Last night, for the first time in over 20 years, I got to play a game of D&D around an actual table with some new friends. It was all part of the D&D Encounters event that will meet every Wednesday (for a while). Players will be using the new 5th edition D&D rules (that include the Starter Set as well as the new 5e Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide) as they adventure in the Forgotten Realms. Wizards of the Coast has created an adventure that DMs in the Encounters event will be running across the country (world?) with a mix of both new and experienced D&D players.
New players? Oh, yeah! Last night, I counted a total of 23 players (and 3 DMs) at Titan Games & Comics (Smyrna, GA). I don’t know how many of them were completely new, but we did have one young player at my table (age 13), and I was happy to see that the experienced players were patient and helped him navigate some of the rules (such as Ability Score bonuses). I’m hoping he’ll be back… maybe even with some friends. If the RPG version of D&D is to survive, fans are going to need to make certain that new players are welcomed into the fold.
Returning players? Count me in that group, along with a few others I heard mention that the 5e rules and the 40th anniversary was enough to get them back in for a test spin. From what I saw (and heard — it was LOUD in that building), it appears that everyone was having a great old time. The three DMs included two veterans and one new — I was at the table with the new DM, and I’m happy to report he did a great job keeping the story moving and his six players engaged.
One of the surprises that awaited me was the amount of pre-planning that went into the event. The DMs had some great maps of various in-game locations that could be placed on the table for combat — highly detailed printouts that really helped set the scene. Also, all players received a folder emblazoned with their faction emblem (I chose Harpers). Tucked inside the folder were a character sheet, an adventure log sheet (more on this in a moment), a faction emblem sticker (for affixing to the character sheet), a folding name plate with the faction emblem and a space for character name and player name on the front for DM and other players to see. (On the back was a breakdown of the faction levels players can obtain through secret missions and such — again, more on this in a moment.) Also tucked in there was a signed letter from my faction leader with some background on my faction’s beliefs and methods as well as a matching Certificate Number. Finally, a card with a code on it that provides a unique magic item that can be used in the new Neverwinter MMORPG video game. Wizards of the Coast really went all out with their preparations, and I saw a number of players digging into their folders and smiling as they read their own special letters Nicely done, WotC!
Note: The only problem I heard more than one person mention was the glossy nature of both the character sheet and the adventure log sheet. The coating on the paper made it very difficult to write on them with pencil. I had a pen that worked well, so I was fine. One player mentioned he preferred a printed out copy on plain paper. Lacking a printer, players are allowed to photocopy the character sheet, however, and the glossy high quality nature of the page will make for sharp photocopies. I keep my characters stats, equipment, spells, etc. together in a small Field Notebook (a habit from earlier gaming days — made it easier to distinguish between games I was playing) and just scratch out old data and replace with new… makes it easy to see the progression of a character, too. The Harpers faction sticker went right on the cover!
The play was set to start at 6:30, but given it was the first night there were some rules and explanations provided along with some help provided to new players needing their characters rounded out. I was new to a few parts of this process, including the DCI number. The DCI is a player (and DMs) way of registering their play with the Adventurers League. As I understand it, this number will make it easier for me to use my character at larger events held at cons (like the Epic event at GenCon). It was also hinted that the DCI number will help manage certain key events in the world involving the factions that players belong to and the behind-the-scenes missions and work that have a real effect on the Forgotten Realms. I’m looking forward to learning more about this, but right now my information is limited.
Speaking of factions — there are a number of them that players in Adventurers League can join. All factions have a standard ideology, and players are encouraged to pick one that matches their characters’ backgrounds and goals for the game. Players can receive Renown points that help them move up in rank inside their factions. Once again, I heard discussions that hinted that players’ ranks inside the factions can affect those Epic events and other adventure outcomes as the Hoard of the Dragon Queen storyline plays out. On the back of the player’s nameplate is a list of five ranks for each faction, and the description of each rank mentions secret missions. There is also an area on the adventurer log sheet that mentions downtime. Each adventure is broken into episodes, and at the end of each episode a DM can award players a certain amount of downtime. These downtime values can be applied to special actions such as crafting an item, healing up, practicing a language, and more. (One other benefit is trading in earned downtime days to level up a character, allowing a player who has missed some sessions and fallen behind in levels to “catch up.” It can only be done at certain levels, and the costs are high in terms of downtime days.)
