The Gassy Gnoll: Impressions of D&D EssentialsEncounters

This Gassy Gnoll had a chance this past weekend to play in an ongoing D&D Essentials Encounters campaign at Petrie’s Family Games, one of the local gaming stores in Colorado Springs. I want to share a few observations about my gaming experience in a few different categories.

First, I have to say it’s been a while since I’ve taken part in a game at a gaming store. The last one was a few years ago at a different store and in an evening, not on a Sunday afternoon. The place Sunday was packed for most of the session. There were two tables playing D&D Encounters and a couple of tables playing other games. One entire table was playing what I think was D&D, but using laptops. One table was open for a while with folks playing other board-type games and then a group came into play Magic or Yu-gi-oh!.

Though I have to say the ages of players tended towards what I can only guess is high school or so, I sat at a table with a group of mostly older gamers. We were joined by a younger guy, probably middle school or the bottom end of high school aged.

I don’t mention age to be ageist. But instead to say that I was impressed by the broad array of players from obviously different backgrounds.

All three gaming tables were loud, but that’s to be expected. We were in the back room of Petrie’s and it’s just a big open space with room for several tables. The volume just reminded me that it’s been a while since I’ve tried playing somewhere that wasn’t a private home.

Ultimately it was a great environment. We had plenty of room and I think everybody had a good time.

But you probably didn’t start reading this article so I could talk about the place we gamed. You’re more interested in what I thought about D&D EssentialsEncounters. If you’re not, you might as well stop reading now because that’s what I’m going into now…

Going into the session, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew D&D EssentialsEncounters was based on 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, but that was it. I was given a pack of Fortune Cards (from the “Shadow Over Nentir Vale” set) a couple of days prior at a different gaming session (more on that in a separate post) and walked in with a bag of dice and a smile. Thankfully one of the folks at the table brought a few pre-generated characters or I wouldn’t have had one to play. I selected a Dwarven fighter – Fargrim the Slayer. I figured that not being used to 4e, I’d better stick with something simple like a fighter.

Evidently the session I played in was part of a larger adventure known as “Shadow Over Nentir Vale” (“Beware the Shadow Brigade!”). The party had already done quite a bit and had fallen back to a Dwarven outpost in preparation for the attack of an army of ghosts led by Salazar something. He was unhappy that the party had cast spells that prevented him from visiting his wife’s spirit at her grave. As a result, he decided to take it out on the villagers who tried to establish a settlement there and the party stepped in to save them.

Anyway, it ended up being a series of combat encounters – first at the Dwarven outpost, then at an abandoned Dwarven monastery nearby. We had one “roleplaying” encounter where we got to talk to Salazar between the outpost and the monastery, but ultimately a Drow hunter in the party decided to act contrary to what we agreed to do for Salazar so it was a moot point.

The party members included the Drow hunter, an Elf priestess, a Drow wizardess, a Barbarian, and my Dwarf. Not a bad balance for a party all things considered. We didn’t exactly mop the floor with the undead, but everyone did a good job of rushing into combat to fight the good fight. In the end, we fought an Earthquake Dragon and took it out.

Now, I understand that tournament-style games are going to be a bit different from your at home campaign where you might get to actually have non-combat encounters that allow more roleplaying. I get that. It’s more about killing things, saving your comrades, and racking up points for your RPGA card. But is this really roleplaying?

That said, here are my observations about D&D 4e:

  • We played 3rd level characters. All of them seemed to have a lot of HP. All of them seemed to have high ACs. All of them seemed to do about the same amount of damage.
  • Every round we got to draw one of the Fortune Cards and possibly use it. If not, you could discard it and draw a new one at the beginning of the next round or keep it another round.
  • Every battle went pretty much the same way. Charge in, take damage, deal damage, and survive.

Ultimately, except for the social aspect of interacting with people in real life, it was the same as though I was playing a computer game. Go from encounter to encounter racking up experience points, gathering items, and generally chugging through the adventure one combat at a time.

