Okay, so you may have seen that I am a bit... confrontational in my approach as a Game Master for D&D Encounters. In the first season, I tried to kill my players on a pretty regular basis. It was fun, especially for those players looking for something a bit more challenging in their weekly encounter.
The new season has been quite a bit rougher on player characters. Honestly, that's to be expected. Athas is a rough place. It's a world of hostile environments, hungry monsters, and evil plots. The world is actively trying to kill you. So yeah, it's expected that the D&D Encounters Adventure set in Dark Sun is going to be a much harder adventure to play through.
Today's encounter can kill entire groups of people before the party even has a chance to act. In a normal 5-person party, the encounter can dish out 9d6+9 damage on the first real turn. I know, because I did it. I killed four of the five characters before they had a chance to act. The last character, who gets to move when initiative is rolled, didn't stand a chance. The total-party kill took less than five minutes. It was my second TPK of the night.
Now, I'm fine with a total-party kill, but when an encounter kills two full parties right after one another, there is something drastically wrong with your encounter. I have to assume that the good folks at Wizards of the Coast did not playtest this adventure thoroughly before release. Each encounter has been difficult, some of them insanely so. I didn't actually get to play through the first encounter of this season, but I've heard it was intense. That encounter killed two parties as well, and that's a big deal.
Let's remember that D&D Encounters is meant to get new players into regular gaming, and to get players who haven't had a regular game in a while back into it. This is a really tough thing to try and balance; you need to create an adventure that is challenging enough to keep the old players interested, but easy enough that a crew of entirely new players stand a solid chance of victory. The level of challenge and the level of depth in an encounter need to be constantly weighed against these goals.
This week's encounter was not weighed against, well, anything. Between 18 and 63 damage is not balanced against a first level party. A +7 versus a non-armor defense score on a burst attack that deals 3d6 damage is not balanced against a first level party, especially when there are three of those attacks that can go off in a single turn. Having a surprise round that can only be countered by a Passive Perception score higher than any passive perception score possessed by the player characters is like ordering Game Masters to kill all of their players. Nothing about this was well thought out. If played as written, there is no way to survive this encounter.
Only one of our three groups survived the encounter, and that was mostly due to the soft touch of our volunteer Game Master, Dan. He only used one of the burst attacks, and it was still a rough fight. The first table I killed was one of our most experienced groups. They were down to a single villain, bloodied, when the last man went down. This encounter was a bloodbath.
If this is how Wizards is trying to bring new players into this game, this isn't the way to do it. One of my players actually said, and I quote "No one who has played this adventure is going to want to buy Dark Sun when it comes out."
That is not the reception you want from this initiative...