A new season begins tonight. It’s not the new season of a cooking show–honestly, hardtack is difficult to make sexy, even if you have Kitchen Stadium’s resources. No, tonight is the first session of the new 13 week adventure, Dark Legacy of Evard .
I’m looking forward to welcoming new GMs into the fold; a few of our players from the previous seasons are stepping up to run tables for us this season. The constraints of module play makes Encounters (or other organized play, like Pathfinder society modules) an excellent first step for GMs. Playing through previous seasons has done a good job of introducing them to the conventions and expectations of a D&D Encounters game. If you’ve played Encounters recently, maybe it’s time to volunteer and help your local store seat more players.
I never ran a lot of premade modules–I always prized my own creativity too much, particularly the ability to tailor a campaign to the players and the specific characters at the table. When your start and end points have to match every other table each week, it’s harder to tailor the game as closely to your specific players. But it’s certainly not impossible.
Paying attention to the players’ actions and reincorporating them is surprising and rewarding. At Jennifer’s table, the PCs had quirky interactions with a recurring NPC mage, Faldyra. One character tried to steal her shoes early on–his player was surprised that the consequences followed him into future sessions, when her curse tied him to the ground, slowing him and amplifying the earth’s grasp. Another character hit on Faldyra, leading to a cute subplot woven behind the main session each week. At my table Faldyra was viewed as an incompetent; the PCs kept inventing “side quests” to keep her busy so they could get to the important work without her distractions. None of that was written into the module, but bringing it back–reincorporating it–gave each table a different feel, even though their fight was against the same foes each week.
D&D Encounters shares an important element with many indie-game designs–an emphasis on independent sessions and less onerous schedules. Many games solve the problem by designing complete in one session experiences–Dread  and Universalis  are two games among many that are designed for solid one session play.
D&D Encounters takes a different tack–each “episode” is discrete for the players, even though the characters continue on their adventures. At a typical table the extra flexibility comes at the price of verisimilitude; the previous session’s staid dwarven warrior morphs into a rampaging minotaur without an eyeblink from the characters. It is a heavy price to pay, particularly if you love the story that emerges from a campaign’s events.
The offsetting advantage, though, is huge–many people who long ago gave up on roleplaying come back when a game fits their schedule. The lower bar of commitment encourages new people to give roleplaying a shot–after all, no one is depending on them to come back if they don’t enjoy it. The indefinite commitment required to be a good player in a typical campaign can be a barrier to bringing busy adults, new players, and lapsed gamers to the table.
The other advantage of the Encounters structure is that the players who do come week after week get a chance to engage with a plot that can twist and turn, with each session contributing more to the overall story. It’s a subtle reward–and one subject to backfire when the players stumble across…
When you’re running someone else’s adventure, you have to trust that they’ve planned it out. Sometimes, though, the designer misses something. Customizing a Module has some advice for identifying weak spots and working solutions into your table’s experience. At other times, it’s just frustrating–you know that the adventure demands a specific result, no matter what happens in play. That’s often the first step towards the players feeling like their actions don’t impact the story, which is bad in any environment.
We had that situation come up this last season; at several tables, the PCs made very reasonable offers towards Salazar Vladistone (the season’s ‘big bad’) when they crossed paths early on. Because the villain recurred and future weeks depended on them being at cross purposes, the villain had to reject the PCs’ very reasonable (at some tables) offers. That was a bit frustrating, and led to divergence as each GM came up with their own way to justify the ongoing enmity.
Module designers have to make a lot of assumptions about what’s going to go on at “the average table”–and they have to design knowing that extreme results happen, and will affect different tables’ experiences. At the table where the GM can’t roll above a five, the PCs will end with their full complement of abilities and health, unlike the table where the GM’s dice are on fire–and the few survivors are completely drained of their resources well before the big fight.
Seeing two full seasons did illustrate some big differences in the module designs. Here are some of the things we noticed.
- Computing experience at the table introduces more opportunities for error.
- Variety is the spice of life.
- Auto-leveling for the win.
For our first season, experience for each character was pre-calculated; so at the end of the night’s adventure the PCs who showed up for the same session all got the same experience. The next season the module designer did some of the work–totaling combat XP and listing bonus XP for various additional actions–but after division by the GMs, especially after the GM added or subtracted foes to match the strong table/weak table guidelines, the experience characters had on their sheet at the end of week 3 was dramatically different depending on the table where they’d sat. The totals only got further off as the season progressed. I’m very happy to see that the upcoming season returns to a flat per character award.
I have to admit that the title gave it away–The March of the Phantom Brigade featured a lot of ghosts. Most weeks, the same attacks did the same damage, the ghosts used similar tactics–and the same weaknesses were exploited by both sides. While it came together thematically, it was a lot less “fun” on both sides of the table than fighting a variety of foes with a variety of strengths and weaknesses.
The first season included specific advice–that PCs should be second level by week 9, 3rd level by week 17. Every player, whether it was their first week or their 20th, had characters that were ‘on par’ with each other. March of the Phantom Brigade lacked that advice–and resulted in TPKs  when first level characters took on the week’s fight–a fight geared for more powerful characters. Inexperienced players plus underpowered characters makes for a less than ideal introduction to roleplaying. Some new players spent most of their session watching–their limited hit points meant that their character fell unconscious early in the battle.
Richard Baker recently wrote an article about the design constraints involved in creating this season’s module. If you’re curious about how it came to be, his article is Dark Legacy of Evard: Design & Development .
Encounters isn’t for everyone. Many players miss the freedom that a home campaign can provide, some GMs will miss the creation and control of a world–the constraints may chafe too greatly. Despite the flaws, Encounters and other module play provides a great way to introduce the game to new and lapsed players. It’s even a great reward for other GMs; many GMs long to both play and GM, but their home group doesn’t have parallel games or even a second GM. You can provide a chance for those GMs to enjoy both sides of the game–and it only requires a couple of hours a week!
If you’re looking for a way to meet other people and evaluate their play style for compatibility…there’s no better way that seeing how they play. Besides, don’t you deserve a chance to relax and just pick up an axe to right the world’s wrongs? Maybe there’s a GM near you running a session that’s perfect for your busy schedule.
Where will tonight find you? Waiting to see what is in the basket of mystery ingredients? Practicing your arcane gestures and preparing to solve the ills of Duponde? Or will you take on the role of dungeon master and guide heroes into adventure?