D&D Encounters: Search for the Diamond Staff – Report Card

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on August 15, 2013

search-for-the-diamond-staff-coverWe have once again concluded another season of D&D Encounters. The season 14 adventure, Search for the Diamond Staff, had its ups and downs and we’re going to look at many of them today as we put together our report card on the season.

This report card will follow the same format I’ve used many times before; I’ll start with the good and then move on to the bad. However, as this was the first time we used the D&D Next rules for D&D Encounters I’ll do a special good/bad breakdown of the elements unique to the playtest rules.

Without further ado here are our thoughts on season 14 D&D Encounters: Search for the Diamond staff. Let us know your thoughts on the season as a whole in the comments below.

Good

You don’t have to fight

This season of D&D encounters allowed and even encouraged the PCs to resolve challenges by means other than fighting. In some cases the author provided direction to help the DM if the heroes talked their way past a fight; in other cases it was up to the DM to wing it. The absences of a “kill everything” mentality made a huge difference to the tone of this season. The players in my groups (most of whom are D&D Encounters veterans) liked that they could do what they wanted and not what the adventure expected of them. I kept hearing “this season feels a lot more like a home game” which I think is high praise.

Puzzles

This season the party was faced with traditional old-school D&D style puzzles. These were designed as more than just run of the mill skill challenges where players could simply roll dice and find the answer. The puzzles were complex and required some ingenuity and creativity. Creating puzzles that challenge the players and their characters is a fine balance and those presented in this adventure nailed it. After completing session 7 in which the PCs had to face the statues of the five Elves I heard players saying “this is what D&D used to be like” and “this kind of thing happens a lot in my home games.”

We’re not rookies

For the second season in a row the PCs did not start as wet behind the ears level 1 noobs; they all started at level 4. This provided the heroes with a few more hit points and additional abilities. Starting above level 1 keeps players who never miss a D&D Encounters session coming back season after season. The good thing about beginning at level 4 is that it’s not so complex that is scares away new players. It also allows two PCs of the same race and class to differentiae themselves based on the choices they made each time the gained a level.

Straight forward plot

The simple plot is good because it allows new players to jump in during any session without too much explanation needed. We had new players join us a few times this season and each time the recap took only about 30 seconds. This is particularly important as we’re seeing a lot of new players come out to try D&D Encounters using the D&D Next mechanics.

New monsters!

This season we got to fight monsters we hadn’t seen before at D&D Encounters, most notably a Flesh Golem and Chitiens. Even though the Uvaeren Dragons looked like Dragons (which we’ve faced during many past seasons) they were more constructs than draconic so we’ll count them as new monsters too. Congratulations Wizards for leaving your comfort zone and not using undead or Drow. Now if only we can get rid of all those evil cultists.

Bad

Lame introduction

Think way back to week 1 when the PCs first arrived in Hap. They had time to explore the village and interact with the locals. Since the PCs were supposed to head out the following morning, this interaction seemed unnecessary and forced. Some players said that their PC would head to bed early since it was the last time they’d have a real bed for weeks to come. This made sense. Yet the adventure assumed the PCs would want to make friends with the locals so we wasted time going through the motions. When it came time to fight the Orcs (the highlight of the session) everyone was glad to be done with the “getting to know you” part of the night. Afterwards many players even asked why that was necessary. In my opinion it was not. It was merely a time sink that should have been reworked or cut out.

No more cults!

I honestly can’t remember the last season of D&D Encounters in which the PCs didn’t have to face off against some kind of evil cultist or evil priestess. I realize that religious zealots are easy go-to humanoid villains that don’t necessarily look like villains, but how many cults exist in the Forgotten Realms? Wizards, please give the cultists a rest. If you need humanoid villains that look normal go with corrupt politicians, or unscrupulous merchants, or members of a thieves’ guild. Enough with the cultists!

Experienced DMs only

One thing I’m always critical of when I do my report card is how easily a new DM can jump right behind the screen to run the adventure. At first I thought that the adventure was simple and linear and that would make it really easy for a new DM. However, as the season progressed I realized that a lot of what was described required the DM to really describe the scenes vividly for the players since very few visual aids were provided. Creative and quick thinking DMs likely drew maps to help the players; however, I doubt a brand new DM would think to do that. As the season progressed I realized that most brand new DM were going to struggle; I’m a very experienced DM and I struggled through some sessions. As much as I liked this season I definitely felt it was designed for a more advanced DM.

D&D Next

Good

Game day tie-in

For starters the game day adventure, Vault of the Dracolich, was amazing. Everyone I know who participated in it loved it. Those players who continued running the same PC they used during game day into this season of D&D Encounters really appreciated the continuity. By having even one or two PCs in the party who were part of game day made things way easier for the DM. The PCs knowledge and familiarity of the game day events allowed the DM to provide information in a way that didn’t seem forced. When game day PCs recognized details from that adventure in this season of D&D Encounters they often had additional options that other parties would not have.

When the Diamond Staff was originally taken from Imani in Hap those PCs who had risked their lives (and in some cases lost friends) to the Dracolich or his minions on game day felt obligated to retrieve it. To let it fall into the wrong hands after everything that was sacrificed to get it would be a travesty. Honour demanded the staff be recovered. This provided DMs with additional hooks that they could use and exploit during the season.

