24 hours on the Shadowfell

Busy, busy, with well-paying whitecollar-slaving. Only now time to report on the weekend a week ago, when I was at Jycon. It’s a new boardgame convention in central Finland – very good all-around arrangements, I have the utmost faith that it’ll do well in the future if the organizing association becomes well established.

I only played two games at the convention. One was a Diplomacy Finnish Championships trial wherein I secured my own entrance to the championship finals later in the year; the (shortish) game is being analyzed at the boards right now. The other was around 24 hours of Dungeons & Dragons, split over three days. The adventure was Keep on the Shadowfell, the introductory adventure of the new 4th edition of D&D. As the adventure is still pretty fresh and the actual game hasn’t come out, I thought that somebody might be interested in my impressions.

The GM was my brother Markku, who has decades of experience with D&D – as I understand it, he started with the first edition of AD&D sometime during the ’80s. This decade Markku has played extensive campaigns of third edition, ranging from participating in my own experiments to the hardcore grind of the World’s Largest Dungeon. Markku is very excited about the new edition of the game, so it wasn’t difficult to arrange for us to meet midway in Jyväskylä for a weekend of gaming with some mutual friends and associates.

The Shadowfell experience

Most likely the reader is already aware of the gist of the adventure (and if you don’t want to be, I certainly don’t recommend reading an actual play report on it!), so just a short recap: the adventurers journey to the town of Winterhaven on some pretense, only to get entangled in a plot to loose the dark, undeady powers of Orcus to the world. Sounds good to me: classic fantasy tropes and heroic action.

We had specifically agreed beforehand that the group would play serious D&D, staying faithful to whatever the vision of the designers might be. This proved a challenge to myself and the others with less recent and less… hardcore D&D experience. Dungeons & Dragons is some wacky, idiosyncratic shit! I’m first in the line when it comes to lauding challengeful adventure gaming with little character focus and lots of situation-based maneuvering, but this was old-style D&D with no holds barred: kobold attacks wave after wave, utterly relentless and unmotivated, slaughter and looting, trips to town to convert to gold, rinse and repeat: hack ‘n slash gaming, in other words.

Now, while I have some several years of experience with sorts of D&D myself, and I’d even lay claim to some expertise when it comes to “adventure gaming” in the larger context, hack ‘n slash is something I’ve only ever done on the computer. I am not kidding when I say that I and numerous other Finnish roleplayers (perhaps others as well, I don’t know) really, truly never grew into roleplaying through the hack ‘n slash format. My earliest roleplaying was challenge-based like D&D is, that’s true, but it was also strongly setting-based and situational: I have never, truly spent any considerable time playing a game where you’re supposed to collect experience points and treasure as a matter of meta-game efficiency instead of in-game, character-based motivation. My first experiences with D&D were with AD&D 2nd edition sometime during the mid-nineties, at which point I found the game quite antiquated and clumsy compared to the much more sophisticated Runequest, say. If the 3rd edition of the game didn’t take such a radical break as it did, I doubt that I’d have familiarized myself further with it to this day.

As the reader might imagine, our group, which was split half and half along these lines, faced some considerable friction and negotiation over how we were going to play in the first place. My side of the party was simply flabbergasted: we were here to look for cultists, and now we’d need to go hunt kobolds for some two-penny noble instead? What for? Experience? What’s that, my character would like to know? What – we really are directing our characters on meta-game basis here? They’ll die horribly if they go directly after the cultists? And there’s gold and treasures too, with the kobolds? But my character is a honorable mercenary, and he already took that quest from the temple to investigate this cult thing! Speaking of which, that asshole lord Beam (the Finnish nickname Lord Padraig soon gained from us for his boorish attitude, “lordi Parru”) is clearly either co-conspirator or a witless tool of the cultists!

If we were younger and less experienced as roleplayers, I’d say that we’d have suffered complete meltdown pretty soon in the adventure, with my character getting thrown in jail, another going to suicide-by-kobold horde and the rest quitting in disgust over such in-game essentials as cost of door-replacement and the devil-may-care attitude of this so-called lord of Winterhaven. Luckily, we’re all old hands at negotiating play, so we just talked about it long enough to hassle out what we were doing there: this would not be free roleplaying as we’re used to, this would not involve characters negotiating their own goals, the GM would not allow stupid mistakes or innovative tactics on the part of the party: our participation in the on-going structure of the game would be facilitative only, with the GM framing each combat encounter in sequence. Our characters would go on to gleefully tackle each challenge, no matter how weird in the setting context.

