Keep on the Shadowfell

With the D&D fourth edition rulebooks released in little over a week, I’m playing catch-up on the blog at the moment. While we still have the will, let’s look at Keep on the Shadowfell, the first official adventure released for the new edition. With a street-date of 20 May 2008, the adventure predates the core rules by three weeks, and therefore includes ‘quick-start’ rules to get you up and playing without further resources.

What I’m not going to do is spend time dwelling on the rules presented in the adventure. There’s nothing here that can’t be gleaned by checking a dozen different preview sites, and I’ll have plenty of time to expound on the new mechanics over the coming weeks.

A Note on Format and Notation

This is adventure H1. It is the first of a loosely connected trilogy of adventures (the others are numbered H2 and H3 for the numerically challenged). The “H” stands for “Heroic” as in the Heroic Tier of play (or levels 1-10 to you and me). There are two more trilogies planned after this. The Paragon (P) series (levels 11-20) kicks off later this year, and the Epic (E) series begins in 2009. H1 is designed to get characters from levels 1 to 3.

Keep on the Shadowfell is presented in a cardboard folio, similar to the 3e adventure, Shattered Gates of Slaughterguard. The folio is about the same size as the core rulebooks, with a proper spine so it looks like a perfect-bound book when it’s sitting on the shelf. Inside the folio are two coverless paper books, and three double-sided poster maps. These aren’t maps in the second edition sense, but rather battle maps of keyed locations from the adventure, divided up into a grid for miniatures.

The first book is the 4th Edition Quick-Start Rules. It is a sixteen page booklet, ten pages of which are given over to five pre-generated characters. Players have a dwarven fighter, halfling rogue, human wizard, half-elf cleric and dragonborn paladin to choose from. So far, so generic. The other six pages are given over to the rules and provide an adequate primer on how to play D&D, with details of hit points, combat, powers and skills.

The eighty page adventure book for the Dungeon Master includes a ten page rules primer that gives tips to the neophyte GM, but also reprints all the rules from the quick start guide. With space at an obvious premium I question the need to present the same material (verbatim, no less) in both books. Those extra six pages could have been used to improve adventure, but I’m getting slightly ahead of myself.

The cardboard cover, three maps and two books explain why the production costs on the adventure are so high, and why Wizards of the Coast feel justified charging the same price for this as they do a 160 page hardcover sourcebook. It goes without saying it’s got the glossy, full colour treatment through-out. Observations by other reviewers that the pages are a might thin and fragile, are justified. If you’re taking this adventure to the gaming table every week for a month then it’s going to fall apart – which is a little disappointing.

It will be interesting to see if the other modules in this series follow the same format. Thunderspire Labyrinth (which is published in July) will have no real creative need to present two books in a folio format. However, as the price point is the same I suspect that this is the new look for D&D adventures that will see us through to the end of E3 in 2009.

The Adventure

Enough of this messing about: onto the adventure itself. Wizards of the Coast have invested a great deal of time, money and effort into creating the new edition of the game. This adventure is designed to showcase the changes made to the game, and to inspire players and GMs to heartily embrace the new edition. Is it any good?

No. It isn’t. It’s pants. While not the most contemptible piece of trash I’ve read in my life, it’s certainly in the top five. Everything that I despise about D&D abounds in this pathetic excuse for an adventure. It is neither ambitious, nor engaging. It doesn’t paint a compelling story, nor give the players any true freedom of choice. It is an utterly linear, creatively bankrupt exercise in hack and slash.

Right up to the moment I opened the adventure, I intended to run this for my weekly group. I had hoped that it would save me some time, allow me to run a campaign to test the new rules for Iourn without consuming three evenings a week. That fleeting hope has now been thrown out of the window. I can’t run this junk. I fell asleep reading it, I can’t imagine I’d be able to summon the energy to run it. For the amount of work I would need to do to hammer this into a compelling adventure, I might as well have written a new campaign. So I will. Back to Plan A for September.

