Friday, January 30, 2009

A Dungeon By Any Other Name

There's a tendency to describe any enclosed and dangerous space visited by heroes as a "dungeon". After all, the game's called Dungeons & Dragons. Literally, though, a dungeon is really only something found beneath a fortification or palace, used for the the primary or ancillary purpose of detaining prisoners.

Keep on the Shadowfell promises a ruined keep as its main location. As players set out from Winterhaven for their first journey to this key structure, they may be looking forward to standing at ancient battlements, crossing haunted courtyards, peering through weathered murder holes, and nervously exploring crumbling feast-halls.

Upon arriving, they find that the keep's been reduced almost totally to rubble, there is clearly nothing of interest at surface level, and in the middle of the ruins is a recently-used and well-maintained stairway leading down to the crypts. There may as well be a large arrow pointing downwards, helpfully labelled "Dungeon!".

Keep on the Shadowfell has already laid down its credentials as an unapologetically old-school dungeon crawler, so in a way it's refreshing that it gets right down to business like this. It's still a little jarring though. The internet reveals my players weren't alone in finding it hard to believe that the entire setup of the "keep" was just window-dressing on a series of crypts.

Probably a more accurate name would have been "Crypt On The Shadowfell".

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Tragedy Of The Keep

In amongst all the done-to-death evil priests and goblins, Keep on the Shadowfell presents one section of honest-to-god story, that being the downfall of the Keep and its final commander.

Winterhaven and all the lands that surround it were once part of the Empire of Nerath, a vast continent-spanning kingdom that brought light and civilisation and suchlike to every corner of the wilderness. During the time of the Empire, followers of Orcus tore a rift to the Shadowfell, plane of undeath, and used the energies therein to call forth a great tide of undead.

The Empire mounted a response, and after much battle and sacrifice the undead were driven back and the cultists defeated. Priests of the Empire sealed the rift, and a great keep was built on its site so that it might be watched and guarded forevermore.

However, all things fall into decline and with the passing of decades the Empire collapsed under internal and external pressures. Its borders were drawn inwards, and the Keep and all its guardians were abandoned and forgotten.

The commander of the Keep at the time of the Empire's collapse was a man named Keegan, a staunch and brave knight of the realm. However, finding himself forsaken by his nation, and with resources and manpower running always tighter, he let the darkness and malaise emanating from the rift take hold of his mind.

Keegan went mad; he took up his longsword Aecris, dedicated to the Platinum Dragon Bahamut, and used it to strike down his wife, his children, and almost every man under his command. As the survivors fled the keep, Keegan descended into the crypts that contained the rift, and was never seen again.

It's a great story and adds some real flavour to the keep. Keegan's ultimate fate, of course, plays an important role towards the midpoint of the main dungeon, so it's something you can use as a sub-goal to keep players alert while they're still some distance from Kalarel.

The problem is that the module gives you no way to get this story across to your players. No one involved in the story is still alive, no one in Winterhaven really knows the details, and even if you did have someone ready to narrate the whole tale, a big infodump of non-interactive history makes for terrible storytelling. World class writers often have difficulty finding audiences for prose readings; how much less interesting will you be rattling off something you've jotted down on the back of your game notes?

My personal solution was to use interactive dreams in which the players got to directly live out Keegan's story from a first-person perspective, which seemed to work well, but this isn't typical D&D-style roleplaying and it can be very challenging for beginning DMs.

A more traditional solution would be to integrate Keegan's story into the dungeon design. There are plenty of encounters that cast some light on Kalarel's recent activities, but very few that tie into the keep's tragic history. The players are able to find the corpses of Keegan's children, but these are inexplicably located after the in-dungeon resolution of the Keegan subplot.

The opening areas of the keep should have been littered with the identifiable corpses of Keegan's victims; there should still remain barricades where they attempted to desperately fend off their maddened commander. Terrified survivors trapped in tiny chambers should have left despairing messages scratched in the walls while they heard their comrades being slaughtered all around them.

The writers of Keep on the Shadowfell seem to be aware of the opportunities they're missing. Much in the vein of their "make up your own stories" and "paint the scene" advice, they exhort DMs to "bring the dungeon to life and carry the tragic story behind the dungeon's origin to the forefront" (page 35). This advice, if followed, would indeed make for good storytelling, but it would be nice, in a $30 module aimed at starter DMs, if there were some concrete examples of how it could be achieved.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bad DM Advice: Paint The Scene

The same page of Keep on the Shadowfell which featured the completely unhelpful advice "make up your own stories" has some more nuggets of wisdom regarding "painting the scene".

Weather: An easy way to set a scene is to describe the weather - is it overcast and damp with a slight hair-ruffling wind? Is the sun blazing down with scarcely a cloud in the sky? Is the night open to the vault of a million stars, or does bone chilling rain cut through the darkness?
I don't know: does bone chilling rain cut through the darkness? This wouldn't be bad advice to include in the Dungeon Master's Guide but here we have a pre-packaged adventure that's supposed to be shouldering the DM gruntwork. A quick flick through the module shows that it doesn't follow its own advice even once. Despite a paragraph of read-it-straight-to-the-players flavour text for each encounter, the kind of evocative prose it's advocating is missing entirely from the module as printed.

I'll be clear: I wouldn't be caught dead reading flavour text to players. I'm comfortable enough coming up with my own narration that I can avoid the whole embarrassing experience of reciting this kind of florid fluff. But not everyone has 18 years of experience, and my hazy memory suggests that as a younger player I found these pre-prepped descriptions incredibly helpful. It's probably something beginning players really appreciate in an official adventure, and so in Keep, which is aimed at exactly those beginners, it's particularly horrible that the flavour text is so crap.

