Thursday, November 10, 2011

D&D Encounters: The Good Parts

Anyway, here’s the “good parts” version. S. Morgenstern wrote it. And my father read it to me. And now I give it to you. What you do with it will be of more than passing interest to us all.
—William Goldman, The Princess Bride 

Role-playing games are the “good parts” versions of the stories they tell. The sword fight atop the Cliffs of Insanity, or the escape from the labyrinth of the Zoo of Death. The most recent season of D&D Encounters, the Lost Crown of Neverwinter, was drawn from the Neverwinter Campaign Setting, which is a gazetteer of the city and environs of Neverwinter from the Forgotten Realms campaign setting.

I recently concluded my Encounters GMing duties at Card Kingdom, one of several FLGSs in my neck of the woods. I was fortunate to have a number of players who attended regularly and played creatively. (Shout out to Kevin “Kez the drow”; Leon “Byron the paladin”; Jordan “Reigh the cleric”; and Brooks “Monkeybeard the rogue”.) They formed a foundation at the table for people who dropped by to try out the game, or happened to be in town on vacation (like the couple visiting from the Netherlands one week in September who chose to spend part of their vacation gaming with us. Shout out to Irene and Boris, if my notes are right about your names!)

This season of Encounters was written as an introduction to the convoluted politics of the Neverwinter area. The campaign setting book is, in my opinion, a departure from recent WotC material in that it contains a nearly overwhelming amount of story material, the intrigues and capabilities of the many interest groups vying for some part of the ruins of this once-great city. My impression is that the authors intend GMs to pick and choose the groups that they regard as the “good parts” of the story, and build their own Neverwinters from there. The story of the season unfolded doing just that, placing the party in the middle of several groups, and allowing some room for players to evolve alliances within the limitations of the Encounters format of a serial story.

The adventure season, written by Erik Scott de Bie, was pretty entertaining from a GMs perspective, with notable NPCs to role-play and several challenging combat encounters. I enjoyed the fact that there was enough information in the provided materials that my players were able to talk their way through what was designed as a combat encounter in the House of a Thousand Faces, and yet were just as entertained as if they had fought.

The season opened with a prelude story that was an optional introduction, and billed as a coming out session for the Neverwinter Campaign Setting. Unfortunately, due to release timing, the book itself was difficult to get a hold of at the time, and this meant that the convoluted backgrounds and themes available to add dimension to the role-playing aspects of the season weren’t equally available to all players. The Lost Crown of Neverwinter adventure contained hooks for players using the theme information, but having got off on that awkward first step, this aspect of the season never really materialized at my table. I blame myself in part, but looking at the complexity it represented in the context of the variably-attended Encounters sessions, it was going to be a challenge to realize all of that anyway.

Looking at the materials for the upcoming Encounters season, Beyond the Crystal Cave, which introduces the Player’s Option: Heroes of the Feywild book, I think they’ve addressed this issue. I’m looking forward to running this one, and plan on working in a different way to help make themes and setting elements a more integral part of the adventure season.

Players expect a D&D session to be the “good parts” of a story. That’s why they’re there. The gratification of heroic action and interaction that makes a difference in how the story unfolds. That’s one of the challenges of a program like Encounters where the story needs to be fairly established and somewhat linear. This is where it becomes a challenge for the GM to convey the impact of the player’s actions in such a way that they feel as if they are the agents of change.

One of the great challenges of RPGs in general is the crafting of a truly cooperative story. Finding the balance between story elements, player choices, encounter results, and GM designs that feels like a “good parts” story to everyone at the table. It’s nice to have materials like the Neverwinter Campaign Setting and Heroes of the Feywild as resources, and I hope WotC continues to develop materials like this. However, it’s up to the players and GMs to decide what are the “good parts” for their campaign. Using them all creates an overwhelming mess (as the Encounters season just completed could have been if too many more of the Neverwinter Campaign Setting power groups had been represented.)

So, what were the “good parts” of Encounters for you? Or, what are the “good parts” of any campaign you’re involved in? Do you prefer one type over another, or a mixture of “good parts”? What you do with your game and gaming experience is "of more than passing interest to us all"!

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