The Future of D&D Encounters and the Adventurer’s League

We’re moving towards the release of the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons as well as the Organised Play offerings supporting the game. I couldn’t be more excited about D&D, but there are many aspects of what’s going on with Organised Play – otherwise known as the D&D Adventurer’s League – that concern me greatly.

The objective of Organised Play is, ultimately, to build the D&D playing base. It does this by providing play opportunities in public places. The players who participate in this likely either (a) don’t have anywhere else they can play or (b) enjoy the opportunity to play with a lot of other players and build a community.

D&D Encounters is designed as a program that runs in short (1-2 hour) sessions every Wednesday evening. It typically runs in seasons of 12-16 weeks, which tell one story. It also has a couple of conflicting aims. The first aim is to introduce new players to D&D. The second aim is to build a D&D community around stores. (A third aim, not so conflicting, is to highlight the latest release for D&D. It often works as a marketing tool. Look, the Neverwinter Campaign Setting is out! Here’s an adventure set there, and if you buy the book you can use the stuff in it to build your character!)

Why do the first two aims conflict? Well, to work for new players, D&D Encounters resets every season to first level characters. However, for existing players, it gets very frustrating to always have to create new characters and never get to play them at higher levels. (It should be noted that the last season of D&D Encounters with the playtest rules, Dead in Thay, ran for levels 6-8 and was the conclusion of the Scourge of the Sword Coast adventure. This is an outlier for D&D Encounters).

The only thing you could do with those characters was to continue them in a home game. Which, of course, is a bit problematic, especially if you were playing at the store because of the first reason above!

The solution that Wizards have come up with for this is to allow characters created for D&D Encounters to be legal in the D&D Expeditions games. So, once you come out at the end of the D&D Encounters program at about 5th level after 12-16 weeks, you’ll be able to play that character in any of the Expeditions games that are run in-store.

D&D Expeditions takes the place of the “Living” campaigns (Living Raven’s Bluff, Living Greyhawk and Living Forgotten Realms) that have been run for D&D since 1987. It provides a number of adventures that can be played in-store (or at conventions or other public places) with the same characters. (As opposed to one-shot adventures where you only used the characters once). Each adventure typically takes 3-4 hours to play, twice the length of a D&D Encounters session, and is typically for a small range or band of levels. 1-4 and 5-8 are the level bands of adventures announced so far.

D&D Epics is the third part of the Adventurer’s League, but it deals only with big convention-only events, which will be rare in any case, so it’s not really relevant to the discussion.

So far, so good. I’m pretty happy with this set-up.

The trouble comes when we consider what material is being offered for play. D&D Expeditions has what can only be called a slow release schedule of only 2-3 adventures per month. If you’re used to playing a Living campaign on a weekly basis, this isn’t yet going to be possible with Expeditions. If you wait a few months, you’ll be able to play weekly.

However, it’s what is being used for D&D Encounters that worries me more. D&D Encounters is using the first section of the published adventure, Hoard of the Dragon Queen for play. A new player wanders into the store, sits down, and gets to experience this major adventure. That’s awesome. I really support that.

Unfortunately, this adventure will also be played at home and in stores. The entire adventure is legal for Adventurer’s League. It isn’t unique to D&D Encounters. So, while it’s great for new players to play and be introduced to the game, it is much worse for people who are just trying to grow the community. This is exacerbated by the pace that the adventure will be run at. At most 2 hours every week is not particularly fast (although it may be the pace of many gaming groups running on a fortnightly schedule).

Things get messier when the Encounters season ends. At that point, player characters will be about 4th or 5th level. What happens then? The logical step would be to continue playing through the Tyranny of Dragons storyline, but that isn’t supported as part of Encounters. Instead, either they move to a new time to play through the rest of the adventure, or they stop playing Encounters. They’re no longer “new” players, so the program doesn’t really care about them.

It’s this point when the first new Encounters season ends that I really worry about. Will people abandon Encounters to play the rest of the adventure? Due to the difference in session lengths, it’s a bit hard to schedule Expeditions adventures into Encounters slots. Will people come back for more Encounters seasons when they can just buy the content?

It’s a really tricky situation. I know I want to run the entirety of the Tyranny of Dragons duology (as well as the ancillary Expeditions adventures), but I’m quite worried about what will happen to the community as a result. If experienced players abandon Encounters, I can’t guarantee that it will be available for new players as we might not get enough new players at one time! It took us a very long time to build the attendance we now have, and the changes make me very nervous.

10 comments

  1. Jeremy Jordan

    I’m the organizer for one of the lmost active D&D gaming groups in the US (the Central NJ Gaming Group), and these are all concerns of mine, but my DMs and I figured out a solution. We’re running Encounters as “new player night” on Wednesdays, and Expeditions as the regular game on Thursdays. And we are mixing parts of HotDQ into our expeditions to thicken our play material. We have two weekly games scheduled from now until next year, and we estimate 2 tables of encounters and 4 tables of expeditions each week. All of my DMs are breaking up the mods so everyone is on hue same schedule, as lots of our players are former “living campaign” players.