What alarms me more than the soaring price of petrol is that I haven’t read any negative review of this module anywhere on the Internet. Oh, there are some nit-pickers who would have liked Rule A printed in the quick-start book, but these aren’t true criticisms. By and large, D&D players seem happy with it! How? I don’t understand. They are congratulating Wizards on producing something happily old-school, something evocative of D&D’s roots. Well, D&D’s roots are rubbish! Have you actually read a 1st edition or basic D&D adventure? They make a Fighting Fantasy novel look like Horror on the Orient Express. Why on Earth would you want to emulate that?

As I’m not going to touch this module with a regulation-issue ten foot pole, I’m going to draw on specific examples to point out how bad this is. If you have the misfortune of playing this adventure any time soon, then you should stop reading now. Spoilers abound from this point forward.

The Mechanics

A lot of work has gone into the 4e mechanics, and it shows in the way they take up 80% of the adventure text. Maybe its just me, but when I write an adventure the stats take up 10% of the adventure text, the rest is filled with background, character descriptions, motivations and events. The priorities here are utterly skewed.

What strikes me reading this adventure is how difficult it is going to be playing 4e without miniatures. The text of the adventure reads like a board game, not a roleplaying game. It tells you to move your miniature a certain number of squares, that a monster can ‘slide’ one square after each attack, that you can attack with power X only after you move Y squares, and then you can back flip to square Z and so on and so forth.

This is all probably a lot of fun… as a tactical miniature game. I’ve never played the D&D Miniatures game, but I’m sure I’d enjoy it. But these things don’t have a place in a roleplaying game. You have two completely different types of game butting heads continually through an adventure. Well, not through this adventure obviously – there’s no roleplaying to be had here.

The encounters are mechanically imaginative, I will give them that. An effort has been made to make them more interesting. In the fight against giant rats, your foes are scurrying around stalagmites in an underground cavern – darting in and out of your vision and staying one step ahead of you. You fight the goblins in middle of an archaeological dig with various platforms, walkways and gantries to leap heroically from. Where in previous editions these would just be flavour text, in 4e they are built into the system from the ground. Although how you take advantage of such mechanics without a battle grid is debatable.

The Narrative

The narrative is where the adventure falls down. This is largely because there isn’t a narrative. The adventure opens on the way to the village of Winterhaven. The GM is provided with three hooks to get the PCs involved: 1) Check out reports of a dark cult; 2) Search for a missing mentor; 3) Make an accurate map for an institute of cartographers. It would probably be best to give them all three, if that doesn’t feel too contrived.

The adventure then runs thusly:

  • Walk to Winterhaven. Get attacked by kobolds.
  • Arrive in Winterhaven. Learn about kobold menace.
  • Leave Winterhaven. Get attacked by kobolds.
  • Go to kobold camp. Kill all the kobolds.
  • Return to Winterhaven. Learn about Shadowfell Keep.
  • Go to Shadowfell Keep.
  • Kill the goblins.
  • Kill the zombies.
  • Kill the hobgoblins.
  • Kill some random monsters for the hell of it.
  • Kill the ghouls.
  • Kill the priest of Orcus.

If the PCs are looking for their lost mentor, they can do a side trek which involves going to a dragon’s graveyard and killing the humans there. There is also the option of returning to Winterhaven after level one of the dungeon and fighting more undead in the local graveyard. Whoop dee doo.

The encounters in the village are presented in a novel FAQ format. There are selected questions that the PCs might ask followed by stock answers from various villagers. But these two line responses don’t actually succeed in giving these villagers any personality at all. Nada. There is nothing here to inspire the GM, no hints to make these NPCs rounded personalities with their own hopes, fears and drives. The noble in charge of the town isn’t even described. And this is supposed to encourage new GMs to excel at the craft of dungeon-mastery?

There is no problem for the PCs to solve, and no mysteries for the PCs to uncover. They don’t need to ask leading questions to discover the truth behind what is going on, it is all laid out for them on a plate. The kobolds are bad: go here and kill them. That cult you’re looking for is probably at Shadowfell Keep. Here’s a history of the Keep for you. Shall I laminate it?

