The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘keep on the shadowfell’

Keep on the ShadowfellMy work on converting the archives of the Alexandrian over the past few days have been something of a trip down memory lane as I go digging through material I wrote up to half a decade ago. And occasionally stumbling across comments that I don’t think I ever saw because of the broken and disjointed commenting system on the old site.

One discovery that particularly caught my eye came in response  to the Keep on the Shadowfell: Analyzing the Design series I wrote as a precursor to my remix of the module in 2008. A couple people mentioned that the specific traps I had been talking about in 2008 had been “fixed to a large extent” when WotC revised the module for its release as a freebie PDF.

I was curious enough to check it out.

And discovered that they’d fixed almost nothing. The only two improvements I can identify are:

1. They allowed Arcana and Thievery checks to stack for the purposes of disabling the dragon statues. (A suggestion I’d made in my original remix notes.)

2. They made it clear when the arcane walls of the Whirlpool Trap would activate (“when a creature moves into the 4-square-by-4-square area between the statues”) and the location of the walls once they appear:

Revised Whirlpool Trap

But there are two problems with this “solution”:

First, as I discussed in my original essay on the matter, you’ve designed the trap so that it can’t be affected by anyone outside of the trap. (In order to disable the trap, you have to destroy the cherubs. And you can’t attack the cherubs if they’re on the other side of the wall.) They’ve removed the explicit references in the module itself to characters doing the impossible, but that doesn’t remove the larger design concerns:

(a) It’s not fun. In general, this means you will have one character inside the trap who needs to make several attacks against the cherub vases while everyone else sits around and watches.

(b) What happens if the character trapped inside the whirlpool is killed? As far as I can tell, the arcane walls just remain in place for the rest of eternity. (They can’t come down until the cherubs are destroyed; and the cherubs can’t be destroyed by anyone who isn’t caught in the trap.) Not only does this mean there’s no way to retrieve your fallen comrade’s battered body, it also means that the only path for reaching the Big Bad Boss of Keep on the Shadowfell is now blocked by two permanent walls of arcane energy.

Second, the trap breaks the rules. The Quick-Start Rules included in the original Keep on the Shadowfell included “Barriers” as one of the types of Area of Effect:

Barrier: A barrier runs along the edge of a specified number of squares. A barrier must cross at least one edge of the origin square.

This was problematic because the core rulebooks didn’t include “Barriers” and instead included rules for “Walls”:

Wall: A wall fills a specified number of contiguous squares within range, starting from an origin square. Each square of the wall must share a side — not just a corner — with at least one other square of the wall, but a square can share no more than two sides with other squares in the wall (this limitation does apply when stacking squares on top of each other). You can shape the wall however you like within those limitations. A solid wall, such as a wall of ice, cannot be created in occupied squares.

The original version of the trap was problematic in any case because it used the keyword “wall” to describe the arcane cage, and one just had to kind of assume that it meant “barrier” if you were using the Quick-Start Rules. You’ll note, however, that the revised version of the module is clearly using the rules for a “barrier” in its diagram.

So… no problem, right? The Quick-Start rules describe “barriers” and this trap, designed to be used with the Quick-Start Rules, now clearly follows those rules.

Except (and this is my favorite bit) somebody noticed that the rules for “barriers” were outdated and should never have been published in the first place, and so the revised Quick-Start Rules designed to be used with the revised version of Keep on the Shadowfell… don’t include the rules for barriers. The entire section was cut.

(Did they bother to replace these rules with the rules for walls which were supposed to be there in the first place? Don’t be silly. Of course they didn’t.)

So you have a trap which explicitly creates walls, but they don’t follow the rules for walls… and it doesn’t really matter anyway, because the Quick-Start Rules didn’t bother including rules for walls.

Epic Fail

Go to Part 1

This is the complete map of the Keep of the Shadowfell, taken from the adventure of the same name. (The red arrow indicates the dungeon’s entrance. The black arrow indicates the connection between Level 1 and Level 2 of the dungeon.) At first glance, this dungeon may appear quite complex and interesting: There are lots of twisting corridors, and the PCs appear to be given an immediate and meaningful choice of three separate corridors upon entering the dungeon.

