Dragon Magazine used to have this kick-ass series of articles about the Adventure Paths that were running in Dungeon Magazine that same month. The format was, admittedly, quite different from the D&D: Encounters format, in that the Adventure Paths tended to focus on an entire story arc rather than a single encounter, but I think there are cool things to be learned from D&D: Encounters and the way the good folks at Wizards have put together their initiative. Encountering D&D is a weekly article that discusses the coolest points of each week's session.
One of the cool things about this chapter of Keep on the Borderlands is that it's bringing back elements of previous encounters, depending on how those elements were handled in earlier chapters. In Encounter 5-17, both Moxulhar and Vermastyx play a part in the unfolding battle, assuming you let both survive. In this week's Encounter, Ferdinand Ronnick is back, again assuming you let him live Way Back in the Day (Chapter 2).
For an adventure designed for beginning players, this is a surpassingly next-level Dungeon Mastery maneuver. Chris Simms is not an adventure designer to be fucked with, ladies and gentlemen; this guy knows exactly what he's doing when it comes to making your adventures cohesive and interesting. Sometimes, game masters forget about things like this; bringing back story elements from the Before Times is a great way to give your world and your story some cohesion. And having the villain from the first couple of chapters come back as an underpowered ally later is a quick-and-dirty way to show some character growth and development, things that most role-playing games lose in a haze of Cheetoes and Mountain Dew-flavored Monty Python quotations.
Other Things to be Learned From This Encounter:
Sometimes, the bad guys aren't just sitting around waiting for you to come in and kill them. Sometimes, as you're killing bad guys, more bad guys show up. Sometimes, there are huge waves of bad guys waiting in the wings, and if you don't kill them quickly enough, you are going to get overwhelmed. And sometimes, the answer isn't just stabbing the bad guys to death; sometimes you need to get creative and find a new way to stop them from showing up. Close the portal, block the cave entrance, drop a house on their way in, pile the bodies in front of the door, light a huge cart full of horse dung on fire and roll it up to the gate. This sort of thinking should be encouraged. Give players who come up with these sorts of ideas bonuses to doing whatever it is they're trying to do.
One thing I would suggest to budding adventure designers, though, is this: Provide more than one victory condition. If knocking down Benwick's house is the only way to stop the onslaught of bad guys, then there should be a few ways to make that happen. The catapult is one, how about setting the house on fire as another? Pushing a cart in front of the door and guarding the windows? As with any situation that has the potential to completely overwhelm the player-characters, there need to be a variety of ways to keep that overwhelming from happening. I actually had to tell the players in my second flight to get the catapult after the house; they completely ignored the clues and were happy to just bash in heads ad infinitum.
From My Table to Yours:
When it was finally brought to the players’ attention that the catapult could be used to destroy the house, and thus stave off the waves of bad guys that were flooding in through it, I decided that the guys on the walls manning the thing were going to be having a smoke break, talking about their kids and the state of the Lord’s marriage. There are times when I like to infuse little modern bits like this into my games. It gives completely useless side characters some depth, gives your world a bit of a relatable edge, and gives you the opportunity to throw some humor into your gaming.
Dragging people around in nets was way less productive than I wanted it to be. I think next time, I’ll be making drag attacks like that deal damage, like getting hauled behind a horse or something.
Before Playing With Them:
I got in a preview box of D&D Fortune Cards in the mail this week. One of the perks of being the games manager at a FLGS is that Wizards of the Coast sometimes mails me stuff for free, and then I get to try it out and see how it goes. Yesterday I opened two packs of them, and I will be giving a pack each to my players at D&D: Encounters tonight (we haven't actually played yet, as of this writing; I will write a short review of how they played after the second flight is done). My initial thoughts on the product:
1) It has fewer options than I am immediately happy with. You get one card in your hand at any one time, and that card is determined randomly (you shuffle your deck then draw one). The chances that the card you pull is going to be useful are pretty low. At first look, I'm thinking that a hand of three cards would add utility to the product without over-powering it.
2) Monsters don't get cards. Whenever you add utility to player characters without adding equal or greater utility to the monsters they're fighting, you are making encounters easier. While I'm all for a certain level of ease in the Encounters initiative (re: Dark Sun), I think that this season has been generally underpowered and have had to make adjustments to make the challenges more... well, challenging. My monsters will be using Fortune Cards, but will stick to the one-card-in-your-hand rule to keep it balanced (as more monsters have access to the DM's hand, making it more likely to be relevant).
3) The back of the card is pretty. The face of the card is not. The card-front looks like it was designed by the same guy who designed the Vangard card-frame for Magic: The Gathering, which is my least favorite of the frame designs in that game. From the company that puts out card designs like the Future Shifted cards or the Planeswalker frames, the fortune cards lack 'production value.'
After Playing with Them:
1) Do these actually add anything to the game? One of my players complained about the increased amount of system required to use the cards while they didn't actually change the game all that much. The most positive reviews the cards got were "They were useful sometimes." One of the Game Masters for the first flight remarked that the encounters would need to be scaled up significantly whenever the cards were used, as the occasional power-up was still enough to make tonight's Encounter a cakewalk.
2) People forget about them. This is pretty similar to the major problem facing Ongoing Damage. No one remembers that the mechanic exists until about halfway through their turn, or even after their turn is over. Doing things like this at the beginning of your turn seems to go against the grain of the game; the play-flow of D&D 4E seems oriented todwards Standard/Move/Minor -> Bookkeeping -> End of Turn Effects. Players (and DMs, including myself) consistently forget about Auras, Ongoing Damage, and now cards, because all of those things seem like they should live in the middle or end phase of your turn flow.
3) It works better with more options, but also bogs the game down. We tried both the one-card variant and the three-card variant, and both versions of the rule (the former is the official, the latter is something suggested to me by my rep at Wizards) bogged the game down considerably. People read the cards, and that takes a few seconds. They also have to consider how the card is going to interact with their plan for the turn. In a game where combat already takes for bloody ever, it seems strange to want to bog the game down as much as the cards do. Moreover, the cards seem to slow the speed of choice to a crawl, so much so that I actually had to start counting down when players were taking too much time to come to decisions.
4) It would work better with starter decks. The random nature of the packs is meant to get people collecting them, like the Gamma World cards and, before them, Magic: The Gathering cards. Honestly, though, the cards would have worked better in a themed deck, especially as an introduction to the product. The cards were all over the damned place and were rarely any help to the players holding them. When they were a help, they helped out a lot, but those occasions were few and far between. How much better would it have been if a defender could choose the Defender Deck, and have a boost that was going to work well with his or her abilities? Even if the individual cards drawn were less than useful, at least they would tie into what it is that role does, ne?
5) They don't cost you anything. There is absolutely no reason that you should not be running a deck of these cards beside your character. To use a card does not cost you an action. It does not in any way impede any of the functions you previously enjoyed. I think this is a major error on the part of the cards' designers. Every card should cost something to use. A card can cost an action, hit points, healing surges, movement, a status effect. Make the choices difficult. Should I give myself a +2 bonus to all of my defenses in exchange for being dazed (save ends)? Whoever designed these cards should be forced to read this article [ROSEWATER ON DECISIONS].
6) People are not going to pay for these. They are going to print them out and put them into card sleeves the exact same way they do with Power cards. There will be an online database of them, and you will be able to write up a whole deck of the little bastards, print them, and use them in your games. Which is a damned shame, because nothing sells better in brick-and-mortar stores than game accessories, usually. Wizards of the Coast keeps making accessories that suck, though (re: Power Cards).