Let's look at a section from the Burial Site encounter:

A steep-sided crater punctures the wilderness. Near the center of the depression, several humanoid figures cluster around a collection of bones. Two small, dragonlike creatures near the crater rim stand alert and stare at your approach.
How large is this crater? About 100 feet in diameter, but we only know that from the map because the description sure as hell doesn't give any clues. The mention of a "collection of bones" conjures up either a human corpse or humanoid remains, whereas in fact these are some frikkin' huge dragon bones we're talking about.

And "small dragonlike creatures" is totally unhelpful. Are these more of the "small dragonlike kobolds" the players have already encountered? Or are we talking the Monster Manual definition of a "small dragon" - ie, something in the Large size range with a wingspan of nearly thirty feet? As it turns out, these are guard drakes, about as large and menacing as a pit-bull, but players have no way of knowing that, and for that matter they're not even described to the Dungeon Master.

The mediocrity of the flavour text owes a lot to the way the module (and for that matter all 4th Edition modules) sets out encounters, with the entire encounter description crammed onto a two page spread. This is actually quite a nice design and makes encounters very easy to run, but, like most of the 4th Edition focus on combat, it comes at a cost to the storytelling.


[1] Were the designers at least aware of the compromises they were making to fit the format and deadline pressures? Or did they genuinely think that this was adequate flavour text?


The unifying villain of Keep on the Shadowfell is Kalarel, a cultist of the demon of undeath, Orcus. He plans to open an ancient rift lying under the titular keep and thereby create a hole between the material world and the temple of Orcus in the Shadowfell.

Evil cultists and dark portals are a well-worn cliche, and Kalarel treads it to a fault, but the amusing thing about him is that as villains go he's quite notably crap.

He gives off the impression of someone who's read a wide selection of magazines on being an evil mastermind, and finally decided he had to give it a try in person. Everything he does could come straight from a textbook, from such staples as "hiring goblin mercenaries" and "raiding local villages" through to "lairing in crumbling ruins". If he was on the internet, he would have a villainy-themed MySpace page.

It's hilarious because none of it makes any sense outside the context of the cliche. There is no reason for him to be raiding Winterhaven. Winterhaven has nothing that he wants. In fact, had he not sent Irontooth and the kobolds to raid Winterhaven, no-one would ever have known he existed and he would have completed his plans in peace.

Similarly, he has this tribe of goblin guards. What are they guarding him against? The hobgoblins, who appear to be guarding him against the undead? Or the undead, who appear to be guarding him against the goblins?

He writes these letters to his minions, full of expository text and signed with his name. They run along the lines of, "Dear minion, just a reminder that, as you know, my evil plan to open a gateway to the Shadowfell is proceeding apace. As you are well aware, I am still in the crypts under the keep, where I must not be disturbed by pesky adventurers. Love, Kalarel." And then his minions keep these letters in their pockets for weeks, just so that they can be found by heroes following the minion's inevitable death.

Kalarel's flunkies appear to have some awareness of his crapness. In an attempt to tie Keep into its sequel, Thunderspire Labyrinth, one area features some dead Thunderspire Slavers. They've come to the keep to try to sell Kalarel some slaves, but Kalarel, delighted to finally have some intruders to gloat at, locks them in an elaborate deathtrap intended to slowly drown them. Not being heroes, the slavers do indeed drown, much to Kalarel's chagrin. Kalarel's hobgoblins, noting the Thunderspire group as being notably higher level than their boss, quietly do a bit of bargaining behind Kalarel's back to appease the ringleaders of the organisation, and thereby probably save Kalarel's whole operation from being summarily wiped out. Kalarel remains oblivious.

The drowning of the slavers also gives birth to a blue slime, which begins rampaging through the local cave system. Kalarel sees nearly a quarter of his goblins and hobgoblins eaten by the thing as he attempts to get it under control, before finally giving up on the whole mess by barricading the slime into a single chamber and writing "Do not enter" on the door. This is not, typically, how a powerful dark priest solves his problems, which is part of what makes Kalarel so witlessly endearing.

Even Kalarel's plan doesn't really make any sense. He intends to open this gateway to Orcus' temple in the Shadowfell, a dark plane of undeath energies. However, neither the Manual of the Planes nor the Open Grave supplement make any reference to Orcus having such a temple. Indeed, Orcus lives in the Abyss, and is notably wary of setting foot in the Shadowfell thanks to a longstanding feud with the Raven Queen. Even if Orcus followers had established a temple in the Shadowfell, it's not clear exactly what a gateway to it would achieve, as the Manual of the Planes describes gates to the Shadowfell as more or less as common as dirt, in the face of which the universe has notably failed to collapse into chaos.

As a DM, you can write in the fine details to make Kalarel's plan both menacing and clever, but it's awfulling tempting to not, and have the final punchline to Kalarel's whole ridiculous scheme be him tunnelling into some poor Shadowfell peasant's cottage. As the gate finally opens, this salt-of-the-earth type peers through and says, "'Ere, wot's all this then? Some blighter's opened a portal under me armchair! Bloody cheek! Mildred, fetch me the broom!"

So very tempting.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Kobold Lair, Inside

The second section of the kobold lair is generally regarded as one of the hardest encounters in Keep on the Shadowfell, and has resulted in more than one total party kill (TPK) for unwary adventurers.

The encounter as printed features no less than 17 kobolds, divided into two waves. The heroes have three rounds to take out the trash mobs before the goblin boss Irontooth wades into the fight with his pet kobold wyrmpriest. Irontooth alone is a party-level threat, packing 106 hit points and a crippling two-swing "dual axe" power. With the addition of the wyrmpriest, who has a group heal and a nasty ranged attack, Irontooth can be a killer.

To make things worse, if any of the kobolds from outside escaped to deliver a warning, the players can find both waves ready and waiting when they enter the cave. Alternatively, unwise players might move immediately into the cave after clearing the outside guards, forfeiting the vital five-minute rest they would otherwise be entitled to.

Hard fights are a good thing. Players love them, providing they're not every fight. The times when characters are in real danger of death are the times your players will tell stories about years later. I'd question the wisdom of DMs who actually let their entire party die, as permanent character death generally isn't fun for anyone, but to some extent that's a matter of play style.

