Sunday, July 1, 2012

On Running D&D Encounters

Regardless of all the hate the 4th Edition of D&D seems to garner, even among its own supporters with the sticky issue of Essentials, 4e will always hold a very special place for me as the game that got me back into playing tabletop rpg's. Around this time about on year ago a good friend of mine through a forum I frequent, knowing I used to play, began talking to me about 4e which he had been playing for awhile at that point. I had gotten out of the hobby when I began college primarily due to a lack of people to play games with. With people going off to colleges elsewhere my original group as it were from high school was pretty much separated. Stores for gaming around here seemed to come and go every few months so I never really had a chance to meet anyone else into tabletop rpg's.

He ended up telling me about the Encounters program for 4e and on a whim I decided to give it a try since a new season was just about to start. When I played the most during high school, I was always "that guy" who had to be the one running games. So for this return to tabletop rpg's, I had become convinced I would simply play to my heart's content and not worry about running things. How wrong I was. Encounters led to playing Living Forgotten Realms. LFR led to calls for additional DM's which led to the new group I was playing with learning that I had prior experience. Fast forward to today and I am now in my second season of running the Encounters program among other games.

That isn't to say I have hated being back in the DM seat. After my long hiatus looking back I had a feeling where it wasn't very fun to always be the one running things and never getting to play. I am not sure what a changed, but since running games again I have found a lot of fun can be found just from the DM seat itself. The storytelling aspect has always been one of my favorite parts to tabletop roleplaying games and I get a lot of entertainment putting forth situations at the players and seeing how they react and what they will do to solve things.

In any case, for the 8th season of D&D Encounters (The Elder Elemental Eye) I volunteered to run it at my FLGS. At that point I had played through the 6th and 7th seasons (Lost Crown of Neverwinter and Beyond the Crystal Cave respectively) start to finish and also had running several modules for LFR under my belt; so I felt ready enough. Things went well overall. It was definitely a learning experience as an ongoing game, even one encounter a week, certainly has some different tricks to it rather than running one shots. By this point I had seen enough of the Encounters program that, to me, there appeared to be a lot of flaws in the system. Being behind the DM screen only bolstered my feelings on some of these issues:

