[4E] Why I think H1 Keep on the Shadowfell sucked

edited October 2009 in Story Games
Over in Help! I am going to teach D&D4E to 7+ people, I made a throw-away comment that I thought that H1 blows chunks. Before discussion about that eats johnzo's thread alive, I figured I'd start a new thread to discuss it.

Disclaimer: I only ran the encounters leading up to the waterfall, so I really can't say I've played this all the way through or anything.

So overall, H1 is a huge railroad, right? That's not even my main problem with it. My main issue is the presentation and organization of the book. I hate the way they separate the tactical encounters away from the encounter descriptions. I hate the way they separate places from the NPCs who are in those places.

When I was running it, I could not find anything. I had to flip constantly to figure out how a certain NPC should react to the PCs, then flip more to find out what the NPC's motives are, and so on. It's like they tried to be too clever and organized things in a really bizarre way.

The combat encounters themselves are fine. The town adventure left me cold. Why bother with a town and a town plot if you're just gonna railroad the PCs out of it as soon as possible? The whole thing felt superfluous. I suspect the town is supposed to be the PCs' "home base" but there's really not sufficient support for a new DM to make it so. Hell, even as a very experienced DM, I had a lot of trouble cobbling something useful out of the mess that is the description of that town.

Comments

  • I thought most of the encounters were repetitive except for the last fight. A lot of filler. We had fun in the town but I suspect Matt improvised a lot of it.
  • I don't have link but on the WOTC boards there was more than one fairly extensive thread about reworking H1.

    Aside from some encounter tweaks etc. (remove meaningless grindy fights etc.) I recall this included some great ideas about weaving all the NPC's and their lives and threads and motives from town through the Kalarel together much better and reworking the stuff going on in town. Ninaran is made someone's mother (Kalarel I think) giving her a personal reason to be involved, the ghost his father (giving him a personal reason to want to stop his twisted son) etc., the kobolds are actually being forced to do "grunt duty" because their hatchery is held by even worse bad guys etc., revising the quests to make them more Player-driven. Essentially plotting the whole adventure and all the key stuff in it onto a big relationship map (don't think they were using that terminology though).

    I think H1 is one of a number of WOTC modules and Dungeon adventures that flies in the face of DMG advice about how to design adventures, encounters and quests etc.

    An example is that the DMG is very clear that quest XP should never be earned for simply winning a combat encounter, they are not to be duplicative, they are to be about something more/else/choices etc., yet they are very often just exactly "quest to do X" and how do you do X, you get to combat encounter Y and defeat foes."

    What I have a hard time understanding is that it's clear from various sources that many key folks at WOTC run good games, understand the advice in DMG and DMG 2 (DMG 2 has a fair bit of more indie style advice as well, e.g., it describes the "mountain witch trick" without so naming it), yet put out key products that don't walk that ethos and encourage it in their gaming community.

    Rob
  • Yeah, Keep on the Shadowfell is pretty lame. I'm no 4th edition connosseur, but I'd write a better adventure for it. I even ranted about the faults of the adventure around when 4th edition was published, it's that bad.

    Then again, I haven't yet read a better 4th edition adventure - I haven't read that many, but for the most part they seem pretty simplistic on the strategic level (between encounters, that is). Fault of the game, I suppose, considering that play only happens within encounters in it. Makes for unsatisfying adventure rpg stuff, I suppose; perhaps those combat encounters themselves are well-designed, I don't know.
  • edited October 2009
    Posted By: Adam DrayThe combat encounters themselves are fine.
    I think the combat encounters -- well, maybe they don't suck, but they sure fail to be memorable. Ralph asked about building memorable encounters, so let me concentrate on how H1 fails there:

    Freshness helps make memorable encounters. H1 is too much of the same old. The party invades an underground stoneworks and fights an attrition war against the inhabitants. At every turn, the party kills all the greenies or the fun ends. That mode of play gets stale when it's 90% of the module. It is not difficult to alter this paradigm. Simple reversal is a start; you could make the players defenders in a scenario, for instance. This would have the added bonus of justifying Winterhaven. (nod to Mr. Dray)

    Interesting settings help make memorable encounters. You don't need weird terrain squares and bizarre ice bridges over lava. A rickety rope bridge over a rushing river works just fine -- if there's a reward to justify the risk of traveling over that rope bridge. Or how about a burning building? Elevation adds risk. Cover adds impetus to maneuver. If the defender is entrenched, use pre-existing fortifications and force the players to struggle to nullify that advantage.