As for gameplay…
*** NOTE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS BELOW ***
*** Do not read further if you wish to play in the Hoard of the Dragon Queen Adventure ***
*** NOTE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS BELOW ***
It had been a long day on the road, and our guard party was ready to say its goodbyes to the caravan leader, get our pay, and rest up in the approaching town. But as we rounded a twist in the road, a horrible sight emerged… a town on fire, townsfolk running and screaming, unknown attackers setting more buildings on fire and attacking both young and old. And, high above… a shadowy outline circled the town. We didn’t want to believe it, but the shape was unmistakable. A dragon was near…
My group was six-strong, but we all still looked at one another in shock. A dragon? This early in the adventure? My fellow gamers and I scrambled for information, hitting the DM with all sorts of questions about the town, what we could determine about the race and size of the dragon (not much!) and what to do with the caravan we were escorting.
In our party:
* Octavius Morningstar — Human Paladin, armored and ready with sword, shield, and javelins. (Also played by the youngest Encounters member in our group that night – age 13)
* Chi Tan — Human Fighter
* Riley Escobar — Halfling Sorcerer
* Rolan D’Crits — Wood Elf Ranger
* Pips — Gnome Wizard
* Neloshis Quietwalker — Half-Elf Sorcerer (and my character)
Yes, our party was a bit heavy on spell casters, and thankfully we’ve got the Paladin for some healing should we need it. The Ranger and Fighter filled out the muscle and earned their keep when it came to the combat…
We rushed into town after hiding the wagon. The screams were everywhere, and the heat from the torched buildings was almost overwhelming. Someone noticed the dragon circling the most central building in town — a large keep. We were ready to make a run for its protective walls ourselves, but just inside the town’s outer perimeter, we encountered four individuals attempting to ignite a large shed. Their backs were to us, and their robes and demeanor did not sit well with any of the party. A central leader was directing the group, and after one of the minions attempted to attack a fleeing woman we made our decision…
COMBAT! It all came back so fast. Initiative. Surprise attack. AC. DC. Ranged spell attacks. Thrown weapons. MODIFIERS!!!! As with all level 1 characters, however, we had some rough patches. The Paladin got the distance on a thrown javelin, but instead of a hit it shattered a window, alerting the enemies. We still had the first round of surprise attacks, but only the Fighter and the Ranger were successful. All spell casters failed on their attack spells. We wanted that leader captured if possible, so in went the Paladin for a closeup attempt at a knockout. He slapped the leader with the flat edge of his sword, but it wasn’t enough… the leader was stunned, but rallied. Now the initiative rolls would be mixed in with the enemies’ rolls.
After defeating the cultists and tying up their leader in the shed, we rushed towards the keep. Something had changed, and now the bell was ringing louder… calling all survivors inside. We turned a corner, our destination just a few more structures away, and were stopped in our tracks by a large group of kobolds surrounding a warrior woman and what appeared to be a father guarding his younger children and herding them away from the danger. The keep was so close, but we could not leave this woman to defend alone…
We had already played for an hour, and everyone in the party was getting plenty of chances to cast spells, swing swords, and let loose arrows. The fight could have gone the other way for us, but that Halfling managed to drop a Sleep spell right in the middle of the group of Kobolds, knocking out half their number. The rest dropped with a few spells. (The Paladin, unfortunately, rolled a 1 on a thrown Javelin, striking the father in the foot and injuring him. Could have been worse!)
We surrounded the family and Lenan, the warrior woman and once again turned our attention to the keep. A large group of cultists were too busy burning and looting and ignored us as we passed. Why would they do that? Hmmm…. The next encounter, however, found us against three kobolds and three cultists, and they weren’t in the mood to ignore us…
More combat! The kobolds ran away when the Paladin attempted to intimidate (with a glowing effect provided by the Halfling sorcerer), but the cultists weren’t having it. More spells, more arrows, and more successes. So far, the party had avoided any damage, but it just made us more nervous as the DM described an increase in the number of cultists and other raiders in the town. We had had three encounters with enemies before we’d even entered the gates of the keep, and we knew more was to come.
