Adapting Keep on the Shadowfell: The Players

As the majority of the group was new to Dungeons and Dragons we chose to go with the pre-generated characters provided with the module. This has the disadvantage of the characters having not much back story or pre-determined personality, but did seem advantageous for new players being able to get “into the game” right away without a session spent on character creation and the trails of skill selection and point allocation that go along with that.

The Players:

  • Mercado the Half-Elf Cleric
  • Full-Ling the Halfling Rogue
  • Rockbottom the Dwaren Fighter
  • Magical Trevor the Human Wizard
  • Liraka the Dragonborn Paladin

I think that being able to start right away was important; some of the player had not bought into the concept as much as others, and the potential tedium of character creation seemed like a major roadblock on the way to the “fun” part of the game. The downside was that it took a while for much to emerge in the way of personality for the characters. Magical Trevor did take form more or less immediately as an  of an exuberant singing wizard with the personality of an over caffeinated twelve year old. Other characters are still establishing their personalities, by the time we started our forth session I made the conscience effort to only refer to people in game by their character names.

Another advantage of the prebuilt characters was that the character sheets created for these are for more readable than the generic D&D sheets. There’s just too much noise on the page and it isn’t well organized. The prebuilt character sheets may be a bit over simplified, but they do a good job of organizing the necessary information for beginner players. When we had a new player join us for the forth session with a new character I actually chose to create a custom character sheet based on the design of the prebuilt character sheets.

Things to consider:

  • What context does one need to provide for the characters knowing each other before the start of the adventure?
  • Character creation can be a barrier for getting started, but can new player be coached to create back stories?
  • Even if using pre-gen character without backstories, can choosing character names and referring to players by those names help ease players into roleplaying?

Short Game Review: Nier

Nier is kind of a weird game, but not weird in sufficiently interesting ways to come with a strong recommendation from me. It’s a Japanese action RPG (i.e., no turn-based, menu-navigating combat) which occasionally borrows gameplay from shoot-em-ups, Diablo-style games, and text adventures. It makes not-so-subtle references specifically to certain Final Fantasy games, Zelda, any game that has you go around killing giant monsters based on the unspoken assumption that big monsters probably have keys in their bellies, and surely others I missed. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t say that Nier is ever more than the sum of its parts, and many of the aforementioned parts are kind of poorly done.

To the game’s credit, a few of the characters are fun, and the combat is occasionally interesting in the latter half of game—but I think I was over 10 hours in before I had a full party of NPCs and fights started being somewhat more interesting. The story had a great deal of potential, but rather than simply tell a story that makes sense from beginning to end, the game leaves a lot unexplained after one playthrough; I’m reading now online about how you need to play through two or three different ways for different endings and to actually get the subtext of what was going on (i.e., some characters’ dialog is undecipherable until your second playthrough). I wish I could say that I’ll endorse any game with a cast of characters as bizarre as this one—including a talking book, a foul-mouthed and seminude woman, and a friendly skeleton/magician—but I’ll withhold that endorsement until the sale price drops below twenty bucks.

Adapting Keep on the Shadowfell: The Hook

Keep of the Shawdofell provides three potential story hooks to use a backstory:

  • Your mentor goes missing near the town of Winterhaven.
  • A scholar  hire you to map the ruins of the Keep of the Shadowfell
  • Death cultists have been spotted near Winterhaven and you should investigate.

I decided that none of these felt particularly interesting. The first two just felt dull and the third skips a lot of the exploration and discovery in the first quarter of the module that I felt had the strongest story opportunities. The alternate scenario I crafted was that the players mentor would ask them to deal with a bandit problem in the town of Winterhaven to repay a debt to Ernest Padraig, the lord of Winterhaven. This decision necessitated that I create an actual character for the mentor, he needed to be more than a quest item or a mission generator. Since he is the first character the players will interact with he needs to be real, especially if there is chance her could appear later on to aide the players.

This is the description I wrote for the mentor:

Douven Stahl is an aging paladin with a flowing white beard, who has spent much of his life as a warrior. These days he spends him time teaching those who seek out his instruction in the ways of battle.

I envisioned Douven as kind of a friendly coach, he doesn’t have a lot of information about what’s in store for the players, and he might even be downplaying the seriousness of the situation to try to keep the confidence of his pupils elevated.

Here is some sample dialogue I wrote for him in preparation for the first session:

“Hello friends, thank you all for assembling”

“Today marks an important day in your training, for today is the day I send you out into the world to prove you’ve actually learned a thing or two working with me for so many seasons.”