  • Combat was too easy: As a player, it was rare during the two seasons I played to feel challenged. To the credit of our group, we had some great players who could really get into the tactical focus of 4e's combat. Over the two seasons, we had maybe one or two close calls and a single TPK (though this was brought about from some unfortunate player-DM collusion; a story best kept for another day). As a DM, try as I might to take advantage of the tactics and tricks laid out for me in the module there was just no pulling them off against the players. I fiddled with numbers all season bumping attack bonuses, adding damage dice, etc. and so forth. It was definitely something that called for more thought, but the bottom line was that for a balanced (IE: roles) party of skilled players running even moderately optimized characters the modules as written were not challenging enough.
  • It was hard to keep track of the story for players since Encounters is a weekly game that rolls on no matter who turns out: While it is also a benefit to know that if nothing else there is always a weekly game of D&D out there in the world anyone can play in, the drop-in/drop-out nature of Encounters can be problematic. Even players sometimes complained that it was hard to keep track of major NPC's; particularly when there were many and/or some were only introduced in a single session. Starting with Season 08 WOTC seemed to have acknowledged this issue as each session began with a summary of the previous. This sparked an idea for me and I set about solving it. Our store keeps a Facebook group for our roleplaying group which makes it easy to post events or information on upcoming games. Utilizing the document option for our group I created a doc that would be used to not only post the summaries for each chapter, but also list important locations and NPC's. Though the summaries were rather barebones, it was well received.
  • Ran as is, Encounters does not support a lot of roleplaying: That might be a controversial opinion and to be honest a lot of it does depend both on who is at the DM seat and those playing, but I feel it is still a valid complaint. Everyone has their own opinion and what they enjoy most, but much of Encounters felt like it came down to hacking and slashing towards a goal. There is nothing wrong with that play style, but as a jumping on point for potential new players Encounters should give those involved a full taste of the D&D experience. I could list numerous issues that contribute to breaking up the roleplaying. Every season I have seen thus far by default places the party as essentially being Sellswords; any greater tie to the story at hand comes from the table itself. For me, it just never felt like there was that much connection to the story for my characters. There were attempts in Neverwinter with the use of the Themes (and to some degree they have tried that since), but they were loose at best. It is also hard to keep a flowing story going along when a character can be there one week and vanish the next. I find a lot of other little issues as well. For example, the fact that players are supposed to be allowed to spend their gold between Chapters on supplies/equipment but nine times out of ten the breaks between chapters seem to fall in the middle of a dungeon or wilderness; hence, it is impossible from a story perspective to do so without the DM working something in. That never sat well with me as if you just allowed players to purchase things regardless of the story, that only sort of furthers that notion out there of 4e being equivalent to a MMORPG.
  • Each new season is a reboot: I understand why WOTC does this. Encounters is their welcome program to hook new players and introduce people to D&D. What about once they have become veterans? Yes, they can move to home games or LFR. However, why can't Encounters cater to the veterans as well? We have actually lost long term players in the Encounters program due to the tedium of always having to revert back to level 1 and start over knowing you will do the same thing again a few months down the road. Don't get me wrong, that has its bonuses. I find that every class in 4e is very unique and fun to play in their own way so it's nice to have an excuse to try more out. However, there is still a certain tedious feeling there. Naturally, a DM with the resources to do so (read: WOTC's online tools) could scale up the modules but as someone who was only going to invest in the online features or the books and picked the books my die has been cast. I feel like WOTC should take a page from the LFR modules being put out. The new year 3 modules cater to an entire tier of play and have alternative stats for encounters so you can run it for lower and higher levels. Would it really be that much of a hassle to tack on an extra page or two per combat to support the next set of levels? I think even being able to carry the same character over through two seasons of Encounters would feel much better as a player.
That seems like a lot of complaining, but I really do enjoy the Encounters program. As Season 08 wore on, I saw dwindling numbers at the tables for a variety of reasons. I ran the final session, which was billed as a sort of tie-in/prologue to the next season, for two players running multiple characters so we could finish the story off. I had already volunteered to soldier on with the next season, particularly due to enjoying drow so much and being aware of the whole "Rise of the Underdark" promotion WOTC had planned, but I knew something had to change. I put out a call for feedback on the Encounters program and mostly got back the same feelings I already had. Combat needed to be more challenging, more roleplaying would be nice, the summary document had been helpful, skill challenges needed to be less tedious, etc. Clearly, we were all on the same page.

So I made a commitment to make the next season of Encounters the best it could be. Both for my own enjoyment and hopefully for those at the table. I have a bad habit of being wordy and this post is starting to wear quite a bit long, so I'm going to end by cross-posting my summary document from Season 8 of Encounters. How is Web of the Spider Queen going for my table? A thousand times better; I have been having a blast with this season. More on that soon and hopefully once I have caught up on matters with Encounters, I will post weekly write-ups of our sessions:

D&D Encounters Season 08:
The Elder Elemental Eye

-Iriaebor:  A large city in Sunset Vale in the Western Heartlands region of Faerûn. It stands on a sprawling ridge above the north fork of the river Chionthar. It is known as the Overland City and the City of a Thousand Spires. The ridge itself is known locally as The Tor. Ruled by Lord Bron and his wife who carefully follows the dictates of a forty person voting Merchant Council.

-Easting: A city built at the crossroads where the High Road to Cormyr splits from the Trader's Road to Westgate. The village acts as an important stop along this trade route. Also holds a lavish temple to Chauntea. Recently, it has been plagued with outbreaks of Abyssal Plague.

-Sunset Shrine: An acient temple located roughly a day's travel south of Easting in the badlands around Land's Mouth. The entrance is easily noticeable by the landmark dubbed the Teeth of Ghaunadaur: a set of black spires that look like tentacles, especially under the light of the moon.

-Lady Bron: Member of the Merchant Council and one of the leaders of Iriaebor. She has hired the party to investigate the outbreak of Abyssal Plague in Easting paying 50 gp in advance and promising 50 gp for resolving the source of the problem; if discovered. She leaves the party to put an end to the disease in whatever means they see fit.

