D&D Encounters: Murder in Baldur’s Gate – Report Card

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on November 14, 2013

murder-in-baldurs-gate-coverWe’ve reached the end of another season of D&D Encounters. Murder in Baldur’s Gate was a season unlike any we’d had thus far. It was a new kind of adventure and it introduced some significant changes to the way the D&D public play program works. Many long-time participants of D&D Encounters were upset that they now had to buy the adventure, but the quality of the product Wizards produced was substantive and quickly won over many of the naysayers.

There were plenty of good things about this season, but there were certainly areas for improvement. Today we’ll look at the season as a whole and go over the good and the bad. We welcome your feedback and want to know if you agree or disagree with our assessment. We also want to hear about anything we missed that you feel was important.


Breaking news from Baldur’s Gate!

Duke Torlin Silvershield became Chosen of Bhaal.

More details here.

Good

 

Plenty of Role-Playing

This season more so than any that came before it focused on role-playing. In fact there were many sessions where there was no combat and even no need to role dice. The PCs were caught up in the politics of a city in peril and due to their actions or inactions things happened. For players who wanted to get immersed in the story and really develop their characters, this season was a godsend (no pun intended).

Talk About Detail

The 32-page adventure booklet was packed full of great material. The 64-page Campaign Guide was better than icing on the cake. The sheer volume of quality stuff packed into these two books was absolutely worth the cost. Once the DM had a chance to read all of the materials it made running this season a lot easier. It also allowed DMs to veer off of the main story and easily introduce additional side quests involving actual people and places in Baldur’s Gate.

Your Actions Matter

The ending to this adventure was not set in stone. Depending on what the PCs did throughout the season, each of the three villains scored points on the Bhaal Corruption Tracker. By the end the villain with the most points became the Chosen of Bhaal. If the PCs killed the three villains, or any one PC displayed multiple acts of violence, they could become the Chosen of Bhaal at the end. Regardless of who became the Bhaal Spawn the heroes eventually had a chance to overcome evil (and I assume most did by killing the Bhaal Spawn).

Launch Weekend

In order to generate excitement for the upcoming season of D&D Encounters, Wizards coordinated a launch weekend as the season began. It was an expanded version of the week 1 events. Players who participated in launch weekend certainly seemed to have a more vested interest in the campaign. It also brought in a few new players who stuck around all season long.

Any Edition

Providing official support to run this adventure as 3.5e, 4e, or D&D Next was genius. Although we only ran D&D Next this season, it brought in players who were more familiar with the previous editions. It did a good job of bringing players together despite their favourite version of the game.

Available Everywhere

This season was the first time DMs had to play for the materials. On the plus side you certainly got your money’s worth (as we’ve already talked about above). By making it a regular product that anyone could purchase it opened up D&D Encounters to people who were not previously able to play at their FLGS. Now they can play the same adventure as everyone else in their own home, no matter where they lived.

Story Over Mechanics

With so much focus spent on providing a riveting story I didn’t even realize that there was no guidance for awarding treasure or XP printed in the adventure. This was no doubt a deliberate choice since these details would change depending upon which edition you’re using. Although I arbitrarily leveled up the PCs after a few sessions I didn’t feel that it was necessary. I didn’t award any magic treasure and only awarded a few gp during the season and none of the players felt they were missing anything. It’s a compliment to the writers when the players are more focused on the story than the material rewards.

Bad

 

No Combat

With so much of the story spent focusing on the social maneuvering and politics, there was almost no combat. When there was combat it was minor and seemed insignificant. The overwhelming majority of foes the PCs faced were NPC rather than monsters so they had to pull punches and adjust tactics. Most players equate D&D with killing monsters. You can’t go 12 weeks and only give them a real monster in the first and last session. There needed to be better balance.

Talk About Detail

Page and pages and page of detail. It’s great but it was almost 100 pages worth. I didn’t get my copy of Murder in Baldur’s Gate until the day before I was expected to run the first session. I didn’t have anywhere near the time required to adequately prep. I felt this way all season long and I believe it hurt my game. There’s absolutely no way a new DM could pick up the books and run a session on the same day. This was something that D&D Encounters always had going for it and by changing their format it will limit the opportunities for new DMs to jump on board.

