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Angry Rants: Wizard of the Coast and D&D Encounters

I may be the most brilliant GM of all time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally f$&% up. For example, last week, I wrote a brilliant article about GMs overusing dice and how they were training players to play MY game wrong and how they should all be beaten or killed or something. That wasn’t the mistake. That was totally correct. The mistake was that I started with an anecdote about running D&D Encounters in which I kind of implied that I wasn’t overly pleased with the organized play program and how it was organized. And I said “but that’s a rant for another time.” Normally, that’s a code for “I’m not going to get into this, I just wanted to take an easy potshot” and I never get back to the subject I took a dig at. The problem is, I actually DO look at the feedback I get on this site, on Reddit, on Twitter, and on various other platforms. And it seems like everyone wants my opinion on D&D Encounters.

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Now, believe it or not, I do have some standards for my rants. I generally don’t rant about something just to piss and moan. I prefer to rant about something that I can say “and here’s how we can deal with the problem.” Basically, that’s the only thing that allows me to convince the editor that my weekly screed is actually worth posting and has some value to the gaming community. Otherwise, it’s just me screaming.

But ranting about something Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is doing is kind of pointless. First of all, because they don’t care what I have to say. They are just going to keep doing their own stupid thing. Why? Because they are number one in the industry. I mean, we can argue that Paizo might be catching them, and we’ll never know for sure, but even if Paizo is, that doesn’t change the fact that D&D has a brand recognition that Paizo will NEVER have. D&D is synonymous with RPGs. And the thing is, it’s a good game. People like playing and running D&D. So, from that perspective, D&D is successful. Hell, I like playing and running D&D. I really do. If I didn’t want it to do well, I wouldn’t even bother ranting about it. I wouldn’t care.

So, no matter what screaming rant I want to post about WotC and D&D, the counter argument will always be “well, they are doing fine.” The only thing I can lambast them for is not doing better. And at that point, I look like kind of a q$&%enozzle (I’m trying out some new swears, let me know if you like them in the comments). And people will be ready to jump in and say “what do you want? It’s fine, the game is good, people are having fun, leave them alone.”

On top of that, I know that WotC is a giant l$&%ing company and there’s a lot of people involved in every decision they make. But people like Mearls and Crawford and Perkins and Kidd will always be the face of D&D. And they will have to defend WotC’s decisions, no matter what. And I like those guys. They are great game designers and they’ve given me years of fun and I’ve met a few of them in real life and they are fantastic people even if they had to pretend they didn’t secretly hate my relentless criticism of absolutely everything. So I actually almost feel bad about railing at WotC. Because I know the designers of D&D will take the brunt of it even if some moron in a suit d$&%ed it up. And I’m not stupid; I’m sure there are WotC business decisions that have pissed off the designers but they can’t say that.

And honestly, on top of all of that, I don’t have any data. Mainly because WotC keeps it all secret. And rightly so. A company doesn’t stay on top by sharing its secrets and if a company isn’t making all the money it can, it isn’t constantly rolling new products for people to love. As angry as people get about companies making profits, what they rarely recognize is that the vast VAST majority of corporate profits get rolled back into financing new products and new programs. Most corporate profits don’t go into people’s pockets. But that’s just my horrible, evil accounting training speaking. Pay it no mind.

On top of all of that, I’ve been kind of a massive z$&%wad. I’ve had a few rants at WotC that crossed the line from “fan with an angry schtick” to “massive a$&hole”. To the point where I’ve publicly apologized. Because I don’t want to hurt anyone associated with D&D. I LOVE D&D. I always have.

So, given all of that, I’m inclined to just let WotC off the hook with pointless rants and only jump in when I can say “hey, h$&%-^$&%, I know D&D isn’t delivering on this, but here’s a neat way to fix it.”

