The fight ended with a hurrah around the table; Thomas, Dram, Baumain, Xori, and Vash were cheered by the townsfolk as the dragon fell to their blades, spells, and prayers. At tables around the room, similar cheers had been erupting every fifteen minutes or so. My table’s dragon was the last to fall.

Organized play is an interesting beast. We just completed our fourth season of
D&D Encounters: The Lost Crown of Neverwinter.

What is D&D Encounters?

D&D Encounters is a Wizards of the Coast program, where they provide game shops with a module, maps, characters, and other resources. Players pick up a pregen or bring their own characters; show up, sit down at a table with other players and a GM, and play.

Each week advances the story a little and provides an interesting fight. Players show up when they can make it, with little expectation of continuity. (Though many players enjoy playing with the same players and GMs each week when possible.) If your buddy’s in town, or your company party is tonight, no one’s counting on you–the adventure will continue without you and you’ll rejoin the next time your schedule allows.

Interestingly, two of our players played in Boston for a few weeks, before returning to Fresno. They were able to experience the same campaign in both cities. When they came to town, they already knew the backstory and had appropriate characters–since they’d been playing the same story elsewhere.

Distinctions of the Format

Encounters draws a different crowd. One of the key criteria for sticking around more than one season is your tolerance for “short story” style play. Many experienced players dislike abandoning their character after a dozen weeks–particularly when continuing means restarting at level one. After a few seasons, many regulars decide they’ve “done it”, they’ve experienced what the format has to offer, and they concentrate more on home games.

The low level and short cycle is deliberate. It’s very nice for introducing new players to the game. Since the adventures cap at level three, you’re never buried in character options. Similarly, the strong support (module, maps, adventure design, etc.) makes it easy to introduce new GMs to the role. Modules and a room full of GMs who have read the same adventure make great training wheels. Post game chats, GM to GM, are a big bonus that’s hard to replicate with home groups.

The story that emerges is coherent–often more coherent than a long campaign. It’s one clear story, rather than the epic story of a party’s many adventures. The deliberate boundaries make the hurrah at the end, when the story comes to an end, feel authentic.

What made this season different?

This season’s story was more complicated; unlike previous seasons, there were factions to interact with and schemes to unravel. While the added complexity made it interesting from the GM’s side and the frequently attending players enjoyed puzzling out how the factions interacted, it was harder to bring new players up to speed on “the story so far” mid-season.

What else is it good for?

Encounters is an interesting–and different–solution to Walt’s question in Party Game Style. Much like his game, there is a world of adventure that gets addressed week after week, despite varying players showing up at the table. In his solution, key characters provide continuity–even drafting other players into the portrayal so the character can attend when the player doesn’t. Encounters also ignores which players showed up which week, keeping overall story progress as something “the group” accomplishes, rather than looking to specific characters.

Encounters is the “traditional” solution to player absence, which works if the party’s actions are intrinsic to the world. (Evil is afoot; all right thinking heroes turn out to fight it.) Walt’s Party Style Game works for more sophisticated scenarios, where plots are driven by the characters’ backstory, experiences, and interactions. It doesn’t make sense dramatically for “the party” to solve the character Joe’s divorce problem if Joe’s not there. That’s when you make Joe’s participation mandatory…even if Joe’s regular player isn’t available.

Season In, Season Out

As mentioned at the top, I just completed my fourth season of GMing Encounters. I’m sure that there are experiences that I don’t even notice anymore, questions that don’t occur any longer. If you have questions about anything, please ask in comments!