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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Short Movie Review: Tron Legacy

Fun, appropriately retro-futuristic Daft Punk soundtrack. Striking, generally interesting visuals. Bland, relatively inoffensive plot. Unobtrusive, probably unnecessary 3D. Confusing, surprising lack of attention to the title character.

Short Movie Review: Inglorious Basterds

Over two and a half hours, Quentin Tarantino offers two parallel stories of people committed to killing Nazis. This culminates in a wrought-out scene of “vengeance porn” against the major personalities of the Third Reich, which you’d think Tarantino’s target audience would have participated in itself over the last decade or so of violent, WWII-based video games.

Tarantino appears to think that methodical pacing makes horrifically violent scenes even more striking when they do finally occur. Unfortunately, as we learned in Death Proof, slow segments without tension, humor, or necessary narrative development are still boring. Personally, I am no longer willing to sit through a movie this long unless it is a freaking masterpiece, or at least full of hobbits and magic.

Short Game Review: Fallout New Vegas

Don’t buy this on Xbox or PS3 yet. I really enjoyed this game, and played it for many hours, but I’d be remiss in my duties as a reviewer and a friend if I didn’t start that way. Fallout New Vegas is basically a full-length expansion of Fallout 3, so if you liked that game, you will like this one. A few game mechanics have been slightly improved, but overall, it’s basically the same system with new characters and in a new setting. It is, however, without question, the buggiest game I have ever played. It froze and forced me to restart multiple times every time I sat down to play, often within seconds of starting. It corrupted my save files twice in one night, forcing me to redo hours of content. It locked me out of several quests because I didn’t do them in the order the developers expected. I hear the PC version works much better, and also has a robust modding community, so either buy it for PC, wait until they fix the other version, or wait for it to go on sale. There is no reason to pay full price for a game this broken, no matter how good.

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?

Short Game Review: Nier

Nier is kind of a weird game, but not weird in sufficiently interesting ways to come with a strong recommendation from me. It’s a Japanese action RPG (i.e., no turn-based, menu-navigating combat) which occasionally borrows gameplay from shoot-em-ups, Diablo-style games, and text adventures. It makes not-so-subtle references specifically to certain Final Fantasy games, Zelda, any game that has you go around killing giant monsters based on the unspoken assumption that big monsters probably have keys in their bellies, and surely others I missed. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t say that Nier is ever more than the sum of its parts, and many of the aforementioned parts are kind of poorly done.

To the game’s credit, a few of the characters are fun, and the combat is occasionally interesting in the latter half of game—but I think I was over 10 hours in before I had a full party of NPCs and fights started being somewhat more interesting. The story had a great deal of potential, but rather than simply tell a story that makes sense from beginning to end, the game leaves a lot unexplained after one playthrough; I’m reading now online about how you need to play through two or three different ways for different endings and to actually get the subtext of what was going on (i.e., some characters’ dialog is undecipherable until your second playthrough). I wish I could say that I’ll endorse any game with a cast of characters as bizarre as this one—including a talking book, a foul-mouthed and seminude woman, and a friendly skeleton/magician—but I’ll withhold that endorsement until the sale price drops below twenty bucks.

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.