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  2. Spykes

    Merric,
    I am the organizer for my store and I and my DMs share your concerns. We have tentatively planned the following course of action. Currently we run 6 tables of Encounters on Wed. and 3-4 tables of casual games on Sat. Currently the Sat. tables are playing LMoP We plan to begin this season’s Encounters as normal. However, most tables have expressed a desire to just continue on with the adventure to upper levels instead of starting over. We will report this as a Casual Event in WER. We will keep one or two tables that start over with the next season (season 20) of Encounters. That way we always have a table or two of a level appropriate for new players. Saturdays will start in Sept. with the Expedition adventures, but there is one group that can’t make Wednesdays so that are going to play ToD on Sat. That will be reported as a casual event also.

    The problem is that if people decide to stick with the Epic story-line and play through ToD, they will miss out on the new Encounters Adventure. Because of this, we may get more people than not that decide to start over, but many have expressed frustration over the resets of levels, so it’ll be interesting to see what people do when faced with that decision at the end of the season.

    It’s a little bit of a shame that you can’t experience the complete adventure of ToD during organized play, but I do see the problems it poses. I think it’s fine to bring in new players and place them at mid levels, but when you are trying to learn the game and play a level 10+ character, it can be daunting and is not the best way to introduce players to the game.

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    • merricb

      As I understand it, you can go through the entirety of ToD through Organised Play, as (a) it’s legal and (b) you can just run it as “casual” D&D events in store. In many ways, it’s another form of Expeditions. But yes, the length of it makes it problematic when you’re running the full thing *and* wanting to help new players.

      It’s managing both new and old players in the same program that has always been the bugbear of Organised Play. Living Greyhawk had a lot of problems with it, because you *had* to begin at level 1. Living Forgotten Realms allowed higher-level creation, but that comes with its own problems.

      It may all come out fine, but it’s something we’ll have to live through first before we’re sure!

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  3. Rich Chamberlain

    From what we’ve heard in our little corner of the country, once the first adventure is completed (Hoard of the Dragon Queen), you are able to pick up with The Rise of Tiamat which comes out in October. The season extends to March, which is ample time to run both adventures. Not only that, but the characters that start in Hoard will be able to continue to Rise, provided they survive of course. The beauty of that, though, is that you just roll up a new character and keep going.

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    • merricb

      It should take about 50 2-hour sessions to run the entire campaign, assuming that the rates of level increase are fairly standard for 5E (1 4-hr sessions for the first two levels, 2 4 hr sessions for each level thereafter). That’s most of a year, which is well into the next season (as I understand). Which is the problem with using Encounters slots for it… but not everyone can commit to longer slots…

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      • Jeremy Jordan

        I usually face the opposite problem, in that 2 hours is too small of a slot for us. My players are used to 4 hour slots, so they are going to burn through the adventure a bit faster than intended. But we should still have enough content to run weekly. My bigger issue is the word “Encounters” – the last few encounter programs really soured many of my gamers towards the word, and it’s taken some effort to convince them that we are handling this more like a “Living” campaign and less like an “Encounter session”.

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  4. riffmagos

    I’m a total D&D Newbie, and began Princes of the Apocalypse with our local Wednesday D&D Encounters group at the local shop. Our DM’s style doesn’t suite my tastes (he is more number crunching rather than role play and descriptive devices), and I found myself becoming bored after the first few weeks of learning the game mechanics. I had bought my own copy of the adventure book and began familiarising myself with Red Larch and surrounding areas (so that I knew where to go and what to do in role play during our sessions.) It seems that this is considered the highest D&D crime, after which I was expelled and removed from all relevent FaceBook sites. I was not told that this was not acceptable. My question is – is this how things are done? Is this normal behaviour? I am sitting here still seriously bewildered and wondering what happened.

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    • merricb

      Honestly, it varies a lot from group to group. The traditional way that a lot of us learnt D&D is by the DM books being completely off-limits, and the adventures even more so – and it seems that you’ve fallen afoul of that.

      This is something to which there’s no right answer: there are just a lot of different approaches.

      For example, in the Adventurer’s League, it is entirely appropriate to play the same adventure a second time with a different character… so it is to be assumed that the player knows things the second time around. I know DMs who play an adventure they’ve previously DMed… so that’s acceptable.

      On the other hand, a lot of players enjoy the discovery of playing an adventure for the first time. So, players who are already familiar with the adventure can spoil their experience of the game.

      I’ve been running Hoard of the Dragon Queen again on Wednesdays. In my group are a couple of players who have played it before. We’ve agreed as a group that those players will not use their knowledge to point the group along the “correct” path, although they do occasionally use their knowledge to enhance the game. It’s a delicate balancing act.

      So, the answer to your question: there’s no one way of doing it. Can I understand why a group wouldn’t want players reading the adventure ahead of time? Certainly. And I know groups that don’t mind, either. Honestly, it sounds like your style of play and that of the group were terribly far apart, which often ends up not being fun for anyone.

      If this was a D&D Adventurers League game, contact someone in your part of the world (store organizer or the Local Co-ordinator) and ask their advice as to where to go from here.

      In any case, I hope you find another group that does more role-playing and better suits your style of play!

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