Adapting Keep on the Shadowfell: Choices

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.

For example:
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  presenting the characters with a greater challenge they must solve by exploring the Keep on the Shadowfell itself

Adapting Keep on the Shadowfell: The NPCs

Keep on the Shadowfell presents 10 different non-player characters to interact with in the town of Winterhaven, but not much more than a sentence or two of personality for each one (they tend to be defined more in terms of occupation than persona.) Rather than rattling off a list of people they could talk to upon arrival in town I slimmed the list of NPCs down considerably:

  • Lord Ernest Padraig –  The lord of Winterhaven (the players immediately took to calling him “Patty.”) He has information about the people of Winterhaven and begs for help with his bandit problem. Padraig has little to provide in the way of physical resources or information on how to solve the problems at hand. At first I played him with a pretty lousy scottish-esque accent but I couldn’t keep that up and dropped it altogether. He is always friendly and outgoing to the players, though at time concerned with their lack of progress. After the second conversation Padraig had with the players I started to see him as kind of a blustery politician: charming and outgoing, but providing no real solutions and somewhat helpless.
  • Salvana Wrafton – The proprietor of Wrafton’s, the only tavern in town. Her role is minimal beyond providing food and lodging, she also directs the players to other NPCs that hang around in her tavern.
  • Valthrun the Prescient – A scholar and sage, he will provide some critical information later in the story to help the player piece together what might be going on at the Keep on the Shadowfell. I envisioned him as kind of an absent minded academic: well versed in the history of the area, but completely unaware of current events. In conversations Valthrun is likely to trail off without finishing sentences and is usually too distracted to offer all the information players need without some additional coaxing from them.
  • Elian the Old – an old farmer and Valthrun’s drinking buddy. So far he has zero dialogue but I always mention that he’s hanging around the tavern. I guess he’s kind of Keep of the Shadowfell’s Morn.
  • Ninaran – I decided to introduce Ninaran the elven ranger later in the story, with the idea that she would only be able to get to Winterhaven after the roads were safer. Once there she wouldn’t be particularly friendly to the players but would be the prime source for information on the surrounding area that they would need to locate the Kobold’s base camp.

So in the end more than half of the townies named in the module make no appearance. Even with this cut down list my players would still mismatch names and roles and make other silly mistakes. Having a smaller cast or characters just seemed more practical for the player’s sake, but it also let me create more personality for each of the important NPCs.

Adapting Keep on the Shadowfell: Starting the Adventure

One aspect of the Keep on the Shadowfell module I thought was particularly lacking was indications for how to actually start the adventure. The module provides a variety of hooks (which I remixed a bit), but there is very little discussion of how these hooks could be presented to the players in an engaging way. Perhaps the page or so of provided background material is easily adapted into by a veteran DM into an exciting introduction, but as a rookie DM running game for mostly beginner I would have appreciated more suggestions for how to get things rolling. After some consideration I chose to open the adventure with sort of a prelude “cut-scene”. This was a tactic I had seen Jason use relatively successfully, though my own attempt may have fallen flat. Here is what I read to the players:

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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?

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.

Medium Movie Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Due to unexpected good fortune your protagonists were able to see a sneak preview of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World on Tuesday, here’s what Tony thought:

One sentence summary for folks who haven’t read the comics: Canadian slacker/rocker Scott Pilgrim falls for Ramona Flowers but discovers he must defeat the league of Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes if he is to date her.  (Maybe you’d like to watch the trailer.)

Is Scott Pilgrim vs. The World a good movie and/or a good adaptation of a comic? I have a hard time thinking about the movie without dissecting the choices Edgar Wright makes in adapting the six volume graphic novel series to a 2 hour movie. I knew going into it that the movie would have to make some tricky choices about pacing and cutting scenes and characters. The graphic novels chronicling the ups and downs of a year in Scott Pilgrim’s life work fine as discrete chapters but would probably feel awkward as movie. So the movie takes place over a few weeks (time passes oddly in Toronto) with Ramona’s exes coming at Scott fast and furiously. The backstories of Ramona’s exes are heavily condensed or basically not explored at all in some cases. Scott’s relationship with his drummer and girlfriend Kim Pine, a source of ongoing tension and slow reveal in the comic, is more or less gone in the movie.  A variety of secondary characters are omitted or make only token appearances (we never see The Clash at Demonhead’s cyborg drummer in action for example.) Also worth noting: the movie was completed before Bryan Lee O’Malley finished the sixth book in the series, so though they clearly knew how he was planning to end the series it won’t be exactly the same. Balancing out for the adjustments to characters (and some plot points) fans of the comic will be happy to see a surprising number of scenes recreated shot for shot with the original dialogue in place.

So after you finish obsessing on all the little adjustments and tweaks to the plot and characters how is it at a movie? Pretty good I’d say. Consistently funny and amusing with great visuals it was fun the whole way through. The music of Scott’s Band Sex Bob-omb (provided by Beck) adds a lot to the experience that obviously wasn’t there in the comics, and works as a great example of how adapting a comic means you can do a lot more than just filming it shot for shot. The actors were all fine and the degree to which they looked like their comic counterparts is uncanny in places. Overall Scott Pilgrim vs. The World does a great job of faithful adapting much of the source material while also being fun and creative.

