May 21, 2008
Gaming Steve Review: Keep on the Shadowfell
Normally I don’t venture outside of the realm of video games, but with the upcoming release of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition and its many “video game type elements” incorporated into the new version (online play, set party roles, quicker combat, and so forth) I thought I would check out the first official 4th Edition product released this week, the adventure module entitled Keep on the Shadowfell.
This module was designed to work as both a “regular” adventure that could be played as you would any other D&D adventure as well as a introductory module to 4th Edition D&D. In theory all you need to start playing D&D is Keep, some friends, and you’re ready to go. At least that’s the theory. But how does it work in practice? We will see…
Before we delve into the adventure and its contents I have to comment on the quality of the printed module itself. At first glance it’s pretty impressive. Inside a full-color binder you’ll find a 16-page quick-start rules as well five pre-made character sheets, three double-sided full-color battle maps, and a full-color 80-page adventure booklet. Wizards has decided to use the same encounter layout that they started to use in their adventure products last year where nearly all encounters are laid out on two pages (with larger battles spread over three pages). This two-page layout format has further been refined works really well. Each encounter was extremely simple to follow, even in the thick of battle with multiple groups of monsters fighting.
And the battlemaps, although completely unnecessary to the overall game experience, my playtest group really enjoyed using them. It’s a small and simple addition, but something as simple as few battlemaps made the DMs life that much easier while greatly enhancing the enjoyment for the players.
However, I do have some issues with presentation of the module – the paper used for the two booklets is very thin and prone to smudges and that there are small typos throughout the book (i.e. the words "attack of opportunity", which is no longer used in 4th Edition, was seen in more than one location). Another issue is that there is no cover on the adventure book and the back cover of the book contains several details about a key encounter. I found this a rather odd layout decision considering that your players will probably see the back of the adventure booklet, even by accident. Hopefully with the future modules Wizards will fix this issue and put a cover on the adventure booklet. But these really are small issues and the layout and design of the books are expertly done.
As for playing the game itself … well the first thing my group needed to do was learn the new 4th Edition rules! I ran my regular group of D&D players through this adventure last Wednesday night, all of which were familiar with the rules to the original game but were still new to the 4th Edition. Most likely this will be a similar setup for others trying out this adventure in the near future and I can say that learning the new rules is frighteningly easy. Everything is new but yet familiar and based on the current 3.5 Edition of D&D.
The module comes with a comprehensive set of quick-start rules for both the players as well as the DM (the DM rules are more comprehensive and cover more topics, as you would expect with a ruleset for DMs). If you are familiar with D&D and the rules to 3.5, then picking up 4th Edition should be a piece of cake. The quick-rules are very clear and concise, and mostly center around the new combat system. I would say that you could play this module with just the quick-start rules and a very sharp DM. However, if you wanted to play a more “complete” D&D game with nothing but the quick-start rules you’ll probably have a hard time.
For example, in our first session my group went to town and wanted to buy new equipment and sell some monster loot … something you would think any party of adventurers would want to do, no matter their experience level with D&D. However, there were no rules or even simple notes on how to handle this sort of transaction within the game. Instead it noted that I had to refer to 4th Edition Players Handbook in order to accomplish these actions and to find price lists for the store items.
I can understand not including rules on how to handle the creation of magic items or other complex topics within the quick-start rules, but a small chart of items for sale within the local store would have been appreciated. Of course I realize that Wizards want people to purchase the module and then purchase the 4th Edition rulebooks for the “full” experience, but at the same time they should probably have called it the “quick-start combat rules” instead as that would have been more accurate.
Perhaps my favor aspect of the quick-start rules were the five pre-made characters included with the adventure. Unlike the standard cookie cutter pre-gens I’ve seen in so many adventures, Keep on the Shadowfell included a really nice mix – a Dwarven Fighter, Human Wizard, Half-Elf Cleric, Halfling Rogue, and Dragonborn Paladin. Out of all the new rules and features the pre-made characters probably show off the 4th Edition enhancements better than anything else included.
Gone are the 3.5 rules where the difference between a Paladin and a Fighter are simply attitude a few hit points. Each character type is truly unique with no two characters playing alike.
