D&D Encounters: War of Everlasting Darkness – Report Card

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 27, 2012

war-of-everlasting-darkness-coverLast week we completed season 11 of D&D Encounters: War of Everlasting Darkness. It was a short season running only 8 weeks (9 if you count the week 0), but it was jam packed full of stuff. In my opinion this was one of the best seasons so far, but that’s not to say it didn’t have some challenges. Today I provide the good folks at Wizards of the Coast with my report card for season 11. I share what I liked about this season and what I didn’t like. I try to be honest and provide constructive criticism.

I’ve provided report cards for many of the previous seasons and they usually follow a certain format: I start with the good, move on to the bad, and finish with the ugly. This season I decided to change things up a bit. I realized that for most of the things I wanted to talk about there was a good and bad side to it depending on your perspective. So with that in mind I’ve hit on a variety of topics and shared what I felt was the good and bad for each. After you’ve read through my assessment of War of Everlasting Darkness I encourage you to share your feedback in the comments section below.

An adventure each week

Good

I really liked that each week was a full-on mini-adventure. It felt more like a real campaign. In previous seasons each week was literally one encounter. In many cases it was just a combat encounter at that. The players showed up, sat down, killed monsters, collected loot, and went home. This season the players got a better sense of what D&D has to offer. There were plenty of rich role-playing opportunities that drove most of the early sessions. There were a few traps and some puzzles along the way as well. It was a lot more than straight-up combat which for me was a huge plus.

Bad

In order for each week to actually have a beginning, middle and end it needed to be long. In the past we’d complete weekly sessions in about an hour. This season some sessions went three hours or more. Although I liked that the sessions went longer, it was a big change for the D&D Encounters program and many players didn’t like it. I know that at some FLGS they usually run more than one session each night and with them running so long that was all but impossible.

Eliminating the resting

Good

For the overall adventure to have the broader story implications that were promised with the Rise of the Underdark story arc, the adventure as a whole needed to take place over a longer in-game time-frame and over vast in-game geographic region. In order for the PCs to be involved in this kind of adventure each weekly session had to take place over more than one day. But with 4e D&D the PCs get an extended rest at the end of each day. The compromise was to say that no matter how much stuff was covered during a weekly session, no matter how much time passed, PCs could not gain the benefits of a short or extended rest until the end of that week’s session. Adjusting the normal rules brought better balance to each weekly session that would have otherwise been completely lost.

Bad

I completely understand why the creators did this and I for one thought it was a bold test that worked great. However, a lot of players were angry and bitter that the rules as they knew them were so blatantly thrown out the window. I know that at the two FLGS where I play there were some players that really felt cheated for the first few sessions. Eventually most players came around and accepted that this was a change needed for the adventure to work, but it didn’t sit will with everyone which was unfortunate.

Leveling up every week

Good

For 10 seasons players have complained that they only get to level 3 by the end of the adventure. Low level play gets boring and anyone who’s come out for more than a season or two is ready for more advanced play. This season their wish was granted. By the end of the season the PCs reached level 8. We finally got a chance to see PCs advance past level 3.

Bad

There were two big down sides to leveling up every week. First it made it a lot more difficult for new players. Normally if a brand new player walked in at any point of the adventure you could insert them into the game with minimal prep. After all, even a level 3 character isn’t really that complicated compared to a level 1 character. But with PCs reaching up to level 8, it made it tougher as each week passed to throw a brand new player who had never played D&D before into the adventure. By about the halfway point the story and the characters had advanced to a point that actually prohibited new players, the opposite intent of the D&D Encounter program.

The second down side was that players didn’t really have a lot of time to get to know their PC at any given level before it was time to level up again. This slowed things down as the game moved into higher level play. With more powers to choose from, it took players longer to decide what they wanted to do on their turn. If they’d had time to play their PC at each level more than once they’d get to understand the PC better and know what each new power did before they got another one. This wasn’t as big a deal for more experienced players, but for those who only know D&D through D&D Encounters it was a big challenge.

The maps

Good

Once again I’ll tout the fantastic maps that were provided with this season of D&D Encounters. They look great and are generic enough that DMs can easily use them in their home campaigns after this season ends. The map that was used for the final week 8 encounter was one of the most interesting maps I’ve seen for a D&D Encounters session so far.