No Maps

Considering all the details that were provided, a lot of people felt cheated by the absence of maps. The tactical maps were a staple of D&D Encounters in previous season. I understand that given the non-linear nature of the adventure and the opportunity for PCs to pretty much go anywhere and do anything to accomplish their objective it was impossible to give maps for every possibility, but a few generic maps wouldn’t have been a bad idea. How about just providing a full sized poster map of Baulder’s Gate?

Your Actions Matter

Each week the three villains all put their plans into motion. If the PCs didn’t stop them the villain got one point, but if the PCs did stop them they villain scored no points. Great in theory but on a few occasions it flat out said in the adventure that the villain’s plan could not be stopped and they automatically score points that week. I disagreed with this and at least once my party did stop the unstoppable plot by trying some very creative tactics. Having the adventure tell me it automatically succeeded annoyed me and angered the players.

Launch Weekend

As good as the idea of the launch weekend is, I don’t think the designers handled it as well as they could have. Many of the players at my FLGS played the launch weekend adventure. When they showed up the first weekend realized that they were going to replay the same encounter they were not happy. Take a page from Vault of the Dracolich – have the launch weekend be a stand alone prequel, not just an expanded version of week 1. Reward the loyal players for being at both; don’t insult them and waste their time by making them play the same events twice.

Any Edition

The problem with making the adventure edition neutral was that no monsters were provided. Wizards made additional resources available on their website for all three editions, which was great. The problem is that the DM had to know this and prep it ahead of time. This meant extra time and expense to print them up and have them on hand during the games. Wizards made a big push to encourage players to use the new D&D Next rules this season. The problem was that the D&D Next rules are not finalized and as such they changed twice during the course of this adventure. Two of the DMs at my FLGS stuck with the version that was available during week 1, while the third DM changed as the new packets came out. It made things more confusing and complicated, especially when new players showed up mid way through the season.

Available Everywhere

Many DMs who participate in D&D Encounters have done so because they got to keep the adventure when the season was over. The exclusivity of the adventure and having something very few other DMs had was quite appealing. Now that it’s just a store bought adventure that anyone can purchase I suspect some DMs may stop participating. Not only that but some DMs I know don’t have an extra $30-40 on hand to make this kind of purchase every few months. I know some FLGS have been good about absorbing costs but they don’t have to and I know many don’t. The other problem we had was that some players who bought the adventure read it while they were playing. They essentially pulled back the curtain and saw everything. I don’t know why a player would want to do that, but I know some did.

The Verdict

I think I can sum up this season with this one sentence: It works great as a home adventure, but is too complicated for D&D Encounters. The quantity and quality of the materials provided were well worth the price and will continue to be valuable to DMs who plan to use Baldur’s Gate in their home campaigns. From a D&D Encounters point of view I think you got out of it what the group put into it. If your table was invested in the role-playing, political intrigue, and chance for character development then you likely had a great time. If your group just wanted to kill monsters they were likely disappointed. Groups that had the same players for the whole season likely enjoyed this season more than groups with changing players from week to week. If I had a chance to do this season all over again I’d try to coordinate the tables at my FLGS and run it like a battle interactive where all the tables are playing in the same setting and can influence each other’s story. This would encourage each table to align with different patrons so that they could try and cover more ground and see what was really going on behind the scenes. It would be a lot more work to coordinate, but if done right it would make for a really interesting season. Based on my game play experience this season I’m giving Murder in Baldur’s Gate an 8 on a d10. What were your thoughts on the season a whole? Do you agree/disagree with my points? What did I miss? What would you do differently if you played this adventure again?

Recounting Encounters Podcast

Recounting Encounters is a weekly podcast I record with fellow Toronto DM, Craig Sutherland, and 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.

 

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 LordOcampo November 14, 2013 at 10:23 am

This is a great adventure indeed. I haven’t finished running it at my local FGLS and I fear my players lost their chance to have their decisions recorded.