The adventure is completely linear, leading the party by the nose from programmed encounter to programmed encounter. The party are taught to think with their swords. Anything that moves is swiftly stabbed, and the corpse is robbed before it is even cold. “Kill the monster and nick its magic item” indeed.

What makes it even worse is that there is a kernel of an idea in this adventure. It could have been adequate if the implementation wasn’t so horrendously botched. The creators have taken the time to give the keep a tragic history. It’s not a very original history, but it could have been compelling in the hands of the right GM. However, it is completely ignored. The PCs don’t even need to know anything about the place as long as they can keep sharpening their swords on goblin skulls.

The history of Shadowfell Keep should have been at the fore of the adventure. The town in the shadow of the keep should have had a unique complexion – a frightened and insular place, mistrusting of outsiders. An understanding of the history of the place should have been essential to the adventure. The PCs should not have been able to succeed in the adventure without having made certain alliances, performed relevant and interesting side quests and discovered certain facts.

None of this is present in the adventure. It’s a horrible piece of writing, that inspires me about as much as the rules for monopoly. I despair at Wizards of the Coast for commissioning this dross, and I despair that it seems to have been well received. I can’t believe that I’m so out of touch with the modern gamer. Am I?

In Conclusion

The perceptive of you will have gathered that I’m not very happy with this adventure. This shouldn’t be taking as a damning indictment of fourth edition. There’s a lot to like in the new edition… this is just a bad adventure – a really, really bad adventure. Possibly the worst adventure that I own (although some of those early Darksun ones were pretty dire as well, come to think of it).

Winterhaven has its place in the new ‘implied’ campaign setting presented throughout fourth edition. There are links to places such as Fallcrest (the town in the new DMG) and to Thunderspire Labyrinth (the location of adventure H2). A link to H2 is set up in Keep on the Shadowfell but it is so laughable uninspired that it made me want to go and play in the traffic.

I own this adventure because I’m a completist. That is also the reason why I’ll buy H2 and the successive adventures. I hope rather than believe that they will be better than this one. Save yourselves some pain and some money and stay away from this travesty. It’s more fun to write your own adventures anyway.


The release of D&D Fourth Edition looms. Some shops have already released them early, and it is not difficult to obtain illegal PDF copies if you know where to look. I have a half day from work on the day of release, and I’m going to change the habit of the last five years and buy the books from my local gaming shop as opposed to online. Where does the blog go from here?

I will review the books chapter by chapter, highlighting new rules and pondering over the ramifications for Iourn. I doubt that will engender too much discussion. However, soon after the release I will begin looking at the sections on combat, feats, skills and powers in depth. Our goal is to streamline the rules to allow for quick and easy play without miniatures.

Here’s an example of what I mean. This is the description of Flanking as it appears in the quick start rules to this adventure:

Flanking provides a simple combat tactic for you and an ally to use against an enemy. To flank an enemy, you and an ally must be adjacent to the enemy and on opposite sides of the enemy’s space. You and your ally must be able to attack the enemy (with a mêlée or ranged weapon, or an unarmed attack). If there’s a barrier between your enemy and either you or your ally, you don’t flank. If you are affected by a condition that prevents you from taking actions, you don’t flank. You have combat advantage against an enemy you flank.

The lack of miniatures means no character has a definitive or verifiable location in relation to other characters and NPCs. This is probably how I would use Flanking in games I run:

If you and your allies are engaging an opponent at mêlée range, and if you outnumber your opponent by 2:1 then you flank that opponent. All allies need to be able physically attack the foe with mêlée or ranged weapons, or an unarmed attack. There can be no barriers between them and the opponent, and they cannot be suffering from conditions that prevent them from taking actions. You have combat advantage against an enemy you flank.

Until next time…

5 thoughts on “Keep on the Shadowfell

  1. I’m completely new to Dungeon Mastering. I’m trying to run Keep on the Shadowfell as my first game and am finding it slightly guided, but I’m looking for other resources or more interesting storylines to follow without putting my complete noob skills up for judgement by creating my own at this time.

    Any suggestions for Noobz DM Danger?

