D&D Organized Play: Encounters and Lair Assault

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I think I’ve run more D&D this year than I have, well, ever.  My Friday night 4E Keep on the Borderlands campaign continues bi-weekly.  I’m taking it slow, so they have just reached 7th level and we’re discussing where they want to go in the Paragon Tier.  It’ll take a little time for those ideas to settle, but they are already bearing fruit, as I’ve created a mini-campaign for levels 7-8 in a lost dragonborn city sunken into the swamp south of the Keep.  There was always going to be a set of ruins there, but since our dragonborn paladin/warlord hybrid expressed interest in becoming a Scion of Arkoshia at Paragon, and eventually recreate the old empire(?!), I tied together some pre-gen draconic adventures to expand the ruins.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have also been running the D&D Encounters program at the local game store, The Gaming Goat, that opened this year in Elgin.  When they opened in January, the Keep on the Borderlands season of encounters was already running (D’oh, I would have liked to have seen what WoTC did with that), so I started running with season 4 of Encounters in March.  Since then I’ve been running a 2-hr ‘Chapter’ pretty much each Wednesday, only taking off when I’ve been out of town for work for two weeks in June, and a week in October.  Running a short, regular game each week that I don’t have to prepare much for has been interesting.  Some times really fun, it can also be a bit of a chore since, designed as a pick-up game anyone can show up for, there isn’t any practical way to call off on short notice if something comes up.  And the restriction to play Wednesdays only (as mandated by WotC) means it’s been inconvenient at times for both players and DM alike.  Fortunately we have developed a couple of alternate DMs since March, which is good, since that first season (March – May) saw me sometimes running 8 or 9 players in a scenario written for 4-6.  Adding monsters helps balance things, but it also means every turn takes a loooong time.  But since we started splitting into two tables of no more than 6 players, the pressure of wondering how I would accommodate more players has gone.

Still, despite my misgivings about certain aspects of the program, it’s really forced me to up my game with respect to running monsters in 4E and reacting to unknown player actions.  My home game has benefited from that, I think.  I was not always sure of my ability to challenge the players with each encounter, and I wasn’t moving my monsters around enough my first year of running 4E.  I don’t think my players would say that these days, though maybe sometimes they wish I did…  There have been other outside benefits, as well.  My Thursday night Elgin Area Gamers League rpg sessions had been holding steady at 3 players and 2 rotating GMs for over a year, but then late last year the other GM got a school-related job that keeps him away during school months, dropping us to 3 regular players with myself as the GM.  Fortunately I’ve been able to entice players from the Wednesday night Encounters to try our Thursday night game, and we quickly had one new regular player.  And recently we’ve had a second GM join us from there as well (and brought a new game with him – the latest Gamma World based on 4E D&D).  At the start of the year I was wondering if that group would survive for much longer, but this new infusion of people makes me confident that it is there to stay.  For which I am grateful, since while I could probably always find a place to run or play Encounters, it’s nice to take a break from D&D (especially now that I am playing it weekly).

I am apparently not burned out on 4E yet, however, since in August I also volunteered to run the first Lair Assault for the game store.  The first one is called Forge of the Dawn Titan, and as might be gleaned from the title involves a LOT of fire-related critters and damage.  And since there is no set time for the sessions, we are free to schedule them whenever we want in the 3-month period the Assault is valid for.  So far I have run the Lair 4 times, three times on Saturdays, and once for my Thursday night crowd.  The first session was a pretty quick TPK, which I then worked with the players to figure out a way to circumvent (by ignoring a few rules regarding teleports) so they could actually see the next room and get killed (again!) by the boss bad guy at the end.  The second was also a TPK, though it was amusing to see when some of the players decided it was hopeless, and ran to check out rooms they hadn’t seen yet before they died.  If they hadn’t done that, they might have saved some of their companions before they finally died (and if we have learned anything, it’s that no character is dead until that final death saving throw is failed – twice now I’ve had players self-stabilize and recover with a healing surge on a nat 20 Death Saving Throw) since the critters they were facing had been reduced to minion-level hp at that point.

The third run was almost a TPK.  The one surviving character was of a returning player who had completed the Assault at another store, so knew what was ahead, and almost did so again but finally ran out of time (the big bad has to be defeated by round 20, or it’s over).  By the fourth run, I think I was ready for the players to win, since I could have probably run out the clock again, but instead took the fight to the players when they were hiding behind the portcullis from the baddies in the last room, throwing ranged attacks.  This was already in Nightmare Mode (ie, extra monsters), since there were 7 players that time (in a game designed for 4-6 like in Encounters), and almost all of them had run through the adventure multiple times.  We were down to the last 3 rounds and I had killed off half the party when the survivors finally got the big bad at the far end of their ranged attacks and took him down.

After that, I was ready to take a break from running this particular Assault (though I am looking forward to the next, Talons of Umberlee) and let one of our other DMs try his hand (not that he’d won it).  I have played once, but while none of us died, we had to stop playing only 5 rounds in because we got a late start, and half the party had to leave.  That is one of the lessons I’ve learned in running the Lair Assault – it can take a LONG time.

Longer, if the players aren’t that familiar with their characters.

And since we have been getting a lot of Encounters players for Lair Assault, it’s a bit of a learning curve.  They are going from running 1-3rd level characetrs to a 5th level for Lair Assault.  Add to that the fact that many of the players either are making up their characters just before the Assault (using the DM’s books or DDI account to do so), or use one of the 3-4 pre-gens we have made available for those who show up without, a valid character, and play can come to a halt at times when a player tries to figure out how their powers work.  In the old days, a DM was expected to know it all and help the player with their class abilities, but in 4th Edition, there are so many options and rules are so specific, it’s next to impossible.  The DM has to rely on the player to have a working knowledge of their character and on the wording of the power on the cards printed out by the character generator.  If we had to look up each power, we’d lose our patience pretty quickly on each other’s turn.  And still, during Assault we found ourselves looking up a handful of powers or items (some sounded too good to be true, and they often were – little things like ‘Encounter Power’  vs At-Will make a big difference!), and as DM I made a few judgement calls when looking something up yet again would be disruptive to play.  Lair Assault is not for the average ‘let’s drop in and play’ Encounters player.  This isn’t the game to learn how to play 4E.  Or how to play your character, really.  I would have liked to have turned away players not familiar with their characters already, but while I had 6 players the first session, and 7 the last, I only had 4 the other two, and each one of those players is necessary to the survival of the others (as abandoning characters to burn in the first room attests to…).

Though I see the Lair Assault is supposed to be able to run in 2-3 hrs, I’ve seen more along the lines of 4-7 hrs.  I could have made 3 hrs if I had let the first group stay dead when they all fell into lava simultaneously, but other than that, the size of groups and decision-making indecision has resulted in much longer times than I originally thought.  Other than cancelling games that don’t have enough experienced players, I could try and enforce a time limit on decision-making to streamline things.  Though the Lair is potentially so deadly, enforcing a time limit seems like another barrier for the players.  I might try that for the next Assault, however, as running one of these with a full group can quickly take up the whole day.

One of the nice things with Encounters, especially since it is run during the week, is that it is designed to be a quick 1-2 hr session and it actually PLAYS in that amount of time.  Even when I was running 9 or 10 folks at a table, it never took of 2.5 hrs.  Streamlining the Lair Assault run is one of the things I really have to figure out if I am going to continue running each scenario multiple times.  In the meatime, however, I am looking forward to finishing up my own assault on the lair, and leaving the DMing to another for a few sessions!

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