UPDATE: After you read this critique, please read my follow-up article, which will give a little more context and show ways I think D&D Encounters modules could be much improved. Thanks!
If you are not familiar, D&D Encounters is the Friendly Local Game Store-based D&D event that is run weekly. Each season is a different adventure module that runs for several weeks in an episodic format. As a player, you can drop in or out at any time since each session can stand alone. Continuity is somewhat hand waved to allow players to join in on any given week when they can get out of the house. It's a good way to introduce new players since each session runs for only 2 - 3 hours, and a good way to game weekly if you don't already have a group that meets regularly.
The only real criticism of the D&D Encounters model to this point is that it tended to be a bit combat heavy under 4th Edition. In prior Encounters seasons, most sessions have had 2 combats. Since there is only a small amount of time for a given session, the DM often has to push through the role-playing opportunities to get to the battle scenes, especially given how slowly 4th Edition combat played out. D&D 5e alleviates much of this issue with significantly quicker combats. But, that doesn't mean the D&D Encounters format doesn't have any problems (which I will get to shortly).
Despite criticisms, I'm a huge fan of the D&D Encounters model. It give players who can't always commit to a regular game the opportunity to just drop in at any time. Like a pick-up game at the rec center basketball courts, you just show up and join a team. It also presents the opportunity for new players to get a taste for the D&D mechanics and allows them to meet groups of people who could potentially become their regular gaming group. From a community outreach standpoint, it's an excellent and seemingly successful program.
*** SPOILERS AHEAD ***
This year, the Fall/Winter Encounters season is using an excerpted version of the Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure path.
On his blog, +Courtney Campbell has been analyzing some of the ways HotDQ could be improved from the DM's standpoint. This should probably be required reading for every DM intending to run D&D Encounters or HotDQ in their home game. I've kept myself from reading ahead to avoid spoilers as a player, but have experienced first hand some of the issues he noted with the encounter design. I wanted to talk about what it was like to be a player facing these issues.
Example 1 - Dragon Attack
A couple weeks ago, we played the Dragon Attack scenario. The party is asked to help the town of Greenest as an Adult Blue Dragon attacks the city walls and proceeds to eat (or throw or drop) city guards.
To make it clear, you are a group of first level (with perhaps a couple second level) PCs meant to take on an Adult Blue Dragon. Guards are dying left and right and you know you are supposed to do something to save the guards and the town, but you have no idea what. Taking on the dragon is essentially instant death. His claw and bite attacks do double digit damage, enough to put down a low level PC in one hit, and the breath weapon does 66 damage. Not only will you be put down, you will be irrevocably dead, dead, DEAD, even if you save for half damage.
Half the party will likely be overcome with the dragon fear at the outset of the encounter rendering your PCs unable to do anything but pee their britches. Even if your PC makes the Wisdom save against the dragon fear, the player won't, since he will have little idea what to do in the scenario other than dying horribly in the jaws of a massive blue dragon.
As a player, this sucked.
The whole group of us sat around the table staring at one another and trying to throw out even the most ridiculous, lame ideas. It was probably close to a half hour (likely more) in table time while we floundered and guards died. We had no clues from the DM as to what to do. Luckily she was kind enough that some of the actions from a few PCs that might normally have resulted in instant death were essentially ignored by the dragon (she took pity on us).
I had a small amount of meta knowledge and knew that we might be able to parley with the dragon, but I didn't want to act on out-of-character information. So after quite a while waiting for someone else to think of something (when it was clear that we were getting nowhere and no one was having fun), I finally stepped forward and attempted a parley. I happened to roll a natural 20 on my Persuasion check (and I had a really good boot-licking speech), so I felt a bit better about cheating with my meta-game knowledge, but at that point, there was no fun to be had by anyone at the table and it was time to move on to something else.
I see a few major problems with this scenario:
1) The players are given no information at all that this encounter won't result in the deaths of most of the party. They are presented with a horrendously overpowering foe and told to stop it. So you are essentially asked to sacrifice your PC, or just run away. We had several players seriously suggest that we should leave the town to the dragon's marauding and fail the mission outright.
2) The DM was given little direction in the module on how she should handle hinting possible approaches to the problem. The party is just told to go fight an overwhelming foe with no way of knowing how.
