h1 - Shadowfell
Here is the module – there have been some revision from the original
Before I get into this one, there was an insightful blog entry on Gnome Stew that would be of help here. I suggest reading this blog entry then come back here. I will reference this Encounter vs. Story angle in the review as I believe that is the source of its issues.
Also, a pretty good breakdown of the module in play – he has many similar thoughts
Keep on the Shadowfell is 4e’s first module — kinda an homage to the old Keep on the Boardlands. Now, I am a bit late in the game of reviewing it since D&D 5e/Next is on the way. So why look at it now:
- 5N has a goal to run all editions easily. So some people may pull this out to test that claim
- As a Savage, it does not matter the source material. If there is a good story or idea, it can be Savaged easily enough.
Lets give the answer first and then get into the meat: The module cannot seem to decide if its a horror adventure or a good old fashion dungeon crawl. As a result, it certainly confuses players that are fans of horror and story driven plots.
So why is it a Horror Story?
The story as the module lays it out is a classic trope of a contained and guarded evil that has been forgotten and has been recently rediscovered/awoken. A Cult of Orcus works to open up a gate in a rather evil section of the plane called Shadowfell. We learn this in the introductory pages of the module. The Hook called Ominous Signs reinforces this angle.
Reading the story of Sir Keegan gives us a clear picture of the Keep. The story is a Rift was sealed and the Keep was built to guard it. Eventually, the Empire fell and the Keep became a remote outpost. Sir Keegan was the last commander. But Evil™ was still able to reach across the Rift and madden Sir Keegan. He killed his family and a number of his men under his command thinking he was preventing the Rift from opening. When is mind cleared, he fled into the crypts and killed himself, dying as a fallen Paladin.
The key item to come out from the story is that there is an Evil Influence around the Rift. The fact that it corrupted a Paladin in the Keep is a notable. Also, I presume he was not just hanging around the Rift itself but more likely he was out and about the Keep proper, but that is not told to us.
This is also reinforced in Area 11 of the first dungeon level. There is a natural water cave that use to serve as the cistern to the Keep. Recently, an Act of Evil was committed there and the bodies were dumped into the pool. This evil act then manifested as a Nameless Evil type creature — some amorphous form of Hate/Evil now lurks there. So from this we also get the idea that the Evil can even physically warp creatures/objects from across the Rift if an sufficient evil act is committed.
The last two rooms in the adventure solidifies the horror angle with lots of sacrificial blood. You could lift this plot right up and use it in a Cthulu game if you wanted to.
So where does the Module Fail us?
Ok, so its horror. D&D can do horror but it is harder. D&D fundamentally a heroic game and the mechanics are built around that. Its my belief that these mechanics, such as tools to build “balanced” encounters, really impeded the story that was trying to be told here.
So lets look at the things that are broken:
Opening ambush by Kobolds They have orders to make sure no one of PC type power gets to the Keep. If you look at all the NPCs in the town, they basically want nothing to do with the Keep. So all the attacks do is eventually draw the PCs to the Keep. I would change their role to be snagging easy pickings to take them up to the Keep for the blood sacrifices. They would not be attacking the PCs on their own
One of the hooks is to find this archeologist at a dragon burial site The archeologist is waylaid by a cultist and his cronies and they recover a minor relic for the ceremony the Cult of Orcus is performing. The problem is twofold: two of his “cronies” are low level drakes and the relic never comes into play later in the module. The drakes just struck me as “this encounter needs a L2 Brute and lets pick something cool – ah, here we are – Drakes!” On the Mirror, no one goes after the PCs for having it, and the evil cleric at the end does not say something like “Fools! You have brought me the Mirror I need to complete the Ritual – get them my minions!!!”). Its a throw-away encounter and it likens back to the “encounter” mentality that is discussed in the Gnome Stew blog referenced above.
There is some great implications about the fall of the Paladin (now a spirit) and the pool of water on the first level of the dungeon. Basically, Evil™ can reach out and impact people. But we do not see that in anything else in the first two levels of the dungeon. The module implies the cult has been here awhile but most of the dungeon is just normal old encounters. Encountering the paladin and the pool are even worse. All that key info is with the paladin, yet there is a high probability that it turns into a big fight. I do not know 4e, but his HP total is stunningly high and might be a TPK waiting to happen. The Pool has a great sidebar on the history there, yet the PCs just get attacked by a “blue blob” out of the water. The description is more in line with something from Nickelodeon (the old Green Slime skits) versus it being an evil infused creature. Again, this puts the encounters over story.
