Next week begins season 15 of D&D Encounters: Murder in Baldur’s Gate. August 14 is the week 0 character generation session, with things kicking off officially with the D&D Launch weekend event August 17-18. There are a lot of changes this time around, so read on for a preview of what to expect.
Today Dungeon’s Master welcomes our newest contributor, Joe Lastowski (a.k.a. The Average Joe). Joe has over 20 years of gaming experience and has participated in the public play program including D&D Encounters for many years now.
Normally I write the D&D Encounters preview article each season, however, changes to the program now require the DMs to purchase the materials. My FLGS hasn’t yet received their copies, but as luck would have it Joe got his hands on the materials earlier this week. I think Joe does a great job of explaining what’s in store during season 15 and I think his initial impression of the materials aligns with mine (based on what I’ve seen and read so far). We welcome your feedback and encourage you to leave your comments below.
Pay to Play
This is the first season where the adventure is not provided free to stores. While the opening weekend packet and introductory adventure (with a couple player extras) was offered to stores on the Wizard’s Play Network (WPN), the actual weekly adventure must be purchased by each DM (or store) for $35 US ($40 CAN) per copy. Stores with the opening weekend packet got copies of a Baldur’s Gate map to give to players and custom d20s, which are red and feature the symbol of Bhaal on the 20 side. Technically, you might have players who shell out the $35 to learn all the “secrets” of the adventure, but given the lower production values (see below) and cost, I don’t think that’ll be too much of an issue, as these are not likely to fly off the shelves.
More Ways to Play
In another first for the D&D Encounters program, this season the session can be run with three different editions of the game: 3.5e, 4e, and D&D Next. Obviously, you’ll want to discuss with your players and your locations which versions everyone is interested in, but this kind of openness is kind of unprecedented. It’s almost as if Wizards realized that D&D Next was not the be-all and end-all of editions, and that people might appreciate options. I highly approve of this strategy.
Unfortunately, because different editions have different play focuses, the lowest common denominator for threats makes none of them all that challenging. With D&D Next focusing on the adventuring day, 4e focused on encounters, and 3.5e focused somewhere in-between, the balancing of the adventuring day is out the window. As a result, when you look at the monster stats, you’ll notice that none of them are all that scary, because one wouldn’t want to overtax the per-day D&D Next folks in one fight while the 4e folks can just recharge their encounter powers for the next fight. This also creates problems when looking at how to break up rests between weeks (see below).
This season is for levels 1-3, so you’ll start with players making level 1 characters. All race/class options are open (as are backgrounds & themes, if you’re using 4e). Depending on the edition your table is playing, you will need books or materials from that edition. Unlike previous seasons, there are no fancy Baldur’s Gate-specific character options to try out, so just go with whatever seems fun. Since the combats are not that difficult (see above), I’d also recommend encouraging players to build characters that specifically are not combat-optimized. Focus on diverse skills, role-playing related backgrounds, and interesting feats instead of just going for the options that give you the best numerical bonuses.
The high point of this season is the story. While the final outcome is, effectively, inevitable (the details may vary, but the results will be similar), and often involves NPCs doing things that the PCs are sort of on the sidelines for, it’s still got the potential to be really epic. The basic layout (avoiding spoilers) is that there are three major factions in town: the wealthy priests, the middle class soldiers, and the thieves’ guild that supports the poor. Each faction believes that they have the city’s bests interests in mind (and that the other factions are corrupt), and the party will ally with one of these factions (maybe changing their mind as things progress). There’s also the remnant energy of the dead murder god Bhaal floating around, and the launch weekend event features a fight against a creature infused with that energy.
Each of the 12 weeks will correspond to a “Stage” in the adventure. In each stage, multiple events go on throughout the city. Depending on which faction your party is allied with, they will interact with different events. If the PCs don’t do something, there’s a default “what happens” text that will push the overall plot forward, and DMs will need to track certain progress based on the results of these events. The final encounters and battle in week 11 will be determined by where certain NPCs rank on the DM’s secret chart after all the previous events have been tallied
Challenge by Level
There are 10 numbered stages to be played out, plus an Introductory and Final stage, with each stage translating to one of the 12 weeks of the D&D Encounters season. However, most every stage is a different day in-game, and there are no indications of when leveling should happen. This will cause some problems with the organized play nature of D&D Encounters, as different tables might advance at different levels. Officially the adventure is supposed to take folks from levels 1-3, but since monster numbers aren’t even provided, calculating XP will be more than a pain. I’d recommend the following, but obviously your own tables can make their own decisions:
- Weeks Intro-3, level 1
- Weeks 4-7, level 2
- Weeks 8-Final, level 3
If you’re playing 4e, I’d recommend only having extended rests when you level (between sessions 3-4 and 7-8), but if you’re using 3.5e or D&D Next, you may need more extended rests thrown in there. If you need a narrative reason why players don’t get extended rests from day-to-day, you could say that the rising tension in the city makes it impossible for them to get a “good night’s rest,” or you could have the lingering Bhaal energy in the city prevent them from fully relaxing as they sleep.
