D&D5: Organized Play

Wizards of the Coast has released some information on their plans for Organized Play come the release of 5th Edition D&D, which was covered by ICv2 and included an interview.

Organized Play is being rebranded as the “D&D Adventurers League”. This is to emphasise that all forms of organized play are connected. The Adventurer’s League will be divided into three divisions: Encounters, Expeditions, and Epics.

In the words of Agent Ward of S.H.I.E.L.D., what this means to me is that someone really wanted the initial to start with “E”. The related joke is that WotC could separate things by continent creating an Adventurers League of America and an Adventurers League of Europe.

Epics

Each storyline (read: season of play) will begin with an Epics adventure, starting at this GenCon with Tyranny of Dragons. Epics adventures are designed to “create buzz about the new season”, Which really means they’ll be the standard Convention specials, only with a new name and stronger tie to D&D Encounters and the biannual storyline. This is fine. Tying the traditionally one-off convention specials to regular play is a good ideas, and it can make convention characters less disposable.

There will be new Epics adventure at future cons, likely starting early in 2015 to kick off the next storyline, but WotC is being coy as to exactly when. But given the dearth of large conventions around the January/February period, it almost certainly means Winter Fantasy (formerly D&D Experience).

There will be “exciting” rewards given at the convention adventures. As Encounters starts at level 1, this means you take the boons/certificates gained from D&D Epics and apply those to your Encounters character.

I’m not sure which of the many convention events at this GenCon are Epics: if it’s just the Interactive (Corruption in Kryptgarden) or if all the events are Epics. The Interactive seems to be the capstone event of GenCon rather than a kickoff event, but it’s unclear if the other events are new adventure or stories from the Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure product, as was the case with last years events which were pulled from Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle.

The WotC site does say that Corruption in Kryptgarden “will be a massive, multi-table event that will shape the Tyranny of Dragons story”. Although claiming  it will “shape” a story that has already been written and sent to the printers seems like empty hype. (When did being a special event playable only at GenCon with hundreds of other people stop being special enough?)

I’m not fond of the name “Epics”: it reads awkwardly in sentences. They clearly wanted to imply the events were special and impressive, but “epic” also has other connotations in D&D. The level of play is likely not any higher, and as Epics kick-off events rather than act as finales, they are by nature less epic in scope. Now… if they acted as finales for seasons of Expeditions or related storylines, that might be different. WotC has no problem hyping the start of new seasons of play already, very often before the previous season has ended. Having Epics end the season, acting as a climax or epilogue, would give WotC something to hype at the end of a season rather than just ignoring the storyline at its climax.

Encounters

D&D Encounters seems to be relatively unchanged with the latest news, resembling the past few seasons in that it will use a published adventure module. The small tweak is that Encounters will only use first portion of the adventure, in this case Hoard of the Dragon Queen, which will be provided free to stores and adapted to fit Encounters. This adaptation will have enough content to get characters from first level to fifth level. The story will continue in published adventures, allowing players to finish the story elsewhere if they wish.

One of the frequent complaints of early seasons of Encounters was there was no way to play at home and the content was not easily available to collectors. The adventures appeared and then vanished, not having a lasting presence in the hobby; the results of some of the early events, such as Rise of the Underdark are all but forgotten. Tying Encounters to the published adventures was an interesting compromise on the part of WotC, but it did mean people who might play the adventure at home couldn’t play at Encounters. And it meant stores running Encounters had to eat the cost of one of the modules. And the modules, being designed for mass consumption, were not always designed with the nuances of Encounters play in mind.

The change seems to be an attempt to balance this, and is actually a fairly elegant way of solving the problem: so stores can participate in Encounters at not cost, but people with stable gaming groups still aren’t losing official D&D content. And the adventures can be tweaked to better fit the requirements of Encounters.

This execution doesn’t solve the problem of people playing the adventure at home not being able to participate in Encounters, but that’s likely a very small percentage of the fanbase. And it does mean Encounters will not finish the story being told in the adventures, which will continue for some time after. While this incentivizes people to buy and play the modules, Encounters is how some people consume D&D and this deprives them of a complete experience. WotC will have to be careful how they end individual modules.