About maps, it would be great if WotC read your opinion and changed that policy for upcoming Sundering adventures.

2 bisonic November 14, 2013 at 2:56 pm

This adventure did not suit my group at all. It felt like the players were encouraged to act evil and that is not my style of game. My players never really made an impact on events until they saved parliment and they had no interest in politics. They spent many sessions yelling at the guild and managed to interfere with other people’s plans by taking and failing the missions. In the end my group fought Rilsa in the Wide after she had murdered her way through the Lower City. Ironicly this left Silvershield and the Patriars in parliment alive and most of the Lower City, the Fist, and the Guild in tatters.

I could have run this better and I plan to do better next season, but I doubt I will be carrying on after that. I already promised the store I would run LoCS but this one burned me out on prep. My home game has suffered for it. The adventure felt heavy and was not fun. A massacre and a riot followed by mass murder does not make for a light game. I have only one player left from the group that used to be there every week for about a year because many of them were not having fun. I could not figure out how to add fun to this adventure and I wish I could be a player at one of the other poster’s tables. I had a bad experience but that was not entirely the fault of WoTC. The campaign book is worth it if you like Baldur’s Gate but the adventure is no good for the format or my group.

After this season my wife might run some old Arcanus adventures using a different system or we will just do a home game. The latest issue of Dungeon had something for levels 1-3 that looked like a season of Encounters that got bumped by the Sundering. If LoCS isn’t fun I may use that.

3 Vobekhan November 14, 2013 at 3:32 pm

As we had two tables running simultaneously this season we did have them interact and each tables actions also had effect on the other.

Most of the players were new to D&D so had no preconceptions beforehand and took to the D&DNext playtest rules quite easily. From a DM’s point of view the adventure ran reasonably well using Next. Though I agree with the comment about lack of prep time, and it has happened again with the release of Legacy of the Crystal Shard with its official release date being the day before the official season begins.

Seeing as running the adventure under the Encounters banner isnt as “exclusive” as it used to be, it would have been nice if those running it at store got a “head start” with early access to materials (I know certain stores in the US have this but over here in the UK distribution really sucks).

We modified several of the weekly sessions to suit the play style of our groups and will be doing so with Legacy to allow our players to run at levels 4-6 (yes my fellow DM and myself are gluttons for punishment).

Looking forward to continuing to read the weekly exploits of you all :)

4 Justin Yanta November 14, 2013 at 4:38 pm

Yea my players had a great time at the beginning and at the end of the adventure. The middle felt like a death march because it was more information gathering/politics and less fighting. I changed up a lot of things and that helped a lot but for a first time DM I think they would of been overwhelmed. I was also lucky that I have most of the Dungeon Tile Sets available to me and was able to build out some great maps. Without that I think it would of been even harder for the players in some of the scenes (the maps made some of the chase scenes and political scenes come alive and more interesting). I wish they would of had some generic maps (like a good Gate Map) so that we could of used that instead of me making some fake gates out of wall maps.

One thing that did come out of it was that my daughter saw how I would change the adventure on the fly to match what the players were doing and was making it interesting. She is only 9 and this week she ran the Mines of Madness for the group (since we finished a week earlier). So her first DM attempt and it was a good one (Mines of Madness is a good one since everything is there).

One thing I did like about this adventure was the World Building. We used the campaign guide a lot and fleshed out the Blushing Mermaid and had Werewolves attacking the town. This made the city feel more like a city and not just a go between for encounters. I could easily see running more adventures in Baldur’s Gate for a home game in the future.

One major negative for me was Time Commitment. I put in about 12-16 hours a week preparing for the next encounter (Maps, Different enemies, Changes to make it interesting). Normally I can put in 4-6 hours and have a good encounter ready but this time I had to set up the encounters, how many enemies and how strong they will be, How NPCs would react… That to me was very difficult. Also I did not like that most weeks we took 3-4 hours to complete the encounter. People were OK with it but my daughters play in the game and so sometimes we were not getting back home till 11-11:30 PM. This was very late and I hope this next season we can get it back down to 2 hours.