So, in my eyes, the kobold lair is a success. Lots of monsters with a range of interesting powers, a named villain who packs a genuine threat, and an interesting tactical layout. My players had fun here, and so did most every group I've checked on the internet. It caps off the kobold storyline nicely, and as a reward the players will get their first really worthwhile magical item - a suit of +1 dwarven chainmail.

The sole problem with this encounter is, once again, a misleading layout. As mentioned before, the maps are cribbed from the D&D Miniatures game. The battlemat of the lair shows a pile of treasure in the northeast corner which is so big it occupies 16 squares, or approximately 80 square feet. Players will be bitterly disappointed when they discover that the gold is merely artistic licence, and the treasure is in fact limited to one chest containing a handful of coins and the aforementioned dwarven chain.

The conclusion of the fight features a defeated Irontooth futilely calling to his dark master Kalarel for aid, followed by the players discovering a signed letter indicating that this same Kalarel is up to evil shenannigans in a local ruined keep. With the kobold questline finished, the stage is set for the main adventure, as the party head back to Winterhaven to find out a little more about the titular Keep on the Shadowfell.


[1] The kobold wyrmpriest's incite faith power gives 5 temporary hitpoints to each kobold ally within close burst 10. This can result in minions with 6 hitpoints, which runs counter to the philosophy of minions having either a single hitpoint or being dead. Also, it's devastating to the party if the wyrmpriest uses it before the minions have been mostly mopped up. Was this the intended effect, or should it read "non-minion kobold ally"?

Kobold Lair, Outside

Keep on the Shadowfell includes three large double-sided battle maps representing the locations of key encounters. Two of the three are recycled from the D&D Miniatures game.

This explains a lot. It explains why the "Kobold Lair" encounter as described doesn't match the included map.

As previously mentioned, in Keep the small town of Winterhaven is being plagued by kobold brigands. Lord Padraig duly dispatches the adventurers to stop the kobolds and slay their leader, a goblin named Irontooth.

The kobolds are laired in a cliffside cave, the entrance of which is hidden behind a waterfall. When the players arrive, they'll find the encounter split into two sections - a selection of guards outside the cave, and then the full kobold force inside.

The exterior encounter features several kobolds scattered along a narrow river just outside the cave. The river has only a couple of crossings, and dense forest on either side provides cover. It's generally a pretty okay battle, and most players I've come across enjoyed it despite the problems.

One of the problems is that the map depicts a giant glowing magical circle in the middle of the area. Players, no stranger to this sort of thing, tend to avoid it as though it were rabid, and often come up with strategies to "defuse it", or at least keep the kobolds from accessing its fell powers.

Of course, the circle is harmless. It's only there because the map has been recycled. The text in Keep on the Shadowfell passes it off as an ancient druidic circle that provides a minor attack bonus to anyone standing on it. What looks on the map like a gateway to another plane is really only a crumbling circle of menhirs. Really, it shouldn't have been there at all.

Also, the module claims that the only way into the kobold cave is by passing through the waterfall. Unfortunately, the map clearly shows two alternate tunnels to either side of the river. In this instance, it's more tactically interesting to ignore the module and play the map as drawn.


[1] 4th Edition kobolds have two strengths - ranged attacks, and a "mob bonus" when multiple kobolds are in melee with the same enemy. Given this, are kobolds really well served by terrain dominated by tree cover and choke points?

Healing Potions

Healing potions in 4th Edition suck.

These are supposed to be the iconic consumable item. They're cheap, they're ubiquitous, and they're always useful. They're a cure light wounds in a bottle. No adventurer should go without.

By contrast, in 4th Edition, drinking a healing potion uses up one of your healing surges, and instead of your surge value you heal 10 HP. You can drink a potion as a minor action.

Now, that's not useless. Up until about level 5, 10 HP is probably more than your surge value. And healing as a minor action is otherwise something that only clerics, paladins and dwarves could do. But it uses up one of your precious surges. It's just not as good as you'd expect a one-shot magic item to be.

The first thing that confuses about healing potions is that they're flat rate. Every other healing effect in the game does proportional healing, based on the 25% surge value. Heal pots give you a straight-up ten.

There's two arguments behind this that I can see. One is an intention to keep healing potions as a low-level item. They're really only useful during the first half of the heroic tier; after that you'll need to find more powerful potions that presumably cost more gold. If healing potions scaled with surge value, you'd have to artificially scale their cost to match, or high-end adventurers would be forever carrying as many as they could haul.

The other aspect of the flat rate is that it benefits low HP characters more than tanks. 10HP is practically two surges to a wizard, while it's only just above a single for a fighter. The potion is therefore proportionately more valuable to the wizard. Flat rate healing for potions (and only potions) casts potions as a "wizard item", providing a bit of flavour both to the item and the class.

Now, why does the potion use a healing surge? It's a magic item - isn't it supposed to be a bit special? Other "super-heals" like cure light wounds are able to heal players without consuming surges.

Presumably this is for balance reasons. While low-level characters certainly benefit most from these potions, there's really nothing to stop high-end characters buying them in bulk and chugging one on each and every minor action. 10HP might not be earth-shaking but it's nothing to sneeze at when it's happening every turn.

Balanced it may be, but it's not fun. When you acquire a magic item, it's supposed to feel like you're beating the system in some way. A healing potion is the RPG equivalent of having an extra life; it's a special, unique commodity. 4th Edition relegates them to just another everyday heal.

Suggestion: make healing potions not consume a healing surge, but rule instead that players can only drink one potion of any sort per extended rest. (Or once per milestone, if you feel generous.)

Healing Surge - The "Best Doctor" Problem

Healing surges aren't a perfect solution. One difficulty is the "best doctor" problem.

Players have a limited supply of healing surges, which can only be replenished by taking an eight-hour "extended rest". Extended rests not only cost in-game time, they also reset your milestones and remove any excess action points you've accumulated.

