One of my main critiques of Keep on the Shadowfell is a lack of choices for the players to make. I guess my ideal pre-built module would be presented almost like the branching structure of a choose your-own-adventure book. Sadly Dungeons and Dragons modules seems more built around a model of brutal design conservation: if we’re going to design an area or combat encounter you’re gonna have to go there sooner or latter, and in fact if you put off going there you’ll find yourself under leveled in some other combat situation.
After the players survive getting attacked by bandits on the road to Winterhaven, they meet the locals, pickup some interesting leads for where they might head next, and then turn in for the night (i.e. recharge their powers.) The next day they get to to decide what they want to do. Seems reasonable enough I suppose. However, as read the module states that regardless of what the players choose to do next, they will get attacked on the road outside Winterhaven. Well great. Not only do we remove the opportunity for the players’ choice to mean something, the module basically prescribes repeating the exact same (and only) combat encounter they just experienced, with the same battle map and so on. This seemed like pretty lazy design and a way to quickly build an expectation with new players that Dungeons and Dragon is a game about going places but it always takes forever to get there because you get attacked by Kobolds on the road every time.
Instead I decided that the players would just get to go wherever they sought to explore. The two main leads the characters had to explore were: 1) their mentor told them about a dragon burial site nearby which promised treasure, or, 2) seek out the Kobolds who have been attacking travelers, which seemed to promise advancing the story. I was kind of surprised that the players quickly chose the dragon burial site as their destination. I supposed I made that lead a bit easier to follow up, but I was really just trying to balance the possible level of interest for what seemed like a vestigial plot path vs. the direct path for progressing the story.
I think this actually worked out nicely as I had a story hook planned for the dragon burial site where the players stumble upon hired thugs of Kalarel (the big bad) excavating an artifact as part of his nefarious plans. The other nice part of the burial site encounter being second is that it allowed for the players to deal with antagonists that weren’t just more/bigger Kobolds, and also lay the groundwork for there being more than just a simple bandit problem to solve. In this way the first “chapter” of the game basically presents two stories: kobolds abducting anyone who travels on the road, and suspicious characters skulking around. By the end of the first chapter these stories will have converged Â presenting the characters with a greater challenge they must solve by exploring the Keep on the Shadowfell itself