“You see, I’ve just received a message from old comrade of mine, Ernest Padraig, he’s the Lord of Winterhaven a village about a weeks travel from here, and it seems he’s been having some problems with bandits. I figure a few bandits will be no match for you lot, a good opportunity for you to sharpen your skills, not to mention clearing my debt with Ernest, heh.”

“Winterhaven is a grand old place, I’m sure you’ll find plenty to entertain yourself after you help out my friend, there’s even supposed to be an old dragon’s tomb somewhere south of Winterhaven you might explore.“

Adapting Keep on the Shadowfell

Keep on the Shadowfell is Wizard’s of the Coast introductory module for Dungeons and Dragon’s 4th Edition. As a first time game master running Dungeon and Dragons for a group that is also predominantly new to the game I found having a pre-generated adventure helpful, but at the same time Keep on the Shadowfell has some major issue. As such I’ve spent a lot of time reworking the supplied materials in advance of each session.

The Premise

The dark priest Kalarel seeks to reopen an ancient rift between our world and the Shadowfell, an ethereal realm home to the undead. Kalarel’s base of operations is a haunted keep, but his influence over the area has expanded and he now controls local tribes of goblins and kobolds that harass the town of Winterhaven.

The Problems

As presented Keep on the Shadowfell provides some useful materials but suffers from a variety of issues both major and minor, including:

  • The overall story of Keep on the Shadowfell is well enough, but the way it is revealed to the players is awkward if not broken in places. The pacing is odd and very few actual choices are presented for the players.
  • The non-player characters that are to be encounter are numerous to the point of bewildering, but lacking in actual personality.
  • Kalarel, a villain who appear for the first time in the final fight is otherwise only known through trite letters he sends his henchmen that reveal far to much about his evil plans.
  • Combat vs. Story: of the 70 pages of the module, approximately 15 cover story related content, with the rest dedicated to details of a whopping 25 different combat encounters.
  • D&D 4th edition relies heavily on combat, and the combat relies heavily on battle map grids. Keep of the Shadowfell provides 6 maps, and suggests you reuse one of them, leaving it up to you to figure out maps for the other 18 combat sequences.

In general my frustrations with Keep on the Shadowfell are two fold: there are many places where there is a lack of advice that a veteran game master could likely work around but for a beginner module seems like a failure, but also many places where there is what appears to be poor advice. In preparing for each session I spent several hours planning story, determining physical resources I’d need, studying combat mechanics, and reading critiques on the web.

Resources I made use of

  • Eleven Foot Pole – Dungeons and Dragon Design Criticism. Lots of blogs on the internet mope about Keep on the Shadowfell or specific 4th Edition D&D mechanics, but the quality of the critiques and the suggestion for improvement on this blog were the best I found.
  • The Alexandrian – Remixing Keep on the Shadowfell. Offers some nice adjustments for the story and provides some combat encounters and story hooks that takes things in a different direction.
  • Wizards updated Keep of the Shadowfell available as a free PDF. Not only do they provide the entire module as a free PDF but they’ve made a variety of fixes, some typographical, other for balance, and they reworked one encounter in a way that enhanced the story that I sadly overlooked.
  • Cartogrpahers Guild – BattleMaps for Keep on the Shadowfell. The supplied maps cover the first and last few combat encounters with the presumption that the DM would draw out the middle ~20 encounters on graph paper or such. Instead I used these beautiful maps and the program PosteRazor to make large 30″ by 40″ maps out of 8.5 by 11 printouts. This took more time that just sketching hallways on graph papers but ended up with results more like a published game board.
  • Fiery Dragon – Castle of Shadows free counters. These free counters worked great in lieu of miniature for the first few sessions until I was able to get my hands on some actual figurines. Printing them on card stock was easy enough and met my needs.

Short Game Review: Alan Wake

Alan Wake is a horror story about horror stories. You play as the eponymous writer, fighting people possessed by a malevolent darkness, armed with lights and some guns. The gameplay generally involves dodging creepy dudes and pointing a flashlight at things to weaken them before shooting them (kind of like what Alone in the Dark did with fire, only this game probably fit that name better). It is pretty cool the first hundred times or so, but it does get repetitive.

The game was marketed heavily upon the strength of its story, though, and it does indeed do a better job making believable characters and back story than most games, with a plot that kept me wondering what would happen next. Ultimately, it does a worse job with facial expressions and lip sync than a game so focused on story really deserves, and some niggling loose ends in the plot are really bugging me—but perhaps I’ll get my answers in the DLC. Overall, I’d say it’s worth playing, but might be even more fun to watch someone else play (especially if they don’t bother hunting for all the stupid, worthless collectables).