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).

The Most Underrated Games of the ’00s

An introductory note: I forgot to post this several months ago, then I found it again. I guess I’ll post it now, even though it’s pretty late to be posting roundups from 2000–2009. Whatever.

I thought about doing a “best games of 2009 list,” but I realize I didn’t really play that many games this year that actually came out this year. So, instead, I’m going to take advantage of the end of the decade to reach further back. I can’t remember whether we do “Top 10” lists around here or whether they’re more like “Top n” lists, where n = however many we think we’re going to need to include. I’m not sure I can think of 10 games that I thought were way better than everybody else seemed to think from the last decade, so here you get a list of arbitrary length, peppered with games from the last several years that I mostly wanted to rant about. Enjoy!

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Short Game Review: Alpha Protocol

If Splinter Cell had knocked up Mass Effect after the prom, Alpha Protocol would be their baby. Mind you, this is before those series grew up into more games they are today—we’re talking 2005’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and the first Mass Effect, circa 2007. That’s only an insult, though, if you wouldn’t love to go back and play those all over again for the first time, awkwardness and all.

Admittedly, Alpha Protocol has a visual style that looked outdated before the game even hit shelves, combat that feels clunky if you’re using anything but a pistol, boss fights that are literally impossible if you don’t build your character properly (I did, fortunately, entirely by accident), and a convoluted plot of secret agencies and double-double-crosses so numerous that not even the writers can keep track of what your character already knows, deflating some of their intended “A-HA!” moments. Still, sneaking around and punching bad guys in the throat is pretty fun, the dialog system is arguably an improvement upon Mass Effect‘s, and the game keeps track of more of your choices (adjusting plot and dialog accordingly!) than any other game I’ve seen. All in all, I’m sad it won’t be getting a sequel, but I’m glad I got it for only forty bucks.

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.

Short Game Review: InFamous

I thought about writing a short review for this 2009 PS3 game, but I figure you can just reread what I wrote about Spider-man: Web of Shadows, a 2008 Xbox 360 game, replacing any references to “webs” with “electricity,” and any references to “Spider-man” with “guy with electricity powers.” It even has pretty much the exact same shortcomings. Handy! I will say, however, that while InFamous‘s detailed buildings and cityscape are much more impressive (if smaller in scope) than Web of Shadows‘s cookie-cutter New York, I’m pretty sure web-slinging is still more fun than sliding along power lines. Overall, though, definitely worth the “classics” discount price tag.

Short Game Review: Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain is an “interactive drama” about several people trying to track down a serial killer. “Interactive drama” basically means that it’s pretty much like a movie with occasional prompts to do things. Many or most of these prompts are extremely mundane and simple (“press joystick this way to open the fridge”), meant to encourage greater emotional engagement and to act as practice for when you get a bunch of quick prompts to fight for your life (“QUICK HIT THIS BUTTON OR BE ELECTROCUTED AAAAAAAH”).

I was impressed that someone finally designed a game that is meant to be played straight through, and that takes some risks in genre (well, for a video game), rather than the usual repetitive action/sci-fi shooter. I hope we see more games like it, and I encourage you to give it a try. I don’t think we’ll look back on it as a classic, though, if for no other reason than that the story has so many plot holes you can practically feel a draft—and for a game like this, plot is actually a big part the whole point. Still, I look forward to the day when games that follow in this legacy do away with the common statement, “It has a pretty good story (for a video game).”

Short Game Review: Demon’s Souls

This game is notorious for being very hard, and rightly so. The problem with it is that the difficulty is more boring than frustrating after a while. There’s a lot of repetition and little variety for a long time. Once I resigned myself to the fact that grinding until you memorize it all and level your character to being unstoppable is actually the entire point of the game, it almost ceased to be frustrating—but shortly thereafter, I discovered that any other player can invade your game and anonymously kill you. It’s a fascinating feature for a single-player game. I would’ve appreciated if there were as many players anonymously volunteering to join your game to help you as there are joining games to kill you, but I’m picking this up late, so probably everybody did their good-guy playthrough first and is now on their jerkhole playthrough. Ah well.

Anyway, if you find yourself addicted by point allocation, limited inventory management, and repetitive grinding with occasional flashes of interesting material, Demon’s Souls is definitely for you. By the time I reached the end, I was sort of enjoying the strategy of it, but the enjoyable part of the game for me turned out to be very brief compared to the part of the game killing the same few enemies and collecting items that weren’t as good as the items I already had.

Triple Nerd Score

I love Scrabble dearly, but I recognize that it has its faults. At a certain level of play, it ceases to be about coming up with fascinating words, and becomes something about knowing as many valid combinations of tiles as possible so as to maximize the chances of getting 7-letter “bingo” scores. That’s fine if your friends play that way too, but if they don’t, it isn’t long before people refuse to play with you because you beat them on the challenge for “gar” and followed up by playing “agar,” hooking the A for your seven-letter word off a word they were pretty sure didn’t exist to make two more words they’re pretty sure don’t exist.

On and off, I have mused about a sensible way to do the rules to Scrabble that would allow more interaction between players, and actually prioritize spelling interesting words over killer combos. The best I’ve come up with so far is a hypothetical computer-based variant that would allow you to swap letters and would award points to words based on how uncommonly they appear in web searches. It’d be hard to keep track of word score values in an actual board game version, though.

So, I am looking forward to trying out these alternate Scrabble rules someday. Basically, instead of each person drawing letters randomly, you bid competitively for letters after everyone’s made a play, and then subtract the bid from your score. It sounds like it would make the game longer, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with a little more Scrabble in our lives.

Medium Game Review: Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood

I felt a little guilty starting a discount western shooter when I haven’t finished the Fallout DLC, or even started Mass Effect, but I’ll be honest: when I want to unwind, point allocation and managing inventories don’t immediately jump to mind, in fact that seems too much like work. (See also my critique of the Wii, sure it has fun party games, but who wants to relax by waving their arms around wildly? I mean that basically sounds like my job.) That’s right, when I want to relax I want to shoot at bad guys. With guns. Maybe as a cowboy. And possibly ride a horsey.

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