This post is the introduction to a series that analyses Keep on the Shadowfell as a microcosm of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition design decisions. Click the link at the bottom of this post or scroll through the archive to read the complete series.
NB: These posts relate to the original module as published, not to the edited 2nd Edition that Wizards of the Coast made available as a free PDF in 2009.
Keep on the Shadowfell, by Bruce R Cordell and Mike Mearls, is the first official adventure module released for 4th Edition.
It's something of a homage to Keep on the Borderlands, a first edition module released in 1979. Like Borderlands, it features some limited wilderness adventure scattered around a central hardcore dungeon-crawl. Like Borderlands, it's full of evil lizardmen and feral humanoids. And like Borderlands, part of its design intent is to introduce the game to new players.
It's an old-school module. Too old school. If you've ever played AD&D before, you've already played this adventure. Despite the sharp new 4th edition combat mechanics, players of Keep on the Shadowfell could be forgiven for thinking that 20 years of evolution in game design and interactive storytelling have been unceremoniously swept under the rug.
It's not all bad. For veteran D&D players, Keep feels like coming home. The convoluted shenanigans of D&D 3.5 are thrown out the window and the focus is put squarely on 10 x 10 stone corridors and the looting of corpses. Certainly this is a lot of what I'd been missing during my sojourn away from D&D.
But even for an unabashed dungeon crawl it isn't firing on all cylinders. The hooks for the main quest chain are weak, the loot is sparse and uninteresting, and the piecemeal dungeon assembly invites players to miss large tracts of what's on offer.
I'm going to be taking a closer look at Keep on the Shadowfell over the next few posts, because it presents a great opportunity for pulling apart a published module. Virtually every 4th edition player has had a chance to try out part of this module, and the hundreds of game write-ups across the internet give us a large volume of anecdotal evidence of what worked and what didn't.
Follow with me over the next few days as I look at some of the highs and lows of this awkwardly implemented adventure.
(See all posts on Keep on the Shadowfell.)