Bad

The generic aspects to these maps that make them versatile also make them less interesting. In previous sessions of D&D Encounters each week had a very specific map that was unique for that encounter. This season there was a possibility of multiple fights each week so it would have been impossible to provide different maps for every possible combat encounter. Yet when there was combat it was often left to the DM to decide which map to use, where to place monsters, and how to describe the terrain. As an experienced DM I found this annoying at times, but not a huge obstacle. For rookie DMs it was practically a road block. D&D Encounters needs to assume that some DMs are new to DMing and need a little bit more hand holding. The experienced DMs find it helpful as well.

Elements of D&D Next

Good

I think it’s fair to say that a lot if not most people who currently play D&D will switch to the new version once it’s officially launched. I know that’s how my group works. When a new edition is released we switch to it. So giving current 4e players a chance to get a taste of what’s to come was certainly a good move by Wizards. It was still 4e but it had a D&D Next feel to it. I particularity liked the idea of quick combat against one opponent or just a few minions that didn’t really require a map. I also liked the extended aspects of exploration and social interaction that we didn’t seem to get as much of with 4e.

Bad

D&D Next is still in play-testing which means it’s still got some bugs. For those people who like 4e and want to keep playing 4e, it’s not fair to shove the new system on them until it’s ready. Those who want to play-test have signed up to do so; those who want to keep playing 4e a come out Wednesday nights for D&D Encounters. There are some players who are just getting into D&D and it’s tough enough for them to get a handle on 4e. By combining some D&D Next elements into this season newer players were confused and I fear experienced a less positive experience of D&D than they would have if it was completely 4e.

The rest of the good

Defending Nesmé

When I first read through this adventure week 6 jumped out at me as something special. It introduced the Battle Value mechanic and had the PCs working along side the people of Nesmé to help defend the town from a band of Trolls. I ran this session once and played it once and I was blown away both times. This was one of the most fun sessions of D&D Encounters I ever played. Because there was so much going on it really gave all the players a chance to do something that their PC was good at. The session began with a challenging combat and ended with another one. By bookending the night with two great fights it really got everyone excited. I applaud Wizards for trying this new idea and implementing it so successfully.

Choices

In some of the previous D&D Encounters seasons the PCs were forced to take certain actions week after week to get them from point A to point B. Although a certain amount of this is necessary with a printed adventure, this season provided a lot of opportunities for the players to make their own decisions and live with the consequences. In more than one session the PCs had to make some clear decisions about who to trust, what to say, and which route to take. Each time they made one of thee choices there were consequences that the PCs had to live with. Some of the newer players found it bewildering that they had such freedom, but I think it was good to let them know that this is how many D&D home games work.

The final fight

What an ending! After week 6 I was worried that the remaining two sessions would be a let down. Although week 7 struggled to follow a week where the bar was set so high, week 8 easily met the same standard as week 6. This final combat was so interesting. It wasn’t just a boring run-of-the-mill fight; it was a fluid battle where the stakes could change each round. There were traps, puzzles, banes and boons. Just because the PCs were level 8 didn’t mean they were ensured a victory, and at my FLGS we had a number of PCs die in the process. Everyone who played this encounter agreed that it was their favourite and made a great ending for a great season of D&D Encounters.

The rest of the bad

No treasure

With PCs leveling up each week it would have been next to impossible to award treasure fast enough to ensure they had level appropriate gear after each session. Instead all PCs used the inherent bonus system to keep the power level balanced. Mechanically this worked, but players didn’t like it. Magic items are a big part of D&D and this season there really weren’t any. Sure the PCs could collect the six items of light but these weren’t really seen as random treasure. Where were the +1 swords, the +1 suits of armor and all those fun miscellaneous items? Without them the adventure certainly felt naked. Even the lack of potions seemed odd. I know that in my game I awarded a lot of random potions each week. I know that some other DMs gave random magic items out each week that were not weapons, armor, or neck items just to add some flavour to the encounters. In retrospect I wish I’d have done that too.

Final Thoughts

All in all I really liked this adventure. I thought it was fantastic. Having played or run every season of D&D encounters I must admit that this was my absolute favourite. Sure there were a few flaws, but the good so heavily outweighed the bad in my opinion that I was willing to forgive these small imperfections.