But I also have a massive ego. If you ask for my opinion on something, I’m so *$&%ing excited to be asked that I can’t help but vomit forth a rant like a $&%*$&%. And on top of that, I want D&D to get better. I really do. I want it to be the best it can be and I want everyone in the world playing D&D. And I hate settling for “good enough.” In fact, if you want to lose all my respect, all you have to do is point out “well, it’s good enough,” or “it’s better than the alternative.” I write thousands of words every week because I want to be the best. And because I firmly believe other people out there also want to be the best. I stopped listening to a podcast I really loved because, for three weeks in a row, they gave the advice “just settle for good enough in your games.” $%&#!

If it seems like I’m putting off the $&%* rant, I’m not, really. I’m going to give my opinion on Encounters in a second. But I think everything I’ve said has actual value too. In fact, I think it has more useful value than saying “Encounters is okay, but let’s be honest, it’s a $&%*# marketing scam and involves as little effort as possible on WotC’s part.” Oh, well, I guess there’s my opinion, huh?

Encounters is one third of the very confusing Adventurers League Organized Play Program along with Epics and Expeditions. Why do I say confusing? Because the explanation of those three different programs is very unclear. Epics appear to be a convention and game day program. At the start of each major storyline, they run an Epic event which is a big one-shot. It’s basically a marketing event for the new storyline. Expeditions seems to be sort of the more traditional organized play experience, with a series of modules available to stores and conventions. But I honestly haven’t yet found a store offering Expeditions so I have no idea.

Encounters seems to be the focus. And the reason is because it’s supposed to be great for new and inexperienced players. It’s the sort of thing you run in your store so people can discover D&D. Basically, the idea is that every week on a certain night, you have Encounters running for two or three hours. People can drop in and drop out. If you have different players every week, that should be no problem. Pre-generated characters are available. It makes it easy to introduce the game and the world to new players.

That sounds perfect, right? That’s exactly what you want from an introductory program. Show up on Wednesday night, try D&D, come back if you want next week or transition to another game or start your own group. We’ll get you set up. That’s great marketing for D&D, it’s great for stores because they can sell D&D products to people who like the game, and it’s great for the gaming community. It stands to reason that WotC would make that the apparent focus of the organized play experience in stores.

At least, that’s what I thought. But then I started running the program. And I discovered the way it ACTUALLY works. I mean, all that stuff I said is in the guide to running it. Two to three hours, pre-gens, drop-in drop-out. That’s what they want. But it all falls apart when you actually look at what they give you to run.

Here’s the deal. WotC’s focus for D&D has been on big, complicated adventure paths. Or campaigns. Call them what you want. Basically, they release a hardback book every few months that contains 10 or 15 experience levels worth of adventure. That’s cool, right? Sure, the hardback book is 50 bucks, but that’s good value. That’s like six months of play if you play weekly sessions. Or more.

Why do I suddenly bring that up? Because the D&D Encounters program consists of giving the GM the first three chapters of the current hardback adventure (this season is Out of the Abyss) for free and having them run it. That’s all. Near as I can tell, they added a few sidebars that basically tell the GM how to break the adventure down into 2-hour sessions for Encounters. Otherwise, you get the first three chapters of the book. Have fun.

Now, Out of the Abyss is an okay adventure. The WotC modules are getting better, I’ll give them that. And Out of the Abyss is pretty open ended. I’m not bashing the module. But the problem is, the module is an adventure path designed to be run continuously for six months to a year with the same group of players in an ongoing story. And each module has a gimmick or two. It wants to expose groups to new and different modes of play. Out of the Abyss is focused on the madness mechanic in the DMG and on wilderness exploration rules and survival rules. It showcases the Underdark and a lot of weird races like derro, duergar, svirfneblin, myconids, kuo toa, and quaggoths. Those are the races that appear alongside the drow in the first chapter.

Nothing about that is introductory, good for inexperienced players, or drop-in drop-out style play. The first “chapter” of the book is an extended jailbreak sequence that involves the players stripped of their gear and imprisoned along with ten complex, insane NPCs. The PCs have to build alliances, break out, and escape a drow fortress. Now, that’s a neat sequence. I’m not bashing it all. But it also takes three sessions and it is extremely difficult and requires a great deal of care and finesse. It’s also very much the opposite of a traditional D&D experience.

