Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Gaming Artifacts: AD&D Deck of Encounters

I’m always on the lookout for interesting resources to inspire and enhance my solitaire roleplaying gaming. Most work just as well for group play, but some can form the basis for solo adventures when the gang just can’t coordinate schedules and you want to spend an afternoon immersed in an imaginary game world. Years ago I recall using the second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Deck of Encounters: Set One for a few weekend forays back into my favorite Basic/Expert D&D rules. I don’t recall much about the few play sessions other than they offered some satisfying entertainment and relief from stress at the time. Perusing the deck today I can see how they provide a range of adventure seeds one might develop into sole encounters or springboards for more involved adventures. It’s quite AD&D specific, but enterprising gamemasters can adapt most encounters to their favorite game setting or genre with a little work. Alas, it’s not cheap to acquire these days, especially when other resources exist today with a similar if not more effective inspirational impact.

Spoiler Alert: Go download S. John Ross’ The Big List of RPG Plots. It’s excellent and it’s free.

TSR released the first set Deck of Encounters in 1994 for $20. I don’t recall where I acquired it. At the time I was editing the Star Wars Adventure Journal at West End Games. Sometimes we traded for product with other companies at conventions, but I recall trading for TSR merchandise rarely happened. So I expect I picked it up at one of the hobby or bookstores I frequented on occasional shopping day trips to get out of Honesdale, PA (which had few diversions at the time), and relieve the sometimes overwhelming stress of working at West End and freelance writing much of my spare time to earn extra money to survive. The Deck was the kind of thing one would find in Waldenbooks or Barnes & Noble, bookstores that stocked nearly every TSR D&D release at the time (the unsold returns from such bookstore chains allegedly being one cause of the company’s downfall in 1997). The Deck did not initially seem designed to foster solitaire play; as one of “The Official Dungeon Master Decks” it was quite clearly meant for the game’s default mode of gamemaster and players. I am very sure, though, at the time I recognized its potential as a solo adventure resource and bought it with that in mind.

The Deck includes more than 400 cards. A handful offer a key to the symbols used on the card fronts to quickly identify danger levels, climate, terrain, main attributes used in overcoming obstacles, and the kind of encounter – all somewhat redundant since text on the card also offers this information, as well as experience point guidelines – but the graphic cues help in easily finding a particular kind of encounter. A few cards provide a checklist of all the cards, but they’re not numbered in any way, just listed by title. The front of each encounter card provides both text and icon listings for the categories noted above. The back provides around 250 words describing the area in which the action takes place, the initial situation the heroes encounter, significant developments, and any quick stats for notable monsters or non-player characters. Most consist of encounters one might explore and resolve along the way to another adventure. Some, or a few with related elements, might serve as an entire night’s action with a little elaboration. They’re not terribly deep, but if one views them as inspirational adventure prompts, they can serve as something a bit less superficial and have meaningful implications for the characters.

When I first used the Deck, I was looking for a diversion into my nostalgic B/X D&D days. I rolled up a few characters – a fighter, magic user, and thief – and set them on a journey across the kingdom (I think the fighter and thief were running from the law, providing an overarching purpose for their travels). Since they were low-level characters (I’m not sure if they were first level or if I boosted them to third as part of character creation) I sorted the encounter cards into lowest “danger level.” Most of the cards covered outdoor terrain, and I avoided various dungeon terrain encounters. My band of travelers managed through various encounters, each according to brief personality notes I’d jotted down to add some depth (though most had short background stories, too). More discerning gamers might see these encounters as mediocre roleplaying game resources, random encounters to use between adventures or when an unprepared, desperate gamemaster needs some inspiration to wing it; but they allowed me to engage with B/X D&D and provided a solitaire gaming diversion from the numerous stressors in my life at the time.

I’m not sure how much use a product like the Deck of Encounters would get almost 30 years since it was published. The D&D landscape has changed so drastically since second edition, with greater expectations from consumers with content and production value. Card sets have always been more expensive than printing roleplaying game books, especially this brick-like box of encounter cards. Even a book of such adventure seeds keyed to a genre or particular game setting could offer at least some inspiration to gamemasters who need quick ideas to develop on the fly. I would love to have seen something similar, in deck or book format, for games I’ve enjoyed in the past or would like to explore today in group play or as solitaire experiences: Empire of the Petal Throne, Space 1889, Middle-earth, and, of course, classic-era Star Wars. Now that I think about it, there’s no reason I can’t use the Deck for these other genres. I could simply file off the D&D serial numbers and, with some additional thought and a few notes, port them into other settings (though I’ll admit many encounters rely on typical AD&D monsters, spells, and other tropes).

Yet the Deck of Encounters remains an artifact of its time, when TSR could afford to churn out such resources as boxed sets filled with maps and rulebooks, boxes of cards, and other high production value fare. It obviously couldn’t last...and didn’t. Today one can find the Deck on the secondary market for far more than the $20 it cost in 1994. Second edition AD&D purists might want it, but its current utility remains debatable beyond D&D, when one would have to spend time and effort to port individual encounters to another setting; other, better resources exist for providing this kind of inspiration. Most roleplaying games today offer solid advice on creating scenarios, adventure hooks or seeds, and plenty of encounter ideas to use and modify. The onslaught of game supplement publishers professional, hobbyist, and everyone in between posting material online has brought more encounter resources of varying quality than one could ever hope to track. But perhaps the most useful and compact resource remains S. John Ross’ The Big List of RPG Plots. Filled with setting-neutral plots distilled to their core elements, it includes ideas for twisting them into new variations. Rather than a brick of cards with 400 random encounters, the Big List provides inspiration for entire adventures with just as much work as adapting one of the Deck of Encounter’s AD&D-specific encounters. Besides, where one might pay upwards of $90 to acquire the Deck on the secondary market today, the Big List remains a free resource to download...as it has since 1999.

So one resource is 30 years old and another 20. Even 20 years is a long time. Why haven’t I classified my copy of the Big List as an artifact? Because, all these years later, it’s still relevant and extremely useful. I will still keep my AD&D Deck of Encounters, more for nostalgia’s sake than actual use. Maybe I’ll look to it if I ever run a D&D game, group or solitaire, where I have few ideas of my own. For now, however, on those occasions when I need inspiration for a roleplaying game adventure in any setting, I reach for The Big List of RPG Plots.

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