For 11 straight seasons I’ve come out to my FLGS every Wednesday night to play D&D. As the DM I don’t get paid, nor do I get any other compensation besides getting to keep the adventure. I do it because it’s a labour of love. I enjoy playing D&D so I volunteer my time to as the DM. Over the last few seasons I’ve been on the verge of burn out, but this season charged me up. From the first time I read through the adventure I knew this was going to be something special. It was new, it was bold, it was daring. It reinvigorated my desire to keep coming out Wednesday nights to play D&D. Bravo to Shawn, Steve and James for putting together such a great adventure.

War of Everlasting Darkness: 10 on a d10

Now that you’ve read my thoughts on this season, what do you think? Do you agree with my assessment? What do you disagree with? Did I miss anything obvious that you think was particularly good or bad?

I’d like to thank Harry Tarantula North in North York and Silver Snail in downtown 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.

Recounting Encounters Podcast

Recounting Encounters is a weekly podcast I record with Marc Talbot (Alton) from 20ft Radius in which we recount that week’s experiences with D&D Encounters. We share the highlights from our respective FLGS and we talk about what worked, what didn’t and what we might have done differently. Find all episodes of Recounting Encounters on iTunes under 20ft Radius.

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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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe Lastowski December 27, 2012 at 10:35 am

Great summary, Derek. I agree with all that you’ve said.

In addition…
TIMING
Not only were the longer sessions something that prevented second sessions in a night, but for many of our players, the length prohibited them from playing each session. For years, the program has had sessions that lasted 1-2 hours. The players at our FLGS include kids with homework to do and school the next morning, and/or who had parents arriving 2 hours later to give them rides home. In addition we have adults who need to get home to cook dinner and who have work early the next morning. On the really long sessions, I was the first DM of our 3-4 tables to finish, and that was only with heavy changing of the encounter to throw in deus ex machinas and other devices to let things finish in at least 3 hours. The D&D Encounters program will be much better served if it advertises a particular time frame of play and sticks to it.

LEVELING EACH WEEK
In addition to what you’ve mentioned, we ran into printing & paperwork issues. In the past, our FLGS has allowed players to use the store printer to print out characters from their DDI character builder accounts. This season, however, the cost of ink & paper was prohibitive (20-25 players times 6 sheets per printing times 8 weeks = LOTS). Our store had to implement a per-page printing cost to allow players to still use the printer without losing tons of money. Given all that brick and mortar locations do for D&D as a whole, I think consideration of issues like this would be something that Wizards could do to show their appreciation for the folks playing (and selling) D&D “on the front lines”, as it were.

We also ran into trouble with folks who didn’t have DDI accounts, or who only had access to the books when they came to the store. The first half hour of each session was often spent helping these players find powers and feats and go through the process of leveling-up. This added to our time woes frequently.

CHOICES
While I loved that there were big choices that had massive effects on what happened, as a DM with several brand new (or newish) players, I often found that folks felt lost. I found myself throwing in many hints and guiding NPCs to help move things along, so that the already lengthy sessions wouldn’t wear on impossibly long.

NESME
It can’t be said enough: that was the funnest session ever. When you can combine D&D with Seven Samurai, what more can one ask for?

TREASURE
Every table at our store ran into trouble with treasure. We all agreed ahead of time that players would feel really cheated if they got nothing treasure-wise. Some DMs created their own random treasure tables. Others gave out level-appropriate gold each week (though this created the problem of letting players waste more time at the start of each week searching for items to buy). In the end, it worked out, but it was another wrench thrown in the works.

AXELCRANTZ
While having a timelord-like NPC who knows exactly what to do was a handy plot device (and super fun to act out in a Matt Smith voice), having him come along yet be unable to do anything ever was harder and harder to explain, and made it more and more obvious that Axelcrantz was just that: a simple plot device.

FINAL WORDS
It sounds like I’ve complained a lot. That doesn’t mean that I disliked this season at all. Quite the contrary, actually. This season was the most fun I’ve had DMing organized play in a very long while. More than anything else, this season turned the PCs into HEROES again, which is really the most iconic D&D thing there is. Sure, I may not be a fan of the direction NEXT seems to be going, but seasons like this are an attempt to get as much mileage out of 4e as possible, and I appreciate the risks that were taken to try and revive enthusiasm for the game in general. I can’t wait for next season.

(BTW: What are folks planning on doing for January while we wait for the next season in February? Our FLGS is running open tables with various shorter printed adventures or self-made mini quests)

2 Mearls December 27, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Thanks for the review! We knew we were taking some risks with this season, and will be learning everything we can to keep Encounters interesting and fun.