-Chauntea: Also known as the Grain Goddess or the Great Mother. The goddess of life and a parallel deity to Silvanus, who is considered the god of wild nature, whilst Chauntea herself is seen as being the embodiment of all things agrarian or agriculture. She is a goddess of agriculture, plants cultivated by humans, farmers, gardeners, and summer.

-Father Evendur: An elderly man with cropped gray hair and a weathered face. He has an aquiline nose and sharp green eyes that always seem to be measuring the worth of those Evendur looks at. A simple brown robe and leather sandals are his only posessions. He is a patient, calm man with a  deep love for the land and life. He has lived in Easting for nearly fifty years. In that time, he has come to know every villager by name and is respected, if not liked, by all.

-Sir Arveen: A sturdy woman in her thirties. She has long braided blond hair, feverish (though no longer) blue eyes, and at first meeting the signs of blisters on her hands and face indicative of the Abyssal Plague. Armed with a bastard sword and dagger, she wears plate armor and the tabard of the Purple Dragon Knights of Cormyr. She has pledged to protect Easting, and she has lived in the village for two years. Her sense of duty is strong, but the disease has been distorting her perceptions. Thanks to the actions of the party in Session 1, enough residuum was gathered for Father Evendur to cast Cure Disease and free Arveen from the Abyssal Plague. As the heroes set out for the Sunset Shrine, Arveen has sent her squire Hendar to notify Iriaebor of what has transpired.

-Jakairn (Jack): A red haired Dwarf the heroes encountered during Session 1. Lurking in the shadows of the barn, he assisted the demons in their fight against the party. However, facing death he quickly surrendered claiming he was forced to act against them and that he held valuable information regarding the Abyssal Plague outbreak. He is a pot-bellied redheaded dwarf of about 30 years and seems to be easily frightened and quite paranoid. In truth, he is a local tinker; a fact confirmed by Evendur. He is also a mamber of of Clan Sabrak working under his brothers Zarnak and Azryg acting as a spy keeping watch on Easting and the surrounding areas near the Sunset Shrine. In exchange for assurance of his life and a fair trial for his crimes against Easting, Jakairn (Jack) gave the party clear directions to the Sunset Temple along with other information about Clan Sabrak.

-Azryg: The middle brother between Jakairn and Zarnak. Jakairn described him as a skilled sorcerer as powerful as a volcano and with a temper to match. He also revealed that Azryg has control and command over some Elementals. He met his death when the party entered the Sunset Shrine as he battled to prevent their advance.

-Zarnak: The eldest brother of Jakairn and Azryg and leader of Clan Sabrak. Zarnark gave a vial to Jakairn and had him pour it in the central spring at Easting to spread the Abyssal Plague. Zarnark is a Seer and his visions guide Clan Sabrak. Jakairn suspects that Zarnak has some sort of cure or control over the Plague itself. Zarnak's visions have guided the Clan into worshiping "That Which Lurks." He desires to spread the Plague in the name of "That Which Lurks" with each victim a sacrifice.

-Ghaunadaur: The greater god of oozes and aberrant creatures. Titled by some as "That Which Lurks." Ghaunadaur revels in suffering and his symbol is an unblinking eye within a circle. Ghaunadaur was an unpredictable deity. False worshipers were sometimes rewarded by it, occasionally even with permanent magical boons, but they might just as well have been devoured by the Elder Eye without a second thought. Ghaunadaur enjoyed watching large horrible monsters as they hunted and devoured their prey, causing much suffering. When Ghaunadaur left the Inner Planes he was always silent, but some old records mention a gibbering and bestial language being spoken in the god's court. When communicating Ghaunadaur used telepathy and kept its conversations blunt and simple.

-Tharizdun: A deity whose name the party encountered while trapped within the Mindscape recreation of Easting. A temple to Tharizdun replaced the original temple they had encountered in the real world. This name is associated with an isolated demonic cult long ago in Chessenta and more recently to Akanûl.