The three pillars of gaming

For those not in the know, the three pillars of D&D are exploration, role-playing, and combat. D&D Encounters always has plenty of combat. Recent seasons have provided more opportunity for role-playing if the players choose to do it. Using the D&D Next rules this season meant combat was fast. In a couple of occasions the fight was over in less than 15 minutes. If the players wanted to really feel like they were getting their money’s worth (so to speak) they knew they should spend more time on the non-combat parts of the game. Focusing more on exploration and role-playing resulted in a fantastic gaming experience that really set this season apart from the previous ones.

Bad

Resting

Clearly the adventure was written with the 4e mechanics in mind. I have no problem with that. However, in 4e a short rest is only five minutes whereas in D&D Next a short rest is 60 minutes – that’s a pretty big difference. Most times when the adventures stated that the PCs had time for a short rest, they meant five minutes, not an hour. DMs had to either change the short rest time for D&D Next parties or deny them the rest. We opted to forego the resting. It worked, but it meant that some encounters were tougher than they were designed to be. This is a big part of why my parties tried to talk their way past monsters on numerous occasions.

Final Verdict

As much as I enjoyed this season of D&D Encounters I think the parts I liked best were tied into using the new D&D Next mechanics and not really so much because of the adventure itself. In fact, the parts of the adventure that seemed to go over best with my groups were the changes I made (thanks in part to suggestions from folks on the Wizards’ forums). Had I run this using 4e I think my impression and grade would be considerably lower simply because the previous two seasons offered such strong materials.

I do acknowledge that there were some pretty great parts to this adventure, especially session 7 where the PCs had to explore the Vault of Song, by pass the trap and then fight the Dragons (which I changed to one gargantuan Dragon). However, the parts I disliked about it such as the lame intro, and the expectation that the DM was be a master of his craft, are big strikes in my book. Looking at the whole adventure and balancing everything out I think I have to give this adventure a generous 7 on a d10.

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.

What were your impressions of this season as a whole? What stood out as the best and worst parts? What score would you give this season of D&D Encounters? Do you agree or disagree with any of my good or bad points? Share your feedback in the comments below.

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.


Looking for instant updates? Subscribe to the Dungeon’s Master feed!

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe August 15, 2013 at 9:34 am

Overall, my store’s players had fun with this last season. We ran all of our tables in 4e, which gave us a slightly different experience than NEXT tables at other stores.

I definitely agree that an adventure written for 4e timelines will have difficulty in NEXT, and vice-versa. One is an encounter-based adventure model, the other is based on per-day adventures. We will likely see this run into problems in future seasons that attempt to utilize multiple versions with the same adventure, but I’m sure the many experienced DMs can handle it.

While the simple plot was easy to follow and made introducing new players easy, it wasn’t a very exciting plot, and it had many frustrating moments for players. First, the staff they acquired in the Game Day adventure got stolen, then the followed the thieves, only to realize that the staff had JUST been passed off to someone else. They tracked the someone else, only to realize that she’d double crossed her boss and taken the staff somewhere else. Having the macguffin always one step ahead of the players felt a bit forced some of the time, and the players noticed. Still, all I had to tell new players was “Hey, there’s this staff that got stolen, and you’re chasing it. Today the chase leads you here.”

Magic items were another issue that we had to home brew at our store. With the players starting at level 4, they all already pretty much had +1 weapon/implements, armors, and neck items (again, speaking in 4e terms), so giving us a treasure table with other +1 items wasn’t at all enticing. We put together a pretty snazzy table of Common level 6-10 items, though, and all was good.

A few people were thrown by the expanded exploration & roleplaying options. Many just wanted to make a skill check at a situation, and I had to massage their understandings to show them that the game was more than just a set of numbers. But once they got it, I think they “got” it and appreciated the game more because of it. Folks say that 4e is a combat/numbers-only system, but I think it only turns into that if you don’t have the material to let it be more. This season gave me more options to let the 4e system expand for the players, which I liked.

And while yes, there were more cultists, I was able to spice it up because they were specific cultists of a specific cult, so I gave them dragon-themed attire, draconic attack phrases “With Dragon’s might, I smite you!”, and a “god” who had actually given them direct instructions. This allowed for the elevation of the Cult of the Dragon folks to more than just mere cultists. And the other monster options were fun, too.

While the monster selection was great, and we were all glad to avoid the Drow & undead, many PCs who hadn’t been able to attend the Game Day event felt cheated that they didn’t get to fight the dracolich Dretchroyaster. They all felt pretty confident of their abilities by the end at level 6, and were looking for a big challenge in the final fight. Instead they got a longer fight against two mid-range forces, both of whom were also attacking one another. While it wasn’t the dramatically big fight they wanted, it was still long and involved, so it ended up working out. But there were still cries of “you mean we don’t get to fight the dracolich?” The couple players who were at Game Day were also upset that they didn’t find the dracolich’s phylactery, which is where its soul went after they defeated it on Game Day. A few had even hoped that the staff itself was the phylactery (which would’ve been a great twist to throw in).