5 Spykes November 15, 2013 at 5:19 pm

I REALLY like your assessment of this adventure. You hit the nail on the head regarding the positives and more importantly, the negatives of using an adventure like this for the Encounters organized play sessions.
We ran three tables all season long. I wish I had your idea of running them cooperatively. That is brilliant. It looks like we will be running four tables this season, which makes doing that much more difficult.

In short, nice report and I agree with your assessment 100%. I can only hope that the WotC organized play team is paying attention. They are singing the tune of how much they value the DMs, so if that’s true, I can only hope that these items will be address.

6 nicole November 18, 2013 at 10:10 am

great write up! at our store, we had three DMs and three tables, and we ran the entire season as a battle interactive – each DM was responsible for playing out one of the three main NPCs’ factions. it was a really great way to run it, but we had to be creative on the weeks when nothing was happening for a specific faction – and i agree with you about the frustration of points automatically being assigned without any chance of the player’s stopping it from happening. this seemed to happen over and over again throughout the weeks, and was extremely frustrating for several of my players. all in all i enjoyed the way we played it but i wish it had been a better mod.

7 Dustin November 18, 2013 at 10:10 am

I LOVED THIS ADVENTURE! I hope this is a sign of things to come. I was a big WFRP fan because their adventures where a lot like this.

And as far as people bitching about it costing money: I loved the idea of buying the adventure for two reason: it meant I got to keep it (and run it any time I want) and it help support my local game shop. If someone is low on funds and wants to run it, ask players to chip in $5 each. They kind of owe it to you since they are getting hours of entertainment.

I do agree with you on two of the “Bad” parts and that was: Talk About Detail & Launch Day. I am excited about the Crystal Shard!

8 Dominic Lopez November 21, 2013 at 4:56 am

I’ve been running Encounters for about a year and a half now and this was my least favorite season so far. Of course I didn’t like having to pay for it, but my real problem was the format. I agree with all of your evaluation but feel the bad far out weighed the good from an Encounters standpoint. I would never have bought the adventure if I weren’t running Encounters, so that’s the only standpoint that matters to me.

9 Ryan November 22, 2013 at 5:33 am

This season of Encounters was my return to Dungeons & Dragons since AD&D 2nd edition back in the ’90s. It was a joy reading posts every week since my group quickly fell behind. I give it a positive grade for being able to fit into the academic “Three Act Structure” with mash-ups of “Boy Meets Girl” and “Hero’s Journey,” using our season as an example …

ACT 1: SET UP

SET-UP: Protagonists manacle the assassin Viekang from killing Abdel Adrian. (But, DM’s retcon: An overly-excited guard stabs the manacled Viekang, transforming Adrian into Bhaal, and is killed offscreen.) They’re dubbed the HEROES of the Wide.

CALL TO ACTION: Silvershield gives them writs to search whereas Flaming Fists give them badges. INCITING INCIDENT: Inside a tavern during its raid, Heroes are stripped of badges. When other job of searching alchemist and fabric merchant leads to dead-ends – though latter owes debts to Lady Keene – Heroes take job from Rilsa (BOYS MEET GIRL) to beat up tollgate keeper who’s chaperoned by Fists.

1st TURNING POINT: Heroes get reinstated as Fists. Rilsa doesn’t like it (BOYS LOSE GIRL), but still sends them after patriar youths who stole the hands of Minsc and Boo statues (GIRL IS LIKE, “IT’S COMPLICATED”). Threatened by Silvershield’s Watch to hand over youths, the duo calls in Fist backup.

ACT 2: CONFRONTATIONS

BOYS WIN GIRL BACK: Heroes and Rilsa drink Tumbledown Ale together to capturing youths, though she wishes youths were brought to her.

NEW TENSION: With alchemist’s testimony, Heroes blackmail Silvershield’s BFF to decline nomination for new Duke. OBSTACLE: Heroes subdue an ambush and spare one alleyblade to discover that Guild leader is called Nine-Fingers. RISING ACTION: Then, find suspicious Smokepowder bowl.