But as I mentioned earlier, when you straighten out all of those twisting corridors the overwhelmingly linear structure of the dungeon becomes quite clear:

The only legitimately interesting feature of this dungeon, from a cartographical standpoint, is the loop of encounters in areas 1 thru 4. Everything else in the dungeon has been designed to proceed in an essentially predetermined fashion: The DM sets up the encounters, the PCs knock them down, and then the DM sets up the next encounter.

What I’m going to do is take a few simple jaquaying techniques and use them to tweak the Keep of the Shadowfell in order to make it a more dynamic and interesting dungeon. By changing the macro-structure of the dungeon, we’ll be able to unlock the full potential of the “local interest” in the map (all those twisting corridors and mini-loops) and the encounters themselves.

To do this, I’m going to suggest making four slight adjustments to the dungeon’s design.

SECOND ENTRANCE: As described in my original remix of Keep on the Shadowfell, add a second entrance to the dungeon. About a half mile to the west of the keep, up in the foothills of the Cairngorms, there’s a natural cave that leads, more or less directly, to area 10 of the Keep.

(This is how the kruthiks and rats got into areas 9 and 10. As described in the remix PDF, the PCs can discover this entrance either by scouting the area around the Keep or by researching it in Lord Padraig’s library in Winterhaven. If this entrance is found before the PCs enter the Keep, it’s a nice reward for their cleverness and preparation. If it’s found during their explorations of the Keep, it can provide a valuable avenue of escape or allow them to sneak back into the complex after a guard has been raised at the primary entrance.)

ADDING A STAIRCASE: Add a staircase leading from the Torture Room (area 2) to the antechamber of Sir Keegan’s tomb (area 7).

(My primary motivation here is to remove some of the dead ends from the dungeon. By linking two of the dead ends together, I’m creating a dynamic loop. Note, however, that I’m actually linking the loop in just before the actual dead end of Sir Keegan’s tomb in area 8. This is partly due to the internal logic of the adventure – it doesn’t make any sense for a hallway to pass straight through Keegan’s tomb – but it’s also practical in terms of design: By leaving the branch into area 8 intact, we’re providing a flavorful navigational choice to PCs entering area 7.)

ADDING A SECRET PASSAGE: Add a secret passage leading from area 6 to area 15.

(This provides a second connection to the lower level, providing the dungeon with important multiple connections between levels. By properly positioning these connections, we can turn entire dungeon levels into looping structures.)

MOVING A STAIRCASE: Move the staircase leading to area 12 from area 5 to area 3.

(The primary reason for this shift is to open up some real estate between the primary and secondary routes leading to the lower level. Admittedly, this is a problem that only exists because of where I chose to put the secret passage. But this also allows the goblins to reach the lower levels without passing through undead-infested halls, thus correcting a problem with the original dungeon’s design. And by hooking a level connector into the far end of the adventure’s original loop we’re layering the complexity of the dungeon’s cartography.)

Finally, in order to make these changes fit into a natural, logical geography, I’ve simply inverted the entirety of areas 6 thru 8. With this change, these areas, which were originally a minor elevation shift requiring the PCs to descend a staircase from area 1, become a true “second level” to the complex, passing directly beneath areas of the first level:

(Level 1 is highlighted in red. The “new” Level 2 is highlighted in blue. And Level 3, the original second level, is now highlighted in green.)

Next: Jaquaying for Fun and Profit

KotS Revision Correction

June 19th, 2010

I was running an OD&D version of Keep on the Shadowfell on Thursday night and discovered that I made a mistake while compiling the PDF cheat sheet for the adventure. Specifically, two relatively important paragraphs got dropped:

The kobold tribe is known as the Clan of the Withered Arm. Once in every generation a child of the clan is born with a withered arm, marking them as the future leader of the clan. The clan’s history in the area around Winterhaven actually dates back more than 25 years to a time period when they were driven from their ancestral lands by Necross the Black Mage. The villagers in Winterhaven, however, were largely unaware of their presence: They survived by hunting wild game and generally shunned contact with the civilized races (who they had learned to fear).

