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.