We were very privileged to receive a promotional copy of the first Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition adventure module, entitled Keep on the Shadowfell, which comes with a small set of quick start rules as an introduction to the yet-to-be-released edition of the game. Dave and I took the opportunity to gather a group of friends last Friday night and give the first portion of the adventure a try. Judging from what we got through in the 3-4 hour session we played, and from reading through the module book, Keep on the Shadowfell is at least 3 gaming sessions worth of material assuming you don’t do two marathon or speed adventures to get through a lot of it in fewer sittings.
The module comes with a full adventure book for the DM that contains comprehensive quick start rules for 4th Edition and the usual walkthrough of the whole adventure, as well as a small book with all of the non-DM specific rules and the pre-made character sheets. Included are a Dwarven Fighter, Human Wizard, Half-Elf Cleric, Halfling Rogue, and Dragonborn Paladin, all of which seem to be much more finished than the Dungeon Delve characters that Dave and I saw at the D&D Experience back in late February. The basic rules themselves are very similar to everything you know from 3.5e D&D, with some very notable exceptions.
First off, we were very happy to see that our namesake is restored to its former glory in that rolling a 20 now automatically scores a critical hit and you do maximum damage for the attack. The turn sequence is now more refined, with players having a Standard Action, Move Action, and a Minor Action on their turn. Using your move action to run now moves you your speed +2 squares and grants combat advantage to anyone attacking you (+2 to hit, can sneak attack, etc.) Diagonal moves now only take one square, so we won’t need to be counting 5-15-20-30 anymore! Every player and monster now has a bloodied number, equal to half their max hitpoints, which can activate certain powers either for or against that character. For example, I believe Tieflings have a blood scent ability that grants them bonuses to hit bloodied targets, while Dragonborn have a racial ability which grants them +1 to hit while bloodied. Saving throws are now all 10+ on a d20, but there are modifiers such as the Dwarven Cast-iron Stomach ability which adds +5 to saves for poison. With death and dying, you are now unconscious up until your bloodied score in negatives, however you make a saving throw every round you are negative and if you fail three you die. I like this a lot better because you have just as much chance of dying at -1 as you do at -20, which adds a realistic sense of urgency when someone is dropped. Any healing administered to an unconscious character automatically sets them back to 0 hp and heals from there, so that a high constitution and being at a higher negative number does not penalize the player.
Now on with the adventure report! I will summarize and give impressions first, and get on with the spoilers after so that anyone who wants doesn’t want to spoil the module can still get the juicy stuff.
What Players liked:
- It was very clear what a character could do on their turn – the standard/move/minor action structure works very well and is much more discernible than previous editions.
- Monster abilities – everyone seemed to have a genuine reaction of joy when the monsters did their various tricks and powers.
- Plowing through minions – they add a nice scale to battles, and are quite effective and not to be completely ignored, but also provide the players with the satisfaction of wading through monsters.
- Tactics! – actually making tough tactical decisions to disengage one opponent to go after another, they definitely had a feel that the combat was a flowing thing and could change depending on what they did each round.
What the Players disliked:
- Not getting very far – as with any new set of rules, things started off slower than we would have liked, the two encounters we got through were not particularly small and substantial in length.
- Not having a PHB – there are a lot of things missing with the module, such as a full list of items to purchase, or guidelines for selling the loot the party obtained. This is not a problem with the module so much a feature of it being a preview and the system not being released yet.
- I got the sense that, as excellent as the flavor text is in the module, the players disliked being read to more than if I were interacting and telling a story of my own – I take the blame for this one, I should have memorized everything in the 4 days I had it beforehand…
- This very much still feels like D&D – you might not be getting some of the classic or iconic elements that many people identify with the game (yet), but when you’re playing it you can certainly tell what game you’re playing.
- A party of PC’s will always assume a tower within a town contains a death cult – it just makes sense.
- Monsters are FUN – seriously, this was enjoyable on so many levels, unfortunately it can’t really be explained without specifics so if you don’t mind spoilers read about this further down.
Now on to the juicy stuff – SPOILER WARNING!!!
The party, who conveniently already all knew each other, found themselves on the road to a small town called Winterhaven. The Half-Elf Cleric, named Faryn, and the Dragonborn Paladin Antigia were sent to investigate this town by the Church because of witness reports of deathcultists in the area within the last year. The Dwarf Fighter Bräk (played by Dave) joined up with his friends, along with Slickblade the Rogue and Bacardi Limon the Wizard, in search of his missing mentor Dauven Staul, who had gone towards Winterhaven in search of a Dragon’s burial place, hoping to find a nice hoard to help with retirement. I’d decided to mix two of the opening hooks provided, because just using one I thought was insufficient, and because I really wanted both the Death Cult and Douvan set up beforehand. As the party journeyed along the eroding King’s Road west towards Winterhaven, they found themselves walking on a battlemat but thankfully didn’t automatically assume they were going to be ambushed.