3 Stephanie December 27, 2012 at 6:33 pm

I concur with a lot of what you’ve said. I didn’t recognize until midway through the season that the treasure just wasn’t there– and it didn’t become a clear liability until the last session, when we really needed more potions of healing. As a player, I spent the limited gold I’d received in sessions 1-2 on potions for the party, but most of us just didn’t think of it.

For the paper issue, we made a rule that players could not print their characters at the store without making a significant contribution to the printer fund. And we said “but to get around that, you can use electronic character sheets,” a practice which we’d discouraged before because it gets cumbersome and distracting. Overall, this worked, and a number of players discovered KSheet was helpful for their characters.

When players arrived on-time but unprepared, we applied a flat bonus (if leveling to an even level) plus hp, or we said “OK, just play it where it is right now.”

We never had a problem with new players, and in fact had 2 newbies show up in the last session of the campaign.

Overall, this is my second favorite season (Neverwinter still wins), in large part because of the big changes to adventure design. Changes, I might add, which I was extremely skeptical of when the season started.

4 Cullen December 27, 2012 at 10:39 pm

I know that this might seem kind of random, but the talking about dnd “next” made me wonder,

Is there anyone else out there who still plays 3.5? My group and I like 3.5 a lot more, but I don’t really know anyone else who plays dnd, so we aren’t sure what the public opinion on 3.5 vs 4.0 is. Is there anyone out there who is still on 3.5? Or are we the only ones?

5 B.J. December 27, 2012 at 11:11 pm

Overall, I absolutely loved this season. This is the first season I have outright Dungeon Mastered Encounters the entire season. Here’s what I thought of the season…

INTERACTION/EXPLORATION/COMBAT
I loved the mixture of the “three pillars” of D&D. I’ve only been playing D&D for a year and a half. Most of my experience with 4e is roll initiative and fight, fight, fight! This mixed style of play was a revelation to me. It has changed how I approach building adventures as a DM. I thought this was a good thing to emphasize.

PACING
The pacing for this season was just right. Going along with the mix of the pillars, everything had good narrative flow. Everything seemed to fit and make sense.

TIME LENGTH
My major problem with this season was the amount of time each session took. While there was good narrative flow, the actual amount of time it took to lay things out was a bit sluggish due to the amount of content each week. I have several younger players who are in my group. I had a few antsy parents tapping their wristwatches and hovering around our table. Out of eight sessions, only two clocked at under two hours. Three session definitely hit the three-hour mark.

LEVEL 8 TOO RUSHED
Level 8 was a bit too much of a glass ceiling this season. New players never got a chance to learn their characters because they were always evolving. I mentioned this in the session 8 thread, but I had a slew of new players show up for the last session. Not just new to this season, but new to D&D. I could not in good conscience throw them to the wolves (or, er, the Drow). It was the culmination of three seasons worth of work at level 8 characters. It was too complex to catch them up, both in terms of story and use of character. I had a long-time member run through a basic level 1 encounter with them to show them the ropes. The entry level knowledge was too steep a cliff for them to climb.

6 Joe Lastowski December 28, 2012 at 7:58 am

Cullen, I know there are some folks who play straight D&D 3.5 still… but the largest community of 3.5 players out there play Pathfinder, a system which is based on 3.5 and I believe sells more units than 4.0 these days. While I prefer 4.0, I know plenty of folks who play both. If you’re looking for 3.5 games out there, try searching for “Pathfinder”.

The next season of Encounters season, Against the Cult of Chaos, will be a hybrid 4e & NEXT, reportedly with conversions done so that different tables can run different editions. I’ll be running 4e at my table, but I know we’ll have NEXT tables as well. That’s not scheduled to start until Feb 6, though… http://www.wizards.com/DnD/Article.aspx?x=dnd/4news/20121226#83480
Joe Lastowski´s last blog post ..Session 22: May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor…

7 Cent December 28, 2012 at 10:03 am

Does anyone know if there is an Encounters meeting happening next week? During our last session it was mentioned that we would be getting together on January 2 for the next season, but not sure if this was accurate.

8 Cent December 28, 2012 at 10:22 am

This was my third season of Encounters, and was far and away my favorite. All of our sessions ran long, but only because there was so much role-playing happening each night.

Likes:

Role-playing was put front and center this season, and renewed my enthusiasm for these Encounters.