Encounters is a useful program. I’ve been cynical of it in the past, given its transitory nature and railroading combat focused adventures – not being the best example of what D&D is or can be – but the program serves a purpose. It’s introduced quite a few people to the hobby and allows people who would otherwise be unable to game to roll some dice and have some fun. An understated benefit of Encounters is that it’s also a great way to introduce people to DMing: the prep is done, there’s not a long time commitment, and it’s not a consistent commitment. Plus there are the assorted perks handed out with kits that stores can use to reward DMs, which make for a nice encouragement.

-edit-

One point I forgot to add was that the whole point of Encounters switching to published adventures was to allow people to get acess to the content.

But with Expeditions only being available to stores and conventions, there will be a lot more unavailable content. So the benefit of tying Encounters to published adventures is now unnecassary. Making Encounters stand-alone would provide the best play experience, the adventures could just be released as PDFs later (making them an alternate revenue source).

-end edit-

Expeditions

The least detailed branch of the D&D Adventurers League is Expeditions, which seems to be replacing Living Forgotten Realms as the ongoing campaign. So far we know Expeditions is intended for both higher-level characters, and more experienced players.

The level range of Expeditions is unknown: we do not yet know if this will be adventure set after the published adventure modules, for Encounter seasons in place of the published modules, or anywhere inbetween. We don’t know if characters will be retained between Expeditions. Or if Expeditions will be playable at any level, or have a set level range.

Really… we know very little about Expeditions.

Expeditions will be set in the Moonsea region of the Forgotten Realms, essentially making this Living Moonsea. This is a much smaller region that Living Forgotten Realms or Living Greyhawk, but larger than Living City. And much of LG play could be confined to a single nation (your region) or the area around Greyhawk city, so the Moonsea seems fairly sizable. It’s a nice select geographic region that WotC can set aside for Expedition play and avoid using in novels or other products.

A continuing Organized Campaign is a useful game, and one connected to Encounters has long been lacking. Encounters can be neat, but the session is too short to really tell a full story. And the seasons do not last, forcing people to continually cycle through characters. Encounters is also geared to new players, but new players only stay “new” for a very finite length of time, after which they need another program to graduate into. While a few early seasons of Encounters allows players to segue into LFR, this has been sadly absent of late. Likely because WotC dumped LFR for Encounters and didn’t want to admit they made a mistake and take back LFR.

It’d be great if people could take the character they played in Encounters or Epics and continue adventuring with that same character in Expeditions. Or even use an Expeditions adventure to catch up in missed levels to continue playing later sessions of Encounters.

However, while play seems to be similar to LFR or Paizo’s Pathfinder society (4-hour one-off adventures) Expeditions is based around downloadable adventures paired with kits, which will only be available to stores. New adventures will be released every month, but the exact number is unknown. Monthly adventures do suggest this program is designed for the monthly or bi-weekly Organized Play games that some stores have. Weekly play, which several stores in my area have, seem less likely. But as that’s the purview of Encounters, this doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice. Stores are also meant to use the provided kits to support local conventions, which might be a bit of an obligation. It’s also uncertain if there will be a cost to game stores for kits, if the adventures will tie into the biannual story, or if adventures can be run after the storyline has ended.

Monthly adventures are a lot of work. The quality of adventures produced that rapidly might vary, depending on available freelancers and the business of schedules, especially if Dungeon magazine will also continue to release adventures. However, it’s a great way to test new talent: new writers might be tested with unpaid work doing an Expeditions module before moving on to Dungeon or even being offered other freelance work.

In comparison Paizo produces two Pathfinder Society scenarios each and every month, which does not keep up with weekly play. However, their scenarios typically do not retire, so it is possible to play adventures from four or even five years ago. And while many scenarios are merely adequate, the sheer number of adventures in the back catalogue means it’s easy to pick-and-choose the best stories.

