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KEEP ON THE SHADOWFELL
For several months now my plan for 4th Edition has been to run the preview adventure -- Keep on the Shadowfell -- for my regular D&D group. My goal is to approach that experience with a completely open mind, see how it goes, and then use it to decide whether or not to spend the money on the core rulebooks. My current campaign, set in Ptolus, would stay 3rd Edition in any case. But if 4th Edition convinces me to make switch, then I'd probably use it for my next campaign.
A couple of days ago my copy of the module arrived from Amazon. I've now read through it, and have a few thoughts to share. So, on that note...
The following thoughts contain minor spoilers for Keep on the Shadowfell. If you don't want to be spoiled, don't read it. And if you're in my gaming group then you definitely shouldn't be reading it.
You have been fairly warned.
(1) The production values of the module are disappointing. It has a cover price of $30 and Amazon had been advertising it as a hardcover. It isn't. Two flimsy pamphlets and three poster maps are packaged in a lightweight cardboard folder. And when I say "flimsy pamphlet" I mean flimsy. The paper is of a lighter weight than that previously used in Dragon and Dungeon magazine and the "covers" of the pamphlets are of the exact same paper. I am extraordinarily gentle with my reading material, and after a single reading the ink is already being rubbed off the edge of one "cover". Frankly, I will be shocked if these last through a single session.
The poster maps are pretty nifty, although they follow the current WotC style of fetishizing light sources. Everything seems to glow: Walls, ceilings, furniture. These poster maps are lovingly rendered with computer graphics -- but they have no reality to them.
(2) The writing in the Quick Start Rules is abominably bad. For anyone who hasn't been played a roleplaying game before, the content here is completely inadequate for teaching them how to actually play the game. On the other hand, the writer has chosen to address the reader as if they had no idea what an RPG was. So the newbie isn't helped and the experienced player feels like they're being talked down to... who exactly is the target audience supposed to be for this pablum?
(3) The pregenerated characters, instead of being included on separate sheets (which the folder format would have allowed) are instead found at the back of the Quick Start Rules. This makes no sense.
(4) This may have been previously known, but it was the first time I realized that saving throws have a 55% chance of success instead of a 50% chance of success. (Instead of failing on 1-10 and succeeding on 11-20, they fail on 1-9 and succeed on 10-20.) I have no idea why they chose to do it that way.
(5) I am still annoyed that they undid 3rd Edition's fix to the critical hit mechanics.
(6) The streamlined actions (standard/move/minor/free) are nice to see, along with the accompanying simplification of the rules for charging and running. I think they were right to conclude that the complexity of full actions wasn't giving much in return. And I think replacing the concept of a 5-foot step with the idea of a "shift" (which doesn't provoke an AoO but does require a move action) also simplifies the flow of combat.
(7) It is completely impossible to play 4th Edition without miniatures. Unlike every previous version of the game (including 3rd Edition), the game literally does not function without a grid. I typically use miniatures, but this still annoys me.
(You will probably still hear people talk about how 4th Edition can be played without miniatures. But given the sheer number of abilities which are only useful because they allow for very precise movement on the combat grid, this is roughly akin to claiming that you can play Chess without a board. While it's true, it's only because you're explicitly imagining the board in your head. In 3rd Edition this wasn't the case: When I played without miniatures in 3rd Edition, I was imagining the game world and then using the mechanics -- which were all based on real-world measurements -- to adjudicate. The 3.5 revision weakened that connection somewhat by using squares as the default terminology, but the underlying mechanics of 3.0 were still essentially unchanged. 4th Edition embraces the grid completely and irrevocably.)
(8) The fact that you lose unspent action points when you take an extended rest reminds me of this blog post at Rampant Games. Its a mechanic that encourages players to push on without rest... unless, of course, they've expended all their accumulated action points. (However, I have been informed that you can only spend one action point per encounter. This rule doesn't appear in the Quick Start Rules, but if it's true then it obviates this advantage of the system entirely.)
(9) Contrary to the designers' claims, however, I doubt that the 15-minute adventuring day is going anywhere. This was inevitable, of course, because the 15-minute adventuring day had nothing to do with the system (except insofar as the system features daily-based spike powers) and everything to do with DMing style.
(10) The editing is atrocious. I can only hope they do a better job with the actual core rulebooks. For example, I'm pretty sure that the Empire of Nerath and the Empire of Nareth are actually the same thing.
(11) Unfortunately, these types of gratuitous errors aren't limited to the fluff content. The rules are also riddled with errors. For example, the quick start rules define two types of cover: Normal Cover and Superior Cover. These are naturally referred to in various places throughout the adventure: A treeline or a boulder or a piece of furniture will either grant normal cover or it will grant superior cover.
