I was incorrect when I called the last season of D&D Encounters "the Drow Season". That moniker should have been reserved for this season, the drow-iest thing that Wizards possibly could have conceived. As a sort of sequel to Web of the Spider Queen, Council of Spiders had us take a look at the same events and conflict from the other side. It was actually a nice storytelling move, tying two seasons of Encounters together with the same plot thread, and it gave both seasons a narrative consistency unprecedented in Encounters so far.
It also called for the characters all to play as drow.
Okay, playing as a drow wasn't per se required. We could have also played as one of the drow "servitor" races--svirfneblin, goblin, duergar, and the like. But I wasn't about to mess around with any of that. If we were playing a drow campaign, it was time to go big or go home and play my first drow character ever. Striker was the next role in my character rotation, and obviously the drow aren't well-suited to be the sort of striker that swings around a massive two-handed greatsword. Plus, it was whispered that this season was going to be a bit more roleplaying-heavy than the recent seasons. I decided to go with a rogue, a stealthy character just as comfortable her stabbing enemies in the back as sneaking around and stealing treasure or secrets.
Ilivara Melarn, I decided, would be the daughter of Garam Melarn, a great captain who slew many elves in the wars a hundred years ago. A female of the noble House Melarn, she was originally intended for the priesthood, but (as the proud owner of 8 Wisdom) she was pretty terrible at it, decided to enroll in Melee-Magthere, and followed in her father's martial footsteps. She had a bit of an authority problem, thinking that being a female of noble blood, she should be in control of every situation, and she pointedly acted in the interests of her House, even if it meant going against the rest of the party.
And, I have to admit, I really enjoyed playing her. She did insane amounts of damage, befitting her role as a 4E striker. She didn't get to steal as many things as I might have liked, but it was a lot of fun to act out her sass and rebellious streak. And it was hilarious to be able to play up every drow stereotype that exists, a chance I haven't gotten often but really dug into with some delightful irony. Even if we're enjoying the game ironically, we're still enjoying it!
It was a short season, only eight sessions instead of the usual eleven to thirteen, but it didn't feel like much was missing. By now, every Encounters player has gone through the levels-1-through-3 motions enough times that it seems routine if not necessarily stale. Rather than padding an eight-session story with extraneous encounters to bring it up to "normal" length, this season told a faster-paced (if slightly shorter) story, and it worked out well.
Definitely the most original and fun part of Council of Spiders was the "secret orders" mechanic. New to Encounters, these orders came up as part of which of three factions each character decided to align himself (or herself!) with. The secret orders led to a lot of chicanery among the party, and our DM was kind enough to provide us with "skullduggery" index cards where we could write actions unseen by the rest of the table and accomplish our goals unbeknownst to anyone else.
The combat encounters were pretty unremarkable, but it's worth pointing out that unlike many seasons, Council of Spiders had a pure-roleplaying session, when our characters were trying to convince the eponymous Council of the right course of action toward the end of the season. It was a refreshing change from the pure-combat nature of most Encounters seasons, but at the same time, it felt unorganized, an obvious departure from the style of the system. Those obvious departures are only going to become more frequent next season, as Encounters clearly gears up for a full-blown transition to D&D Next.
Final Thoughs (and Outlook)
It wouldn't be too dramatic to say that the drow arc of Encounters (spanning last season, this one, and next season) is the beginning of the end of 4th Edition. We're seeing the freest experimentation with the format in Encounters' history coupled with a storyline that purports to create actual permanent change in D&D's most iconic campaign setting. These three seasons have been devoid of any new "crunch" content for new character classes, races, or anything else. All of that put together suggests that the times are changing in Encounters. It's exciting to be part of it.
Given that the days of 4E Encounters might be numbered, I'm taking the opportunity to make a change of my own: I'll be DMing the next season! I've DM'ed exactly one session of 4th Edition, and that was about four years ago. Next season, War of Everlasting Darkness (yep, it's actually called that), promises to feature the "exploration" and "interaction" pillars of D&D in equal measure with "combat," which sounds like exactly my thing.