During combat, players will take whatever healing they can manage. After combat, the rules allow players to use as many healing surges as they wish to heal up.

However, using an unbuffed healing surge is for suckers. The cleric is the best doctor. If you heal yourself, you're getting back a quarter of your hit points, rounded down. If you let the party cleric use a healing word, you're getting back the surge value, plus 1d6, plus the cleric's wisdom modifier. The cleric gets two of these "per encounter", which can be refreshed through a short (five minute) rest.

What was intended to be a quick way for teams to get back into fighting shape after a battle becomes an extended dice rolling session. No one wants to waste a valuable surge on an unbuffed heal, so now the cleric's rolling 1d6 for every surge for every player, and making notes as to how many groups of five minutes everyone rests to reset the healing words.

This appears to run counter to the design philosophy of 4th Edition. Post-encounter downtime is supposed to minimised under the new rules. One option is to restrict the use of these powers to honest-to-God encounters. The cleric is now inexplicably unable to call on his or her abilities when not threatened by monsters. Unimpressed players will begin attacking nearby rats and insects in an attempt to trigger a heal-enabling "encounter".

A better solution is to run a house rule. Establish that healing words used outside of combat consistently deliver a heal bonus equal to the cleric's wisdom modifier plus one. This isn't ideal, but it allows people to calculate their healing quickly without the cleric having to roll a storm of dice.

On the bright side, 4th Edition makes cure light wounds and cure serious wounds dailies. Few parties will take an extended rest just to reset those suckers when they're otherwise fine.


[1] House rules are good, but surely this issue arose during playtesting. Why wasn't it specifically addressed in the Player's Handbook? Or alternatively, is there something about the operation of encounter powers or heals that I'm not aware of which would circumvent this problem?

Healing Surge

One of the cleverest changes in 4th Edition is the introduction of healing surges.

Previously, healing was flat rate. A healing effect might restore 1d8+1 hit points, and that was its effect regardless of who you used it on. A plate-armoured fighter would get hit less often, and therefore a heal on such a high-defence ally would "last longer", but otherwise healing was more or less indiscriminate.

The problem with flat rate healing is that it penalises high hit point totals. A fighter with 50+ hit points can bankrupt their friends of spells as they desperately try to restore him to full health after every fight.

Healing surges make healing proportional. Using one of your limited supply of healing surges restores a quarter of your HP. You can use as many as you like at any time while not in combat, and you can use them in combat by being targeted by a healing effect or by using your once-per-encounter Second Wind.

Making healing proportional means that healing powers become more tactically interesting. The healing word that gives a wizard 6 HP will provide 10 to a fighter. Clerics and paladins want to be healing high HP classes because it makes their healing more efficient. Conversely, high HP classes want to be taking hits because they're easier to heal.

This promotes the twin 4th Edition design goals of teamwork and tactics. No longer is combat a row of unconnected duals - it now becomes an exercise in attempting to control the overall flow of battle.

It also allows for some interesting sub-mechanics around healing. Clerics, and indeed most healers, heal allies by triggering one of the ally's healing surges. Paladins, however, can use their lay on hands ability to heal an ally using one of the paladin's surges (which they start with an above-average supply of). The management and conservation of surges across the party can therefore become a critical exercise.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Burial Site

The burial site is actually a good encounter.

This is Encounter A4 in Keep on the Shadowfell. It's one of the places that players can go after their first visit to Winterhaven. An explorer named Douven Staul has gone missing while checking out an old dragon burial site, and the players need to uncover his fate.

It turns out that module overvillain Kalarel has some of his minions excavating the burial site, and these minions have abducted Staul to help in their work. When the players turn up, the minions will initially attempt trickery, before eventually trying to fill the players full of stabs.

One of the reasons it's good is because it makes a change of pace. It's yet another ambush, but at least it's not kobolds this time. The map helps, too, presenting a tactically different environment from the "road through the forest" that the players have already seen twice.

What's important about the burial site, though, is that it's out of the way. Players coming here get the real sense that they've reached it through their own initiative, which makes for a valuable interlude in the kobold-killing railroad that they'd otherwise be engaged in.

The blessing of the burial site is also its curse. There isn't really a lot of reason for the players to come here. The module offers some suggestions, including starting one or more players with a quest to find their "missing mentor" Douven Staul, and it's always possible that the players could hear about Douven and the burial site in Winterhaven and investigate out of pure curiosity. But it's an awkward way of integrating this location into the adventure, especially considering the burial site is a long hike from Winterhaven.

There are other problems with the encounter. Describing it as a "dragon burial site" raises some expectations, chief among them being dragons, undead, and hordes of loot. The players aren't going to find any of those things here, and the artificially high perceived challenge level might put them off coming altogether. DMs would be better to call it an "old dig site" or somesuch.

The enemy motivations are also problematic. The module shows them looking for an "ancient Nerathian mirror" for Kalarel, which they have actually found. However, the mirror isn't magical and there's no clue as to what, if anything, Kalarel wanted it for. PCs are left "guarding" an item that they're sure is critical to Kalarel's plans when in fact the villain couldn't care less what happens to this piece of junk.

The encounter as a whole feels like it was added to the module late in development. It's got a generally tacked-on feel and there's little reference to it outside the two page encounter description.

But it's a good example of how even a poorly-thought out encounter can still be a success if it's exactly what your game's pacing demanded.


[1] Four of the six colour battle mats included in Keep on the Shadowfell, including this one, are reprints of maps from the D&D Miniatures Game. Did this encounter only take place at a burial site in order to fit with the map?

[2] Keep on the Shadowfell already has less treasure than the core rulebooks suggest for a level of this length. Changing the "ancient Nerathian mirror" to a "thundering longsword +1" would fix a loose plot thread and a loot shortage at the same time. Is there any reason they didn't go down this path?


