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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.