AICN Tabletop: Dungeons & Dragons 4E is in stores today and a look at Keep on the Shadowfell!!
Published at: June 6, 2008, 8:39 a.m. CST by merrick
Hola all. Massawyrm here.
The clock struck midnight and it was nothing but WHITE HOT NERD FURY for a solid hour as the line of pent up greasy dorks finally clasped their sweaty hands around the fourth edition rulebooks they have so long craved. That’s right, baby. The Dragon’s Lair had a midnight release party, selling roughly 100 sets in the extra hour they stayed open for the diehard geeks who not only couldn’t wait just to own the books, but also had to rush home to make their first 4E characters. It was like a Halo release party without all the guys who think they’re “hardcore” or “just normal guys who like video games.” No, the great thing about D&D gamers is that we know exactly who the fuck we are. We have no illusions. And we wear that shit with pride.
Yep, the day is finally here. All the hollering, screaming, crying and begging for tidbit scraps are over. D&D 3.5 is officially a piece of geek history, love it or loathe it, and 4E is the now. You can finally go out and buy your own copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual. Unlike last time around with 3E, they made the wise decision to drop all three books on the same day, rather than making us wait with each book released a month apart. That was a very special cluster fuck of its own back in the day.
So you’ve got your books, your dice and maybe you’ve even dropped some cash on some of those great D&D Minis. What now? Well, if you’re asking that question, odds are you’ve either jumped in head first as a curious first timer – or your one of the many who decided to get back in after years out. Perhaps then it’s time to invest in a thing called an “adventure” – what we used to call…a MODULE. I miss modules. Sigh.
The first adventure, labeled H1, is Keep on the Shadowfell - which is designed to take your players from levels 1-3. Initially released as a ramp up to the release, it contains starter characters and basic rules to introduce the curious to the game a month out while teaching new players the ins and outs of D&D. Sadly, due to real-life craziness, I ended up getting this late (this is a part of the CATCH UP I was referring to last week) and felt that since the die hard curious types were already going to buy this, reviewing this would be best suited to the new or returning gamers.
Keep on the Shadowfell is a perfect example of how to structure a 4E adventure. If you are wondering as a DM how to set up encounters, how to make them interesting or what the pacing of a 4E encounter chain should be like, this will show you. The writing of the adventure itself is geared towards beginning players, explaining the mechanics of what is going on while giving plenty of leeway for the Dungeon Master to play around with the story that best suits his or her players. There’s lots of descriptive text that leaves plenty of dangling plot threads if you want them, and there are a number of “what-if” scenarios taking certain odd solutions into account. As an adventure, it is designed solidly and gives the DM a lot of the tools you need to take it from beginning to end, no matter what your experience level.
The book comes with 3 full color double-sided maps, a book of characters (at this point useful if your players are first timers or simply can’t decide on what they want to play) and the 80 page adventure guide itself. I actually quite enjoyed running the adventure, which has some fun threads, but most importantly, a wild finish of a climax that certainly hints at who the major villain of the long adventure chain is going to be. I’ll give you a hint, he’s about the nastiest thing in the Monster Manual. Yeah. Oh, and you old Grognards will appreciate the resemblance the setup of the keep shares with another, distinctly famous lvl 1-3 adventure…called Keep on the Borderlands. Interestingly enough, Keep on the Borderlands was the adventure path I used for a spell while playtesting low end 4E.
There are also a few supplemental bits on the Wizards of the Coast site: There’s this 6th character for the adventure and then there’s my favorite piece, a really fantastic skill challenge for the final battle in case your characters decide to get REALLY creative. That second link will show you what you can really do with skill challenges, especially on the fly when your players do something…wacky. I just had a similar instance happen in a game last week when my players pulled out a Liches phylactery and began negotiations with a vampire opponent for it. It was a completely unexpected, but I used this model and ran the diplomacy attempt as a skill challenge. Whether you pick up Shadowfell or not, I highly recommend checking out the setup for the skill challenge. It should open your eyes to how usefull these things can be.
The biggest complaint about the adventure is that despite coming with three maps, two are reprints from the previous Fantastic Locations adventures. If you were a fan of those like I was, you have both maps. And while they were good maps, only one of them (The Kings Road) is one I actually wanted more than one of (so I could combine them into one, LONG road for large encounters.) The third map is still pretty damned sweet, however. This is one of those features more for the new DMs than it is for us grognards.
If you’re not a fan of goblinoids or kobolds, this adventure is definitely not for you. Because that’s what this is. Kobolds, kobolds and more kobolds, followed by goblins, hobgoblins and the occasional sprinkling of other monsters. If you’re one of those guys who was hoping for something a little more original, this adventure will not do it for you. It harkens back to the old school in which you cut your way through the first few levels by putting sword tips through the vertically challenged denizens of the D&D world. Although don’t for one minute think that this fact makes this a cakewalk.
As many folks have written about already, encounter A3 is a big, giant TPK (Total Party Killer) waiting to happen. It’s a 6th lvl encounter at a time when your heroes are most likely 1st level. And it ain’t pretty. Smart groups of experienced players will see this for what it is, do the mental math and beat a hasty retreat – returning for some hit and run maneuvers to clear the area. But new players or particularly cocky ones are going to die very quickly and very badly. I found it best to tell my players before we started the adventure that there would no doubt be TPK encounters in the game and not to be afraid to retreat if need be. Fortunately, they recognized the massive ugliness that is encounter A3 and made it out. I’ve heard of many parties not so lucky. Is this going to be 4E’s Tomb of Horrors? That depends on how many people get frustrated. But it very well could be. I’ve heard of groups running the encounter three and four times until their parties got it right.
It’s a good start to the chain. I like where the story is going and I’m eager to run the next adventure Thunderspire Labyrinth. But it’s mostly a good tool for new DM’s to get a hang on how to run a solid adventure. Experienced players might find it a little too vanilla for their tastes (until the final battle, which really is pretty damned cool.) And the $30 price tag is a little steep for those ending up with duplicate maps. But if you’ve got your books and you’re unsure of where to go from here, this is a pretty great place to start.
So any of you out there hit up a Midnight release, or get a happy package from Amazon? What are your 4e thoughts? Light up the talkback below with your adoration or frustrations.
Until next time friends, smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.