They were ambushed of course, a pack of Kobolds sprung forth from the nearby rocks and began to assault the helpless party. Very quickly they seemed surprised that one hit would dispatch with a kobold, but then they were faced with the two Dragonshield Kobolds, wielding short swords and a dragon scale fashioned into a shield, and a Kobold Slinger. Right away they were annoyed by the Kobold’s racial ability to shift 1 square as a minor action every time they went, but even more so the Dragonshield’s ability to shift 1 square as an immediate reaction to an opponent moving adjacent to them proved a tactical dilemma. Right away the rogue figured out that his Deft Strike ability allowed him to move 2 squares and then attack, and since the Dragonshield’s ability is a reaction (and not an interrupt) his attack would land before they shift away. By the second combat the Fighter was making full use of his presence and the ability to make Opportunity Attacks against an opponent who shifts into or out of his threat range, allowing him to more easily dispatch with the pesky annoyances, or more importantly to do even more damage in one round.
The Kobold Slinger was very fun to play because of his three special orbs that he can hurl with his sling, two of which are Firepots which do sling damage and an ongoing 2 Fire damage every round (ended by a save at the end of the player’s round). The other, my personal favorite so far, is a Gluepot attack which he managed to successfully use to snare the Fighter at a safe distance. Unfortunately the rest of the kobolds were dead and the party made short work of him as well. The party moved on into Winterhaven, and after a bit of successful information gathering at the town’s Inn, decided that they would investigate the tower in the middle of town. Now, I may have sold it incorrectly, as the tower itself is very much unimportant to the module as a whole, but it is described as being a 5-story tower with the bottom 3 stories boarded up and uninhabited, while a useful NPC Valthrun the Prescient lives on the upper two floors. As I’d already casually mentioned that the old wise man was having a drink at the inn (no one talked to him, sadly), the tower was sitting there uninhabited and locked up. But wait! There’s a rogue in the party! The Paladin, Cleric, Wizard, and Rogue proceeded to investigate within the tower all the way up to the top while the Fighter palled around with the Dwarven smithy and managed to sell the loot he’d grabbed off of the Kobolds.
I could have let it go, but I tend not to give up opportunities like that, and so I had the guards reasonably respond to the blatant breaking and entering of a private residence in the center of town. The rogue hid, because that’s what they do (see, it IS still D&D!) and the Wizard made good use of Ghost Sound to distract some of the guards for a little while, but ended up getting arrested along with the Cleric and Paladin. Things didn’t seem to be going too well either, so I decided to get them back on track and in fact had them ordered on what is written as a choice quest, or else they’d be thrown in prison for a very long time. The dwarf fighter, however, had managed to not only get a map to where Douvan Staul’s dragon burial site was, but also accepted the Mayor’s quest by choice and received the map to where the townspeople believe the Kobold’s Lair was located. With some glares and suspicion, the party stayed the night at the inn and set out in the morning.
Back on the road, and – you guessed it, another ambush! This time there were no minions though, just 3 Dragonshields, a sly Kobold Skirmisher, and a dreadful looking Kobold Wyrmpriest. The kobolds had a surprise round where they could all act through initiative order, and then the next round everything proceeded as normal. The Dragonshields continued to be a great annoyance with their Tactics ability to move away from attacking foes, while the Skimisher moved around the outskirts and effectively speared the Cleric as he was flanked by the other kobolds. All of the non-caster kobolds have the ability Mob Attack, which grants them a +1 bonus to attack per kobold ally adjacent to their target, so the more there are the better they do! I had a field day with that, as it encouraged me to naturally have the monsters attack a single target or at least position themselves to threaten more than one PC at a time, combine that with their Shifty ability (shift as a minor action) and I could adjust things every round depending on what happened. The wyrmpriest managed to actually strike fear into the party, with his Energy Orb at-will power – Range 10; +6 vs. Reflex; 1d10+3 acid damage. The first time I did it one of the players commented, “Well, he most likely can’t do that every round…” I just shook my head; they’d learn their lesson sooner rather than later. Not to mention his abilities to incite faith (healing and more free shifting) to kobolds around him and a decent breath weapon, and this encounter ended up being more fun than the first.
What I noticed, however, is that by the second combat the party had already started to work together more effectively. As mentioned earlier, the Fighter had discovered his usefulness at punishing the pesky Kobolds for all their shiftyness, and as several party members took high damage from flanking kobolds and the backstabbing skirmisher, the Cleric’s and Paladin’s healing abilities ended up proving to be very useful. Back when Dave and I played Escape from Sembia at D&D XP, I was the Cleric and I remember aside from the first aid skill he only had one healing power, which was two uses per encounter. The cleric in this module has a LOT more healing, and I was very glad to see that. Overall it seemed like the players really enjoyed the characters they were using, which surprised me considering aside from my wife choosing the Paladin right off the bat it took a few minutes for anyone to decide what they really felt like playing.
It’s unfortunate that we did not get into the kobold’s lair encounter yet, but we hope to be running that very soon in addition to running a different group through hopefully even more of the module. From reading the rest of the module, it looks like this thing is going to be amazingly fun!
If you’d like to read a great preview which may cover some other points that I missed about the product in general and materials included, be sure to check out Chatty’s review.