    H1 sucks in this regard; there's too many 10x10 corridors and goblins lounging around card tables. I can think of 10x10 corridors, and so can Wizards' entire audience. I want them to aim higher and show me something I can't imagine. That said, I think the terrain for the final encounter looks intriguing, with the chain down into Kalarel's lair being the only entrance point. It looks like a player-killer but an interesting one that would give the party pause and make them scratch their heads over the who's-going-first decision, which is good.

    Interesting opponents help make memorable encounters. The H1 opponents are somewhat interesting tactically (esp. the kobolds, whose shiftiness confounded our guys) but not otherwise. Kalarel's motivation is barely hinted at. Irontooth is just a cardboard terrorist. But say Irontooth and Kalarel, though previously allied, are disagreeing over something? What if the Irontooth encounter could be a negotiation and not a battle? What if he had vulnerabilities that the party could research and exploit? What if Kalarel's justifications are somewhat sympathetic? What if all those undead he's making are refugee souls from a plane of terrible tyranny and suffering? What if he needs the dead in Winterhaven's graveyard to put all his refugee souls into? You don't need much detail here; you just need a tiny ember of situation and relationship to help kindle stuff at the table. This doesn't just impact the fiction. It can bleed into encounters, making them more real, engaging, and memorable.

    Most of all, Varied outcomes help make memorable encounters. Aside from the encounter where the party has the opportunity to befriend Sir Keegan, there are only three outcomes to any H1 encounter:
    • victory, and the treadmill keeps rolling.
    • death, where the fun ends.
    • retreat, which never happens anyway.
    Layering additional objectives into the encounter creates more elaborate tactical considerations and changes the player question from "how do I most efficiently defeat this bunch of monsters?" to "what are my priorities, and how do I most efficiently achieve them?" Which is more memorable, because players have to make a decision, and hopefully it's one that's not automatic.

    The aftermath of a multi-objective encounter is far richer as well. Every binary objective you add to an encounter doubles the size of its outcome set. This makes encounters potent turning points for the campaign instead of just another treadmill stop on the way to the next level. Consider this encounter with an archenemy, a tragedy-prevention objective, and a ticking clock:
    • Michael Ironside is the party's archenemy; every PC has sworn a personal quest to kill him.
    • Aiding or rolling the skill check to fire the superlaser that will destroy planet Zeist and prevent the existence of Highlander II grants combat advantage to Michael Ironside.
    • Zeist orbits to safety in five rounds.
    Check out this MASSIVE outcome set:

    [Michael Ironside killed, Zeist destroyed. Cue revelling / binge drinking skill challenge.]
    [Michael Ironside flees on his motorcycle, Zeist destroyed. Michael Ironside vows revenge! SHOWDOWN!]
    [Michael Ironside is taken alive, Zeist destroyed, Michael Ironside safely under control of authorities]
    [MIchael Ironside dies but Zeist has orbited away and is safe. Look at the noble sacrifice of the NPC! Worthy opponents rock!]
    [MIchael Ironside flees but only after Zeist has orbited away and is safe. Neener-neener! Marc Singer is a weiner!]
    [MIchael Ironside is taken alive, but Zeist has orbited away and is safe. Cue war crimes trial skill challenge!]
    [MIchael Ironside kills some/all of party, but not until they've destroyed Zeist. Look at the noble sacrifice! Cue state funeral skill challenge!]
    [MIchael Ironside kills some/all of party, and they fail to destroy Zeist. Shame! Survivors branded with L's on forehead, exiled from kingdom]
    [Party survives Michael Ironside but fails to destroy Zeist. Survivors condemned to daily resurrection on the island where the epic-tier rangers train]

    So, to summarize: H1 is less about dodging dailies from Michael Ironside while destroying Zeist, and more like World War I: a pointless attrition march with uninteresting stakes and unvaried tactics, designed by people held prisoner by last century's thinking.
  • As a data point of opposition: I ran H1 the whole way through and really dug it. I don't disagree with many of the comments above as applied to the H1 text, but I can't imagine running any adventure without customizing it and reacting to player choices in the game, and I don't think that's unreasonable. From the earliest adventures - Keep on the Borderlands, especially - the adventure required fleshing out.