-Chalindra: female Drow and leader of the small scouting party encountered in the Badlands near the Sunset Shrine. As is typical of her people she is arrogant and sexist against males. She prefers to only speak with other females during negotiations. Aggressive, cruel and predatory, Chalindra cannot help but disturb surface dwellers with her presence. The party discovered that she and her partner Tebrizz had been assigned to watch the trade roads around Easting taking note of the activity of a variety of factions. This included Zarnak's cult as well as the movements of any military strength.

-Tebrizz: A male Drow who acts as a bodyguard and servant to Chalindra. In conversation he is straightforward, but will always defer to Chalindra unless she is inconscious or other incapable of speaking. He is stoic and disciplined, respecting strength wherever it is found but is also prone to bloodlust.

Chapter 1
Session 1: Easting Plague
-The Merchant Council and Lady Bron of Iriaebor asked the party to investigate an outbreak of Abyssal Plague in the village of Easting.
-The adventurers found the rumors to be true and Easting in the grip of fear.
-The village's leaders, Father Evendur and Sir Arveen, gathered the infected in one place but were unsure what to do next. Arveen, infected herself, wanted to kill the plague victims, but Evendur objected. They asked the adventurers for advice.
-Before the heroes made a decision, a few victims turned into demons and attacked.
-After the battle, the heroes captured one of the villagers, the dwarf Jakairn (Jack), alive. He is somehow in league with the demons.

Session 2: Across the River
-Jakairn (Jack) was revealed to be a local tinker known to the village acting at the behest of his elder brothers who lead a cult in the area.
-The cult is devoted to Ghaunadaur, greater god of oozes and aberrant creatures, and seems to be responsible for the plague in Easting.
-Jakairn (Jack) revealed the location of the cult's temple, the Sunset Shrine, in the badlands south of Easting.
-As the heroes set out for the Sunset Shrine, having decided to kill those farthest along in infection, insane dwarven cultists attacked them while trying to cross a river on their way to the badlands.

Session 3: The Hills Have Eyes
-After the run in with the dwarven cultists, the party continued on their quest to the Sunset Shrine.
-Along the way they were forced to brave the harsh environment of the Badlands.
-The party had a run in with two Drow Scouts, Chalindra and Tebrizz. The duo were seemingly spying on not only Zarnak's cult, but also the trade roads around Easting and any movements of military strength or caravans. This was on order of their superior officers and the exact purpose for this information was something the two were not privy to. The party spared them in exchange for this info and directions on to the Sunset Shrine.
-After a bit more travel, the party discovered the Sunset Shrine located between the Teeth of Ghaunadaur. They camped for the night preparing to delve within the following day.

Chapter 2 
Session 4: Sunset Shrine
-At the dawn of a new day, the party discovered the entrance to the Sunset Shrine.
-After disabling the glyph enchanted on the door, which was put in place to deter intruders, the party fought Elemental guardians of Air and Earth laying in wait around the Shrine as a final defense against anyone trying to enter.
-A doorway into the Shrine now stands open.

Session 5: Visions of Doom
-Entering the shrine, the party found various statues of humanoids. As they descended further in, their design began to take on more and more aspects of aberrant creatures.
-The party explored some of the temple's interior while encoutering a group of dwarven cultists awaiting them in the entrance hall. They were led by Azryg who fought to the death trying to stop the heroes advance. Zarnak was present as well, mentioning that he had foreseen the party's arrival before retreating deeper into the shrine.
-Exploring the eastern side of the shrine, the party encountered a captured hermit named Malgrym. After treating his injuries and setting him free, Malgrym gave the party info about the Great Shrine and its guardian (a monstrous blue ooze), the Black Cyst and the source of the abyssal plague.

Session 6: Exploring the Shrine
-The party began exploring to look for the location of Zarnak and the entrance to travel deeper inside the temple.
-In the central shrine, where information suggests is the entrance to the inner-temple as well as the ominous blue altar, the party encountered another band of Zarnak's cultists.
-After defeating them, an eerie silence filled the room.

