Thursday, January 10, 2013

D&D Encounters: War of Everlasting Darkness (Part 1: the Season)

Last December, D&D Encounters concluded probably its most ambitious experiment yet: an arc of three seasons that told different sides of the same (very drow-y) story. The first, Web of the Spider Queen, started the story with the PCs as crusading anti-drow heroes; the second, Council of Spiders, turned the tables and had the PCs play as a bunch of villainous drow. The third and most recent (and most ridiculously named), War of Everlasting Darkness, wrapped things up by putting the PCs back on the anti-drow side, though the drow were mostly a background, behind-the-scenes threat for a sizable chunk of the season.

This seven-month-long drow arc saw quite a few D&D firsts for me: the first time I've played the game with my girlfriend (!), the first time in my twelve-year history with the game that I've actually played as a drow character, and the first time I've DMed an extended 4th Edition campaign. I was an early supporter of 4th Edition, believing that it was just as fun as the game's previous incarnations (albeit in a different way), but the constant Encounters grind of "make a 1st-level character, advance to 3rd, and do it all again" started to get old. When our usual Encounters DM, Matt, offered to let me DM this season, I jumped at the chance, mostly to get to do something different for a change.

The Season

Structured entirely differently from previous Encounters seasons, this one had us play eight sessions, with each character gaining a level after every one. That meant we actually got to explore levels 4-8, unprecedented in Encounters-land. The leveling schedule was clearly accelerated, with all the experience-point math hand-waved, but neither players nor DM seemed to mind too terribly much. It was yet another piece of evidence in favor of a DMing strategy I prefer: keep the XP behind the scenes, and tell players when they've gained a level. No player likes being 50 XP short of a new level, and no DM wants to have to design his game around that possibility.

I found the game exceedingly easy to run, though that's not saying much since the War of Everlasting Darkness module told me what to do at every turn. To keep the game dynamic, I did go "off-module" more than most DMs might have: if the characters had a clever solution to an ostensible combat encounter that didn't involve fighting, I let them pursue it. If they had a creative skill to use in a skill challenge that wasn't explicitly enumerated in the module, I let them use it.

My table composition changed more drastically from week to week than I might have liked: one week, we had twelve people show up with all the combat roles at least doubly covered, and we had to split into two tables. The next week, without warning, we were down to three (naturally, two of whom were playing strikers). But lack of continuity is a hallmark of Encounters, often leading to more humorous self-effacing comments (looks like Marshall's character was too busy drinking with his new dwarf buddies to join us this time!) than actual confusion. And in a season like this one, where each session happens in a different place and time, it's even more plausible that a certain character might be missing.

All in all, I had a fantastic time DMing. Of course, the situations I created and the story I told was only part of it. A far bigger reward was knowing my players had a good time. Comments like "we quit our other weekly game because Encounters here has much better DMs" and "I really appreciate all the extra work you've put into this game beyond just what's in the book" make me know I've done a good job.