    I do disagree with John about the tactical content: it seemed to me that they introduced the tactical aspect of D&D 4 slowly, but well. The fight with Irontooth was awesome in our game. The characters were driven off to regroup the first time, and when they came back, the antagonists were ready for them with real defensive fortifications.

  • Posted By: ClintonAs a data point of opposition: I ran H1 the whole way through and really dug it. I don't disagree with many of the comments above as applied to the H1 text, but I can't imagine running any adventure without customizing it and reacting to player choices in the game, and I don't think that's unreasonable. From the earliest adventures - Keep on the Borderlands, especially - the adventure required fleshing out.I do disagree with John about the tactical content: it seemed to me that they introduced the tactical aspect of D&D 4 slowly, but well. The fight with Irontooth was awesome in our game. The characters were driven off to regroup the first time, and when they came back, the antagonists were ready for them with real defensive fortifications.
    So the Oberoni Fallacy makes it good.
  • I think there are two basic things going on with H1.

    First: what Adam said about organization. This is a problem with every adventure WotC's published. You'll notice that every single encounter ends on a page boundary; I assume this is mandatory for at least the H-P-E series. That means that you're constrained on room as an author, so important stuff winds up getting shoved off into the introductory sections. The page-flipping is awful. I run these from a PDF online right now, and the page-flipping is still awful. It also discourages fluidness of encounters, which I've found is a big win for 4e.

    Second: the railroad/blandness complaint. I think this was a conscious decision for Wizards. At one adventure every two months, they need to make sure the adventures are useful for as many people as possible. Putting in cool story and intriguing plotlines is certainly something the guys at Wizards could do; any analysis which relies on the assumption that they don't get story is pretty weak. However, once you start introducing heavy plot you're telling some groups that the adventure isn't for them. If you're publishing a couple of adventures a month -- no big deal. If you're doing one every two months, you don't want to lose sales.

    This is particularly true for the first piece of 4e material anyone sees. "Wait, so if I want to start playing 4e right now I have to use this module that's all about the espionage and the Shadowdark and Orcus sets up as the primary villain of the campaign? Ew." It's gotta be loosely plotted for it to be maximally useful.

    That doesn't make it a great module, but I think it does explain the decision. The Oberoni Fallacy doesn't necessarily apply here: there's such a thing as a good framework and a bad framework. If H1 is a bad framework, then cite Oberoni by all means. If it's a good framework, don't.

    In other notes, I think it's a decent intro to tactical play. The first encounter gets you kobolds and emphasizes how awesome shifting is. Irontooth comes very early; he teaches you that you can't always win easily and that you've got to control the pacing of encounters. There's a pit in the very first encounter in the dungeon proper, so people can be pushed into it and learn those rules. The torturer up north uses terrain. Kruthiks squeeze. Etc.

    It's definitely blander than I like my encounters at this point; still, it works OK for me as an introduction.

    On whatever hand I'm up to, there are certainly encounters in there that are just meh. The trap on the second level is really bad, alas. The final two encounters are OK on their own, but the presentation of evil cleric followed by evil cleric is weak from a pacing standpoint. Oh, and the skill challenges are not good.

    So for me it wasn't a disaster, but it wasn't a rocking good time by any means. It's beige.
  • edited October 2009
    Posted By: BryantPutting in cool story and intriguing plotlines is certainly something the guys at Wizards could do; any analysis which relies on the assumption that they don't get story is pretty weak
    I don't want plot in a module. Plot is bad; it makes the module the story of the NPCs and the author instead of the PCs and the GM. Plot is an unfruitful unvoid. What I want is situation, rich in possibilities, suggestion, and provocation -- something that can be engaged in multiple way, but which only the PCs can resolve into plot. I want enough situation so that the module could even have replay value. I want the D&D equivalent of Montsegur:1244.

    H1 has three situations: the Douven Staal rescue, the Irontooth banditry that's hurting Winterhaven, and the Kalarel thing. These are all binary things; they're won or lost. They are all confronted in exactly the same way. The first two are okay, I suppose, since the fictional stakes are fairly clear, though they suffer from a lack of immediacy and hookiness. Irontooth should litter the roads with burning wagons and villagers to get peoples' attention. The Kalarel thing is so vague it hurts. We don't even know what will happen if Kalarel is not defeated. The worst thing he's done is make everyone in Winterhaven go all emo, during the Shadow Of The Keep interlude. I wonder if the thing he is summoning from the Shadowfell is a pharma rep bringing free Zoloft samples for the Winterhavenites.