The drop-in drop-out thing is particularly problematic because Encounters involves short sessions and the first chapter of the adventure will take one to two normal sessions of play. That means, it will get broken into three parts at a minimum. So, you have players building complex relationships and a complicated plan that they have to execute, but you have to break all of that down over three weeks and you never know who is going to show up from one week to the next.

I shouldn’t have to explain why that $&!% is @%*&.

The second chapter of the adventure is based on wilderness adventuring. In the main module, it serves as the connection between several chapters. After the players escape the drow fortress, they have numerous paths before them and the different NPCs in the adventure try to convince them to go to different places. Chapter two is basically the hub world and the players return to it several times. And thus, it is set up to be challenging at many different levels.

Which is great in the full module. But in the Encounters program, there’s only one way to go. The kuo toa town of Sliblooploodloogloop or something. So, if you’re running just Encounters, the PCs have no options and the hub world is just a trek from point A to point B. That means that you won’t USE a lot of the material in that chapter. And there’s a lot of material in that chapter that will kill a bunch of inexperienced first or second level PCs who may or may not have any equipment or even $&%*#$ clothing!

Now, I support the mission of the Encounters program. Give new and inexperienced players a chance to see D&D. Give them a regular play experience that allows them to transition to other games or just have some weekly fun for two hours. But that requires a pretty specific type of product. Chopping the first three chapters out of your massive (and esoteric) adventure path is NOT the way to do it.

I can’t decide whether to call it lazy or clueless. Because either word fits. “Well, we need something for the $&%* newbies, just chop the first three $&%^ chapters out of the book and hand it out and we don’t have to write anything” is definitely lazy. But it might just have been a decision rooted in “well, we have this product and we need something for newbies, and all D&D modules are basically the same.”

My suspicion though? It was the cheapest way to do it. And that gets further borne out when you note that the pre-generated characters are basically just blank PDFs that were filled out by… well, I’m not sure who filled this $&% out. I mean, there’s a credit on each character sheet: “created by whoever.” But I don’t know who those people are. What I do know is that there was no standard applied. Different information appears in different places. Some stuff is abbreviated differently. One of the character sheets isn’t saved as a fillable PDF, as I discovered when I tried to level one of them up. It looks like WotC just asked people to send them their best pregens, picked five, and distributed them as is.

That all really sucks. Lazy, thoughtless, or cost-cutting. Whatever the reason, I’m really disappointed in the Encounters program. I was excited to run this $&%*. I love bringing new victims into the game. And, to my credit, I’ve now got more players coming back than I can actually run for. I might be running two sessions a week just to accommodate people. I’m running a good game and I’ve sold a few PHBs to some newbies. But I’m really unhappy with what I’m working with. I’m at the point where, after this season is over, I might try to get the store to just let me run my own material as an introductory D&D night instead. I’ll run drop-in drop-out. I’ll run a nice introductory game. We’ll see.

So, as I wrap up this overly long pile of #&$!, I’ll just add one little observation that takes this from sad to greedily sinister. You might wonder what happens when you finish chapter three of the Out of the Abyss adventure. Well, it ends on a cliffhanger. The first three chapters are sort of the prologue for the adventure path. Which is bad enough. But what does the Organized Play Guide suggest you do in your store when you finish the Encounters season? It very strongly suggests your GM buy the full version of Out of the Abyss to continue the fun.

That’s right. The first three chapters are free. Then it’ll cost your GM or your store $50. Or else you get to say to the players “Sorry, guys, you don’t get to know how it comes out unless we can pool our cash and buy the book.”

$&%^ that with a $&%^ &%*^ until $^&# $*%& @^#^! )#*$&^ call a doctor and he has to #&$^ @!^* #$*# a tongue depressor. Which is why I used the word “scam.”

 

Editor’s Note: A follow up to this article has been posted.

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  1. […] Note: On Monday, we ran this article from The Angry GM, which you should read first. Over the course of this week, a number of opinions and discussions […]

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