In 4th Edition a Paladin feels like a Paladin should, they constantly challenge and hunt down evil creatures while empowering fellow party members with heals and enhanced attacks. While a Fighter is devastating force on the battlefield, continuously attacking and punishing any enemies that dare to come near him. Character classes are no longer different in just name only, each character class is completely unique in abilities and attitude.
I’ve seen and played seven of the eight classes (the Warlord is the only missing link) and I can say that each class plays unlike any other. And then when you mix in the various unique racial abilities – Dragonborn can breath fire, Halflings can reroll an attack that hits them, and so forth – and you can see that no two characters will ever be like another.
In a strange way I feel like I’m playing City of Heroes when I’m playing 4th Edition … each character has a set role and abilities, but your mixing and matching of these abilities turns your character into something completely unique. If you try the adventure and like the new character system then it almost begs you to go out and buy the new Players Handbook just to see what other cool things you can do.
As for the adventure itself (don’t worry no big spoilers here) it’s surprisingly “old school” with a lot of good old fashioned fighting and killing of roomfuls of monsters. There is more than enough here to keep your gaming group going for at least half a dozen gaming sessions with the adventure building and becoming more interesting as you progress. Plus the wide variety of monsters is quite nice and will keep the players on their toes, especially the larger solo monsters which are designed to take on an entire party of five on their own. These solo fights are truly epic battles that are fun not only for the players but the DM as well (word of advice, in 4th Edition if you see a monster all by itself get ready for a monumental fight).
Again, it’s hard to go into much detail without spoiling the adventure but my favorite new addition to the game for DMs is that each monster now has a number of unique abilities, allowing them to play almost like a player character. This is probably the biggest change you’ll notice in 4th Edition, and it’s probably the best. Monsters are no longer meat shields that follow the same script over and over again – move, attack, repeat until death. Now each monster has its own unique abilities which allow them to “feel” and fight in a unique manner. (Minor spoiler warning.) In 4th Edition Kobolds are quick and agile, always sifting around the battlefield making you hunt them down. Zombies are strong and slow and will try to bring you down with sheer numbers. And Gnomes are pain, always disappearing with their illusion magic.
In 4th Edition combat has become a true tactical exercise for both the players and the DM and every fight will feel totally unique.
I can say that after playing the 4th Edition monsters I’ll probably have a hard time ever going back to any previous edition. 4th Edition has finally made combat a fun, and challenging, experience for both the DM as well as the players. Even running a group of lowly 1st level Kobolds becomes a fun tactical experience for everyone involved. I can’t wait to get the Monster Manual just to read all the new abilities for each monster type (and to try them out as well, of course!).
As for the adventure itself it’s fun and varied adventure with a huge emphasis on fighting. This is understandable since the adventure is designed to bring a party of 1st level characters all the way up to 4th level (which works out to approximately 30 encounters in total) and was designed to show off the 4th Edition rules (which mostly center around combat in the quick-start rules). That’s not to say that there isn’t room for role-playing in this adventure, but I was finding that the majority of the role playing was coming from the players interacting with each rather than with NPCs.
Perhaps my biggest issue with the adventure overall is that it’s a bit uneven. (Minor spoiler warning.) The adventure starts out with a series of little fights and little adventures, with the real “meat” of the adventure starting around the second or third gaming session. Of course as the DM you can always choose to ignore these first few fights if you wish as they appear to be inserted to help you get familiar with the rules and introduce yourself and your players to the environment. I understand the point of these smaller fights from a design point of view, and I’m sure your players will have such a good time trying out the new rules and tactical combat opportunities that they won’t even care, but still I wish that main part of the adventure began sooner than it does.
So in the end after running this adventure I have to ask the most basic of questions… Can you start playing with only the quick-start rules and pre-made characters? Does the module show off the new features of 4th Edition? Did everyone have fun? Yes, yes, and yes. I went back to my 3.5 regular game this week and I have to say that it was hard to try out some of the new 4th Edition features within my 3.5 campaign.
If you already know how to play D&D and are excited about 4th Edition then it’s hard not to recommend this module. You can easily pick up this adventure in the morning and start playing later that night.
However if you are new to D&D or inexperienced with pen and paper role-playing games, I would say wait until the new 4th Edition rulebooks come out in a few weeks and then give this adventure a try. Overall it’s an excellent start to the next chapter in the Dungeons and Dragons experience.