MEETING THE MENTOR: Coran presses on Smokepowder rumors. SETBACK: Heroes are cut down by Watch and duelist while one escapes TPK.

MIDPOINT, a.k.a. BIG TWIST: Heroes wake up alive in prison as Coran springs them free. Coran sends them to steal Harbormaster’s Manifest, discovering much Smokepowder has been imported. Then, stop arsonists, torturing a suspect to reveal that Nine-Fingers is Lady Keene, who’s loan-sharked the fabric merchant.

DISASTER: Heroes prevent Redlocks, whose youths were arrested for stealing statues’ hands, from framing them for massacre … but Redlocks already shot innocent Outer City people.

BOYS ARE LIKE, “GIRL BE TRIPPIN'”: Tipped off by Fists’ exchequer, Heroes stop weapon smugglers, sparing the last one who reveals they’re working for Rilsa.

2nd TURNING POINT, a.k.a. CRISIS: Heroes prevent executions of prisoners, then cut Silvershield’s lackey Skoond in half, and prevent ignition of Smokepowder from blowing up Upper City … but fail to stop alchemist from suicide-bombing herself to create jailbreak.

ACT 3: RESOLUTION

THE DESCENT: Heroes reenact the iconic scene from Say Anything – with lutes instead of boombox. Rilsa, who’s just murdered Nine-Fingers Keene for control of Guild, admits to assassination attempts on Heroes (BOYS LOSE GIRL AGAIN), but still sends them to assassinate exchequer who withheld knowledge of Smokepoweder plans (GIRL IS LIKE, “IT’S COMPLICATED,” AGAIN). Heroes beat up exchequer and then heal him … so he can instead die in his sleep from poison that they slipped him.

CLIMAX: Rilsa invites Heroes to sit next to her at party (BOYS WIN GIRL BACK AGAIN), but then Guild kills everyone as she transforms into Bhaal (BOYS REALLY, REALLY LOSE GIRL). They finish her, ala Wolverine/Jean Grey at the end of X-Men 3.

DENOUEMENT, a.k.a. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR: None, because Heroes kill Silvershield, frustrated he wasn’t the main villain after everything he put them through. They run away as fugitives to Ten Towns in Icewind Dale. TO BE CONTINUED …

10 Jim Crocker November 30, 2013 at 10:57 am

The format seems custom-designed to make it incredibly difficult for stores to actually run Encounters as conceived: *a weekly drop-in game with low stakes meant for new players and teaching the game.*

This was by FAR the most work we’ve EVER done to make an adventure usable for the current edition of D&D.

The thing that no one seems to be picking upon: The entire POINT of Encounters is to help stores SELL GAMES. Not only did this not do that, it bafflingly used the only current adventure product available, meaning that anyone how played in the Encounters season has no incentive to buy it! Making Encounters available to gamers outside of stores completely subverts the stores that have been supporting it for years. We’re THIS CLOSE to dropping it altogether, and pretty much entirely disgusted with WotC’s total lack of comprehension about what’s needed in a program designed to help us teach new players and SELL PRODUCT.

11 Fred May 24, 2014 at 12:21 am

We played 4E and had pretty much the same players each week. I was a nice change as we weren’t ‘fishhooked’ to the next encounter. We pretty much felt we had the choice to do what we wanted and not dragged encounter to encounter via boxed text. Mostly we worked for Rilsa, and became known around town as the ‘Masked Maidens’ and became the arch-nemesis of the Flaming Fist, embarrassing them whenever possible, but sometimes worked for the Duke also when extra money was involved. There was actually roleplaying encouraged in this one vs. not really done in other Encounter campaigns. We weren’t ‘Evil’ but were ‘Unaligned’, out for profit only, and the goal was to eventually double-cross Rilsa and take control of the guild ourselves, when she turned into the Chosen of Bhaal it was the end of her. However we decided the leave Baldur’s Gate as it was really by now too much of a mess to make a fun life or good profit, and we now wander Faerun looking for other rewards as we transitioned to LFR adventures. Next week Eltregard awaits! Rumor is the Companion has burned out and some profit may be made from the ensuing chaos and confusion…

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