I sometimes feel like one of those nuns from the Sound of Music lamenting an unchangeable fact. Like Maria, the Encounters program for Adventurers League has “issues” that are simply not within the scope of the OP’s Administrators to address or change. So it’s left to us, as participants, to provide our own solutions.
One of the first steps to solving a problem is to articulate what that problem is. Once again, this third season’s offerings, Out of the Abyss, was written intentionally for a homeplay campaign, yet WotC requires that it be incorporated into its Organized Play structure. They provide a free portion of the adventure so it can be used within their OP’s context. None of the content is pre-screened by the volunteer Adventurers League Administrators, so they themselves don’t know what’s coming up.
None of this is a surprise. That’s the way it has been for the previous two seasons. What is a surprise is that despite copious feedback to address the specifics of how to incorporate the material into the Encounters paradigm, it has once again been glossed over by WotC.
What’s the Problem?
In a nutshell: Encounters is a weekly recurring experience intended to introduce new players to the game. All the material given to Adventurers League to provide that weekly experience is serialized, which contradicts the drop-in/drop-out feature of Encounters. The material encourages repeating attendance to make it work, and doesn’t acknowledge that at many many venues the players are not the same from week to week. How does one have a continuing story line when half the players weren’t there the week before?
That presents a unique problem for DMs that are running Encounters tables every week. The nature of Adventurers League’s Organized Play system encourages players to seek and find games at various locales, and provides a mechanism so each player’s PCs can be used in different venues with different DMs in different adventures.
All of which runs contrary to the actual material used within Encounters.
Adventurer’s League offers other play opportunities they call “Expeditions”, which are discreet 1-, 2-, 4-, or 8-hour adventures that have a beginning, middle, and end. While they are loosely connected in both plot and chronological order, it is not necessary to play them in sequence, nor play the entirety of the series offered each season.
But Encounters doesn’t have that feature. DMs are left with what seems one of two choices–either sacrifice verisimilitude and plunk visiting or newer PCs down into the middle of the adventure mid-story (ignoring logic for play-ability and hoping enough of the story line can be “compartmentalized” for each session so the play experience makes sense to those new players) or try to encourage a recurring weekly attendance of the same players at a single table (running counter to the very Encounters paradigm and nature of the OP). Alternatively, at larger stores with more astute organizers, DMs somehow manage to coordinate the content their tables are experiencing which decreases the probability of players missing content or the impact an absent DM may cause. Still other stores don’t allow their participants to stay with one continual DM throughout the Encounters experience, and require players to shift from DM to DM each week.
While effective, this again runs contrary to the nature of the material itself. The fact is, none of the Encounters material was actually written for Organized Play, nor thoroughly takes into account how it operates. While the adventures are “parsed” into sections with a number of suggested “sessions” allocated to its playing, no mention is made of how to incorporate new or visiting players (even entirely new tables) from week to week. If the events of the session are to make sense, it’s up to the DM to make it so for their individual tables and players.
So we’ve Articulated the Problem. Now What?
How does one make a serialized adventure fit into a non-serialized event?
One is to not actually run Encounters. It is perfectly legal within the Adventurers League OP to run a “Casual Play” game that is run from the book version from which the Encounters PDF material is culled. The question is whether it is legal to run a “closed table” within that context or not. A “closed table” means that the players remain consistent from week to week, without inviting new players or visiting players to join. This is completely legal for Homeplay (another sanctioned AL play variety) but unclear whether it is legal in a store running a “Casual Play” game under the auspices of Adventurers League.
Another option is to coordinate with all the other DMs at one’s venue and run the same material from week to week, rendering individual tables irrelevant and the player experience consistent no matter what table at which they play. While this is an approach some stores and coordinators have adopted, this season’s Out of the Abyss material in particular seems much more fluid and flexible and contingent on PC actions that dictate the progression of the story–making it problematic to coordinate from table to table and less cohesive for irregular attendees.
A third option is for individual DMs to contemplate mechanisms within the story that provide opportunities to incorporate new PCs within the story arc. This is probably the most daunting of the three choices–especially for DMs. It requires the DM be able to succinctly “catch up” new PCs (and their players) by providing context and a summary of events that led to the current session’s scenario. It could alternatively mean that DMs would need to artificially “segment” the adventure so each week’s content has less connection to the overall arch of the story and replace it with much clearer short-term goals for the PCs to accomplish each week, decreasing the necessity to experience multiple weeks of participation in order to comprehend what is going on.
The Third Option
Verisimilitude (i.e. the “appearance of reality”) in D&D games is subjective at best. Rule mechanisms often contort the logic of how a story or combat is played out by virtue of having a common rules set that provides a similar structure to each game. What one DM desires for consistency from the story they are helping to tell and what another DM desires may not be the same. That goes for players as well–some simply don’t care how their PCs got there, nor what elements of the story they missed, nor how that missing knowledge may impact their player experience. For some, the capacity to willing suspend one’s disbelief for the sake of the play experience in the moment overrides any gaps of logic–“How did my PC get there? Who cares? It’s a game. Let’s play!” For other players and DMs, part of the play experience is the experience of the campaign’s story arch. And it’s important to them.
From the player’s perspective one never really knows what portion of the Encounters material is being played at any particular venue (because WotC hasn’t taken an overt interest in providing a mechanism to help facilitate the nature of communicating it). On their end, their PCs experience can be disjointed and irregular, and their own comprehension of the arch of the material can be confusing. This can ultimately create a play experience that is entirely about “rules mechanics” of their PC simply because there isn’t anything else for the game to be about, and (in the extreme) can encourage min-maxing simply as a natural outgrowth of the nature of playing in the OP. Take away any relative story, and the emphasis becomes about something else.
My advice is thus: don’t run Encounters. Run Out of the Abyss as a Homeplay campaign, using AL rules for the benefit of your players. Don’t use the PDF provided by WotC with it’s experience point caps and restrictions but instead wait to use the printed book material. Talk to your store about whether they are interested in hosting your particular table, on a night that is not the regular Encounters Wednesday to avoid visiting and drop-in player confusion and angst at not being able to join your table. In lieu of that, play at a private residence using AL rules so your players can use their PCs in different AL offerings.
It is terribly unfortunate that AL doesn’t have the capacity to participate in the development of the very material they are required to include. But it should be made clear that is not the fault of the campaign Administrators, who work tirelessly to make the Adventurers League experience a good one for everyone involved. It should also be noted that the opinions expressed above are those of one particular DM that has decided to decline from participating in Encounters for this third season for the above reasons.
While I am a strong proponent of AL and believe strongly in the majority of their play programs, I’m simply not willing to run a serialized campaign for a rotating cast of players anymore. Bottom line. I will stick to DMing Expeditions material and Out of the Abyss as a Homeplay campaign. It feels evident that the nature of Encounters is not going to change, due to WotC’s requirements, and that apparently none of the developers actually play in their own OP in order to understand that unique play experience… To get the most out of Out of the Abyss, it seems wise to play it outside of the context of AL’s Encounters program. The quality of your play experience is your choice, of course, but the quality of my personal DM experience (and the 12-20 week commitment that running Out of the Abyss for AL would require) would seem to be better outside of that AL’s Encounters context.
I will miss introducing new players to the experience of D&D through Encounters, but I feel there are better adventures with which to do that–DEX1-1, DEX2-1, and DEX3-1 for example. I don’t need to do it using Out of the Abyss, which should have an overarching driving adventure story line as that is one of its distinct features that sets it apart from AL’s Expeditions offerings. If introducing new players is indeed the purpose of Encounters, then I think there are better ways to do that. As a DM, I choose to use those instead of Out of the Abyss.