Just quickly - I'm having a look at Keep on the Shadowfell as printed, and examining the ups and downs of running the literal text on the page. But of course, running the module that way is something only a masochist would do, so if you're looking for advice on how to turn it into a semi-decent adventure you should go check out The Alexandrian, where someone's already done the work for you.

Kobold Ambush, Again

When the players leave Winterhaven, they're set upon by a kobold ambush. Yes, again.

Mearls and Cordell must have really liked the idea of a kobold ambush, because not only is it the first encounter in the book, it's also the second. On its sophomore outing the ambush has most of the minions replaced by a single spellcaster, but it's otherwise the same battle. It even uses the same battle map.

It would probably be a bit baffling for players who are entirely new to D&D. They may end up describing it to their friends as "that game where you get ambushed by lizards".

The repetition might have been a deliberate design decision. There is something to be said for letting people try the same thing twice, to make sure they have learned how to do it before moving on to more complex scenarios. Learning by repetition works best, though, when applied to small, short tasks, rather than forty minute combat slugfests.

This happens a lot in Keep on the Shadowfell. Later, a memorable encounter with an ochre jelly (a kind of dangerous ooze) is followed by an encounter with a blue slime (a kind of dangerous ooze). Putting two of these rare monsters back to back cheapens them both. Similarly, a horde of mindless zombies in a graveyard is followed by a horde of mindless zombies in a dungeon, a tribe of goblin mercenaries is followed by a tribe of hobgoblin mercenaries, and a climactic battle against cultists and high-level undead comes just before another climactic battle against cultists and high-level undead.

Nothing ruins a satisfying encounter like an immediate rematch.

The Obvious Spy

The key antagonist in Keep on the Shadowfell is a cultist of Orcus named Kalarel. The players haven't heard his name yet, but they will soon.

Kalarel has a spy in Winterhaven. The module contemplates that the revelation of this spy will be a major surprise, and hinges some of its plot on the idea that the PCs will trust this spy until they are suddenly betrayed.

The module must be expecting some pretty dumb PCs.

The spy is an elf woman named Ninaran. She has no ties to any other NPC. She is described as "a hunter", which is D&D code for "ranger", and clues the players in that she has an honest-to-god character class. Her personality is described as "stiff and bitter", she "drinks alone" and "is not interested in conversation". She is the only person in Winterhaven who knows anything about the possibility of a "death cult" in the area, and is surprisingly forthcoming on where its headquarters might be found.

She may as well be wearing a carefully-lettered badge reading, "Hi! Ask me about being an obvious spy!"

The challenge for the DM is not how best to present her traitorous duplicity; it is how to stop the PCs butchering her like a sow during their first meeting. Players are not idiots and they are particularly receptive to a one-note stereotype. Characters who are "stiff and bitter" and who "drink alone" are unlikely to become the players' bestest buddies.


[1] Keep on the Shadowfell presents several characters in Winterhaven that the players have good reason to get along with and like, including a kindly old wizard, a matronly innkeeper, and a ditzy elf who picks flowers for a living. Did it not occur to the developers that any of these would have made for a more surprising and powerful betrayal?

[2] Ninaran is so obviously a traitor that in internet write-ups and games I have personally witnessed she was suspected before the players knew there was anyone for a traitor to work for. Was this issue not detected during playtesting?

Winterhaven Questgivers

The NPCs in Winterhaven are not subtle about giving out quests. They hand those babies out like they are hallowe'en candy. In my running of Keep on the Shadowfell I've provided players with a printed Quest Log, half in jest and half because it is actually useful.

This is the World of Warcraft approach to questgiving. There is a lot of flavour dialogue to be had in Winterhaven, but it's clear that none of it is important to the players. The important conversations - the ones that lead to loot and slaying - are carefully emphasised through some question-and-answer sample dialogue.

Q: What can you tell me about an ancient keep in the area?
Salvana Wrafton
: "Oh, the keep? It's just northeast of the village, up in the Cairngorms. But no one goes that way. Too dangerous! Monsters of all sorts! Ghosts and vampires, I hear. Nothing anyone who values their life would get anywhere near. Valthrun probably knows more."
This is pretty horrible dialogue. For starters, no-one talks like that. Also, "ghosts and vampires" is D&D code for "high level monsters". The module is giving players the signal that they are not ready to explore this keep, when in fact they're going to have to go there pretty soon to progress the plot, and there's not a vampire to be seen in the entire adventure. The infodump is saved, though, by the referral to Valthrun (a local wizard), which reveals that it's not a dead-end topic and encourages players to keep investigating.

Mediocre writing aside, this is not a bad approach to questgiving in an entry-level module. Winterhaven provides players with three questlines to pursue: they can investigate a nearby archaeological site, they can check out the ancient keep, or they can exterminate the kobold raiders. The players are given a meaningful choice about what order to tackle the problems in, while being firmly shepherded along Keep on the Shadowfell's central plotline. They're left in no doubt as to what will and will not progress the story.


[1] World of Warcraft found more players in three years than D&D did in thirty; Wizards of the Coast were probably clever to draw heavily from it in shaping their 4th Edition. Given the de-emphasis on storytelling and the new prominence of combat, why didn't they actively incorporate the concept of a Quest Log into their game rules?

[2] The description of Winterhaven presents all the major questgivers and information sources as regulars of the local tavern. This fantasy cliche is convenient for the players, but gives them little reason to explore Winterhaven or become attached to the module's hub town. Was this placing a deliberate attempt to get players moving on to the next encounter, or merely a lack of imagination?

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Winterhaven is the hub town for Keep on the Shadowfell, and it's one of the most fundamentally flawed pieces of design in the module. Why flawed? Because it favours buildings over characters.

The map above comes with the module. Each building is drawn on the map, and numbered. A corresponding three-page section of the module describes each numbered building, and then describes the NPCs that might be encountered at that location.