Unfortunately, some obstacles will also grant "cover" -- which is neither "normal cover" nor "superior cover". I'm guessing that I'm supposed to interpret "cover" as being "normal cover", but when you take the trouble to define a precise technical term then you should make the effort to actually use the precise technical terms you've defined.
(12) Other rules aren't explained properly. For example, when describing the rules for handling a pit trap, the module states "if a bull rush forces a creature into the pit, it can immediately attempt a saving throw to avoid going over the edge". Fair enough. But I've been led to understand from other sources that this is true for any type of forced movement that would cause a character to suffer falling damage. Almost all of the pregen PCs, in fact, have forced movement abilities. Why didn't they include the complete rule?
(13) Another example: Upon first reading the Quick Start Rules, I was annoyed by the fact that a dying character was doomed to die unless someone helped them. According to the Quick Start Rules, a dying character must make a saving throw each round. If they succeed, their condition stays the same. If they fail three times, however, they die. Apparently, I thought, no one ever wakes up on their own after being knocked unconscious in 4th Edition Land.
I have since been led to understand that, in other preview material, the full rule has been revealed: If you roll a natural 20 on your saving throw, you wake up with one-quarter your hit points. Why on earth wasn't that sentence included?
(14) Several NPCs in the adventure use rules (like the recharge rules and aura rules) which are never explained. This, frankly, is completely inexcusable in an introductory product.
(15) Making the rules even more confusing is the fact that there are actually two sets of Quick Start Rules: One for the players and another for the DM. At first I thought this was a practical piece of utilitarian design: The DM can have a copy of the rules for easy reference and so can the players.
But then I discovered that they were actually two different sets of Quick Start Rules. And for reasons beyond my comprehension, the player's Quick Start Rules don't include a lot of the rules the players will need to play their characters. (For example, they don't even include all of the rules necessary to understand the abilities on the pregenerated character sheets.)
So, for me, the entire player's Quick Start Rules packet is useless: I'll be xeroxing the pregenerated characters out of it (so that they can actually be used) and I'll be xeroxing the DM's Quick Start Rules so that my players will actually have the rules they need to play the game.
(16) The first two encounters in the adventure use the exact same map and the exact same concept (kobolds ambush the party while they're traveling on the road). The sense of deja vu was palpable even as I was reading it. I can only imagine the experience at the game table will be moreso.
What makes this design even more ridiculous is that the second ambush on the road doesn't make sense. The first ambush happens while the PCs are on their way to the village of Winterhaven. The second is supposed to happen shortly after they leave it. But after leaving Winterhaven, the adventure assumes the PCs will go to one of two locations: Either a dragon burial site or the kobold lair.
Neither of these locations lie on the road. The most direct route from Winterhaven to either location is, in fact, directly through the wilderness. So why does the adventure assume you'll be able to (essentially) reuse the ambush-on-the-road scenario when the PCs won't be on a road?
(17) "The tall hobgoblin calls to the others in Common: 'Don't kill 'em. We can sell 'em to the Bloodreavers as slaves.'"
This is apparently a bit of foreshadowing for H2 Thunderspire Labyrinth. Pity they didn't include any rules for dealing nonlethal damage.
(18) The skill challenges in this adventure are particularly lackluster. In particular, they continue to demonstrate the same railroading qualities that the sample posted to WotC's website did. It's possible that this is merely because this is an introductory adventure, but it certainly didn't do much to convince me that the core rulebooks are going to resolve any of the problems I have with the mechanics WotC has shown us.
(19) Speaking of skill challenges, let's talk about Sir Keegan. Sir Keegan was the last commander of the keep before being driven mad by the emanations of the Shadowfell Rift. In his madness he killed his wife and his closest friends before the garrison of the keep turned on him, drove him into the dungeons beneath the keep, and sealed the entrance behind him. In the dungeons, Sir Keegan regained his sanity and, overcome with remorse, poisoned himself. He somehow ended up as a sentient undead skeleton (the details here are vague), and dedicated himself to making sure that the Shadowfell Rift was never open.
Now, bearing that story in mind, consider how the PCs will encounter Sir Keegan for the first time:
But let's take a moment and analyze this: Who, exactly, built this crypt for him? Did he just decide to have one built for himself on the off-chance he might need it in the event that he would be driven insane, go on a murderous rampage, and then be trapped in the dungeons beneath the keep by his own men?
