Ah, the first encounter of a new season. This is always fun for me: I get to see some new faces as the season starts, because people want to jump on when they're on the ground-floor; we get our first look at the new designer and get to make some judgements about the adventure path as a whole; we get to see what sorts of innovations are being brought to bear this season, and whether or not they work in the game's favor or against it... The whole initiative has been sort of trial-and-error for this first year; we had a solid showing in the first season with Undermountain bringing us some cool new ideas for how to run Skill Challenges and doing something the-same-but-different. We had a huge hiccough with Dark Sun, and a redemption of the initiative with Chris Sims taking the helm. I don't know Rodney Thompson, but he's done a lot of work with Star Wars over the years, and has had a hand in d20 Modern and Future. All of these are products I've never really played with, but recognize the quality of. I own a copy of the Star Wars Saga book, specifically because I wanted to take a look at the design elements that would be transitioning to D&D 4. I'm reserving the right to moderate optimism.
The Adventure Book for this season is just one huge book, instead of chunk books like last season. I consider this a step in the right direction, and wouldn't at all mind seeing more products like this in the future. It makes this set easier to give away when the season is done (we don't sell the adventure books; we get them for free, and give them away for the same). The first few sections are familiar to anyone who has done some Game Mastery for D&D Encounters in previous seasons. You get a breakdown of how Encounters works, and a n overview of the adventure as a whole; it tells you how to deal with Renown Points (something I forget about consistently), and notes on advancement and treasure.
The stuff that's new is in the Advancement, Treasure, and Fortune Cards.
As a bit of a departure from the way D&D:E has been handling Advancement in previous seasons, this time around you will actually need to keep track of your experience points. You will not level automatically at the beginning of each chapter; if you come in at the middle of chapter three, you will be starting as a level one character. I'm not sure what this is in response to, but I think it's a general improvement. It rewards the players who show up every week, and provides a bit of a slap on the wrist for those players who choose to show up only occasionally (or just the once).
I've been giving out random treasure since I started my home campaign. Admittedly, the table they've come up with for D&D:E is way better than the system I'm using at home (and I may actually just come up with a different version of it for Bones). I like that the GM doesn't really know what the party is going to loot off of BGuy #13, and I like that players get to customize their characters a bit within the preset limits of the adventure. Also, I've already jacked the roll for one packet rather than give out one piece of a packet per person, I'm just having one of the player characters roll once or twice and passing out that much stuff; the resulting fights have been pretty great. ^_^
I've already said my piece on Fortune Cards in a previous Encountering D&D; I don't think the product works the way that the good folks at Wizards of the Coast imagined they would work, I don't think they were integrated well with the game as it was designed, and I dislike that they're being pushed into the D&D: Encounters initiative. They seem rushed and a bit under-play-tested, and I would have preferred to wait an extra season for a more fully-fleshed out product.
The first session actually takes place over a few days. During the preview talks at DDXP, the guys at WotC were talking about how the Encounters would make a lot more use of time, and occasionally months would pass between chapters. Having spent a looooooooooong time doing extended campaigns, I can honestly say this is something that rarely crosses my mind. D&D can be a day-by-day account of the lives of the player characters, and often is. Taking some time out for a breather, or having entire days go by during a session can be an interesting way to show that your characters aren't busy all day every day, they actually get some down-time in.
The set up is pretty standard Fantasy Adventure Fare. A call has gone out to adventurous souls to build a new settlement southeast of Hammerfast (go read the Hammerfast book, I guess...). They've been offered a small stipend to help build their homes, and it is assumed that each player character has a reason for wanting to leave the comfortable confines of civilization for the wilds. The town is to be built on the bones of old Castle Inverness, recently rediscovered by a group of rangers. The new town is to serve as a waypoint between Hammerfast and Harkenwold. There is an argument about fording a stream up ahead that the players can help mediate (and choosing one side or the other will effect later encounters). Then you fight stirges.
There are a couple of cool things you can steal from this encounter for use in your home games. The first and probably most important is how protecting the caravan is worked into the encounter itself. The horses can be saved by a standard action terrain power (terrain powers, by the by, fucking great; more after the break), but it's a standard action and you need to be within five squares of a horse to make it go away. It saves both the horse and the wagon, necessitating that the players split up, some saving the caravan, others killing stirges dead. Little challenges like this make encounters harder to beat, while at the same time adding a new layer of interactions to the game, keeping it from being "just another fight."
Terrain powers are a thing we've seen before, but they're pretty sweet and I love when they're incorporated into a scenario. I rarely, if ever, use them in my home games, but this one has made it pretty clear that I should be more often. I mean, it doesn't have to be horses; using a variety of terrain powers to maneuver a boat or use a keep's natural defenses (ballista! whatup!) can mean the difference between a humdrum encounter and a kick-ass fight with all sorts of weird shit going on because of the place you're fighting in. You want people swinging off of chandeliers and shit? Great, put the power in there, and make it a good one (treated as a charge, Dex+2 vs Ref, 3[w] damage). You'd prefer the slide-down-the-bar, head-in-the-wall bar brawl cliche? We can make that happen (Str vs Fort, 1d6+str+[2X] and you and the target slide X squares, where X is the number of squares from your starting position to the wall).
The last cool thing about this encounter that you should probably steal for your campaign actually takes a fair bit more forethought than most of my D&D planning does. I don't usually plan more than a day ahead of time, and when I come back to a theme, I decide what the repercussions of the party's actions are going to be, and roll with it. I don't pre-plan beyond that, so making something that happens one week effect the next week's encounter directly can be a bit of a chore if you GM like I do.
It is still a thing you should be looking at, especially if you don't GM like I do. If you plan things out, if you build your adventures well ahead of time, having branching paths is pretty much a necessity if you don't want to be Railroad Guy. We get it when we're talking about directions in a dungeon (if you go into this room, this monster is going to kill you; this other room has a totally different kill-you monster), but it so rarely enters the planning stages for non-dungeon planning. The fact that this takes place on a role-playing point makes it even more important for your home campaigns; sometimes the stuff that happens around before and/or after an encounter is more important to the encounter than the encounter itself is. If you go one way, the chance of you getting attacked by Goblins goes up, but your chances of getting attacked by Crocodiles goes down. So the encounter after this one is pretty much determined by what you decide to do this session, which is pretty dope for an encounter made for in-store play.