An extended back catalogue would be cool. I hope WotC learns their lesson from LG and acquires the permanent rights to the adventures. The entire Living Greyhawk catalogue of adventures has vanished into the aether, being unavailable, despite their being some real gems and unique stories, because the rights are lacking.

One of the last teased bits of news regarding Expeditions is the ability to affect the story, but only when playing at the debut of the adventure. Which is odd as Epics is the play centered around cons. As adventures will debut at conventions, this means you’re encouraged to seek out cons and hold cons if you want your choices in the adventure to have a long term influence. Having an effect on the story is cool, but being limited to only conventions really hurts people who don’t live in metro areas near major conventions. If this includes smaller conventions it is a little easier and encourages people to set-up local cons.

Expeditions suffers from the problem Encounters has of requiring stores to be a certain size to opt into the program, although it looks like the requirements are a little lower. But this still means that comic shops that carry a few RPGs or game stores that don’t specialize in RPGs might find it difficult arranging Expeditions play. And players who lack a local game store, perhaps relying on online vendors will be unable to participate (unless they hold a convention).

Unlike previous RPGA Living Campaigns (or PFS), it does not sound like home play will be supported. Which is pretty huge, as the Living campaigns (and PFS) are great for busy DMs who cannot write their own adventures, filler sessions when the regular group cannot attend a home game, or simply supplementing play in stores. I ran dozens of LG games in my home. This also means internet play will not be possible, which is equally huge. Pathfinder Society is simple to play online and there a numerous online tabletop programs that are only getting easier to use, and Paizo even appointed a Venture Captain for online play. I’ve even heard of virtual gaming conventions complete with seminars and multiple tables of gameplay.

Certified

Very likely, the big reason for tying Expeditions to kits sent only to retails stores is the certificates. It sounds like Expeditions will be returning to certificates as the method of tracking magic items, which I believe were last used in Living City during 2nd Edition. Certificates were retired from Organized Play because of a number of problems: they were easy to lose, there was bullying and disagreements at the table over the distribution of certificates, there were forgeries, and adversarial DMs could easily remove permanent treasure.

Living Forgotten Realms and its predecessor Living Greyhawk used Adventure Records that tracked experience and gold, with gold being spent to buy magic items. The AR system worked but was a little confusing and metagamey for balance reasons, but it would be trickier to use in D&D5 where magic is not assumed and cannot be bought.

The kit ordered by stores will likely contain enough certificates to run the adventure a couple times, to avoid providing far too many certs that might find a home on the secondary market. This will allow WotC to keep a cap on magic items. When a store has expended all their certificates, they’ll likely have to order a whole new kit. And as kits are only sent to stores, this hinders counterfeit certificates and the secondary cert market.

Based on what was said about certificates from Epics adventures, it sounds like Certificates will stack and be transferable from character to character. So the longer players play, the more treasure they will accrue. Which creates an odd continuity problem of why a new first level character has gear handed down from five previous adventurers. Hopefully there will be some limits put in place, or cert transferring will only apply to Epics.

But this is still up in the air and is a heck of a lot of speculation on my part. Magic items could be handled differently, such as being able to choose one every few levels, and the certificates could just be the ARs ala LFR and LG. But if this is the case, the limit of only stores and cons being able to order adventures seems much more arbitrary and needless, and being unable to play Expeditions from home or online seems like much more of an oversight.

Factioned

Another change from past play is the addition of factions to the game. This really seems focused on Expeditions, being the major players around the Moonsea, but apparently it will apply to all branches of the D&D Adventures League.

Factions are one of the more interesting parts of Pathfinder Society, so it’s neat to see WotC run with the idea. They help players work together and have a sense of camaraderie or friendly competition, but have to be handled carefully to avoid too much inter-party conflict. There can be a less-good faction but an openly villainous faction, like the Red Wizards, will be difficult to manage in the long-term without having to justify why the Harper PC is not killing the Thayan on sight each and every session.