Wednesday, January 28, 2009


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.


Anonymous said...

My villain was in the process of 'inventing' undeath, as it didn't exist in the campaign world prior. He violated the three points you made, but with reason.
"hiring goblin mercenaries" - Cheap labour that would serve as experiment corpses once the heroes had done away with them.
"raiding local villages" - He regularly unleashed undead prototypes on nearby villages to gauge his development progress. This also gave reason to his minions becoming more powerful throughout the campaign.
"lairing in crumbling ruins" - Only while he was doing what he needed to do there, and he had a good escape plan.
'Switch places' spell with a dragon.

Greg Tannahill said...

Cliches are popular for a reason. People know how they work, they draw on an established mythos of storytelling, and they present pre-tested story conflicts that players have a template for interacting with. Used carefully, they're a great resource for a DM, and have a stronger and more deserving place in RPGs and real-time storytelling than they do in other media.

You just need to be careful that your cliche makes sense, that's all. Think about whether it's really the best thing for your game before running with it. I'd be very sad if I never got the chance to fight evil priests and goblin mercenaries again; I love that shit.

Yours sounds pretty decent, and I love the story potential inherent in the very first necromancer - doing undead in a world where they're not only a cliche but completely unheard of. Nice work.

Anonymous said...

I love the idea at the very end, showing the players how useless Kalarel really is.
I didn't like him much as a villain and was tempted to do something along these lines.
I could see him opening the portal straight into Orcus's bathroom.
Orcus busy in the shower is so pissed that he squishes Kalarel on the spot and ignores everyone else, closing the portal like someone slamming the door in the face of a Door to door salesman.

Lgstarn said...

After reading your post, I think that I will in fact make him exactly as cartoony as you describe him. At the risk of killing the somber climatic battle scene, I'm going to add a library to the ghoul warren, and put a bunch of cool rituals in there as well as various books intended for humorous effects. "How to be an Evil Mastermind for Simpletons: The Supalkoth Times Number 1 Best-Seller." As inspired by your post, the chapters of the book will be:

Chapter 1: So you want to be an Evil Mastermind?

Chapter 3: Perfecting the menace grimace
Chapter 4: Laughs, guffaws, and other blood-curdling sounds of mirth
Chapter 5: Hiring mercenaries: goblins, undead, or both?
Chapter 6: Raiding local villages: pros and cons. (Subtitle: Finding the right pro/con ratio for your raiding party)
Chapter 7: Everything you wanted to know about lairing but were too evil to ask

Chapter 11: Advertising your plan - buying vellum in bulk really saves!

Marco Filippo said...

Thank you for this post, I laughed out loud when I read this.

True, Kalarel sucks. And that's that.

Colmarr said...

Hmm, so the default Kalarel is not opening a portal to the Shadowfell to release the imprisoned Shadow Dragon Shadrilax?

I think I need to go pat my DM on the back...

Unknown said...

Colmarr, the Forgotten Realms-specific remix of KotS (which Wizards released as a PDF on D&D Insider) adds the Shadraxil backstory, which I feel strengthens the plot a great deal. It also shifts the cultists from worshipping Orcus to Shar, if I'm not mistaken, and does a couple of other things to make the plot hang together a bit better.

Amphimir the Bard said...

I decided to play it all perfectly straight, with the caveat that I did add something (another cliché) to answer why Winterhaven and Karalel are connected. I had the goblins kidnap children to be sacrificed to Orcus in order for the portal ritual to work...

Of course, the heroes arrived in the nick of time, stopped the ritual, yadda yadda...

I hope they'll eventually forgive me