  2. I’ve just read over my review again. I really didn’t like that adventure did I? Despite everything, I’ve said above Keep on the Shadowfell is a good introduction to the fourth edition rules. If you stick with 4e and decide you like the mechanics (and to be fair to the game, there is a lot to like) then H1 will certainly teach you the combat rules. However, it lacks depth.

    Fortunately, I can suggest a very practical solution to this. When Keep on the Shadowfell was published, Dungeon magazine ran a number of articles on converting the module to the Forgotten Realms or Eberron. It also published a side trek. All this happened before D&DI went live, so the articles are still free to all-comers. You’ll find them here:

    The extra material (especially the Forgotten Realms stuff) is very good, and easy to free of any specific Forgotten Realms trappings. All the articles are good sources of extra information and ideas. Just add a few of those ideas to the published adventure and you’ll improve it no end.

    If I was running Keep on the Shadowfell, I’d strip the adventure down and build it again from scratch with probably only the locations and the NPC names the same. I know that you don’t want to do that, so here’s some more general advice:

    Whenever I write an adventure, I start with the characters. If you can understand an NPC’s history, personality and motivation then I find the plot starts to write itself. Keep on the Shadowfell doesn’t bother with any of that, and that’s one of the adventure’s great weaknesses.

    Look at the NPCs you’ve been given and start asking questions. Why is Kalarel a priest of Orcus? Why is it important to him that he completes the ritual and opens the portal into the Shadowfell? Does he have a further goal beyond his service to Orcus? Is he an inherently good man who has been corrupted? Is he doing all this unwillingly? Is he being blackmailed into opening the portal? Is he an old man at the end of an evil life desperate to repent his past sins? Does he secetly want the PCs to kill him?

    What about Ninaran? Why is she working as Kalarel’s spy? What has made her ally with a servant of Orcus against her own village – her family? Is she really just evil, or does Kalarel have some hold over her? Is she seeking revenge against Kalarel and only pretending to be his ally so she can get close to him?

    Valtrun the Prescient (potentially an ongoing NPC. He crops up in some of the other published adventures, I think). H1 has him as a sage, scholar and good listener. The text says that he knows nothing about the death cult activity – well what if he does? What if Valthrun is taking it upon himself to stop Kalarel because he doesn’t believe anyone else can. Maybe part of the adventure is getting Valtrun to part with information, and not go and get himself killed on some ‘damn idealistic crusade’.

    Key to making a great adventure is making the players think that all their actions matter. Players like to feel clever. They like to think that they worked something out and got the drop on the plot. It’s almost always a good idea to let them think this, because it makes them happy. An important aspect lacking from Keep on the Shadowfell is a mystery for the players to solve. It doesn’t have to be a tricky mystery, but there should be some alternative to heading to the Keep and just killing everything.

    The best thing about the published adventure is the tragic story of Sir Keegan. I think the simplest way to modify and improve the adventure would be this:

    1) The PCs cannot defeat Kalarel without the help of Sir Keegan. This doesn’t have to be help in combat, Keegan might know something that no one else does – like where to find Kalarel for instance.

    2) Valtrun is the key to befriending Keegan. Valtrun knows Keegan’s history. He knows some fact (maybe the names of Keegan’s children). Without something like that Keegan will just attack and kill the PCs when they meet him.

    3) The PCs must convince Valtrun to help them and reveal Keegan’s history. Then they must use that information to find a way to get Keegan to help them against Kalarel.

    4) Of course, they must first realise that they need Keegan. So possibly they go to the Keep, realise they cannot find Kalarel and then have to return to find out more.

    Okay, I haven’t really thought it through, but I hope you can see that it adds a little layer of complexity onto the story without making it too complicated. The PCs don’t have to be too clever to realise they need Valtrun’s help. Getting his aid could be a skill challenge, or you could just roleplay it depending on your group of players.

    I’ve waffled on for too long now. Best of luck, and I hope I was of some help.

  3. Thank you so much. I have actually been reading more into the storyline and realizing that as a DM I can make some changes to it Woot woot!!!

