Keep on the Shadowfell – After Play Musings

Last night I got together a few folks from my regular gaming group to run through the first few bits of Keep on the Shadowfell in preparation for running demos today. We had fun; the new system works nicely, the fights were pretty interesting, and people liked the things their characters could do. I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers, but some might creep in, so be warned.

The group numbered three, and the characters were the halfling rogue, the dragonborn paladin, and the tiefling warlord. We ran through the initial encounter, got the party to the village, and had them head out on a mission. I skipped the next encounter in the adventure, because it was very similar to the first one, and I wanted a chance to try out something more varied – we only had time for two encounters. That meant I encouraged the party to follow up the dragon grave plot thread, and they complied.

So, how did things go?

  • You seem to fight more monsters per encounter in this system – the designers have been saying that all along, but it’s nice to actually see it in action. I like this; it’s always seemed somewhat less-than-heroic to me to have a gang of four adventurers mobbing a single humanoid creature. Having the party outnumbered – both encounters featured eight creatures – appealed to me, thematically. And it made the players feel that their characters were more threatened.
  • The fights seemed to last about twice the number of rounds as in 3.5. This is just an impression based on what I saw in those two encounters, but the first fight, when everyone was still trying to figure out what their powers could do, ran 11 rounds, and the second fight, when everyone started working together in a tight, effective group, ran 8. I like this, too; it gives more time for both the heroes and the monsters to do more interesting things. Nothing worse than having a creature with a ton of neat abilities go down before it can use even a quarter of them.
  • In real time, the fights lasted about as long as in 3.5, with a little more time spent on the first one as people were getting used to what they could do. I think that, with practice and familiarity getting folks past the learning curve, fights will probably run half to three-quarters as long as in 3.5. I like this, too, because it means you can fit more into an evening of play.
  • There is a learning curve on the powers and the system. Never doubt it. But it’s not as steep as it might have been. By the second fight, the players were looking at different ways their powers could interact, and how to tactically support each other with them. Still, it’s going to take some time to completely leave behind 3.5 assumptions; people were slow to start using their healing surges, for example, and opportunity attacks work a little differently, and a stack of powers can be hard to sort through, when you come in cold.
  • The monsters are fun to run. Every one, right down the kobold minions, had a little something interesting and special that they could do that made fighting them different from fighting other things. And the things they could do were not terribly complex or tough to keep track of; just little things like kobolds being able to shift five feet as a minor action rather than as a move action, or the guard drakes being able to do more damage if they’ve got an ally nearby. It changed the flavour of the encounters nicely.
  • The battlemaps with the adventure are very nice. I understand that some are recycled from other products, but they still make nice additions, and the fact that you get three double-sided ones in the adventure is particularly nice.
  • The tactics of battle seem at least as deep, rich, and varied as in 3.5, but they are different. The three flavours of action resources, the different kinds of movement, the ability to use powers to move your opponents or allies, the way combat modifiers work, the way different powers interact – it all lends itself to fun tactical play in combat, but you have different tools, and different effects than in 3.5. Again, there’s going to be a learning curve.
  • Tactically, the fights had more shifting and jockeying for advantageous position and less stick-and-hit than 3.5. Most of the moves were small, creating a sort of revolving, swirling kind of scrum where the paladin anchored the enemy, the warlord backed him up and supported him, and the rogue looked for the best spot to dole out the pain. This may change at higher levels or in different set-ups (both encounters had natural choke-points that the characters rushed to hold), but that’s the way it was in our test.
  • With the emphasis on character roles, there are some real shifts from 3.5 in the basic assumptions. The rogue was consistently doing the most damage, not the bigger, burlier dragonborn paladin, for example. Again, I’m a little concerned that the roles may be more restricting than I like on the various classes – can I build a fighter that concentrates more on dishing out damage than on soaking it up? Can I build a utility wizard, with more non-combat powers and less “blow stuff up” emphasis? Basically, can I build a class against role and still come up with a viable, playable character? I really hope so; if the roles are too restricted, I can see it producing a glut of core classes, each of which varies just a little, to allow players to create their ideal – very similar to the prestige class glut of 3.0/3.5. I don’t want to see that happen, mainly for aesthetic reasons. It appeals to my sense of elegant design to have fewer, more customizable classes than many very specific classes.
  • And, just as in any dice-based game, nothing can save you if you can’t roll for crap. This afflicted one of the players and two of the most threatening (on paper) monsters in the game last night, and brings home the old adage, “Systems come and systems go, but a crappy roll is a crappy roll.”

