Rolling for Initiative is a weekly column by Scott Thorne, PhD, owner of Castle Perilous Games & Books in Carbondale, Illinois and instructor in marketing at Southeast Missouri State University. This week, Thorne polls retailers on the changes Wizards of the Coast is making to D&D Encounters.
If you read last Thursday's ICv2 (and of course you did), you read about the changes coming to the D&D Encounters program (see "Changes to 'D&D' Encounters"). For those of you who are not familiar with the program, allow me to summarize.
For the past several years, Wizards of the Coast has worked to create the equivalent of Friday Night Magic for Dungeons & Dragons, with the weekly D&D Encounters program. The store provides space and a GM (and players), WotC provides a 4th Edition campaign that plays out over a two month campaign season, with each season laid out linearly and broken into weekly sessions, each of which should take 2-3 hours to complete. The idea is to allow players to miss sessions without affecting the overall storyline, hence a very structured format for the season. Players could generate their own characters or use pre-generated ones and, in earlier seasons, could earn points by completing various activities within the campaign, which earned them Fortune Cards they could use in the game. WotC also had a Twitter account that would send out a Tweet announcing an in-game effect during the weekly session, but someone had to monitor Twitter during the game, so that feature, as far as I am aware, has been dropped, along with the Fortune Cards in favor of promo dice.
Stores run D&D Encounters for a couple of reasons. A major reason is that WotC promotes it through its Website and emails, so running D&D Encounters provides one more way to promote the store to customers and get them in the door. Hosting Encounters also allows the store to answer “Why, yes, right here,” when asked by customers, as all stores selling RPGS are, if there is a gaming group looking for players. Finally, the Encounters materials are free and made it very easy to run each season, as a GM could run one with a minimal amount of prep time.
Then, last week WotC posted on its website a notice that the program would change significantly with the next season, as WotC will only provide materials for set-up and the initial gaming session. The store is expected to purchase and use a copy of the upcoming Murder in Baldur's Gate adventure for the rest of the campaign sessions, which start in late August. Additionally, the GM can run the campaign using either D&D 3.5, 4th or 5th/Next rules. This, as you can see, is a drastic change from the program up to now so I sent off a couple of emails to WotC essentially asking "Why the changes?" In return, I received a very nice email referring me back to the WotC website and saying: "This is the official information that we are able to provide. For more information, please keep an eye on our websites for announcements as they become available."
I queried a few retailers I know regarding what they thought about the upcoming changes.
Pat Fuge, Gnome Games (Green Bay, Wisconsin):
We have come to realize that the FNM approach to RPGs is only effective over the long term with engaged player character engagement that actually interacts and develops the storyline rather than playing through as a video game. Our table numbers speak volumes with a 10 to 1 difference between the two types.
We will continue to run Encounters because a tiny subset of our players enjoy it much like we do Redemption, UFS, and other fringe games. Until WotC comes to grips with what really engages players we'll have to work outside their myopic scope to grow RPGs with Pathfinder and Living Rokugan.
We're a store fairly strong with RPGs and had chosen not to run Encounters to date because the structure seemed only to draw interest from an older, cheaper, more veteran player base and did nothing to drive new players to try the game. More of a liability than a worthwhile event to run. Them not changing their approach other than to charge for the kits will do nothing to change that, so we'll be continuing to take a pass.
I just spoke with our Encounters DM, he is going to poll the players to see if they are interested. I suspect they will not be all that interested in playing the event if it means they have to help pay for the kit.
That being said, I am still considering ordering the extra stuff in case the new season appeals to a different group of players. Which means WotC is still finding a way to begrudgingly get my money.
We've seen a fair bit of success with D&D Encounters and do run it as a pay-to-play event. DMs are offered store credit based on the number of people at their table as a "thank you" for giving us their time and effort and as an incentive to do a good job and keep players coming back.
I feel like we've had success with it because our DMs do put in the time and effort to engage players and make them feel like they're influencing the story line both within a season and between seasons. Several tables elect to keep characters from one season to the next and the DM scales the adventure appropriately.
The people that make up a table usually remain the same from session to session and even season to season. There's a small amount of shifting, but certainly not much. Our strongest DM, who's also a store employee, always takes new players and starts a brand new table running the mod "as written."
The quality of the D&D Encounters adventures has increased dramatically since its inception and our DMs really like the flexibility they've had in the past couple of seasons to decide which rule set they'd like to use. Currently, all five tables are using the D&D Next playtest rules. Last season only one table ran as 4E.
Obviously the DMs weren't thrilled that they'd be required to purchase the materials for this upcoming season, but each one of them admitted they'd probably buy it anyway.
In general, the feeling I get is that, while this is a change, it is not major enough to cause stores to either start or stop the program and that the more flexible format may encourage more players. We shall see.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
Column by Scott Thorne
June 24 2013 @ 12:32 am CT
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