this is how I might do things differently.

For starters I’ve restructure the encounters. The whole second chapter seemed like filler. I would combine the week 4 and week 5 encounters into one. I’d remove the week 6 encounter all together. And then I’d play weeks 7 and 8 as part of chapter 2. This would bring the adventure down to six encounters, which I think would be fine.

One of the things that really bothered me throughout the entire season was the fact that the PCs were a) working together at all, and b) asked for their opinion by the faction leaders. The PCs are lowly adventurers. The males especially are not important in Drow society. Who cares what they think? Now what if at the very beginning Ash’ala Melarn explains to the group that Lolth’s priestesses have all been seeing a possible future in which a rag-tag group of Drow allies working together stop the city from plunging into civil war. They don’t have to acknowledge that the PCs are the Drow in question but by eluding to it the PCs realize that they could be the ones. This would explain why senior Drow leaders would even ask for the PCs’ opinion on anything.

Final Thoughts

Overall I applaud Wizards for trying new things with this season’s adventure. Having the players play the villainous Drow was a great idea. Although a lot of players just wanted the Drow theme to end, many (including me) loved the chance to run an all-Drow campaign. The use of Worth to help guide role-playing is a good concept, but not right for D&D Encounters. The week 6 session was a huge gamble that unfortunately didn’t pay off for many groups. Despite my love of all things Drow I can’t give this season a stellar score. It had its ups and downs but in the end it had too many problems.

Council of Spiders: 5 on a d10.

I’d like to thank Harry Tarantula North in North York and Dueling Grounds in Toronto for hosting D&D Encounters every week. If not for their support we wouldn’t have a place to play or the material needed to run the games. Remember that your FLGS doesn’t make any money for hosting D&D Encounters. So the next time you need a gaming resource be sure to purchase it from your FLGS as a way to thank them for supporting the D&D Encounters program.

What were your thoughts on the season as a whole? Did you love it, hate it or fall somewhere in-between? What were your good, bad and ugly highlights? What suggestions or feedback would you give Wizards and the author?

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 Ocampo October 25, 2012 at 9:58 am

I’m kind of deep in drow lore and have read most of the books, so Jaezred Chaulssin was not unknown to me and knew how to make them look dangerous. As for Valan, I modified the adventure so he would get more screen time.

As for drow culture, there’s a huge mistake in one of Hoshtar Xorlarrin’s lines: he calls the adventurers “friends”. Really? A Menzoberranzan DROW other than Drizzt and Jarlaxle using that word?

2 Joe October 25, 2012 at 11:27 am

I agree with everything you’ve said, Ameron.

In addition, I felt like more forethought would have helped. For instance, several of our players were not interested in playing Drow, so they played slaves. Yet there was nothing written for how the Drow leaders might alter their interactions if dealing with slaves. Same thing with the WORTH thing… we didn’t think it made sense for slaves to be able to gain worth, but there it was.

It would have been nice if WORTH was used more effectively, too. Sure, it’s a great way to sell cards, but what about having adventure consequences for high or low worth? All tables at my store pretty much hated the Treachery cards, groaning whenever the couple of players who used them would whip them out. It wasn’t clever backstabbing, it was just mechanical problems in the middle of fights they weren’t too excited about anyway.

I liked the idea of faction goals, but too many felt like they were complementary. If they’d really wanted to spawn drow-like treachery and backstabbing, they could have made the goals directly in opposition of one another.

As for Drow society, no matter how many books I read on the subject, I still don’t think it makes any logical sense that the Drow culture hasn’t imploded. As a DM, I did my best to convey what I could of life in Menzoberranzan to the players, but nobody understood why they didn’t all make a run for the surface. Also the names… I ended up changing most of them or using euphemisms to make remembering everyone easier, and even then I had to do white board flow charts to explain situations so folks could feel mildly competent in the no-combat session.

In the end, though, our biggest problem was that nobody felt like Heroes. Nobody felt motivated to do any of the adventures, and even the “villains” they fought often had more in common with PCs than their House leader handlers (who were also villains) did. We had new players walk out as a result of this season, and one of our long-term DMs stepped down in disgust, which seems like the opposite of what the Encounters goal is.

But we move on, and everyone is super excited about the chance to play heroes with many options in the next season as they fight AGAINST the Spider Queen.

3 John October 25, 2012 at 11:31 am

Unfortunately my store did not run any of the previous seasons of Encounters. We are now running War of Everlasting Darkness and being the third and final chapter in the Drow saga it would have been nice to see how the whole story played out.

4 Paik the Kenku Monk October 25, 2012 at 12:26 pm

I both played and DM’ed this season. As a player I enjoyed the Treachery Cards and played them every session, as a DM I agree that Week 6 was a waste and I just didn’t do it after the poor results and negative feedback with our other group (they were a week ahead). Some encounters seemed simple and easy (don’t think the DM upped the character levels for extra players), no one was really hurt or almost dead this entire Encounters season (except some noobs). I personally never even came close to death, bloodied yes but never unconscious, death saves etc…

Loved the drow setting and yes the names are very hard to say. I had more success since I have read as much drow lit as I can and have the new Menzo book as well as the 1990′s box set to help. WOTC should have had a pronunciation key (Men-zo-berr-an-zan) to help with the difficult names etc…it sounded sloppy when we couldn’t pronounce the names right.

