May 27

D&D 4th Edition: Keep on the Shadowfell Review

Well, I spent the long drives this weekend reading through
the first WotC D&D 4e Module, “Keep on the Shadowfell”.  I also had the chance to run a few of the encounters with my wife, who enjoyed it quite a bit.

Executive Summary:

Keep on the Shadowfell is a fun, nicely produced product
that innovates with its presentation and rules rather that with its story –
which is a good side to error on for the first module of a new edition. If you are curious about 4e, you’ll find
everything you need in here to evaluate the new edition without buying a whole
set of new books, and worst case, you can use the nice poster maps with your
existing game. I definitely recommend
checking it out!

Production:

Overall, I was impressed with the production quality.

The module is laid out like an 80’s Pee Chee – you open the
folder, and there are a pair of opposed interior pockets, with circular cutouts
highlighting the new logo on the materials inside. I thought it was very nice.

It was definitely a lot better than the “stapled
booklet with the cover that has the only copy of the map, falls off, and gets
lost” style from days gone by. The
adventure book also stays open in front of you a lot better than the hardcover
modules from the last days of 3e as well.

The folder contains the DM’s adventure book, a booklet for
players that has quick-start rules and pre-gen characters, and three poster
battle maps.

The poster maps were mostly ones that had already been
published for use with D&D minis, but they redid them without the minis
stuff on them, which is nice. Even if
you weren’t going to go whole hog with 4e, I think you’d find them useful for
your games.

The first sentence of the scenario proper has a typo in it
(not one that a spellchecker would catch, thank heavens, but it puts one off
right away). Thankfully, such errors are
the exception, not the rule.

The interior maps and art are good, as well, and certainly
don’t detract from the overall.

I love the 2-page spread encounters (which were
common in the last days of 3e as well), and the new monster stat blocks are
easy enough to deal with.

I was really surprised how easily I was able to find the
information I was looking for throughout the product…if all of 4e is as well
organized, I’ll be very happy.

Between encounters, there are pages of information for new
DMs, which I found very nicely done, and a good way to introduced new DMs to
how to do things beyond what the rules lay out for you.

The Rules:

I’d played a bit of the 4e-converted D&D Minis rules,
and kept up with all the previews, so nothing was much of a surprise in the
rules for me. And, I have to say, other
than “instantaneous” actions, and the reworking of saving throws,
nothing much here really changes the spirit of the game, at least in my
opinion. The saving throws thing I think
is very nice, but the “instantaneous” actions is something I’m going
to keep my eye on.

What it does do is make the game a lot more fun. The first time my wife, playing the supplied
pre-gen Human Wizard, took out three kobolds with a single mini-fireball…at first level…she had a huge grin on her face. And the best part…it was still a TPK after
that. But she didn’t feel bad, because
she honestly felt like she had a chance, and was fighting till the very
end. (FYI…we were running *just* the
wizard with a reduced encounter…trying to get a feel for power levels – so the
encounter as written is not a likely TPK with a full party).

I suspect this will be a huge attraction to new players –
they get to do all sorts of cool stuff right away.

The rules summary at the front is pretty clear, and if
you’ve played a lot of 3.x it will be pretty easy to get going with. That said there are a lot of things that came
up during the game that I couldn’t fid rules for – standing up from prone, for
example. I suspect that the reason I couldn’t find a lot of these special
situation rules isn’t because they left them out or the rules summary, but
because they don’t exist any longer.

The major nervousness I have is with
“instantaneous” actions. While
I think it’s a conceptually important addition to the game (nothing stinks more
than having to wait for your turn to come back around to respond to something),
my experience with Attacks of Opportunity from 3e made me leery of having
players act not on their turn. It seems
to lead to a lot of confusion as to who is doing what and when. Maybe that’s just me.

I found that keeping track of what each monster can do as a
“Reaction” or an “Instantaneous” action took some getting
used to. I was somewhat used to using
the players’ turns to plot out what the monsters were going to do next, but I
found myself having to keep close track of what the PCs were doing, in case my
monsters could respond. Not so different
from AoO’s in 3e, but there are a lot more possible things to watch out
for. I am hoping that I’ll quickly get
used to what to watch out for.

For example, one of my kobolds had the ability to Shift
(move one square) in response to anyone adjacent to it Shifting. It was a big challenge for the Wizard who
accidentally ended up too close to it, as he could never step back and fire off
a ranged spell…the kobold kept right up on him.
Eventually, (and coolly) the Wizard used his one Action Point to take two Shifts back (one from the Move action, and one from the Action point
action). He was then free to blast away,
defeating that nasty kobold.

The ability for any of the PCs to use the Second Wind power
to regain a quarter of their Hit Points as a Standard Action seemed pretty
powerful at first, and it is, but it is in no way a game breaker. The PCs were all pretty desperate by the time
they used it, and I can see a lot of tactics around when to use it, since it’s
only once per encounter.

The reduced skill list was a huge blessing, and I found that
rolling for the kobolds sneaking around was fun and easy.

Overall, I found the rules familiar enough to get going with
right away, and different enough to get my blood flowing with ideas for new
monsters, tactics, and other possibilities.
Of course, I’ll need a lot more experience to get a solid feel for it
all.

The Story:

Well, this is where my review turns a little less
positive. Even though I kept telling
myself that this was an introductory module, and was meant to evoke feelings of
the halcyon days of AD&D, I couldn’t get past the feeling that I’d read
this story before.

I’m hyper-sensitive to cliché, and I’m always looking for
ways to break the mold, so take this all with a grain of salt. Do I think that players new and old will
enjoy this module? Yes, I think so. Does it break any new ground whatsoever with
its plot or encounters? No.

Perhaps it’s a concession to the grognards out there…new
rules, old module. Fans of the
“Dungeon Crawl Classics” modules from Goodman Games will find Keep on
the Shadowfell to be much in that Old School tradition.

Perhaps it was just that (minor spoiler) kicking off the
module with a random thug attack brought back too many memories of bad old Living City
modules. Oh well.

The story is pretty straightforward. There’s a dungeon, there is a town nearby
where you can get info and supplies, and a big bad guy at the end. There are some nice hooks to get you into the
story, and the encounters are a mix of “clean out the complex”
encounters and “set piece” encounters.

The NPCs are prototypical, and nicely presented, but like
the rest of the story, break little new ground.
I did appreciate the DM’s tips on how to play them however.  ( I will say that Mike Mearls’ “Spulg” character was a lot of fun).

The Final Word:

Keep on the Shadowfell is a fun, nicely produced product
that innovates with its presentation and rules rather that with its story –
which is a good side to error on for the first module of a new edition. If you are curious about 4e, you’ll find
everything you need in here to evaluate the new edition without buying a whole
set of new books, and worst case, you can use the nice poster maps with your
existing game. I definitely recommend
checking it out!