Reading other reviews of the movie which criticize the surreal elements of the story suggest to me that unsurprisingly the people who wouldn’t have enjoyed the comic wouldn’t enjoy the movie. I particularly like how one critic derided the movie as un-appealing to anyone who didn’t grow up with Nintendo (or as I call them, super old people.)

I liked Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and I hope you will too.

Short Television Review: Treme

The new series from David Simon (The Wire) is good stuff for people looking for something out there in TV with some actual meat on the bone. If you’re expecting “The Wire: New Orleans Edition” (as Dick Wolf would have titled it) you’ll be a bit disappointed. The Wire was an exploration of crime, corruption, the nature of life in an American city, and the institutions we ally ourselves with (be they the police, unions, gangs, schools, etc.), Treme is almost a love story about New Orleans and music.

Set three month after Katrina you can be sure Simon will include plenty of swipes at FEMA and Bush-era politicians, but Treme seeks to tell a story not of institutional failures, but of the lives of several musicians living in the New Orleans neighborhood of Treme. Given that most of the major character are musicians, music unsurprisingly plays a major role in Treme, and even a musically illiterate person such as myself can enjoy what they offer the viewer. In some ways Treme lacks some of the punch of the Wire, whereas Simon burned with a love/hate relationship with Baltimore, it almost feels like he might not be much more than a New Orleans fanboy. On the other hand, I find some of the of the storytelling is much richer and more interesting. Many of the stories focus on the lives of the characters and their families, a motif that was pretty lacking in The Wire except for examples of failed families. I also enjoy that the over arching story is still interesting without the tension and conflict of the active case from each season of The Wire.

So, I’d watch anything David Simon puts his name on, but I’d recommend Treme as being more accessible and closer to The Wire than his other post-Wire piece: Generation Kill.

Medium Game Review: Red Dead Redemption (i.e. Grand Theft Horse)

The Old West! Or at least the end of the old west! (1911 according to back of the game box.) Dan had me really worried when he said there was a car is the opening cut scene, but rest assured that it was an appropriately old timey car and not the Honda Civic I envisioned. Also as far as I can tell you don’t ever have to chance to steal said car.

Red Dead Redemption is lots of fun. I went right from playing the GTA4 DLC “Ballad of Gay Tony” into starting this so it was hard for me not to feel at first that this was basically GTA4 with a better cover system, and you know, horseys instead of cars. As I started putting several hours into RRD, it quickly grew on me. My first reaction was how weird it was that a game set in a desolate, sparsely populated dessert, could feel so rich and engrossing compared to Rockstar’s previous metropolis based games. There is just a ton to do: strangers to help out, animals to hunt, bounties to collect, poker to play, bandit hideouts to decimate, and of course the story missions. The variety of experiences and different ways situations can play out results in some unique experiences; friends I talked to who’d only played the first hour of the game described experiences and adventures I had yet to encounter hours into it. Every night I played the game would leave me with a story about some act of virtual heroism, botched rescue mission, or case of mistaken identity that resulted in a gunfight (some of the sheriffs are dressed rather nondescriptly.) The story is surprisingly better than Rockstar’s previous fare: John Marston’s tale of vengeance (or “Redemption”) is good by video game standards with the details revealed very slowly over the course of many conversations. Your first mission does a good job of setting up the rest of the story. Whereas previous Rockstar main characters have either been silent protagonists, unredeeming psychopaths, or just unbelievable, Marston’s bloody path of murder seems to work a lot better. Part of this may be the setting (murder being slightly more acceptable in the old West than on the streets of New York), the other part of it may be that Marston simply seems more than willing to admit his many faults and misdeeds (compared to GTA4’s Nico Bellic who will murder 50 cops on his way to having tea with a Russian Mafia widow to talk about the plight of immigrants.) I even like how Marston seems to rather quickly get frustrated with the assorted creeps and losers he must run errands for to advance the story whereas previous protagonists seemed willing to commit acts of terrorism on behalf of people they just met before stopping to consider their intentions.

Red Dead Redemption is fun, though it is far from free of faults. Penny Arcade’s Tycho is spot on with the failures of the multiplayer in terms of how empty the multiplayer world feels and that one quickly runs out of things to do. Other will critique how much time you spend riding horses from place to place. This is certainly true, I’m about 20 hours in and you ride horses a lot in the old west. The scenery and music do make for an ok experience (this game does landscapes, skies, and sunsets like no other game), plus there are “random encounter” style interaction with wild animals and various people in need of help (or out to get you) that one can either engage in, or just keep riding.

So far Red Dead Redemption is a great game, and a strong contender for game of the year. We should ride horses together sometime, particularly now that the co-op mission pack (Free!) was released on yesterday.

Hoverboard Availability Update

In our continued charge of giving you the most up to date news on the availability of Hoverboards we thought it important to share with you this video of a working Hoverboard created by French artist Nils Guadagnin. The device uses an electromagnetic system (in the board and the pedestal it is on) combined with a laser system for stabilization.

HOVERBOARD – NILS GUADAGNIN from nils guadagnin on Vimeo.