    Certainly, you can add this stuff, as Clinton mentions. But instead of a fruitful void, how about a fruitful pasture?
    Posted By: Bryant
    Second: the railroad/blandness complaint. I think this was a conscious decision for Wizards. At one adventure every two months, they need to make sure the adventures are useful for as many people as possible.
    Yeah. I think I'm just criticizing Wizards for writing ... a D&D module. It just seems so perfunctory. It could be so much more. (I say this as a person who has never tried to write an adventure module for general consumption, much less tried to market one to the D&D audience)

    What is the state-of-the-art in module design? I wonder if that's a good new thread.
  • H1 was the introduction to 4E for many people. Perhaps Wizards of the Coast thought of it as a way to introduce the new ruleset, but it was more than that. It introduced the new 4E experience. This product should have been a lot more fun -- not bland, not just okay, not "beige." I wanted to be blown away by it. I wanted H1 to showcase the best bits of 4E (including the clever advice in the DMG). I wanted fun skill challenges, a very memorable home base / point of light, and dynamic combat encounters.

    And the page-flipping should have been handled better. Geez.
  • Yeah.

    I don't think those expectations are/were at all unreasonable. This should have been one of the best modules they'd done in a while. Even if it was a sparse railroad that counted on the DM to add a lot of details, it should have been carefully crafted to highlight what was new/interesting about 4E. There should have been a ton of wide open spaces with varied opponents and exiting terrain features in every room.

    The almost certain TPK in the first third of the adventure when people are still learning the system, those high-defense soldier Hobgoblins on Level 2 in pinched 10' corridors, the arch-villain without any foreshadowing or reasons provided/suggested for the characters to give a damn about him. Lots of offenses.

    They were launching an entirely new edition fercrissakes. It remains one of the weakest of the 4E offerings to this point. And outside of a few cool adventures in Dungeon adventures, that's a pretty shallow pool of awesome for comparison. Especially relative to the DMG and the DMG2.
  • Like Adam, I ran up to the first "boss fight" a few times.

    My beef is this- the fight sets? Are basically empty. I wanted a lot of environmental effects, things you could swing from, knock over, force enemies into, push people off of, etc. (Granted, reading up, there were a couple of encounters later on that -kinda- did that, but really?) All those movement-forcing abilities are pointless if there's not going to be a reason to push/pull people around.
  • edited October 2009
    No doubt. Browsing through the PHB and the DMG you get the impression that every map is going to be like Robo-Rally. But KotS is just mostly just a tunnel crawl with 80% of the rooms providing no reason to even enter into the room to interact with the few features that might be present. So most of the fights end up taking place in the doorway.

    Our campaign was co-DM'd. My friend ran us through KotS and did an admirable job with what he was given to work with. Then when I DM'd I made all the maps/encounters from scratch. Suddenly all those powers that did less damage but pushed or slid foes didn't seem quite so sucky. I had the NPCs pushing the PCs all over the place. Into hazardous squares, off ledges, etc. To my amusement and their chagrin.
  • All those movement-forcing abilities are pointless if there's not going to be a reason to push/pull people around.

    I wouldn't be surprised to learn that in some early version of the system it was possible to substitute attack actions for move actions...i.e. make 2 attacks if you didn't move.

    My suspicion (based on nothing but it seeming a reasonable chain of events) is that that was the environment in which those move powers evolved. Because kicking someone out of melee by a couple of spaces to make them waste an action to close again...would then actually BE a useful power even without crazy terrain effects.
  • Posted By: johnzoThe worst thing he's done is make everyone in Winterhaven go all emo, during the Shadow Of The Keep interlude. I wonder if the thing he is summoning from the Shadowfell is a pharma rep bringing free Zoloft samples for the Winterhavenites.
    That's a module I'd like to play.
  • I agree, it's not the best module. I had fun DMing it, but I made two minor changes that had some big impacts.

    1. I put a secret door in the prison leading down into the middle of the hobgoblin barracks. (The corridor, not the actual rooms.) That opens the dungeon up some, though still not enough (it's basically just a march down a straight path).

    2. I made Paidraig an accomplice of Kalarel. He was getting paid off to ignore what was going on.
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