It's problematic for a number of reasons. First, the seventeen buildings shown don't seem enough for Winterhaven's specified population of 997. They could hold maybe 150, with the remaining 847 presumably living in the "small thatched homes [that] stand around Winterhaven, each fronting a piece of farmland or pasture". Even at a fairly generous person-t0-farm ratio there have to be over a hundred of these dwellings outside the town walls, none of which, of course, are depicted, described or referred to.

But that's a minor gripe, as is the second problem, which is that the design is prescriptive. The included map doesn't leave any room for the DM to add more buildings to suit his players and their play styles. Naturally he can throw the map out the window, but that brings us back to the question of what, exactly, he's paying for.

The main problem with building-first design is that it's unnecessary. There aren't any time-critical encounters set in Winterhaven. The players are never going to have a problem navigating an area this small. They aren't going to need to know which buildings are close together and far apart.

The building-first design comes with a significant cost - the NPCs. Anyone who's read an expansion for World of Darkness or 7th Sea knows what good NPC design looks like. In good NPC design, the DM is provided with descriptions, mannerisms, fears, hopes, desires, competencies, and plot hooks for each and every NPC that turns up. It's often more than the DM needs, but that wealth of detail is, again, what you're paying for.

The NPCs in Winterhaven - who are practically the only friendly characters in the module - weigh in at four sentences each, focused mainly on what on what they know about the local area and what they have to sell. Some insulting DM advice on page 32 encourages you to fill in the detail yourself by adding "an accent or favourite saying" or "[applying] a personality-related adjective to your NPC", before finishing with the suggestion"Make up your own stories".

It's a shame Wizards of the Coast didn't release this as an online sample of Keep on the Shadowfell. Revolutionary advice like "make up your own stories" could have saved everyone the cost of a pre-packaged adventure.


[1] The description of Winterhaven emphasises that it has a barracks, a warrior's guild, defended walls, and a cache of siege supplies. However in Keep on the Shadowfell Winterhaven is never directly threatened. Was a planned siege of Winterhaven cut for space reasons?

[2] The module mentions that mounts and potions of healing are sometimes available in town shops. Why, from a gameplay perspective, is it only sometimes?

[3] Winterhaven includes a Warrior's Guild. The guildmaster is the same NPC who runs the Winterhaven Barracks. What purpose is the Warrior's Guild intended to serve above and beyond the Barracks?

[4] Despite the area around Winterhaven being "menaced by kobolds", Winterhaven apparently has a market square and a Market Day. After giving a meaty description of this event, the module goes on to note that any given item from the Player's Handbook only has a 50% chance of being available, and armour, weapons, implements or magic items are "almost never" present. There is also an NPC involved who has no noteworthy mannerisms or quest hooks. How and why were the PCs intended to interact with the market square?

Bad DM Advice: What Do You Do Next?

Page 18 of Keep on the Shadowfell contains its first nugget of DM advice:

If you do not remain alert to what your players are thinking, action around the table can slow. If everyone stops talking and looks at you, you need to jump in and ask what the players want to do next. Your questions tell the players that something is expected of them.
This is the first DM advice in the first module of 4th Edition, and it's rubbish. Actually, it's the first DM advice in 4th Edition full stop, as Keep hit stores before the Player's Handbook. Let's try rewriting it.

If you do not remain alert to how your players are responding to the game, action around the table can slow. If everyone stops talking and looks at you, you need to jump in and provide some new events. When your players aren't actively interacting with the game, it tells you that something is expected of you.
This will make a better game. As a side benefit, it removes the suggestion that the DM should be telepathic.

"What do you do next?" is the trademark question of the bad DM. Firstly, it implies a situation with too many interesting options, or not enough. Research shows that humans prefer to choose from two alternatives rather than from many. As DM, it is your job to narrow the options down to two equally intriguing possibilities through storytelling, and, if the players have trouble deciding, introduce an event gently nudging them towards your preferred path.

The other reason it's a bad question is it means the players have become static. They are somewhere where they are, at least for a moment, "just fine". Players should never be "just fine" - they should always be within sight of "just fine", but never quite there. There should always be something that they just need to check, or someplace nearby that is ever so slightly better than where they are.

Keep on the Shadowfell starts with the players ambushed by kobolds while on the road to Winterhaven village. At the end of the fight, asking "What do you do next?" is not helpful. The players are obviously intended to continue to Winterhaven, but there's no obvious reward to them in doing so other than the continuation of the story.

You need to introduce a short term goal that tugs at the players' greed, self-preservation, or curiosity.

For instance, you could add to the loot a small gold bracelet, and mention to the players, "You don't know how much it's worth - but you could probably find out in Winterhaven." You could say, "With kobolds attacking travellers this openly on the road, you shudder to think what the situation must be like in Winterhaven."

Or you could just mention, "As you loot the kobold bodies, the sun begins sinking below the horizon. It won't be long before the beasts that prowl this wilderness are attracted by the fresh meat. You should probably be moving on."


[1] After 30 years, the designers of D&D should be able to run a top class RPG even while asleep. Why are beginners' mistakes like this being presented to new DMs as if they're useful advice?

[2] Although the players are given some over-arching quests that provide a reason to travel to Winterhaven in the first place, there's no particular sense of urgency attached to any of them. Why isn't a clear and immediate motivation to continue to Winterhaven presented explicitly in the module?

Party of Five

4th Edition is balanced for five players, plus a DM.

The concept of being balanced at all is relatively new to D&D, but five being the magic number comes as something of a surprise. Previously, D&D has been centred around the rule of four.

The idea of four players is exemplified in the core AD&D classes - fighter, cleric, mage and thief. While earlier editions could be run with any number of players, the rulebooks assumed four players at every table.

4th Edition complicates the party size issue. A core tenet of 4th Ed design is encouraging teamwork and co-operation. One way that it does is through abilities which affect your allies. A typical power might be "Damage your enemy, and then give a small buff to an adjacent ally."

