The Alexandrian

Keep on the ShadowfellFor several months now my plan for 4th Edition has been to run the preview adventure — Keep on the Shadowfell — for my regular D&D group. My goal is to approach that experience with a completely open mind, see how it goes, and then use it to decide whether or not to spend the money on the core rulebooks. My current campaign, set in Ptolus, would stay 3rd Edition in any case. But if 4th Edition convinces me to make switch, then I’d probably use it for my next campaign.

A couple of days ago my copy of the module arrived from Amazon. I’ve now read through it, and have a few thoughts to share. So, on that note…


The following thoughts contain minor spoilers for Keep on the Shadowfell. If you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read it. And if you’re in my gaming group then you definitely shouldn’t be reading it.

You have been fairly warned.

(1) The production values of the module are disappointing. It has a cover price of $30 and Amazon had been advertising it as a  hardcover. It isn’t. Two flimsy pamphlets and three poster maps are packaged in a lightweight cardboard folder. And when I say “flimsy pamphlet” I mean flimsy. The paper is of a lighter weight than that previously used in Dragon and Dungeon magazine and the “covers” of the pamphlets are of the exact same paper. I am extraordinarily gentle with my reading material, and after a single reading the ink is already being rubbed off the edge of one “cover”. Frankly, I will be shocked if these last through a single session.

The poster maps are pretty nifty, although they follow the current WotC style of fetishizing light sources. Everything seems to glow: Walls, ceilings, furniture. These poster maps are lovingly rendered with computer graphics — but they have no reality to them.

(2) The writing in the Quick Start Rules is abominably bad. For anyone who hasn’t been played a roleplaying game before, the content here is completely inadequate for teaching them how to actually play the game. On the other hand, the writer has chosen to address the reader as if they had no idea what an RPG was. So the newbie isn’t helped and the experienced player feels like they’re being talked down to… who exactly is the target audience supposed to be for this pablum?

(3) The pregenerated characters, instead of being included on separate sheets (which the folder format would have allowed) are instead found at the back of the Quick Start Rules. This makes no sense.

(4) This may have been previously known, but it was the first time I realized that saving throws have a 55% chance of success instead of a 50% chance of success. (Instead of failing on 1-10 and succeeding on 11-20, they fail on 1-9 and succeed on 10-20.) I have no idea why they chose to do it that way.

(5) I am still annoyed that they undid 3rd Edition’s fix to the critical hit mechanics.

(6) The streamlined actions (standard/move/minor/free) are nice to see, along with the accompanying simplification of the rules for charging and running. I think they were right to conclude that the complexity of full actions wasn’t giving much in return. And I think replacing the concept of a 5-foot step with the idea of a “shift” (which doesn’t provoke an AoO but does require a move action) also simplifies the flow of combat.

(7) It is completely impossible to play 4th Edition without miniatures. Unlike every previous version of the game (including 3rd Edition), the game literally does not function without a grid. I typically use miniatures, but this still annoys me.

(You will probably still hear people talk about how 4th Edition can be played without miniatures. But given the sheer number of abilities which are only useful because they allow for very precise movement on the combat grid, this is roughly akin to claiming that you can play Chess without a board. While it’s true, it’s only because you’re explicitly imagining the board in your head. In 3rd Edition this wasn’t the case: When I played without miniatures in 3rd Edition, I was imagining the game world and then using the mechanics — which were all based on real-world measurements — to adjudicate. The 3.5 revision weakened that connection somewhat by using squares as the default terminology, but the underlying mechanics of 3.0 were still essentially unchanged. 4th Edition embraces the grid completely and irrevocably.)

(8) The fact that you lose unspent action points when you take an extended rest reminds me of this blog post at Rampant Games. Its a mechanic that encourages players to push on without rest… unless, of course, they’ve expended all their accumulated action points. (However, I have been informed that you can only spend one action point per encounter. This rule doesn’t appear in the Quick Start Rules, but if it’s true then it obviates this advantage of the system entirely.)

(9) Contrary to the designers’ claims, however, I doubt that the 15-minute adventuring day is going anywhere. This was inevitable, of course, because the 15-minute adventuring day had nothing to do with the system (except insofar as the system features daily-based spike powers) and everything to do with DMing style.

To be continued…

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One Response to “Keep on the Shadowfell: First Impressions”

  1. Justin Alexander says:


    Justin Alexander
    Well, to be fair the original 3rd Edition Adventure Path modules (starting with The Sunless Citadel and running through Bastion of Broken Souls) wasn’t set in a specific campaign world, either.

    I think the overall quality of an adventure is probably only loosely associated (if at all) with whether or not it’s set in a specific campaign setting. For example, everybody remembers The Sunless Citadel, but who remembers the second adventure that WotC published for 3rd Edition? No, not Forge of Fury. It was a completely forgettable Forgotten Realms adventure called Into the Dragon’s Lair.

    As for campaign-specific modules, here’s what we know: Campaign-specific support is going to be cut way back in 4th Edition. The plan is to release three and only three books for each setting: A DM’s Guide, a Player’s Guide, and a super-sized adventure. Each year will feature a different campaign setting.

    So, yes, there will be campaign-specific adventures. How large that adventure supplement will be I don’t know. Will it be a 32-page pamphlet? Something like the Red Hand of Doom? More like the Expedition series? A complete campaign a la what Paizo produced?

    I don’t know. I also don’t know what they plan to follow the H-series of modules with (if anything).

    Of course, with Dungeon moving to DDI it would be hoped that there’d be some meaningful online adventure support.
    Wednesday, May 28, 2008, 1:27:28 AM

    I’m curious if this module suffers from a rush release to be on shelves before the core books come out. If that be the case, I pity the authors who are put under so much pressure by their publisher’s demands. However, I suspect that the generic and cardboard nature of 4E itself will lend to many more of these “paint-by-numbers” adventures. Because the 4th edition ruleset has no campaign setting to be based in, the modules will undoubtedly be uninspiring. 1st edition had Greyhawk, 2nd edition had Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, and each of these worlds had corresponding adventures that were specific to the world.

    Has WotC stated yet if they will create campaign-specific modules for publication? My friend told me they might release them online as part of the subscription bit, and if that’s the case then this is unduly frustrating. Having only physical copies of the “one adventure fits all campaigns” modules, a direction that WotC is potentially taking now, sounds like the stupidest thing they can do. My friend Pat said they can justify this by encouraging players to buy all modules regardless of what campaign they play in, specifically because the modules are not tied directly to any campaign. Maybe this is a strong marketing strategy, but isn’t it kind of flawed as well?
    Tuesday, May 27, 2008, 7:51:07 PM

    And thus the final nail in the 4E coffin is driven home. I think I will spend my now saved 4E budget on a new knife.
    Monday, May 26, 2008, 3:09:46 PM

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