I suspect that I probably won’t try it again. I did pick up the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials: Heroes of the Fallen Lands book to see if I get a bit more out of the system that way. But it really didn’t do much for me.

If this is what D&D 4e has been boiled down to – playing simple avatars with little to distinguish them from each other – I don’t get the fascination. It becomes more of a miniatures wargame with a bit of story thrown in to theme the encounters, which seems a lot like World of Warcraft or Dragon Age or any number of other CRPGs or MMORPGs.

If that’s what you’re looking for, more power to you. I’d rather actually create a character and spend more time interacting with the world, the PCs, and the NPCs, than charging headlong combat to combat with little meaningful happening along the way. Β And it might just be the tournament-style combat-driven sessions of EssentialsEncounters that put me off and perhaps my view of 4e is skewed. But maybe that’s just me…

QUESTION: What do you think about 4e? Is it more than a glorified CRPG turned into a tabletop combat simulation?

Thanks to Greek George for correcting my errors – Essentials and Encounters are not equivalent terms. πŸ™‚

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17 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: Impressions of D&D EssentialsEncounters

  • I think you need to realize that ANY RPG can be played exactly like the encounters you played. Any RPG can be played with tons of role playing. The encounters/RPGA ar there for like you said the CRPG experience. Because wait for it you really can not “role play” in the short amount of time you have to finish the adventure they have set for you. I am in two different 4e games where we have spent entire nights role playing and little to no combat. Remember that D&D at its basics from where it came from was exactly a tabletop combat simulation at the 1 foot level. You should try and find a home game that roleplays and see how you like it would be my advice.

    • Fitz

      @Wally – I suspect you are correct. With such a short time to play, there’s no way to really fit in any meaningful roleplaying. My biggest concern is that if Essentials is the first tabletop experience for new players, they’re going to see it from more of a WoW-equivalent experience instead of the rich roleplaying experiences I go for. Thanks for letting me know it was this isolated wing of 4e and not all of 4e. That makes me feel better!

      • insanityv2

        My biggest concern is that if Essentials is the first tabletop experience for new players, they’re going to see it from more of a WoW-equivalent experience instead of the rich roleplaying experiences I go for.</blockquote.

        Hey man, I understand your concern but I wonder if you might be asking for too much too fast. It's sort of a big step that they're even away from the computer.

        • Fitz

          @insanityv2 – You might be right. The initial RPG tabletop experience should lull them into a sense that tabletop is like WoW and they can build on that. I just have to wonder if the first time out you should focus on the differences rather than the similarities… It’s a tough call though. Introducing people to new hobbies works differently for every people you try it on, so the “one size fits all” approach doesn’t really work.

  • Fitz, come down to Houston in May and play 4e “Ashes of Athas”. You’ll revel in the roleplay! Also, I believe you meant “D&D Encounters” in a few places where you wrote “Essentials”. Essentials is a set of options for 4e, while Encounters is an in-store public play experience, meant to offer one of those combat encounters *per week*, surrounded and immersed in roleplay and story. At our store in Houston, we run 5 – 6 tables minimum, 6 – 7 players each table, every week.

    Comicpalooza will offer hands-on time with Chris Perkins, Chris Sims, Ari Marmell, Steve Jackson, and from Paizo, Hyrum Savage & Stephen Radney-McFarland. I suspect with so many great names in the room, there will be significant roleplay.

    Like Wally, both my home Thursday RPGA game and my homebrew Saturday Forgotten Realms games have nights of wholly roleplay, or nights of intense roleplay, with a few skill-using (rolls) and/or combat which fits the adventure/arc. 4e has clean mechanics to resolve combat, and it has a whole lot of variety in classes, races, and abilities…not even mentioning Heroes of Shadow which was just released.

    • Fitz

      @Greek George – Dang! Here I was referring to it as “Essentials” and you’re right – it’s “Encounters!” Gak! Sorry about that. I will correct the post. πŸ™‚

      As for the invite – thanks! That would be a bit of a commute for me and I’ll be attending multiple soccer games for my daughters. πŸ™‚

      However it sounds like I should find some game that doesn’t entirely focus on combat!