This creates a balance issue. The usefulness of an ally-buffing power is directly proportionate to how many allies you have. The more friends are at the table, the more likely it is that one will be able to benefit from your power. A bigger issue is powers that buff all allies, as these scale up with each player affected.

To properly balance these powers, the designers need to decide how many players they expect will be "standard" - and they've moved right past four and settled on five. You can play with more players than five, or less, but you need to be aware that if you do, the classes and powers aren't balanced. Warlords are heavily gimped in small parties; fighters and paladins get less useful in large expeditions.

Why five? Anyone who's tried to organise a gaming group knows that the more people you need for each session, the less sessions you're going to be able to organise per month. Five seems too many.

In a counter-intuitive fashion, that may be part of the reason. A wise designer knows to compensate for variance. You can tolerably play 4th Edition with between four and six players without badly breaking the balance. That may be a more useful spread than three to five for many gaming groups.

More importantly, the balance shift from five players to four is a noticeably smaller one than from four to three. Five players allows for redundancy; you can afford to have a player miss a game. Setting the balance to five encourages players to form more resilient and long-lasting gaming groups.

This is interesting because it's actually something new in gaming. I've bemoaned the fact that 4th Edition mechanics do nothing to support roleplaying, but what they do support is socialising. If you look at something like White Wolf's World of Darkness you'll find that the game is built from the ground up to promote inter-party bickering; that kind of politics is part of its core gameplay. In 4th Edition, we have an example of a game that uses its mechanics to help people co-operate, work as a team, and get along with each other. The rules of the game promote real-world social gains.

It's also true that the larger group brings some benefits. Larger groups possess more resources - with five players plus a DM, there will be a larger array of rulebooks and accessories available for use in any given session. Larger groups also support role differentiation, which is a key element both of effective teamwork and of the 4th Edition design philosophy.

On the other hand, membership in larger groups is proportionately less satsifying, with each player getting less "turns" and less time in the sun. There's also more potential for personality clashes and real-world interpersonal conflict. You only need to look at any LARP organisation or MMO guild to see the perils of a large player base.

The long term benefits of setting a defined balance number I think will outweigh any losses. Knowing how many players "should" be at the table, modules such as Keep on the Shadowfell can be more tightly balanced (although that doesn't mean they actually are), and the adoption of a default party size allows for feedback from 4th Edition players to be standardised and more usefully inform the design of future games.


[1] A lot of research has been done into group dynamics and ideal group sizes. Did Wizards of the Coast draw on any of it in setting five as their number? Alternatively, was market research performed to determine the size of the average gaming group?

[2] Larger party sizes make gaming groups less insular and create more openings for isolated and beginning players. This "open table" philosophy is also reflected in the D&D Insider online tools, which discourage house rules while promoting the concept of an "official character", thereby allowing for easy character portability between campaigns. The rulebooks also provide "standard" numbers of magic items and gold totals for characters of any given level. Was this an explicit design goal, and, if so, how do Wizards of the Coast plan to leverage it on a community level?

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Bad Module

I have said already that Keep on the Shadowfell is a bad module and I'm probably going to say it a bunch more before I am through.

When someone says, "this encounter is broken", or "this story element is weak", a common response on internet forums is, "Well, a good DM will modify it." Which is true. But not helpful.

A good DM could do any number of things. A good DM, one imagines, could run a perfectly decent game of D&D without reference to any printed material other than the Player's Handbook. Heck, a good DM may well not be running D&D at all.

A module is a product for which you pay money. And for that money you can expect to get something. If you are lucky enough to be a good DM, you are probably looking for something that saves you time by providing balanced, playtested encounters that deliver a fun experience for nine groups out of ten. If you're one of the great many DMs who are merely average, you're hoping for a dynamic, well-told story with lots of detail so you can run a fun session without having to stop every ten seconds to look up rules. You are exchanging your money for the writer's superior writing skills and development resources.

So when you find a module that appears to have been only patchily playtested, it is a bad module. When you find a module with encounters that could have come straight from a wandering monster table, it is a bad module. When the only friendly NPCs are cliches drafted into service from every fantasy pastiche ever, it is a bad module. There is no point in paying for something that you could have come up with yourself.

Keep on the Shadowfell has a bunch of small points of design brilliance, but they are spread out, and some are accidental. In between is a wide and deep ocean of the generic. Regardless of what you, or your friend, or someone you talked to on the internet may have done with it, it is - and will remain - a bad module.

In Media Res

The first encounter of the first adventure of the new edition of your flagship product is something you would want to get right. Luckily, Keep on the Shadowfell does.

More or less.

Like it or loathe it, 4th Edition is about combat. Keep on the Shadowfell wisely kicks off its story with a brawl, and it's probably fair to say that if nothing in this first encounter gets you interested then you're probably going to be disappointed by 4th Edition as a whole.

The story goes like this: five travellers (the players) meet on the King's Road, an old and broken down highway. The travellers discover that they are all heading for the nearby village of Winterhaven - but before they can finish their introductions, they're beset by a marauding band of kobolds.

There's a small technical hurdle to get over in running this encounter; for space reasons, the encounter description does not show the full battle map, making it seem as if the kobolds will be spawning practically on top of the players on the first turn. Also, the kobolds, who are supposed to be "hiding behind boulders", are unfortunately depicted on the wrong side of the boulders -making them plainly visible to approaching players.

Still, these are minor problems for a semi-competent GM, and even if the kobolds are placed in their buggy incorrect locations it won't particularly break the encounter. This scene, entitled "Kobold Brigands", is more about demonstrating the improvements that 4th Edition has made to combat, some of which are:

* Variety in monsters - despite all the enemies being "kobolds", they come in three flavours, including an unthreatening rabble of "kobold minions", a pair of more menacing "dragonshields", and a ranged "kobold slinger". Plus, all three types of kobolds have more options than just rolling to hit - they're kitted out with some low-grade movement exploits, they get "mob attack" bonuses for stacking onto the same target, and the slinger's ranged attacks inflict some aggravating debuffs on his unlucky victims.

