With Season 4 (March of the Phantom Brigade) of Dungeons and Dragons Encounters (DDE) now completed I wanted to take a moment to collect my thoughts and write a review. I had previously participated one night during the Dark Sun season (DDE Season 3) at a Comic Connections in Oswego IL, but with job and family situations lining up as they did I was able to participate in all thirteen Wednesday night sessions of Season 4. Beyond that I have played DnD for 25+ years, almost exclusively with the same group of people, so it's always good to play something new with a different set of players every once in awhile.
First of all, the whole DDE Season 4 experience was totally enjoyable. There were several elements that went into making this fun.
Our game night host, The Gaming Goat, in Elgin IL proved to be an excellent host. Despite having just opened for business in January of this year they made all the necessary preparations to allow us to start the season on time on Wednesday, February 9. The store set-up allowed us plenty of space to push together two tables and give the DDE players more than enough space to spread out and to still allow plenty of space for the other activities in the store. There were always Magic games being played whenever our DDE sessions were in play, so the store was routinely a beehive of activity.
Our DM, Jack, also did an excellent job running the adventure. Besides giving a regular weekly event for gamers to get together at their favorite local game store (FLGS) DDE is also intended to serve as a way for new players to be introduced to the game. With a wide variance in gaming experience sitting around him Jack was easily able to blend in the experienced players in with the less experienced to ensure the adventure was run smoothly and to ensure a good time was had by all. Jack was also able to marshal resources as needed - Steve provided the miniatures, I was able to help with the maps for several of the sessions - plus he was able to adjust from week to week dependent upon who was able to attend that week. We only had enough players for two tables twice over the thirteen weeks and both times Steve put down his character sheet to DM the second table.
The players themselves mostly consisted of those with considerable 4E and RPG experience, but also included some who had never played DnD/4E or only had a limited exposure to RPG games. The more experienced players helped the newer ones get going and after a round or two our new friends were able to easily jump in full speed ahead in the encounter at hand. The experienced players were able to meld their various own playing backgrounds and styles to work together to make the whole season a pleasant experience for all. I do worry about a disparate group of players being brought together like this but my worries were for naught - everyone played together well and there was no rancor or animosity among the group.
As for the adventure itself, it was fine. There is an inherent limitation to story telling in the "one encounter per evening once per week" format, but having said that the encounters were level appropriate and challenging. Over the course of the second half of the thirteen weeks we would routinely have 2-3 characters knocked unconscious, but it was also routine that teammates would step in and help as needed. Remember - we were the group that revived Splintershield three times during the encounter in which he was actually supposed to have died. Another positive was the each encounter session included a specific game element that the DM could use to drive role-playing instead of just hacking and slashing through whoever stood in front of us.
The pre-generated characters that came with the adventure packet were well-rounded and more than sufficient. The DDI Character Builder tool included the pre-gens characters as choices on their opening screen, thus making it easy for any one using the pre-gen characters to print out a full size character sheet (instead of the laminated card) but to also allow the player to up-level their character as needed. Most of the experienced players in our sessions created and used their own characters, although some of the players exhibited a willing flexibility with their character choices to ensure the party makeup was well rounded.
Now that Season 4 has been completed, why aren't this adventure and its predecessors downloadable (free?) from the Wizards website, including the maps and the pre-gen characters?
Apparently in earlier DDE seasons characters were automatically leveled up at the end of each chapter, but this season the characters earned XP and were leveled up whenever they happened to have accrued enough XP. The way this worked out is those that attended every session leveled up one encounter into both chapters 2 and 3. This also meant that, since not every player attended every session, that in our case when we faced the final encounter we had characters at 1st, 2nd, and 3rd level. The chapters were designed to be tougher as you went through them as well, so if the point was to introduce new players to the game throwing a newby 1st level player into the heat of a battle at a much tougher level than he might normally be ready for would be a bit tough.
The adventure consisted of three "chapters", with chapters 1 and 2 consisting of four encounters and chapter 3 consisting of five encounters. Extended rests occurred between chapters, so even though short rests occurred between encounters it was safe to say that by the end of a chapter each character was pretty drained of powers and hit points. As much as I like the idea of rewarding those that showed up every week with the requisite number of XP, perhaps for a "friendly format" such as this it might be better if every character arbitrarily was leveled up at the end of each chapter.
Part of the adventure packet provided to the game stores were Fortune Cards. The DM's were provided packs that could be distributed to players before every game (and collected back at the end of the evening). The overall reaction from the players was: meh. The most common response among our group of players was "I forgot to even look at the card."
Several points are due here. First of all the card distribution were pretty random. If my Paladin drew a card that didn't particularly mesh with his characters skills and abilities it was pretty much a wasted card. Once that happened 2-3 cards in a row ... well, it turned into a "who cares" situation.
On the other hand Steve had invested his own money and bought cards and built himself a deck that had boons tailored specifically toward his character's clerical abilities. This was almost too much in the other direction - Steve always seemed to have a card (or two) available that brought a considerable bonus to whatever action he was attempting. I guess my concern here is that 4E already has enough problems with power creep and being able to explicitly tailor additional boons seemed a bit over the top.
It was nice our DM was able to provide Fortune Cards to the players for their use, but I am not sure I would require my players to acquire cards to build their own deck, I also don't think I'd allow one player to use fortune cards when the other players aren't - I'm not sure it would really be fair. It's almost an "all or nothing" situation. I'm glad I got the opportunity to try them out, but yeah, "Meh."
In conclusion I must say that overall this was a tremendous experience that I truly enjoyed. I recommend that if you are interested that as a minimum you find a local game shop and go and play one Wednesday night and try it out. Unfortunately I will not be able to participate in the next season in a full-time fashion due to new job responsibilities, although I hope to attend a few of the sessions over the course of the summer.
So, speaking of what's next, what's next? DDE Season 5 will start this next Wednesday (May 11, 2011) with the Dark Legacy of Evard adventure. This adventure will utilize the new character data available in Heroes of Shadow source book and The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond boxed set (release date May 17, 2011). I am assuming the DM's will be provided with several packs of Despair Deck's, kind of the opposite of Fortune Cards in that they inflict minor penalties on characters that can turn into boons once the hinderances are overcome. Supposedly this would allow the DM to bring in the sense of danger and foreboding that the Shadowfell (or Ravenloft) is supposed to have on its visitors. I am definitely interested in seeing how the cards from the Despair Deck play out in a game setting.