I agree with the 5/10 rating.

5 dude October 25, 2012 at 1:01 pm

this was an awful encounter for new people to pop in and try DnD. they were limited by race, had to try and understand the drow and the worth system. then they had experience players screwing them over with treachery cards during the game. not a great encounter to get new people into the game. and to many players forgot its a cooperative game and messed with each other not finishing the missions or goals, i had way to many TPK for a GM. i am so sick of drow and cloud of darkness!!!
we stated the new encounter and i had to inform players no treachery cards and i had to keep reminding them its a cooperative game, work together and stop fighting each other, they are not Drow in the old encounters. so glad to be done with it!!!

6 Ocampo October 25, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Just noting many drow name pronuntiations are just like Spanish.

7 Church of Shar October 25, 2012 at 5:25 pm

I really enjoyed the introduction of the Jaezred Chaulssin into the plot. I’m a HUGE Realms fan, and was already familiar with them so that probably helped, but regardless, I wouldn’t want them removed for reasons of complexity. Similar to Bregan D’aerthe, or partilcular house names. Bits like that which tie into the larger world of fiction really bring the game home for me. The people in my group who hadn’t heard of them didn’t seem bothered, other than a few pronunciation problems (IMO a DM should review material and decide on a pronunciation she/he will use prior to the session, kind of slows it down when they start tripping over words – but that’s another topic). If anything they could have toned down the plot thickness for Encounters, but in a normal game a DM might have had more time to expand on the lore.

I do agree that a city such as Menzoberranzan can be overly complicated for new players or anyone unfamiliar with the culture. I’m actually a returning player, relearning the game from scratch almost, but as I’ve been at the novels for the past 25 years without much of a break, the set and setting was a place I’ve visited often.

As for an above comment on no Player Deaths. Three of us went down in the last fight and one barely escaped. It was awesome! We had some RP treachery going on in the end, we went ‘full Drow’ (Tropic Thunder reference, dig it), and some infighting did occur.

Excited about the next season! And cool seeing the North York, Toronto shops mentioned.. I too am a Tdot gamer :D

8 anarkeith October 25, 2012 at 9:13 pm

Good analysis. In general I agree with much of what you had to say. Most of my table of regulars was excited by the prospects of the season. Unfortunately, a couple of them weren’t particularly successful separating character from player, and the conflict (though fairly contained) was somewhat disruptive in the last few sessions.

I did not understand the need for the Ylochol demon. O found it a contrived method to engage the players at the end. Instead, I had the Melarn priestess and Valan do the calling out of the players through dialog in and around the last two combat encounters.

My players represented House Melarn or the Bregan D’aerth exclusively, so it was easier to connect their motives with those of the NPCs. The alteration was mildly successful, IMO.

9 The Gimper October 26, 2012 at 9:47 pm

Great analysis. It was an interesting experiment, but in the end the results were mediocre. It didn’t have to be this way. As you noted, it needed much more background supporting material for the players (and the DMs). One of the biggest problems I ran into was trying to determine which is more important in social interractions — Female/Priestess or House ranking.

And I would have liked it more if the individual house/faction goals actually made a difference in the rest of the adventure. As it stood, the characters would accomplish them and report back the results, and then “So what?” Nothing ever came of it. Bregan D’aerte members planted evidence that would implicate House Melarn in the attack on the Council of Spiders. And…? House Melarn members found out that Hoshtar Xorlarrin met willingly with the Council of Spiders. And…? If you’re going to have the characters do things like that, make their actions actually matter.

When I ran Web of the Spider Queen last season, from the way it ended, I was hoping that Valan Jaelre would make another appearance (if he didn’t it would make the ending of that season completely unsatisfying). So, initially I was very happy to see him return this season. But again, as you pointed out, although some of the players may have remembered him, their characters certainly wouldn’t. So it really cheapend both seasons. It would have been better to tie the characters together for both seasons. Also, since the final encounter at my table resulted in a TPK (actually there was betrayal within the party) so as it stood, Valan succeeded, and I had to totally alter the ending. So Menzoberranzan is still on the brink of civil war (actually it’s much more likely to happen now).

10 Andrew October 28, 2012 at 7:23 pm

My most relevant observation came during the Week 6 encounter. I had a few new people show up and they just looked blankly the entire time. This is an event meant to introduce new people to the game and instead they are subjected to an hour and a half of names and words that they have no knowledge of. It was a bold idea but I don’t really think it worked out very well at all.

I think, amongst the 12+ people we regularly have, only one or two had any real knowledge of Drow Forgotten Realms lore. They were excited by all of the details and whatnot, but most poeple had the same feeling as they did with the Crystal Cave season: lots of names to remember every week with not a lot of payoff in the end.
Andrew´s last blog post ..Dungeon Mastering: Scoring the Scene

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