3) This is a terrible scenario for a D&D Encounters style game because instead of the party working together toward a solution, it's basically up to a single player to come up with the idea and make a live-or-die skill check roll while the rest of the party watches. Alternatively, if the whole party actually takes on the dragon, they may be able to chase it off, but the breath weapon is going to insta-kill at least one PC, and likely a few combat rounds will result in multiple deaths.
In short, this whole encounter doesn't do anything to show new players how much fun D&D is. For a home game, it's less of an issue, but as a showcase for D&D, especially for new players, this episode does nothing to illustrate the "three pillars". The situation offered the PCs is the metaphorical irresistible force on the left and immovable object on the right.
But we're not actually done yet...
Example 2 - Half-Dragon Champion
So... as a player, this also sucked.
Basically, one player has to agree to die. It’s possible that the combat may result in just unconsciousness, but if Cyanwrath does enough damage to knock the PC to full negative HP, it becomes an outright kill. How is this fun for the group? There is no way to overcome this challenge. You are set up to fail in 1 to 2 rounds of combat. The only consolation is that the hostages are actually freed by the bad guys (which doesn’t really make much sense either). Not only that, but again, this encounter also focuses on a single PC. D&D Encounters, as an in-store play program, should strive to create gaming scenarios where all players get to participate in the scenes.
So it's a hard encounter. What the problem with that?
Let’s pretend I’m a new player wanting to check out D&D and I show up for this session. I drive out to the FLGS, and spend 2 hours not being a part of the action in any way. Instead, my PC stands around scared crapless in the first scene, or if I decide to act (being new and perhaps not realizing how dangerous it will be), I am immediately fried by 66 points of electrocution.
Assuming I survived the dragon encounter because I did nothing, in order to be involved in the next scene, I have to volunteer to be the PC sacrifice, or I sit on the sidelines again and continue to do nothing, watching someone else get cut down.
This is essentially the experience several players at the table had that night. They came to D&D Encounters to play D&D, and instead watched someone else offer to sacrifice themselves in two separate scenes in the same session.
If I were a new player, I'd be thinking “Why do all these people think this game is fun?” To me, it would look like it sucks @$$. I just wasted a few hours of my life doing nothing with a sheet of paper and some dice. Double plus ungood.
As I said, I love the D&D Encounters program, but it seems like instead of building encounters that would be good for group play, especially in a group of relative strangers, WotC was lazy and instead re-purposed an adventure module that is not the best fit for in-store play.
During the 4th Edition years, some of the D&D Encounters modules were highly prized on Ebay. Even though they ran on rails mostly, the encounter design was excellent. I’m going to use a dirty word here -- they were balanced. In a home game, you can throw in the occasional encounter that will smear the characters if they don’t avoid it… even a few no-win scenarios.
In a D&D Encounters season, where players are dropping in an out and occasionally miss several sessions over the course of the season, you need a fun, balanced batch of encounters, both combat and role playing in every game session because of the nature of the audience -- new players, lapsed players, or people who have fewer opportunities to play. You don’t want to ruin a player’s night with a crappy scenario when that player can only get out to a game about every other week at most. Every week should be a challenging, but not overwhelming, exciting and fun scenario. Sitting on your butt trying to work a way out of a Kobayashi Maru scenario is no fun.
And that is exactly what has happened to me in the last two sessions I attended. Because of a busy life, I get to attend a session about every other week, give or take. I will detail the second session I played in a follow-up post, but essentially, it was another situation that appeared to be a no-win. We managed to overcome it with stupid luck and a DM that was sympathetic to the our plight. At least in this session, everyone got to participate (mostly), but the encounter design was sub-optimal again.
It’s a shame, because it appears that I have missed a few of the sessions that actually had really fun scenarios for the players… Of the 3 sessions I’ve attended, my experience has been tarnished by two sessions that mostly sucked due to poor adventure design. I’ll be going back again, but not if I keep running into this.
D&D Encounters is not a home game, and the adventure designers need to shape the play to fit the audience. Based on my experience so far, I’m not sure Hoard of the Dragon Queen is the right fit. In the next installment, I will talk briefly about the scenario that did work... along with the second one that did not.
UPDATE: Please read my follow-up article, which will give a little more context and show ways I think D&D Encounters modules could be much improved. Thanks!