The spy in the town makes no sense If she is there to keep an eye on things and misdirect problems, why is she so standoff-ish? She should be the engaging one, not the obvious “hey, who keeps lurking around watching us?” Plus, if you are going to have a spy, why blow their cover with the graveyard attack on the PCs? Also, what the heck is a ranger doing trying to lead undead to attack?. Throw in one of them, you know, cultist types for that attack.
There is a fully functional Temple of Orcus in the basement of this place! The background material did not align with what is in the bottom of the Keep. Honestly, its almost as if WoTC had the maps lying around and decided to shoe-horn them into the module. Update – apparently 3 of the maps are recycled, but I am not sure if the temple map is one of them.
There is blood everywhere but no mention of where the sacrificial victims are coming from. The kobolds were attacking everyone on the roads, but no one was indicated as missing. The Hobgoblins on the second dungeon level cut a deal to sell people they catch into slavery. Just who the heck are the killing?
Is it Sa(l)vageable?
Yes it is! There are some nice pieces that can easily be fixed, at least for Savage Worlds. For D&D, it moves the module to being a true horror story. This works better as a change of pace adventure, not the opening adventure to a new edition.
- An updated thought – this could be run in two waves.
- Wave 1 – Start with a simple Escort quest where the PCs bring a scholar and his lovely assistant to the area. He has an interest in the Keep. It is clear that the young assistant has a romantic interest (or perhaps the other way). They get to the area and find a goblin tribe has taken over the Keep. Stuff like this periodically happens and the leader of the town hires the PCs to clear out the Keep. Standard dungeon mash just like the creators of the module wanted. I would isolate off the crypt with the fallen knight and the Temple of Orcus area. One might add a strong “right hand man” to lead the raids just to give the PCs a named target.
- Wave 2 is outline as below after 6 months or so in time has passed. What happened is the scholar got more than he bargained for and became possessed by a foul spirit. Instead of goblins and such, the crypts have undead (plenty of material to work with after the PCs cleaned the place out — try to keep track of some combat descriptions to see if you can recycle them so the PCs realize they are fighting the same creatures again, just undead)
- The role of the Kobolds as written are questionable. If no one in town is messing with the Keep, why draw attention by having the Kobolds have more focused attacks? I would change their role to be snagging easy pickings to take them up to the Keep for the blood sacrifices. They would not be attacking the PCs on their own. The ambush might come in once the PCs start investigating the missing people or if they messed with the Keep.
- The dig site encounter needs to drop the Drakes. Its pretty good as is otherwise. But there needs to be some ramification for getting the relic. The attack back in town with the undead (after modifying the leadership) makes sense. If the cult cannot get the relic back, then they WANT the PCs to come to the Keep (repeat: “Fools! You have brought me the Mirror I need to complete the Ritual – get them my minions!!!”)
- I would cut down on some of the encounters, make the Paladin an environmental hazard at most, and then start warping the goblins/hobgoblins (see the Wave 1 / Wave 2 idea above – these are now undead). Example – there is a torturer – make that dude as sick as you can get — Evil is taking an evil creature and really taking him to the extreme. Players should be thinking “these are not normal goblins – what the heck is going on here”. Some other ideas if you are not doing Wave 1/2
- The first level should feel “off” – the goblins are edgy, tense, and perhaps have the Beserk edge
- Lighting is weird
- There are tendrils of darkness that materialize and “inhabit” corpses (both in the crypt and slain goblins)
- See if second level really adds anything. It certainly should be more horrific. Cannibalism, more extreme torture (think Hellraiser), more gore.
- There is a nice theme of the paladin falling to evil with a chance at redemption. Sir Keegan might be worked into the final encounter. Perhaps he is able to hold off the tearing of the Rift just long enough so the PCs can kill the evil priest and ruin the ceremony.
- So the keep was built to seal the rift. Yet there appears to be a fully functional temple of Orcus in the basement…seems like someone would have destroyed that and put in a good god temple to shore that puppy up. This either needs to be redone or if you like the maps, describe the areas as having been dedicated to a good god but the area has been warped by powerful forces into a mockery of good.
- In the Wave 1/2 approach, the assistant is the “spy”. A number of ways this can be played. She may want the PCs to go to the Keep as they would be especially powerful sacrifices. Or her leading the undead attack in town makes more sense since she fell to the darkness as well and is not some random ranger.