Unfortunately, the materials are a little lacking overall. Whereas DMs used to receive maps and occasional item cards with D&D Encounters seasons (for free), the for-sale Baldur’s Gate product has none of that. It comes with two staple-bound books on glossy paper (a 32-page adventure book & a 64-page setting book). There is also a DM screen with several copies of the map of the city, a “Let’s go Shopping” table that gives you nothing but ways to roll random shop names, and a random encounters table for non-combat encounters in the city. All of this is shrink-wrapped in a flimsy paper wrapping.
Unlike previous for-sale products that have coincided with D&D Encounters seasons, this product feels incredibly lackluster and poorly put-together from a production standpoint. There are no play maps provided. The artwork is sparse, and often re-used (see the Dragon’s-Eye View article “Tyler Jacobson and D&D” by Jon Schindehette from August 7 in which Tyler Jacobson talks about how they’re doing everything in Photoshop layers now so that the marketing folks can re-use the same art in different configurations). Gone are the inspiring full-page illustrations from products like the Underdark Survival Guide or Heroes of the Feywild. Instead we get a lot of text with the occasional tiny little icon so you can find the related area on one of the 57 copies of the same map that are printed throughout the product.
Also, the stats for enemies (in any edition) are missing from the book. Sure, you can download them from the Sundering web page, but those are pages you’ll need to print out on your own, with your own paper & ink, since Wizards can’t be expected to have things you’d need to use printed out for a product that you paid for (did that sound bitter, because it felt awfully bitter as I wrote it). Also, enemy numbers are not provided, so you’ll need to figure out just how many under-powered humanoids you’ll need each week to challenge your players. If the printed encounters aren’t enough for your group, there is also a downloadable set of extra city encounters to flesh things out in weeks where your party ends up not interacting with the major plots.
This season is the first of several products that will follow The Sundering, a massive Realms-changing event that will feature the two worlds of Abeir-Toril pulling apart again. Like previous massive events (like the Time of Troubles between AD&D 1e and AD&D 2e), these events will likely change cosmologies, alter reality, and justify the implementation of the new edition of D&D. There is a lot of talk about how the players will have a direct result on what happens… but this is a little disingenuous. In reality, Wizards will crowdsource to see which of the three factions most frequently had a certain result, and then that will become the “official” version of what happened in Baldur’s Gate at the start of the Sundering.
Advice for DMs
This season has a lot of potential. The folks at Wizards of the Coast have clearly passed the ball to the DMs, though, so the success or failure of this season lies solely in your hands. Read the materials as thoroughly as possible. Plan ahead to make sure you know everything that is going on in any given stage, so that you’ll be ready for whatever the PCs decide to do. If things seem too complex, feel free to simplify. If you’re overwhelmed by the many plot options, feel free to use the neutral ex-adventurer Elf Coran (the deus ex machina, all-knowing NPC written into the city background) to push the players one way or another. And if it all goes south, use the ample material describing the city to create your own adventure that eventually leads to the final outcome. When you understand what the “secret” power is that you’re tracking week-to-week, you’ll likely come up with a number of ways to accomplish the same goals.
As far as maps for those of you using 3.5e or 4e, I’d recommend re-using maps from either of the Neverwinter seasons, or any other city maps you have handy. The D&D city tiles will also do the trick, if you have them. If you use miniatures in your games, pretty much the only ones you’ll need are humanoids. There’s only one encounter that uses any kind of monster and the rest involve dealing with thieves, soldiers, thugs, townsfolk, etc.
If you can make the factions come alive for your players and really sell the different events as the city gets closer to murderous chaos, I guarantee that your players will feel rewarded. The setting book for Baldur’s Gate is kind of superfluous and heavy with bland text, but there’s enough plot in each week’s events that the players can feel like they’re really involved, if you present it to them properly.
How will this season of D&D Encounters play out? I remain hopeful that the quality of the story will make up for the other lacking materials. Are your players excited about playing different editions? Are they eager to see what happens with the Sundering? Let’s hope that the organized play program shows the folks at Wizards how many dedicated players they’ve got out there, and let’s hope that season 16 in November, Legacy of the Crystal Shard, shows a little more effort put into the materials they want us to use promoting their products.
Related reading: Major Changes Coming to D&D Encounters: DMs to Pay for Adventures
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.