Leveling past 3 was a huge plus. While it made managing the character more challenging, it also made the sense of accomplishment tangible.

Epic scale of this season was felt throughout and well realized at the end. Going into DnD Next, I know I’ll feel like I played some part in the world to come after the events of this Encounters season.

Lack of magic item drops was a good decision. With so many feats and powers being accumulated weekly, having to remember various weapon powers would have added another complication.

Session 6 was so well crafted. Just an outstanding evening of play that rivaled some of the better home campaigns I played back in the day.

Dislikes:

Session 7 was really flat. It played like two different sessions that had been sliced up and then crammed together into one for the sake of getting through the season before the holidays.

Depending on your class, there was a very distinct possibility that you wouldn’t ever use some or many of the powers and feats you obtained through leveling.

I hate to say that each session took too long, because I really enjoyed them all but session 7. However, I don’t think we ever made it out in under 2.5 hours. The last session ran over 3 hours and had to be rushed to conclusion.

Other thoughts:

I’m a 2e throwback, having missed 3 and 3.5 completely. What I’m hearing about the direction of Next has me very intrigued. We typically run 2 groups at our store, and I’m really hoping at least one of them is running with the Next rules so that I can take that system for a spin.

Great blog, Ameron. I very much enjoyed reading your thoughts and those of the commentators every week.

9 Joe Lastowski December 28, 2012 at 10:42 am

Cent, the next official season of Encounters doesn’t start until Feb 6 (I think stores can still sign up through Jan 6, but materials won’t be delivered for a while). Many stores are doing random in-between sessions to fill the month-long gap.

For instance, at Modern Myths in Northampton, MA, I’ve adapted Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan to be a less meat-grindery, more Encounters-like 5-week mission for level 7 PCs. Another DM will just be running shorter 1-shots from the Dungeon Delve book for lower-level PCs. A third DM, I believe, is running his own adventures during January. This break is a great chance to get in on DMing some shorter stuff, if you’ve had some adventures kicking around in your head that you wanted to run. Because you’ve got 5 Wednesdays in January, and a population of players who are ready to play, but with no stories to participate in. And if your FLGS likes what you do, and asks you to DM the actual Encounters seasons with them, you’ll get access to lots of cool maps every season (not that we’re all map-grubbing misers… but they are often very nice maps).

10 B.J. December 30, 2012 at 6:37 pm

For January, I’m doing the first-levels adventures in Dungeon Delve as an introduction to all the new players that showed up last week in lieu of our absentee Encounters program. I’m beefing up the three adventures in the book to make it a mini-campaign to introduce the rules.

11 Vobeskhan January 5, 2013 at 7:17 pm

This season overall has been both a pleasure and a pain to run. I have enjoyed the story arc and the feel of “an adventure a week” with the exploration/interaction/action style sessions, what I havent enjoyed is trying to defend the seemingly arbitrary rulings of no resting and poor treasure/monetary rewards to my players when asked why is no-one sleeping during what the text calls a four day hike. Telling them its part of the game mechanic for the season just became very hollow after the fourth or fifth time.

Perhaps, looking at the 3 seasons of the Rise of the Underdark overall, it may have been a better idea to spread the levelling up across the 3 seasons (though the middle season had its own issues requiring players to play “evil” drow rather than heroes per se).

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the people that work to create the Encounters program, from the scenario writers to the wpn staff that supply and organise the materials we use, all of which contribute to this great hobby in their own way.
Vobeskhan´s last blog post ..D&D Encounters Season 11 – War of Everlasting Darkness – session 8 and review

12 Steve Townshend January 10, 2013 at 6:30 pm

Late to the party as usual, but thanks very much for all your hard work and coverage, Ameron.

Shawn, James, and I had lots of fun working together on this one. I’m happy people seemed to enjoy the siege of Nesme. It was my favorite one to do.

13 ramanan January 21, 2013 at 2:04 pm

I was really happy with how this season played out. It was a refreshing change of pace. Great review, as always.
ramanan´s last blog post ..D&D Encounters: War of Everlasting Darkness

14 AlHazred January 24, 2013 at 11:16 am

For the interim, I’ve been running a 5E mini-campaign in the game store to get the other DMs used to the new system. Every single player at our store for the last season expressed the desire to play the next one in D&D Next, so I want to make sure we can cover our bases. I’m really stoked about the next season, since I’ve had upwards of thirty people ask me personally about it and express an interest in playing season 12.

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