Well, perhaps Sir Keegan was a master stone-carver. And, after being trapped in the dungeons without any food, quickly chiseled out a crypt for himself before poisoning himself. And, naturally, after dedicating himself to making sure that the rift was never opened again he would just seal himself inside that crypt and never emerge... even while cultists set up shop next door and begin working to open the rift.
Makes perfect sense... right?
Okay, setting those problems aside, let's turn our attention to the meat of this encounter: The social skill challenge that Sir Keegan triggers. A social skill challenge that will result in brilliant conversational gems like this one:
... sound kinda cheesy? Well, perhaps you'll prefer this one:
Seriously. I'm not even kidding around. Keegan's first bit of dialogue in each example is lifted straight from the module, as is the suggested skill check. In order to succeed at this social skill challenge, the PCs have to make four successful skill checks before failing at four skill checks, with each skill check representing a Q&A exchange. (The PCs can also decide to go with straight up Diplomacy and/or Bluff checks if they prefer.)
(20) They finally fixed the encounter format they pioneered in the waning days of 3rd Edition. They're still using the useful and easy-to-access two-page spread for each encounter, but rather than splitting crucial information across two different locations (by having a keyed description in one place and the encounter information in another), they're using the encounter format for each keyed area.
I note, however, that the format requires every last square inch of a dungeon to be covered by an encounter. I suspect they consider this a feature: "After all," they'll say, "An empty room is a boring room."
But, of course, just because a room doesn't have a monster or a trap in it doesn't mean that it's empty or boring. More importantly, if the PCs know that there's going to be something exciting behind every single door that they kick in, it rather lessens the moment of anticipation.
The other thing I'll note about the new format is that the designers made a big deal in their pre-release publicity about how 4th Edition would be featuring multi-room encounters. I guess this is sort of true, but the only thing that's really changed is that they're drawing their arbitrary "monsters won't go past this point" lines in slightly different ways. I doubt I'll be seeing any meaningful difference in play, since my 3rd Edition campaigns already feature multi-room running battles on a regular basis. This is another one of those areas where my experience seems to have been considerably at odds with the "common wisdom".
But we'll see what happens in actual gameplay. It would actually be pretty awesome if I was totally surprised.
My overall impression with the plot and structure of the adventure can be pretty much summed up with this: I kept flipping back to the credits page to convince myself that Mike Mearls and Bruce Cordell were actually responsible for this.
Bruce Cordell, for example, also wrote the inaugural module for 3rd Edition: The Sunless Citadel. The Sunless Citadel was a piece de resistance. I've played it once and ran it twice and I consider it one of the best D&D modules ever written.
Keep on the Shadowfell, on the other hand, seems rather lifeless and predictable. It's a paint-by-numbers D&D adventure.
Generic Fantasy Village #1 (a.k.a. Winterhaven) is lifeless, filled with cardboard cut-outs who are scripted with quests as if they were stock pieces lifted from Ye Local CRPG.
The Generic Goblin Encounters are uninspiring: Ambush. Guards. Barracks. Boss. Repeat.
Fight zombies in underground crypt. Fight skeletons in graveyard.
Fight Evil Priest in Demon Fane.
And I know that these are all classic archetypes that get used all the time. Heck, I'm using some of them right now in my Ptolus campaign. But you can use classic archetypes and breathe fresh life into them and you can use classic archetypes and end up with bland cardboard.
My impression of Keep on the Shadowfell, having read through it, is one of bland cardboard.
But this puts me in something of an awkward position. I still want to use Keep on the Shadowfell as a test run for 4th Edition, but I've only got one of two options:
(1) Run the adventure as written, despite the fact that I think there are fundamental adventure design problems that largely have nothing to do with the 4th Edition ruleset.
(2) Try to redesign the adventure.
The problem with option one is that the design problems could end up poisoning the well. If the session flops, is that because 4th Edition is a flop? Or does it just mean that the adventure isn't any good?
The problem with option two is that I don't actually know 4th Edition. If I go in and start mucking around with the encounter designs, I could very easily end up unwittingly sabotaging things that make 4th Edition fun to play in ways that 3rd Edition isn't. In other words, I could end up inadvertently obviating the entire point of the exercise.
So I think what I'll probably end up doing is something like a remix of the module: Leave the encounter design alone, but go in and futz around with the fluff text. Give the adventure a stronger backbone and a richer mythology. Flesh out Winterhaven to give it some unique character and depth. Maybe add a few more encounters to make the threat posed by the Keep a little more real and pervasive.
We'll see how that goes. I'll post an update once I've actually run the playtest. (Which, unfortunately, may not be for a couple more weeks. We had originally scheduled it for May 24th. But then the release date was pushed back and I didn't actually get the module until May 22nd, so that was out of the question.)
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