The non-standard rewards at the end were great, though. My wife had asked me to play a pirate this season, so I rolled up an assassin with the seafaring theme they had in Dragon a while back. But after the final fight, when she rolled to get her random knowledge-related benefit, she got “location of a great treasure,” so she perfectly ended up as a pirate with a treasure map.

The ending of the last session also had lots of players wanting to carry their characters on to new adventures, which was nice to see. Nobody ever wants to lose a character at the end of a season, but this time around they were actively talking about other adventures their characters could go off on together. They felt like their characters were capable, well rounded (with all the roleplaying they did), and unique individuals who were important to the world around them. So the idea of bringing folks together and getting them excited about D&D really played out well with this season of Encounters at our store.

Maybe we’re just overly conservative in our gaming up in formerly-puritan New England, but we’re still having difficulty convincing anyone to play with the D&D Next rules up at Modern Myths in Northampton, MA. I run single-game playtests with every new packet that comes out, but nobody feels like they want a longer campaign with those rules, because we keep finding so many system balance flaws in the individual playtests. I suppose it’s a mentality that we’ll eventually have to get over, but for now all of our players and DMs seem more than willing to keep going with 4th edition.
Joe´s last blog post ..What The Average Joe Thinks…Dungeons & Dragons: Murder in Baldur’s Gate

2 bisonic August 15, 2013 at 10:09 am

I’ve only been DMing for a year or so and I ran this season using 4e. I liked this season and a big part of it was the ability to talk through encounters and giving the player options while maintaining a direct plot line. My only complain with the materials was the magic items which i had to replace. I used an online random generator and that was perfectly fine. The missing session caused issues but was not an insurmountable problem. The variety of bad guys was great and I was encourage by the number of new players that came in and seemed excited to come back. I would give it an 8/10. We’ll have to see how next season goes.

3 Vobekhan August 15, 2013 at 11:26 am

Overall I enjoyed the season, though I agree that may have been because of the latitude using the Next rules allowed you as a DM. This was especially true with the puzzles as I have never been a fan of the Skill Challenge mechanic, much prefering players to try a RP solution.

I think also the extra resources available from the community of fellow DM’s helped with planning and running more than a few of the sessions. So a big thanks to you guys.

Looking forward to the upcoming games day and new season we intend to continue running Next and I’m looking forward to reading (and listening) to more of your adventures.
Vobekhan´s last blog post ..D&D Encounters Season 14 – Search for the Diamond Staff – Session 8 part 2

4 John M. August 15, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Something you said in this got me wondering, and maybe I need to ask, but apparently your FLGS does not charge you for playing on Wed? My local FLGS has a nightly $5 charge each week and I have not questioned it before, but I may ask them what it is for. I always assumed it was a way of compensating them for staying open and hosting, as there is also a Pathfinder game on the same night that has double the people we have. They probably make $100 each night simply from attendance. I personally think its money well spent, but I was curious.

5 B.J. August 15, 2013 at 8:16 pm

John: I might be able to answer that question since I think we’re at the same gaming shop. It is part table fee, but part of the money goes into a pot where we can buy supplies if necessary. I’m actually going to be using some of those funds to purchase Murder in Baldur’s Gate.

I wasn’t thrilled when they went to the pay-to-pay model and we definitely lost a hunk of players. At it’s peak pre-$5 fee, we ran two stuffed tables of around 6-8 players and a DM at each table. You’ve seen the result of charging. Space is always a premium, but I think the shop owners wanted to monetize the process since WotC hasn’t been exactly giving them much to sell in-store. I personally would have kept it free to attract more new players. The decision wasn’t up to me, though.

As for reviewing this particular season…

We still have the last two sessions to play. I’m going to try and fit them in next Wednesday, but thus far I feel positive about the actual adventure. I do agree that beginning was a little clunky. We’ll see how the end goes for the players. I know I’ve had fun, but I also think the Next rules promote a more free-flow style.

I do think Murder in Baldur’s Gate has tons of potential. I don’t have the product in my hand yet, but everything I’ve read about it seems to point towards a fun time for my particular group.

6 AlHazred August 16, 2013 at 2:03 pm

My experience with this season was weird: it started at a high, dipped in the middle, and then ended with another high.

The Launch Weekend adventure for this season was simply fantastic. The players really enjoyed the intertwined nature of the event, and the easter eggs (random teleporter exchange, not being able to die, the mostly-unknown powers of the key statues) made for interesting role-playing; admittedly, a big portion of the kudos go to my co-DM, who had a blast roleplaying Dretchroyaster like he was a supervillain surprising the heroes in his lair.

I think the ending would have been stronger with a Dretchroyaster rematch, but it still set a problem before the players that they rarely face (allying with the bad guys to defeat other bad guys). The players enjoyed it immensely.

I will say that running in D&D Next has opened up my imagination, which was getting somewhat stifled by the scripted nature of the 4E scenarios was making me a little stale.
AlHazred´s last blog post ..Secret Societies 1: The Great Enlightened Society of Oculists

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

Previous post:

Next post: