Now that the first season of D&D Encounters has wrapped up, I think it's a good time to look back at those 12 weeks and collect my thoughts, both good and bad, on what went down.
In general, I like the idea behind D&D Encounters. Although I don't think that I'm the target audience for it (it feels more directed towards newer or more casual gamers), it still appealed to me. I've already got 2 full nights of gaming each week and I don't know that I want to add another one. So the idea of getting together for just one encounter and have the rest of the night free was a good one. How well it succeeded at that was... inconsistent. Some days we wrapped up in about an hour. Two encounters went more than two and a half hours. Another thing that needs to discussed is that I still haven't seen a compelling reason why it must be one day a week and only that one day. I've seen many reasons given, none of which has satisfied me and I still believe that there should be some flex. It should still be consistent from week to week (no having it on Wednesdays one week, then Friday the next), but if a store wants to run it on a day other than Wednesday they should be encouraged to do so.
I think something has to be said about the difficulty of the encounters. Some were extremely and painfully difficult. Infamous Encounter 10 was one of them and it actually kind of drove off one of our players, who didn't enjoy how unfair it felt. Other encounters were walk-in-the-park easy. Encounter 11 was like that. Some of the encounters we felt penalized for not having certain kinds of characters. At least 2-3 encounters would have been much more manageable if we'd had players who could do Radiant damage, for instance. Without those characters, those fights were considerably more difficult and 2 of them nearly lead to a total party kill. Only by sheer luck did we avoid them. The final encounter wasn't very fun for those of us playing melee characters and wasn't the first fight which seemed designed for a group stacked with ranged-capable PCs. I know there was no way for the author to predict what sort of characters would be used, but it still felt frustrating at times.
Despite my reservations about pregens, ultimately I think Season Two has the right idea in only using them. It (hopefully) allowed the author to ensure that players have the right toolset to deal with monsters in a fair and fun way. Pregens also remove another possible sore spot for me, which is the potential for huge disparity in expectations and experience of the players. I'll use my own game as an example. I'm an experienced player and I made several characters for the game, 3 of which I used at some point or another. All of my
characters were pretty optimized. Not to a great degree, but I definitely made very mechanically sound characters. Another player had an Avenger that just screamed Munchkin, doing more damage than any other Striker in the party and tanking better than any Defender. Finally, there were other players who made characters which were not put together that carefully or which were designed more with flavor/concept in mind than mechanics. My characters could potentially overshadow that last group of players at times and the munchkin ~did~ overshadow those players more often than not. Several players quit coming early on, at least one of which mentioned that he did it because his character felt like a sidekick to the more powerful characters. Pregens will level this playing field.
Back to good things. I basically liked the idea of the renown points. It was fun to try and collect them by performing those specific actions. Though there was a bit of a mixed feelings when some players hurt the group (figuratively or literally) trying to get them. I liked the reward cards and have worked on adapting the idea to my own home game. Online support for D&D Encounters was excellent. The Twitter effects are a great addition to the game and can really change a fight or spice it up. There's been plenty of communication with WotC people about D&D Encounters, including at least one instance where it was pointed out that there were errors in the printed module. Fixing those errors turned that particular fight from completely unfair to merely brutally difficult, but was still appreciated.
So my overall feelings for D&D Encounters? It's not for me, in the end. I like my D&D with more roleplaying and other activities outside of combat. That said, D&D Encounters isn't necessarily bad. It's flawed, certainly, but the 3-4 month running schedule per season gives WotC time to make adjustments and fix problems going forward. The idea behind the whole program is a good one, it just needs to be refined, polished, and tweaked.