A dwarf inside the keep was directing the survivors, and had instructed that the gate be closed. No one else in or out. We wanted to go back out for more survivors, but he wouldn’t listen. Instead, he pointed us to the Governor and returned to his duties. Fortunately, Lenan had been watching and provided us with an introduction to the Governor. He, too, wouldn’t allow us to go back out. Our questions about the dragon and the cultists could not be answered; he had no information other than a rumor about a cultist queen. “If only a raider could be captured, we might get some answers.”, he said. When we informed him of the captured cultist leader back in the shed, he seemed open for the moment to the idea of allowing us back out. That possibility, however, was shattered as we were informed that a large gathering of cultists and kobolds was massing outside the front and rear gates of the keep. And among them was spotted a purple-robed woman of regal stature…
After a bit of discussion, word of a tunnel underneath the keep came up. We convinced the Governor to provide the key to unlock the exit gates. We would try to sneak out, make our way back to the cultist leader, and bring him back to the keep. We didn’t have strong hopes that we could take on the entire army of cultist and kobolds outside the keep, so out we snuck. The Paladin was in the lead, and the tunnel was empty thankfully. A roll of 1 to use the key on the rusted lock, however, resulted in key broken off in the lock. Thankfully the Paladin had the strength to kick out the gate… and unfortunately the gate slammed open against a rocky wall with the loudest clang possible. With all the noise outside the keep, no one could have possibly heard that, right?
Octavius kicked open the gate but was not able to stop it from slamming into the rocky wall outside. Just a few feet beyond the exit was the small river that ran through the small town. We’d try to follow it and sneak around the cultists outside the keep and grab the captured leader. One by one, we exited the tunnel and…
Could our DM have picked a better place to stop? What was next? Were there enemies waiting to ambush us outside the gate? Was the leader still secure in his ropes back in the shed? How long did we have until the attackers swarmed the gates? Well, apparently it’s going to take Session 2 next Wednesday for those answers.
Did we have fun? Of course! I came in last on most Initiative rolls, and my spells went left, right, and backwards, but I didn’t care. It was so much fun, especially with my five fellow players… we joked, debated rules, asked questions, took turns directing the action, and, of course, tried our best to help the newest D&D player at the table so he could hopefully report a great experience to his friends.
Other thoughts? Well, here are some for you:
* Combat was much more streamlined than I remember. I think it helped that we all didn’t have dozens of modifiers to remember. We had our proficiency bonus and our Ability Score modifiers… and that was it. Spells and melee attacks were figured out quickly, keeping the action moving.
* I do believe this Advantage/Disadvantage system has to be one of the best things out there. Advantage? Roll an extra d20 on any attack roll or save and take the higher of the two. Disadvantage? Again, roll and extra d20 but take the lowest value. It adds something to the gameplay… a bit of suspense, but also a bit of hope that the law of averages will go out the window, leaving you with a 2 and a 19, leaving you with a great fish story to tell later.
* The factions really didn’t come into play this early in the adventure series, but I have a feeling it will down the road. Because WotC provided all the bonus materials related to factions, it just seems obvious that it’s got to come into play at some point, right?
* After 2 hours of playing and three enemy parties defeated, each of our level 1 characters received… are you ready for this? 105 XP and 8gp. I don’t know how you feel about that, but here’s my take — I LOVED IT. I go old school here and think that XP and treasure should trickle in… no Monty Haul adventures for me. Leveling up shouldn’t be fast or easy. And gold and magic items shouldn’t fall out of trees. It takes 300XP to reach level 2, so we’re only 1/3 of the way there. But again… it’s perfect. I feel like I really EARNED that 105XP and 8gp.
* If you’re using Meetup.com to register, I highly encourage you to RSVP early. I made the mistake of assuming that I was on the schedule but all I actually did was register for Week 1, so that’s not how Encounters works. I missed the RSVP deadline for Week 2 and Week 3 has already filled up and I’m on a waiting list. Argh. My comic book shop has limited space (and tables), so I may be out of luck.
All in all, I had a blast. Last night was all the evidence I need to know that the 5th edition of D&D should be well received by fans. (Apparently the Player’s Handbook was ranked #1 in Books for a day or two on Amazon.) The adventure put in front of us was enjoyable, and the hints of things to come are definitely an enticement to keep playing.
If I can get in for Week 2 next week, I’ll post another report from the field… fingers crossed.
Note: Click here for more information about Adventurers League.