Last 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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.