Kalarel’s arrival in the area changed all that. He sent one of his goblin lackeys — a brutish oaf named Irontooth — with a band of thugs to take control of the kobolds. They took the kobolds by surprise, overpowered their leader (a kobold named Issitik), and chopped off his arm. Irontooth now wears the withered arm on a chain about his neck.

This was included in the original posts on the website. It just got dropped from the compilation.

You can download the corrected PDF here.

Keep on the Shadowfell was the inaugural introductory product for 4th Edition. When it was released, I shared my initial impressions and eventually ended up writing a lengthy series of essays in which I remixed the entire adventure.

One of the major problems I had at the time was the sheer sloppiness of the module: There were continuity errors in the adventure scenario and numerous self-contradictions in the rules. Ignoring some of the larger creative and structural issues with the adventure, on a very basic level the product was a mess.

In April 2009, Wizards of the Coast released a revised version of the module as a free PDF on their website. I didn’t pay much attention to it because I had already sampled 4th Edition, found it lacking in everything I value in an RPG, and moved on. But I did think it was a rather nice gesture on WotC’s part to make a corrected version of the product available.

Recently, however, I decided to re-visit this material with an eye towards using my remixed version of the module as the basis for an OD&D one-shot. Remembering that the module had been revised, I tracked down the PDF. My plan was to re-read the revised version of the module, see what had been improved, and then adapt my remix notes as necessary if I thought incorporating the changes would be worthwhile.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t even get past the first paragraph of the first encounter before discovering that WotC’s revision was just as sloppy as the original product.

The original module describes the encounter like this (pg. 16): “The player characters are on the King’s Road traveling toward Winterhaven east to west (or right to left on the map).” They are then ambushed by kobolds, as shown on this map:

Kobold Ambush

The obvious problem, as I detailed in my original remix essay, is that the indicated kobolds are all standing in plain sight for characters traveling east to west along the road.

WotC’s keen-eyed revisers noticed the same thing, but they didn’t want to redo the cartography. So they opted to simply change the direction that the PCs are traveling (pg. 6): “The player characters are on the King’s Road traveling toward Winterhaven, west to east (or left to right on the map).”

Problem solved!

… except that’s completely impossible.

Because two pages earlier in the module we can see this map of the local area:

Winterhaven Area Map

And, as you can clearly see, Winterhaven is at the western end of the King’s Road. You cannot travel west-to-east anywhere on the King’s Road and end up at Winterhaven.

Mistakes, of course, get made. (For example, both the original and revised versions of the module refer multiple times to the Burial Site being southwest of town. You’ll note that it isn’t.) But what you have here is an acknowledgment that there is a problem that needs to be fixed; a decision being made (either deliberately or ignorantly) to not fix the root of the problem; and ending up with a half-assed effort that just creates an entirely different problem.

And it doesn’t even fix the original problem, because there are still kobolds standing in plain sight.

This is symptomatic of WotC’s general culture of not-fixing (or even anti-fixing).

Keep on the ShadowfellKeep on the Shadowfell was the inaugural product for 4th Edition. I was fairly disappointed with the quality and the content of the module, but I wanted to playtest the new edition. So I decided to do a fairly expansive remix to give the adventure a stronger backbone and a richer mythology; adding depth and breadth where necessary.

You can download a complete cheat sheet of the entire remix here:


The following is a complete index of all my Keep on the Shadowfell-related posts.

First Impressions
Impressions with Spoilers
Last of the First Impressions

Traps and the Chamber of Statues
Remixing the Chamber of Statues
Rotten Cherubs

Part 1: Kobolds
Part 2: The Kobold Lair
Part 3: Arriving in Winterhaven
Part 4: On the Streets of Winterhaven
Part 5: On the Streets of Winterhaven 2
Part 6: Winterhaven NPCs
Part 7: Winterhaven NPCs 2
Part 8: Winterhaven Developments
Part 9: Cultists in Winterhaven
Part 10: The Ruined Keep
Part 11: Kalarel’s Ritual and the Dragon Burial Site
Part 12: The Three Clue Rule
Part 13: Three Clue Rule – First Revelations
Part 14: Three Clue Rule – Second Revelations

How (Not) To Fix the Keep on the Shadowfell
A Much Belated Addendum
Jaquaying the Dungeon



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