Monday, January 26, 2009

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?


Anonymous said...

It's probably not so much "they didn't notice" as "They just didn't care." Really, the only things that get detail are the combat encounters, which tells you where the designers were putting their emphasis.

Greg Tannahill said...

Well, contrast it to the bizarre half-page "history" column in the blue slime room. They take the time there to give you the entire backstory for a room the players will probably never see, and then don't do anything similar anywhere else in the module.

Jipster said...


You are completely right, Ninaren just screams "DANGER". I saw it right away as I first thumbed through the book. She is way too obvious.

But does my party suspect her? No....they suspect Delphina. Clearly, she's must be only pretending to be ditzy. Clearly, you can't actually make money selling wildflowers, so where does her money really come from, eh? And we are supposed to believe that she picks wildflowers around the keep, and Kelarel is in the keep, and this is mere coincidence? She MUST be the spy referenced in Irontooth's letter!

The party split at the end of the last session. Two of them are going back to Winterhaven to talk to Valthrun while the 3 gals keep watch outside the keep. Then the 2 guys will return, they'll take an extended rest, then back in the dungeon.

The guys will run into a modified graveyard encounter with Ninaren (the real spy) while the gals (who are the ones that most strongly suspect Delphina) will get their wish, and spot the harmless, ditzy (and completely innocent) elf around the ruins, picking flowers.

I suspect they'll gut her like a fish.

Greg Tannahill said...

My guys were already familiar with the PHB equipment list and were fairly sure that there were no items in existence in the game that they were both able to afford and interested in buying; they therefore showed zero interest in Winterhaven's market area and never met Delphina.

Anonymous said...

I was worried about Ninaren also. However, my players wanted to know how they met, so they roleplayed meeting the Elf Ranger who DESCRIBED HIMSELF EXACTLY AS Ninaren! Then they came to town and my Elf immediately goes up to her and starts HITTING ON HER! She was taken aback (so was I being my first DM session EVER). I played her off as uninteresting and uninterested in the party.

Some time later, they were mostly through the entire Keep and about to miss the Graveyard, so after the paladin finally got to Intimidate some hobgoblins into surrendering, I had them tell my party that the elf spy had gone to raise the dead in town. They immediately bolted after her and captured her to beat some information out of her. Then they gave her to the townspeople to deal with!

Of course, she escaped, and I decided today that THAT'S how I'm going to lead them to Thunderspire. She kidnapped some townspeople on her way out to sell to the Bloodreavers and swore revenge on my party (who already swore revenge on her). After they beat the Bloodreavers, they find out that Ninaren left with the slaves who were sold to the Gray Dwarves, leading my party farther into the Labyrinth! I'm so excited!

Marco Filippo said...

Yeah, Ninaran. That's a tough one!

My party decided to apporach her the first night they spent in Winterhaven. I played her as "stiff and bitter", as the adventure suggests, and then I invented some other mannerism. I decided she was a spy after all, but a reluctant one. In the end, she betrayed Kalarel and sided with the party and she is currently a party ally, en route to become a PG.

The thing is, my players weren't at all suspicious and just in the middle of the adventure they started to suspect something. I have noticed more than once that players do take a lot of things for granted and instead of "becoming" heroes they expect to be as such right away, without any fatigue. I just don't know if this is an Italian flaw or if it is common abroad. Back to Ninaran, my players just expected her to be an ally from the start and the poor Delphina was not even mentioned. When I offered Ninaran as an ally, they just gladly accepted her and that was an end to it.

Titanium Dragon said...

Actually, none of those scream out "traitor". In fact, being a stiff and bitter ranger who drinks alone and isn't very interested in conversation is pretty stereotypical; I've seen such characters more than once over the years. Heck, many PCs try to pull this. This description is far more likely to apply to a ranger NPC they need to get to help them, and have to convince that they're worthy of their help (or try to bribe them with booze/gold/whatever). Maybe there's other things about her that scream out traitor, but I don't think what you listed does.

Fruitybix said...

i was worried about how not to have ninaren murdered off early, as she seemed a very obvious spy. everyone else in the town is so cookie cutter friendly that she sticks out like a sore thumb.

what i think the creators were counting on, and this is backed up by one of the other comments here and my experience running this, is the immature and silly behaviour of the average young male dnd player. two of my players immediately began hitting on anything remotely female upon entering the inn. the one gay male player present got exasperated, and decided to scare them all away from trying to sleep with people by trying to pick up as well.

everyone had missed that ninaren was female, they just assumed the elf hunter was male. so when the male dragonborn palladin tried to pick him up, i changed ninarens gender to male, and hoping to gross out the other male players i had the dragonborn pc succeed. this set up a rather wonderful personal animosity between the dragonborn player and ninaren.

i tried to have ninaren escape the graveyard fight, but the dragonborn disregarded his allies needs and chased the spy down so doggedly it was unrealistic to have him live.

the entire experience was quite hilarious. delphina also became a character, as the dwarf fighter keeps sticking flowers all over himself.

as a first time DM i would really have appreciated more in depth characters, and im sure from my players behaviour they would have too.

Anonymous said...

My players would have missed Delphina too, which I thought was a shame, so I had her wandering the rest of the town rather than restricted to the marketplace.

However, "picking flowers" made no sense, so I modified her character -- Delphina lives with her mother in a cottage outside of town, and she ranges far and wide to retrieve the particular herbs and flowers her mother uses to create healing "floral powders" that are just reskinned Healing Potions. One of the most important ingredients is found only near the Keep, which gives her a strong reason to be wandering around there, and the PCs could get information about that area from her.

(In my game, that was the only supply of potions in the town, and it's always available, but I played up the 'creepy' factor on Delphina's mother. The locals considered Delphina and her mother with suspicion -- but then, when somebody's axe slips and they're bleeding out, you maybe stop worrying about the local rumor-mongers.)

Anonymous said...

Oh, and my players instantly twigged to Ninaren being a spy, so I switched it around and made her just an unhappy ranger, and the spy was actually the innkeeper -- who better to keep an eye on who's going in and out of the town?

Of course, that gets back to the point of "why am I paying for this, again?"

Anonymous said...

How do you stop the PCs from killing Ninaran early? Obviously, you make sure the innkeeper is on her side. If the PCs start asking too many questions, or start trying to intimidate Ninaran, the innkeeper shows up and first politely requests that they stop bothering one of her regular customers, and if not, has the bouncer throw them out.