As we say goodbye to another season of D&D Encounters we reflect and discus what we liked and did not like about season 12. I’ll admit that I think Against the Cult of Chaos was one of the better seasons of D&D Encounters we’ve had so far. I do have some criticisms, but in the grand scheme of things I think the good far outweighs the bad. Review my list and let me know your thoughts on D&D Encounters: Against the Cult of Chaos as a whole in the comments below.
I loved, loved, loved the fact that the players drove the story this season and got to pick which order to do the mini quests. Everyone had the same encounter in week 1 and week 8, but the six weeks in between could happen in any order and from what I saw and heard they certainly did. One of the complaints I’ve had about previous seasons (even the ones I really liked) was that they railroaded the PCs. I’ve always accepted that this was just a consequence of the way D&D Encounters worked. This season disproved that theory.
Too many players feel that their magic items are what define their PCs. In an adventure where there are practically no magic items you don’t have this problem. Characters are developed based on their personality, skills and powers. He’s not the Wizard with a magic wand; he’s the arrogant Wizard who won’t take crap from anyone. The removal of magic and the continued use of inherent bonuses meant that the power level was balanced and the PCs weren’t hung up on material rewards. It also emphasized the importance of the three magical artifacts once discovered. When new players are just learning D&D going no magic or low magic is certainly a good idea as it reinforces the need for strong character development.
This season the encounters made great use of minions. There were a lot, but not too many. The encounter at the Caves of Chaos where the hoards of minions tried to overwhelm the PCs was my favourite to run and play this season. The minion archers presented a real danger at the Moat House forced PCs to think tactically. The crowded encounter in the Golden Grain Inn’s cellar showed how easily a few carefully placed minions could overwhelm a party without a controller. When used right minions can add a new level of excitement to any encounter and this season they did that every time.
No Dragons, No Drow, Very Few Undead
In almost every season of D&D Encounters the PCs face a Dragon. I realize that the game is called Dungeons & Dragons but that doesn’t mean that you have to face one every season, especially an encounter that’s designed for level 1-3 PCs. I was glad that we didn’t see this cliché this season. After three consecutive seasons of fighting Drow I was glad to not see any Drow except those in the party. Don’t get me wrong, I like Drow a lot, but I needed a rest. Finally there’s undead. After skipping Dragons and Drow I knew that there had to be some undead in there this season. There were a few – the Wraith in the lake, and the zombies and Haffron Hommel’s Skeleton in the final encounter. This was a perfect amount of undead, two of eight encounters. In both encounter the undead enemies were not the big bad guys, rather they were part of the supporting cast. This was perfect use of the often overused undead go-to for most DMs.
Pacing and Progress
I really like that D&D Encounters is sticking with an eight week format. This is just long enough to have a decent adventure, but short enough that you don’t get bored with the characters or the setting. Even if you don’t really like the adventure you’re likely to tough it out if you know it’s only eight weeks. With the short seasons I like that the PCs advance quickly from level 1-3. At the end of week 3 and week 6 the PCs level up. This helps new players see that the more they play, the more their characters will develop and the more choice they have in how that PC develops based on the decisions they make.
This season there was something for everyone. The encounters were tough most weeks, but if your party had representation for all four roles (controller, defender, leader, striker) you had a much greater chance of success than a party without one or more of these present. Over the eight weeks there were encounters that let each role shine at least once. One of my groups learned the hard way that controllers make fighting minions a hell of a lot easier. Another group learned that many strikers can’t make up for one good leader and as a result saw a lot of character deaths this season.
For the first time ever players could use D&D 4e or D&D Next mechanics at D&D Encounters. You still needed a copy of the printed adventure to run things but a conversion kit was available for download from the Wizard of the Coast website. Although none of the tables at my FLGS decided to run D&D Next I’ve heard a lot of very positive recounts of groups who tried it and loved it. I’ve also heard that it’s drawn in new players who were not wild about 4e but are interested in giving D&D Next a try.
Homage to the Classics
This was very close to being on the Good side but in the end I had to put it here. I liked that this season drew elements from some classic adventures (Village of Hommlet, Keep on the Borderlands, Against the Reptile God), but I’m not sure if it worked as well as intended. In order to smush aspects from these three adventures together it made some of the threats to the town seem forced and almost out of place. I think this might have worked better if they’d only used two rather than three modules or if the season was a few weeks longer. It just felt like too much was getting shoved into the limited time and space.