Session 7: Shrine Guardian 
-Exploring the central shrine for signs of Zarnak, the party awakened the Great Shrine's guardian: a massive blue ooze with ice-based abilities. It immediately sealed off the exits with ice walls trapping the party as it also created tentacles from the pools of water within the area to support its assault.
-The party managed to defeat the ooze. Beneath its original resting place they discovered a spiral staircase that descended deeper into the earth leading to the lower temple.
-The party set up camp in the central shrine to rest before they continue their adventure further in pursuit of Zarnak.

Chapter 3
Session 8: Grip of Madness
-Proceeding below into the basement of the Sunset Shrine the party searched for the Temple of the Eye.
-The party split up exploring four different paths to advance futher in.
-Each path was themed around a certain element (Fire, Air, Water and Earth) which used illusions to try and stop the party's advance.
-Despite this trouble, the party found the inner Temple and faced off against more plague demons and elemental creatures guarding the black obelisk at the center of the shrine.
-After their victory, the party discovered a portal on the face of the obelisk as the only unexplored path from the room.

Session 9: Waking Nightmare
-With no other options for pursuing Zarnak, the party entered the portal.
-The party then found them trapped in a nightmare version of Easting. As the party explored the area, the party questioned various theories for the occurrence including time travel and parallel dimensions.
-In truth, the party had been trapped within a mindscape crafted by a Nothic Mindwarp as a final line of defense against the heroes advance.
-At the barn where the heroes first encountered plague beasts, the party discovered the Mindwarp and its servants. After dispatching it, the mindscape began to crumble.
-Freed from the mindwarp, the party found themselves in the true heart of the temple standing before Zarnak himself.

Session 10: The Black Cyst
-Face to face with the leader of Clan Sabrak, Zarnak seemed confused as to why the Elder Elemental Eye had still not awakened. Interested with the party and their goals, Zarnak questioned why they had come and their loyalty to Iraebor's Merchant Council. This eventually led to an offer to support Clan Sabrak rather than complete their mission.
-After much discussion, the party decided to put an end to Zarnak and his ambitions regardless of how lavish an offer he could make. If left unchecked, Zarnak's power would grow to eventually become unstoppable.
-After defeating Zarnak, the party was left with the source of the Abyssal Plague: the Voidharrow Basin. Through it, the Abyssal Plague was leaking in from another dimension. Utilizing all of the party's skills, the group sealed Voidharrow Basin and removed the threat of Abyssal Plague.
-The return to Easting was uneventful. The party was welcomed as heroes and offered to stay the night before their return to Iraebor. Jakairn Sabrak had vanished the day before the heroes return. He harmed no one, but left a dagger near Father Evendur's bed as he slept as if a warning that he openly chose to leave without causing mayhem.

Session 11: Tharizdun's Wrath
-The party returned to Iraebor with a signed letter from Father Evendur recounting their heroic deeds. Lady Bron thanked the heroes and rewarded them the 50 gold originally promised for resolving this matter. As an added reward, the party was offered a month's room and board at the Wandering Wyvern; one of the city's finest inns.
-One night, while recounting tales of their adventure within the Wandering Wyvern, the party was approached by a mysterious hooded figure who seemed interested in their stories of adventure. In truth, this was the drow Chalindra approaching the party to anonymously impart some information that would be of interest.
-Chalindra, in disguise, informed the party that the Elder Elemental Eye is also known as the Chained God, Tharizdun. She thanked the party for their efforts to stop Clan Sabrak and preventing the awakening of the Chained God. However, she informed the party that a small band of cultists that worship the Chained God had been stalking them since the heroes arrived in Iraebor. Their leader, Vlondril was exceedingly dangerous. Having given her message, Chalindra departed vanishing into the crowd.
-Drawn outside by a ox-pulled cart crashing into one of the city's fountain, the party found themselves ambushed by Vlondril and several of her cultists. Able to feign her own death, Vlondril made use of every trick available to end the party's life. Even she and her cultists were somehow brought back to life after their initial defeat. Ultimately, the party triumphed stopping the attack in the streets.
-Though the ambush was stopped, it was clear that Vlondril and her small cult might only be the vanguard of a larger force in the region...

No comments:

Post a Comment