* Tactical positioning - Even a relatively unassuming location like a road through a forest turns out to be rife with tactical possibilities. Boulders block line of sight, gravestones provide cover bonuses, thick copses of trees can create a tense game of hide-and-seek, and during all this it will soon become apparent that location plays a key role in the core mechanics of virtually every player class.

* Minions - Borrowing from systems like 7th Sea, D&D 4th Edition introduces the concept of "minions", monsters with fixed damage and only one hit point. These simple-to-run thugs let you field small armies of monsters without slowing down your game. I love them.

* Teamwork - Both monsters and players are significantly more effective when they co-ordinate with allies; players who don't quickly start working together will have trouble getting to grips with these new, agile kobolds, and will likely take a mauling from the "mob attack" ability. This is one of the few places where 4th Edition game mechanics support the goal of "roleplaying" implicit in the product's legacy.

Keep on the Shadowfell isn't exactly gifted at storytelling, but the "Kobold Brigands" encounter is one of its narrative successes. Players get a good feel for who their characters are and what they are good at before they're called upon to start playing "in character". It helps prevent the disconnect that occurs when a player claiming to be "the greatest swordsman in the world" discovers they can't land an attack to save their life, and gives everyone some space to get to know themselves before being asked to chat to each other. In all but the most antisocial groups, the Kobold Ambush will create five players who are willing to (at least provisionally) work together to explore whatever dangers lie ahead.


[1] The problems with the kobold placement were so troubling that the developers needed to address it in an FAQ. This was an encounter that was going to be first introduction to 4th Edition for tens of thousands of players - presumably it was playtested scores of times. How did such a glaring error find its way into the published product?

[2] The setup says to "give [the players] two rounds to move their characters westwards" before revealing the ambush. This was probably intended to raise tension, but during the playtesting did no-one comment that moving miniatures around an empty map (a) is dull and (b) encourages people to prepare for the obvious ambush that they're not supposed to know about?

The New Economy

There are only two mechanic-based rewards in 4th Edition: level-ups, and magical items.

Check it out - look what they've done to gold. A small fraction of your starting wealth will buy you an Adventurer's Kit, complete with bedroll, food, torches, and all that other mundane crap that it's a pain to keep track of

Once you have an Adventurer's Kit purchased, it's all about the magic items, baby. Gold is not the currency of goods and services - gold is the currency of gear upgrades. Buying groceries is dull. Shopping for magical items is sweet. Welcome to the new economy.

Every magical item in 4th Edition is assigned an item level; all items of a given level have the same cost. +1 plate armour is a level 1 item; so is +1 leather armour. Regardless of the theoretically larger benefit given by plate, they both have the same value in gold. That's because plate and leather are balanced by other mechanics. Spending a precious feat on the ability to wear plate is already a hefty price tag; the player is no longer re-penalised every time they upgrade their kit.

See what I did there, by the way? +1 plate armour. This is a stylistic constant across all the 4th edition supplements. Magical items get italics. The designers are very subtly reinforcing that magical items are special, and are on a different mechanical and narrative plane to such things as "bedrolls" and "rations". It's particularly noticeable in the new Manual of the Planes, where "ship" is printed normally but "planar dromond" gets the special treatment.

In the new economy, 280 gold is no longer a year's living expenses - it is "halfway to a level 1 item". Just as players watch their XP rise towards the next level-up, they can view their burgeoning bank balance as progress towards their next gear upgrade.

In Keep on the Shadowfell, the first encounter describes the enemies carrying basic weapons that the players can take - but after that, the trash loot is never mentioned again. Every time an enemy goes down, only two things are relevant - what magical items they were guarding, and how much their assorted low-grade detritus is worth in gold.


[1] Everyone starts with the same amount of gold, and everyone needs an Adventurer's Kit. Why didn't they give you the Adventurer's Kit for free with every new character?

[2] +1 plate costs the same as +1 leather, but the non-magical versions have quite prohibitively different costs. Why isn't the standard loot balanced in the same way as the magical loot, and why don't they just give you your choice of basic weapon and armour for free at character creation?

[3] 4th Edition still refers to "silver pieces" (worth one-tenth of a gold) and "copper pieces" (worth one-hundredth of a gold). Keep on the Shadowfell often gives out "50 silver pieces" instead of just saying "5 gold". There is nothing remotely interesting a player can buy with a silver piece. The comparitive value of a silver piece, and the number of times a player will ever want to spend one, is so trivial as to be nil. Why didn't the designers simplify the maths by doing away with the small change completely?

Keep On The Shadowfell

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.)


Welcome to Eleven Foot Pole. I'm Greg Tannahill, I've been a gamer for a great many years, and I recently returned to playing Dungeons & Dragons after a 10 year lapse. Last time I touched it was for an extended 2nd Edition campaign; I've come back just in time for 4th edition.

In the mean time I've been playing a lot of other systems that have been really exploring what it means to be a "roleplaying game"; now that I'm back in D&D, I'm amused to find that Wizards of the Coast have jettisoned most of the roleplaying in favour of a really quite excellent story-based board game.

I don't hold 4th Edition up as an example of what to strive for in an RPG; in fact in many ways it's the anthisesis of roleplaying, although it's nevertheless still a heap of fun. But it's fascinating to look at as a design experiment.

Wizards of the Coast have the largest budgets and best resources of any publisher in the RPG field, and D&D 4th Edition should be the equivalent of a multi-million dollar blockbuster. It's fair, if not necessarily correct, to assume that no design decision in its creation was by accident, and it therefore lends itself to a level of analysis that few RPGs before it could withstand.

I really want to talk about a lot of the nitty gritty of the D&D 4th edition design process, and although I run a gaming blog at The Dust Forms Words, I'm going to go into a level of detail here that my regular readers might not be interested in.

I don't promise to update this blog regularly, or at all, but feel free to follow along with me