    I think because I was new to it, I wasn’t allowing myself the chance to change anything out of ignorance, so your tips have really helped me.

    Thank you also for the link, I will have to check that out when I get home as my work has blocked most sites from me :( boo hoo.

    I really like your added storylines of implementing Valthrun more into the game, my players didn’t get a chance to speak to him in the village, so I think I’ll make some sort of password that only Sir Keegan and Valthrun know to make them go back and speak to him.

    Hacking and slashing through the goblins with nothing else realy pushing them on is boring them I think, so this will help.

    My players are also almost entirely new to the game, so we are learning a lot about combat….they’ve almost died on a few skirmishes, lol.

    Thanks again!

  4. My additions to this campaign.

    Player 1 is a paladin of bahamut. DING. thank you PC for providing a great hook. He begins to have dreams/visions as he approaches the keep, which is not a half day ride away from winterfell, but 3 days deep into the mountains. When they finall arrive and explore the dungeon, they find that Lord Keegan is cursed and cannot move on to the afterlife without first destroying the evil shade that represents half his soul. He is confused and is only vaguely aware of Kalarel’s actions, except that he is raising undead minions that roam the halls. This involves exploring the deeper levels of the keep (crypts) where a Shade haunts the halls. As the party explores the keep they start encountering 2 young children and a woman, flitting around the rooms or watching them fight, harmlessly. As they defeat various enemies they receive artifacts that match items the paladin has seen in his dreams. These, plus the Shade’s eventual death, allow the undead Lord Keegan to be reunited with his family, his soul, etc, and gain a clarity that allows him to help the PCs gain access to the second level of the dungeon.

    Player 2 is a drown assassin, orphaned and adopted by eladrin (bizarre and unlikely, but flavorful). Ninarin is a wood elf, and as it turns out, Kalarel is a drow as well. He is allied with a black dragon that makes it’s home in the Underdark near a series of underground wells, rivers and pools that also has a weak point separating the prime plane from the shadowfell. The dragon wants Kalarel to discover the way to open a portal, so she can do the same in her realm and thus gain favor with Orcus. She wants to use that favor to get Orcus assistance in destroying a faction of duergar that have been harrying her, polluting her waters, and went so far as to poach some of her eggs. She is pissed, vengeful and has a reason to destroy them, but they are too powerful as a group.

    Ninarin is going along with Kalarel’s plans in order to get close enough to destroy him, if she can. She’s a bit frustrated with life on the road, missing her family, but she has a vendetta against the drow as they raided her families home village nearly 50 years ago.

    Player 3 is a spellscarred and bitter ranger whose wolf companion has been with him for over 15 years, since the death of his family. He is mostly out for money. The Kobold priests of Orcus have been sacrificing creatures, including a handful of wolves, which really pisses him off. In addition Lord Padraig has offered payment for his investigation of the situation.

    Finally I introduced an NPC who has the lost mentor hook. I added a sealed door with ancient runes to the dig site. Inside is a 3 encounter dungeon crawl ending in the discovery of a young black dragon (not out of your characters level if they get him at the end of the adventure). combat involves a flooding dragon burial chamber which requires a skill challenge as an interlude in the fight. Eventually they can defeat Shade (dragon) and through some investigation learn that he is the son of the dragon in the Underdark. She sent him to keep tabs on Kalarel’s progress but Shade was distracted by the magical aura surrounding this deep burial chamber. Shade has previously taken most of the treasure out of the room, as this was the final lair of an elder dragon, but a few bits remain, as well as a massive dragon skeleton that adds flavor to the room. If anyone wants this I can share the framework of this added adventure, backstory, etc., as a Masterplan doc.

    Hopefully these additional links to the Underdark will motivate the selfish drow to explore the Thunderspire Caverns. The paladin should care about the slaves so he is an easy sell. I have yet to determine how I will motivate the ranger except possibly through his wolf, who he believes is the embodiment of his deity, Khione, Goddess of the North Wind, and his only tie to his shattered people.

  5. Wow. Now that’s taking Keep on the Shadowfell and turning it into something worthwhile. Sounds as though your players are in for a great adventure!

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