Friday, 16 January 2009

Keep on the Shadowfell - DM's Review

After more than a dozen sessions fighting through this adventure and the associated campaign-specific stuff I mixed in with it, I'm at last in a position to give a qualified opinion of it which, as it happens, is the same as my unqualified opinion was a few months ago. In the meantime though I added a bunch of stuff of my own, and I hope that the actual play experience for my guys (and gals) was better than the final, thoroughly average score which I'm going to give the module at the end of this review.

Speaking for myself, it's fair to say that I had a few, quite reasonable expectations of KotS when it was announced. It needed to showcase the new rules in their entirety, touching on all of the systems in some way or another; it should be a solid springboard into a new 4E campaign, perhaps providing the PC's with a base of operations; it should keep things straightforward for the inevitable rush of virgin players that the new edition was going to attract, but also be plunderable by more experienced DM's at the same time; it should play well, and smoothly, with a couple of memorable NPC's and one or two stand-out encounters; and finally it should ultimately feel like a microcosm of the new edition, showcasing its 'feel' and achieving what the designers spent so much time talking about in the preview books and in the DMG.

To be fair, that's a lot to put on one adventure. But it's the first one, and it has an important job to do: don't put people off the game before they've given it a fair shake. Unfortunately I'm not sure it achieved that, at least for some sectors of the DM'ing population.

Straight off, though, there's a lot to like. I loved the presentation as soon as I saw it, delivered in a medium-stock cardboard slip-case, with a handy quick-start rules-set, a bunch of solid, if non-optimal, pre-generated PC's, a thick and reasonably meaty adventure, and several high-quality 1-inch scale battle-mats. As it happens a couple of these were re-used from earlier 3.5 products, but that doesn't bother me enough to affect my view, and I certainly enjoyed rolling them out onto the table to a general chorus of 'Ooh-Aah' by the players. It's not the most durable adventure in the world, but after several months of heavy use, it's still in good shape, so no problems there. As more adventures in the line have been released, I find myself liking the slip-case more and more. Bravo to Wizards for trying something a little different there.

The plot, such as it is, makes a reasonable job of driving the PC's forward, but it is extremely superficial and populated with a ton of unmemorable characters. The 'find the incriminating note on the bad guy' schtick, which was grossly over-used years ago, is seen here in full force. Subtleties are lost amidst unforgiving walls of 'What the townsfolk know' exposition, a question-and-answer style of imparting information to the DM which, although it is a good way of communicating NPC character, buries key information in a load of pretty uninteresting dialogue. Having DM'd several mammoth Dragonlance adventures which use this same style of information transferral, I have to say that I would prefer simply being told what an NPC knows about any given subject, and take cues from elsewhere as to his personality. In fact I wish this convention would die-off once-and-for-all.

Encounter design? Well it's a mixed bag. Prior to the Keep, the party drowns in kobolds. I mean they're everywhere. Practically every type of kobold in the Monster Manual makes an appearance, starting with a wide open ambush on the most open of the battle-mat environments. On the one hand, opening a campaign with a fight isn't a terribly bad idea; it gets the players engaged straight away, gets the dice rolling, gets the game moving. On the other hand, opening a brand new system with not only a fight, but an ambush, which for me is a notoriously difficult encounter to get right, as well as in an area with tons of opportunity for the poorly-presented 4E Stealth rules to muck everything up, and then on top of that making it against a bunch of kobolds who possess a pinickity, interrupt-heavy array of shifting maneuvers... not so much.

This blunder sets the stage for the rest of the adventure, where encounters run the gamut from sadly predictable trap rooms, through monotonous droves of goblinoids, and somewhat endless undead. The big fights are pretty good (especially when they break the DMG's guidance on encounter design and seemingly TPK half the player-base, :ahem:), but what disappointed me in particular about those occasions when the battle-mats came out was that there was very little advice on making the fight dynamic. When there's no reason for the PC's to move across a room, they won't, and there are a *lot* of bottle-necks in the Keep. There are tricks that experienced DM's can bring to the table, but this is the introductory feature, and they should not be necessary. Kalarel breaks this mode with a nifty mid-fight teleport, making it a good diversion and a memorable encounter, where the much-lauded 'make the terrain an integral part of the fight' advice from the DMG actually seems to have been taken to heart.

So the plot is weak, most of the encounters are uninspired, but it's a pretty nice-looking package and reasonable value-for-money. It would also be fair to say that it does the job of a dungeon-crawl, which is to give the PC's a place to call home and spend/sell their loot and provide lots of fights in between, successfully, but with all-too-little little fanfair. It must also get credit for successfully creating 4th Edition's very-own Meepo in the form of Splugg the simpering goblin.

In the end I felt that, if I wanted to DM it for a bunch of relatively experienced players without feeling simply embarassed to be there, I had to do way too much to it, including layering a whole new subplot around Keegan and firing up all kinds of early signals about other NPC's in my campaign. Maybe my expectations were a little high, but I thought that even 'standard' dungeon crawls had elevated themselves above this level during the 3rd Edition era, and that perhaps Wizards should give new players a little bit more credit than they seem to have here.

Score: 6/10


Greg Tannahill said...

They're a lot of the same complaints I've been making about the adventure over on my blog Eleven Foot Pole. It's frustrating to see so many people swallowing this module as "above average" or "really pretty decent". You should wander over and check out my posts.

Wedge said...

Thanks Greg. I've read your blog, I liked the way you dismantled the adventure in such a meticulous fashion. :)