Review: “The Key of Fey”

Key of Fey, published by Emerald Press, is a GSL-licensed module for a party of first to third level Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition characters. While Key of Fey can be played “straight” like any other adventure, it is designed for a mode of play the authour calls mercenary. At the beginning of Key of Fey, the PCs come (for their own, individual reasons, but on the same transport) to a town that has been overrun by orcs. Each character has severed ties to their previous lives, and they are drawn together by their common need for work and amoral willingness to take any opportunities that present themselves. This leads them into conflict with a Feywild-related cult and quite possibly leads them in over their heads.

Mercs

Before getting into the meat of the adventure, I want to discuss the “mercenary” – or, as the module mostly calls it, merc – mode of play that I mention in the introduction, since it offers context for the content. While it is possible to play Key of Fey in the standard heroic mode of Dungeons & Dragons 4e, this adventure is designed as the first installment in a merc adventure path, and other modes of play require some small tweaks, at least to tone. The merc lifestyle suggests that the PCs are most concerned with getting work and getting paid, while matters like ethics and morality will be, at best, a secondary consideration.

The adventure supports this with encounters and a plot-line that is morally ambiguous (at best) as you might expect, but it also features optional rules that help set the right tone as well. “Badges” grant a PC a small advantage when she is played in a manner that matches her reputation. Also, the DM can print out and randomly assign the PCs introduction cards. These give players a bit of grounding for their characters, but they also grant individual quests (per DMG pg. 122) which are likely to conflict with the group’s larger objectives.

As you might expect, Key of Fey is willing to pit the PCs’ amorality against the players’ sense of right and wrong. How successfully this produces tension will vary with your players’ sense of decency and how strongly they apply it to the fictional events of an RPG session. Some groups are going to play in this mode and produce a tale of emotionless sociopaths. That may or may not be a problem, but it’s something a potential DM should be aware of.

Maybe it’s because of all the Battletech I played, but Key of Fey’s repeated use of “merc” for “mercenary” was distracting. It feels too modern and slangy for a D&D product to me, and so it started to grate on my nerves, like using “Mr. Johnson” for a would-be employer would. Maybe I am ignorant of its heritage, but if you find its use in this review annoying, the module is liable to drive you crazy. Or maybe you kids should just get off my lawn [/cane shake]

Siding with an Orc Against a Nature Cult

Exhibit A when discussing why the PCs need to be amoral in Key of Fey is the premise. Once they arrive in the orc-infested town, the adventure expects them to sign on with a local orc crime boss. He will hire them them to retrieve a holy symbol from a nearby cult – largely humans and eladrin — that worships a Feywild entity. Things get even darker and more complicated before the end of the affair, but this serves nicely to set the tone right off the bat.

That said, a lot of this premise is old hat for long-time D&D players. Evil cult after evil cult has been put down by brave heroes and mercenary souls over the decades. Even the twist – this is a bunch of nature-worshiping hippies – is subverted by the intentions of some of the cult’s leadership. I’m not ready to dismiss Key of Fey as just another generic adventure, though.

More Than a 10′×10′ Room

The place where Key of Fey makes its mark is in its combat encounters, especially in the first half of the adventure. While some encounters are duds – I haven’t seen a 4e adventure yet that doesn’t have some – there are also several interesting set pieces that DMs will want to steal from, even if they never run Key of Fey as a whole. Several allow – maybe require – players to think outside the “rush in and kill them” box. If your players expect by-the-numbers encounters, secure in the belief that a fight must be balanced, they could find themselves in a heap of trouble here. You’ll want to warn them ahead of time that things may not be business as usual in this regard. Key of Fey’s encounters could do with a bit of a terrain feature goose, but in the button-down world of Fourth Edition these fights stand out.

Some of the fights – even the more conventional ones – are flat-out hard, as well. One encounter (offered in a couple of different versions) is rated at 5000 XP, although smart groups will, hopefully, avoid it. Toward the end of the adventure there is a string of consecutive EL 4 and 5 encounters while the PCs are likely to be Level 2 by this point. Opportunities to take extended rests should be few and far between, too, unless your group takes an extremely boardgame-like approach to 4e. Less experienced players are liable to end up as TPKs. I would also like to see at least one fight in the final chapter where the PCs would mop the floor with the opposition to remind the players how strong they really are.

There are only a couple of skill challenges and, like virtually all published skill challenges, they are solid, unoriginal fare that requires a bit of DM technique to bring to life. There is also a sequence where the PCs get involved in a bit of gambling using an original game designed for the this purpose. Like almost all such games, though, it is more than a bit wonky, higher on flavour than rigorous design. DMs would be well advised to figure out another, “real,” game to use.

There are enough potential stumbling blocks in Key of Fey’s encounter design to give me pause, but there is also some nice stuff that pushes the envelope of published 4e encounters. In the end, most DMs will want to hack the encounters some to suit their own style, but you get a solid foundation to work from.

Appearances May be Deceiving

I complain a lot in my reviews – especially reviews of third party D&D products – about bad print design. The largest problem is background graphics that make it harder to read a book than it should be (and, in PDFs, waste your ink). Key of Fey has just such a background graphic, but I am going to praise Emerald Press for it this time.

That is because they have embraced some of the potential of the PDF format, and allow owners to turn off those background graphics if they want. That means that customers who like the eye candy can get it while people like me don’t have to be bothered by it.

Emerald Press also uses layers technology for a couple of other nice effects. There is a layer called Gem of True Seeing which lays designer notes over some parts of the adventure text. While you wouldn’t want to print these notes out, they offer a little insight and several anecdotes from the adventure’s playtesting. There’s nothing essential here, but it’s a nice “DVD extra.”

GM-only information in the battle maps is also put into a layer that you can turn off before printing the map out, showing it to your players on your laptop or borrowing it for your own encounters.

All of these features are excellent, although I would also be fine if the Gem of True Seeing notes were included as marginalia in the main design. I would encourage other publishers to adopt these practices, and to think hard about other ways PDFs can be made more useful. There is no reason new PDFs should be limited by what print products can do.

Speaking of Battle Maps

Emerald Press also sells a companion PDF that lets you print out play-sized versions of all of the battle maps (as well as a bundle of the adventure and map PDFs). I think this is an excellent product idea, and one that all publishers should look at.

As a bonus, the maps are excellently done. Attractive and richly coloured, the only major drawback I can see is that they’d eat a tonne of ink. This is true true of any full-colour PDF maps, though, so it will hardly come as a shock. The maps are almost all distinctive enough to be interesting and worth using (as opposed to Dungeon Tiles, say), but also just generic enough that DMs can readily reuse them in other adventures – especially their own homebrews – improving the value for money. It would have been nice to see at least one real signature map in Key of Fey, but the adventure shows enough creativity to get around this problem. More practically, these easily adaptable maps have slightly bland terrain, lacking features that could act as a hook for a DM’s imagination.

At the End of the Day, When Everything’s Said and Done…

My verdict on Key of Fey is something of a split decision. I don’t think it is a great adventure, but there are some interesting bits. The fights that are more than two sides alone in a place are rather nice, but the standard fights are bland, and could do with the injection of some more dynamic elements. DMs with the experience and confidence to do that probably don’t need the inspiration this module can provide, either.

If the concept of a “mercenary” campaign appeals to you, Key of Fey is probably worth the money. If it doesn’t, see if you can take a look at it before you buy. The map pack is definitely worth a look if you like printing out pregenerated full-colour maps, though, since it does not duplicate similar products very closely.