I’ve read through Keep on the Shadowfell now, and I want to talk a little about it. I’m going to do my best to avoid any spoilers, so this should be safe for everyone to read.
Overall, I think it’s a pretty good introductory adventure. It seems to cover pretty much everything I wanted to see, though combat gets the spotlight.
Physically, it’s a nice package, reminiscent of The Shattered Gates of Slaughterguard – you get a cardboard cover/folio, with two booklets and three double-sided poster battle maps. One booklet has the quick-start rules for players and five pregenerated characters, while the other has quick-start rules for DMs and the adventure itself.
Interestingly, Fiery Dragon has released a free download of counters for all the characters and monsters in the adventure. You can get it here.
The paper of the booklets is a little flimsy, being light-weight glossy paper of the sort you find in magazines. After a single reading, both of my booklets are already looking rather worn.
So, what’s in the adventure?
- Background and synopsis.
- Three potential hooks, two with alternate takes, and all with quest rewards.
- A fight to kick things off.
- An overview of the village of Winterhaven, with lots of information and opportunity to interact with the inhabitants.
- A few more fights, not directly tied to the Keep, but good practice and providing some clues and links.
- More information and conversation in Winterhaven.
- The Keep itself, with backstory, overview, maps, and nineteen encounters, counting one interlude back in Winterhaven. These encounters include:
- 18 combats
- 7 traps and other hazards
- 2 potential interaction
- 2 puzzles
- Several bits of DM advice scattered throughout on pacing, playing NPCs improvising, and other important skills.
The encounters use a slightly modified format based on what we were seeing in adventures nearing the end of the 3.5 run. Each encounter gets its own two-page (sometimes three-page) spread, with the level, XP award, setup, read-aloud text (including special text for succeeding at certain skills, usually Perception), monster stat blocks, description of area features (including treasure and how to use the furniture to make an interesting fight), tactics, and a small map showing the layout and initial monster placement. It’s all very clear and easy to use.
The stat blocks are nice. The longest one in the game (a level 8 elite controller) takes up a little over half a column on a two-column page, and that covers everything. All the attacks, all the defenses, all the powers, all the rules, everything. I could print it out on a 3×5 index card with about a 6-point font, and fit it on one side. It would be a little small, but it would fit.
Every encounter has something interesting going on in it, whether it’s tactically, or terrain-based, or another hazard thrown into the mix, or whatever. The encounter areas are larger than we’re used to in 3.5, often encompassing multiple rooms, and there seems to be plenty of excuses to move around that area, as opposed to stick and hit. The mix of hazards into the combats looks to make for some particularly interesting fights.
Not only that, but the numbers and mixes of monsters makes things look far more interesting than in low-level 3.5 adventures. There are a few encounters where the monsters number over a dozen, usually mixed between 3 or 4 different kinds. It allows the DM to get into the fun of different tactics for the different types of creature.
There is one encounter that really shows off the interaction rules that I’ve been wanting to see for so long, and they look nice. They’re obviously pared down and simplified in this adventure, based on the excerpt that was posted online, but it still makes it nice and clear, and it looks like fun.
Same thing with the traps. One encounter is essentially a deathtrap room, and it’s no longer just sitting around waiting for the rogue to disable device. Everyone gets into the mix.
One of the things I was worried about was that the vaunted simplification for the DM would lead to a dumbing down of creatures, and I am pleased to say that this doesn’t seem to be the case. Things just get a lot more focused. For example, the main villain in the piece is a spellcaster. He doesn’t have a list of ten or fifteen spells that he can cast (but probably won’t have time to) – he’s got a list of 5 powers, including his basic melee and ranged attacks, that each have a specific flavour and effect that can be summed up in no more than three lines. Yet the fight will feel like battling a powerful spellcaster.
There are a few problems with the adventure, though:
- The stats for some of the monsters make reference to the “grabbed” condition, but this is not explained in the quick-start rules.
- A few of the labels on the encounter maps for the monsters use the wrong letter to indicates some of the monsters. This is only in about 3 situations, and it’s easy to correct.
- It makes me even more anxious to get my hands on the actual books.
The first two problems are proof of my maxim as a technical writer and editor: “Everything always needs another editing pass.”
The last is just my own problem, and it should be relieved in the early days of June.
This adventure has gone a long way to assuaging some of my doubts about 4th Edition. I’m going to be running demos at Imagine Games and Hobbies here in Winnipeg over the next three Saturdays, so come on down and check it out for yourself.