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.