It was a nice change to have a central location that the PCs could return to at the end of each week. The village of Hommel Lane (a close mirror of the classic Hommlet) was interesting and full of colourful characters. The description for each building talked about who resided there and gave us a bit about their personal story. This is exactly what I’d expect if I was running this for a home campaign and it was nice to have for Encounters. The problem was that there was way too much detail for newer players to absorb. I think my groups only visited about ¼ of the buildings and when there didn’t really get a lasting impression of who all the people were. As much as I dislike running an NPC who’s basically the DM’s character, perhaps a guide or some other notable NPC who could offer suggestions and fill in some of the blanks might have helped struggling players figure out what to do and where to go.
Same Old Party
At my FLGS I encourage players to bounce from table to table. It lets everyone get to know the other players and it lets them see other characters in action. This season bouncing around was not possible. With the non-linear story everyone tackled the events in a different order. If someone decided to change tables they may find that their PC has been to the Caves of Chaos while the rest of the table has been to the cavern of the Reptile God. This could mean that some PCs do the same encounter twice and miss an encounter all together. So for this season, for better or worse, once the PCs formed an adventuring party they were stuck with that group.
The maps look great and they always do for D&D Encounters. However, this season some of the maps were too small. If you have two double sided poster maps and you have eight encounters each map can be one half of one side of the poster. The Moat House took up one full side of a poster. It looked fantastic (and will be used again for my home games for sure), but it means that two maps had to be squished onto one half of one side (each getting a quarter of the side. This meant that the cellar encounter and the Caves of Chaos were pretty cramped. It made sense for the cellar, but for the caves it did not. To resolve this issue I would have provided a third poster map. On one side I’d have included a larger map for the Caves of Chaos and maybe a floor plan for the Golden Grain Inn. On the other side I’d have included a full map of Hommel Lane. Considering how much time the PCs spent in town this would have been a really nice gesture. Instead I had to copy the map from the book and provide it as a handout. (This is a very minor nit pick overall, I’ll give you that, but it did bother me and players mentioned it as well which is why I included it on the list).
Bad for New DMs
The D&D Encounters program is intended to draw in new players. The running joke is that it’s the gateway drug that hooks new players on to D&D. They see you playing at the FLGS, join in, have fun, and keep coming back. Hopefully they enjoy their experiences enough that they want to play at home with their friends which lead them to purchase books and a DDI subscription. Likewise D&D Encounters is a place for newer players to try their hand at being the DM. Whether they want to run a full season or just fill in when needed it’s a forgiving environment where they can learn from more experience players and fellow DMs.
From the players’ side of things this season did a pretty good job. Many people commented that this season felt the most like old-school D&D than any others before it. However, the non-linear nature of the adventure (which I loved) made it tough to shift people around when new players showed up (something we already talked about above).
Where it was really problematic was when we needed to expand and start a new table. The way this season’s adventure was set up made it almost impossible for a brand new DM to step in and run things. This was not an adventure conducive for a DM to run that week’s encounter after a quick read. The DM needed to invest some serious time reading the whole adventure cover to cover so that he could get a better sense of what’s going on and how to run that week’s encounter. Needless to say anyone looking to become a DM this time around either signed on for the whole season or not at all.
Overall I really liked this season. I can’t emphasize enough how big a success the non-linear story telling was. We had a lot of new players this season and that was the #1 thing they kept commenting on. They thought it was great that what they did at table 1 was different than what their friends did at table 2, and by the end they all saw how the pieces fell into place. The players enjoyed having freedom to explore where they wanted when they wanted (even though at first they were a bit apprehensive and confused at the prospect).
I think that Wizards is doing a great job of trying something new every season and I hope to see more experimentation in the program (next season we get to play characters from level 3-6). I think they also scored big by providing D&D Next conversion kits. I’m sure more and more groups will start using them in the seasons to come.
Against the Cult of Chaos 9 on a d10.
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. Also be sure to check out our special episode of Recounting Encounters in which we interviewed one of this season’s authors Shawn Merwin.
- Recounting Encounters Season 12: An Interview with Shawn Merwin
Follow Shawn Merwin on Twitter @shawnmerwin.
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.