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:

A scaly figure drags a peasant roughly across a stone floor, shoving his captive forward in front of a large dais. A cloaked figure approaches the trembling peasant. The peasant has already been badly beaten and shakes with fear. The cloaked figure pulls back his hood, revealing a pale, sickly face. “This will do nicely, may this offering speed Orcus’s arrival.” The peasant is dragged to his feet by several green scaly creatures. The cloaked man rocks back and forth chanting to himself louder and louder, he stop abruptly, draws a long silver dagger, and plunges it into the heart of the peasant.


It’s a bright spring day as you assemble outside the home of your mentor Douven Stahl. You are all aspiring adventures who have been honing you abilities training under Douven these last few months.

I’m not entirely sure how successfully my attempt at a prelude was, it may have been the slapped together writing, my delivery, or even just the mechanic in general. My goal was to foreshadow sinister happenings in the story that the players would not actually encounter for sometime and has been part of the general theme of my remixing of the Keep on the Shadowfell module to inject more story and character motivation into what is otherwise just a disjointed sequence of combat situations.

After a conversation with their mentor Douven Stahl the players head out to Winterhaven. As read the module basically starts the game with the players getting attacked on the road to Winterhaven, but I wanted to spend a healthy amount of time setting the stage, chatting with their mentor, and describing their travel before we jumped into the first piece of combat.

Here is the description of the travel I wrote:

Your march for several days, resting at night as the road takes you through fields and forests. The road beneath your feet is level. An occasional ancient cobblestone peeks through the dirt road, indicating decades of neglect. As you get closer to Winterhaven you start to notice some unusual things, every farmhouse you pass is abandoned, and in some cases only the burnt timbers of a home remain. You are filled with a general sense of unease as you realize you haven’t passed any other travelers in several days.

You press on, and after many days you find yourself within a single day’s march of Winterhaven. The wind is cool and comfortable, and you are eager to reach your destination.

My hope here was to establish Winterhaven as being an isolated locale, and that travel there represented a substantial undertaking not just a waving of hands and “it takes you three days but now you’re in Winterhaven.” This also allowed me to foreshadow the nature of the bandit problem around Winterhaven, which the players are already guessing is more serious than described by their mentor, even before they get jumped on the road by a gang of Kobold.

I felt that the introduction, combined with a conversation with their mentor, and then some discussion of their travels helped ease the new players into the game in a way that the module as presented does not. Rather than just jumping the players right into combat this lets them get a sense of the world they are exploring.

Although I’ve played many more video games than tabletop role-playing campaigns recently, this kind of setup seems like a good idea. In past campaigns I’ve played, player motivation (not necessarily equivalent to character motivation) and in-game time having “weight” have both been recurring rough points, particularly when starting out. I guess there’s some minor risk in giving players knowledge that their characters wouldn’t have; hopefully you don’t have a group where every time they encounter any man in a cloak from now on someone tries to pickpocket his silver dagger!

I think making travel feel like work is unambiguously good, though, and making isolated settings feel like it’s a Big Deal to get in or out of them (or to get help into them, or to establish a very low likelihood of deus ex machina saviors for the party appearing) is also a good thing. For an example of this sort of isolation establishment in another context, play the beginning of Silent Hill 2.

I really like the idea of starting adventures with something other than “You wake up.” It’s still an easy, go-to beginning that I’ve used myself, but as a trope, it’s been done so many times that it was among the aspects of games that Bioshock implicitly pointed out should be highly suspect to us as players.

How’d the players respond to it? I think folks seemed puzzled as hell but reasonably interested when I tried it for our In Nomine game.

It definitely left us puzzled as hell, but also gave us a sense of excitement. And then our short attention spans kicked in and I’d entirely forgotten this until I read this post. That also happened with your campaign Jason, and I think if we’d remembered the opening “cut scene” we would’ve reacted differently when it came up. I wonder if opening cut scenes don’t work as well in non-visual media because they’re harder to remember.

I’ve thought about the issue of imagination vs. the immediacy of recall with visuals, D and could be played with graph paper and recycled game pieces but I think nice maps and miniatures add a lot to the experience.