There were a lot of questions that came up during play that we couldn’t answer with the quick-start rules. Things like delaying or holding actions, the details of which dice get maximized in the case of a critical and which don’t, the cost of items, options for fighting defensively or all-out defense, etc. Of course, we all assume that this will be covered in the main rules, but the adventure did a good job of making us want the books now, now, NOW!

The acid test? One of the players is very new to gaming – she started in my Dresden Files RPG playtest, carried on in my Brockford House CoC one-shot, and now this 4th Edition teaser. She picked up the basics quickly, had fun, and wants to play again.

Seems like a positive sign to me.

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4 Responses to Keep on the Shadowfell – After Play Musings

  1. Rick Neal says:


    Way back when I started to play D&D, the first two NPCs I created had the wonderfully imaginative names of Zad and Ral, a pair of fighters hiring on with an aspiring adventuring party to investigate a certain set of chaotic caves near a certain keep on a certain borderland.

    Hey, I was young. Whaddaya want?

    At least the names were easy to remember.

    As I developed as a GM, I got better with names. Well, at least I got more creative. I even managed to create names with sounds to evoke different locales in my game world. When I wanted a mysterious nobleman from the mystical eastern continents, I came up with a name that sounded vaguely oriental. This is where I ran into trouble. See, I called him Pi-yin Sul.

    Spotted it yet?


    Say it out loud. Really.

    Yeah, he was forever Pine Sol after that, the cleanest, freshest smelling NPC ever.

    Why do I bring this up? Because one of the NPCs in Keep on the Shadowfell is an old farm named Eilian.

    GMs, look out for the name when you get to it, because when I said it out loud the first time, it was during play, and suddenly everyone was looking for a flying saucer and little grey humanoids with big eyes and rectal probes.

    Writers, take a hint from me. Always, always, always say your names out loud when you make them up. Preferably alone, before play begins, when you still have time to change it.

    Pi-Yin Sul and his rival, Mystak Leen, will thank you for it.

  2. Rechan says:

    Glad you had a ball!

    We played on OpenRPG, so it took three times as long (not to mention technical difficulties). Three people didn’t use their at-wills, two of those players didn’t bother with their encounters. Oy vey.

    Even so, I had a ton of fun; my paladin was a wrecking ball in the first encounter we had, and by the end, I had spent five healing surges. I did the most damage though (Radiant Smite + Divine Strength = 22 points of damage), and racked up the most kills (four). But then, everyone besides me and the DM have been following 4e, so I knew exactly what I was doing.

    can I build a fighter that concentrates more on dishing out damage than on soaking it up?

    Look at the pregen fighter. He’s doing 2d6+3 per attack (more with some encounter powers). The D&D XP fighter could attack anyone that shifted away from him, and anyone who took an opportunity attack from him stopped dead; he was getting more attacks (with more potential for damage), but the KotS fighter is damage focused (it seems). The rogue only gets to deal more damage because of his sneak attack – which he can only use once per round, and only in specific circumstances. The fighter dishes out a large, consistent pool; the rogue a situational bucket full.

    Can I build a utility wizard, with more non-combat powers and less “blow stuff up” emphasis?

    Utility spells (Phantom steed, gentle repose, divination, illusion, animate dead, teleportation, etc) are called Rituals. They’re non-combat spells (take 10 minutes minimum to cast). Anyone can use them (takes a feat, Clerics, Wizards and Warlocks get that feat for free) – so your utility wizard could be a fighter with that feat. But a wizard’s encounter/daily/at will abilities (just like everyone else) are focused on combat. Rituals are for anything else.

  3. Rechan says:


    When I read that (and say it aloud), it soulds more like El-e-an. Remember that Cuban kid that was big in the news during the Clinton Administration? Elian Gonzales? Sounds like that to me.

  4. Rechan says:

    can I build a fighter that concentrates more on dishing out damage than on soaking it up?

    Addendum: checkout the KotS fighter’s feat. Power attack -2 to attack, +3 to damage (on a hit). So if you regularly use that feat, you’re doing 2d6+6 damage per strike. Granted, it’s not the 1d4+4+2d8 the rogue can do, but it’s on average better.

    Also, the fighter’s powers are nasty – Daily: Brute Strike 6d6+x. At 3rd level, Crushing Blow: Encounter is 4d6+8.

    The Fighter will get better when he’s sitting next to a Warlord, but I know that your character concept isn’t “Do More Damage – with my friend’s help” (even if hte Rogue has to do more damage with friends help).

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