  • You know its a little bit funny that they did their entire class design based on WoW for the 4th edition. But with the move to essentials they moved away from that and back to traditional 1st and 2nd edition where fighters swing a sword and wizards have a ton of options.

    • Fitz

      @Wally – I did notice that the combination of powers made each character quite formidable. But to me it still seemed very much like WoW. I find it odd that I miss the days of wimpy low-level wizards nearly getting killed on a regular basis. πŸ™‚

  • Sully

    Yup, the public RPGA games are designed to highlight the core of D&D 4e’s ruleset, which is incredibly balanced tactical combat encounters. My home 4e game is nothing like that. We role-play, we fight, we explore, we shape the world we’re in. I love the 4e system but the Encounters program doesn’t do justice to what it’s capable of from a role-playing standpoint. That being said, Essentials is just streamlined 4e character builds, not 4.5 or anything goofy like that. I think WotC is doing a good job of getting kids off their computers and to a table with friends. I’ve got three ex-WoW players in my game and they’ve been having a great time.

    • Fitz

      @Sully – Makes sense I guess. I just went in expecting more of what I’m used to – deep roleplaying and less combat. Maybe 30% combat and 70% roleplaying. Typically if we got to combat we didn’t talk ourselves out of a particular situation. πŸ™‚ That’s the kind of roleplaying I am always on the hunt for. Sounds like 4e streamlines combat and doesn’t preclude roleplaying if you’re with the right group. Proves once again that “context matters” in gaming.

      Thanks for keeping the conversation alive here and sharing your experiences guys. I appreciate the feedback!

  • Houndin

    Something else to keep in mind: D&D Encounters is just that. I wouldn’t even go so far as to call it a delve. The name says it all. To put it in perspective, I’m currently DMing a 4e essentials game and I find it to be not as tactical. For our first encounter, I ran it just like I would have in 2nd edition: A crudely drawn, not to scale, map on notebook paper; lots of imagination. Essentials, for my group, is reducing the amount of ‘pick a power, roll’ and increasing the amount of ‘come up with something cool’ In that same encounter, I had a druid polymorph into a panther and try to climb up to a balcony via a tapestry, The rogue jump/flip up onto a table and fire off some arrows at windows above the balcony to slow a fleeing enemy, and the mage tossing light spells to blind and confuse. The next encounter was conducted like a tactical wargame, 20+ minions, a brute and a controller spread around a battlemap of a wharf/warehouse district. It went a lot more like you describe with counting squares and angling close blast attacks to hit as many as possible. But my players had fun, and that’s all that matters.

    • Fitz

      @Houndin – Yeah, that seems to be the overwhelming response here. That Encounters is pretty much a quick & dirty intro to 4e in a public forum to get people interested and show off the tactical rules and like any other game (D&D or otherwise), it’s more about the group playing, the GM, and how the freedom and imagination are expressed in that context. Thanks for reminding me of that. 4e is just a toolset and it depends on who’s using it as to what can be built with it. πŸ™‚

  • D&D Encounters is not D&D. I’m a huge fan of 4e. I’ve run a home campaign for nearly three years, and Encounters for over a year. No role-playing game should rail-road you as much as Encounters does… it’s an injustice to 4e.

    No matter what you play, GURPS, Pathfinder, 3e, OD&D, Cthulhu… any RPG would suck with an Encounters setup. One and a half hours a week, no player input, completely rail-roaded until level 3 when you have to make a new character and do it again.

    • Fitz

      @j0nny_5 & @DLDzioba – Thanks for the feedback. It’s good to know I’m not alone in feeling something was amiss with D&D Encounters. πŸ™‚

  • That’s interesting. I just recently played Encounters in the exact same campaign you described the session I was in on only covered getting to and entering the tomb though. I think what you’ve said pretty much sums up how I feel about playing 4e. I loved the people, loved the store I gamed at but the system and game in general left a lot to be desired.

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