After we figured out the constraints, play certainly got by quicker. There were still lots of negotiation over how and what we were allowed to do, but as the GM diligently bashed at us, we learned to be less and less “smart” in the conventional sense and more and more D&D-savvy: we would move around with characters attached from the hip, would not question quest-givers, would not set a forest-fire to smoke out the kobolds, would walk gleefully into traps and steal everything not bolted down. Everything certainly felt much smoother as we went along, but it was also conciderably duller to play – at the end the GM just decided to skip ahead in the dungeon into the high point encounters instead of worrying about the, frankly, pretty pointless pacing fights in-between. This enabled us to “finish” the keep in pretty exactly 24 hours of play, dying gloriously in a final fight against the evil Krakoa, the Living Island (or something like that, D&D naming convention is bland enough to make it impossible to remember this stuff).

High points

The whole experience is too extensive to detail here, but I have some high (or low, depending on your viewpoint) points to share:

  • My first character was actually a joy to play, perhaps because I haven’t gotten to play a lot of these games in the player position. My Dwarven Fighter Butcher Mor (further syllables pending experience gain) quickly developed a personality as one of the Dwarves of Brassmount wherein Kobolds are considered both a staple and delicacy. (Obviously, this was me rationalizing why my character was so gleeful in murdering helpless kobolds.) Mor was a bastard who hoped to win a longer name for himself in the world, as well as start his own restaurant chain based on murdering “monstrous” humanoids and eating them. He would utterly refuse any evidence of intelligence from kobolds, being culturally habituated to rationalizing it away on behaviorist grounds: he would routinely describe kobolds, not as acting, but “behaving” in certain ways “by instinct” or “adaptation”. Mor was also utterly devoted to our Walord, the leader and founder of our company of adventurers – he was a honorable and courageous dwarf, after all. In a word, Mor was quite fun to play, and it took some considerable personal enjoyment out of the play to have him die ignomiously.
  • While Mor’s nature was developed during the first scenes, so was the rest of the party, especially my brother Jari’s character, the Walord. The thiefling Walord (I’m not the one doing the typo, it’s on the character sheet), one of the premade characters in the adventure, is special in that it’s the only character whose description actually includes a nugget of setting or situation information – the rest of the characters all have completely irrelevant descriptions like this: “As a halfling, you are resourceful and known for your quick wits and steady nerves. As a rogue, your job is to dart in and deal massive damage, and use your skills to aid your allies as necessary.” Not so with our walord! His description stated that he was “inspired by the military tradition of his ancient ancestor empire of Ba-Tur” or something like that; we quickly seized upon this sole point of character definition provided in the adventure and spinned out his story as this visionary warrior looking to restore the glory of his ancestors. The GM was rather annoyed, as apparently Batur or whatever is supposed to be an evil empire – which of course opens the question, why ever would a Good-aligned Walord be inspired by it?
  • Our whole party, apart from the Walord, was killed in the third combat encounter of the adventure. Reading through the adventure material now, it seems to me that this was mostly due to the GM being a tad too logical in in depiction of the setting – pretty ironic, considering that he mostly spent his time punishing us for being too logical and setting-immersed. In this case, though, the GM forgot to remain true to the instructions of the scenario that stated that the kobolds inside the waterfall cave would blissfully wait inside for the characters to murderize their companions outside and heal afterwards – I imagine that the 6th level encounter inside the cave would just barely be survivable for 1st level characters intent on escaping for their lives (or munchinizing, or having a GM that allowed actual strategy and tactics instead of just rolling-to-hit), but when you combine that with the encounter outside with no breathing space, it’s a wonder that even the Walord survived to hire new companions and return to Winterhaven a few weeks later.
  • My new character was Lidda the halfling thief, who was soon pronounced the most powerful character of them all. This was probably due to our GM having a rather free-wheeling interpretation of how hiding in combat works. (Or who knows, I certainly don’t; for all I know it was just like it’s supposed to go.) Regardless, Lidda was a tad too character-ful as well at first: for instance, she was inexplicably unwilling to attack and murder “human rabble” which attacked the party at one point, rather obviously somehow magically compelled. It was as if she couldn’t differentiate between Player Characters, Non-Player Characters and Monsters! What’s up with that, Lidda? Don’t you know that “human rabble” are monsters and not persons? Anyway, Lidda also had this intricate plan for getting into the keep, involving her disguising herself as an evil gnome whose equipment she took after capturing said gnome. (Sad story, that gnome: Lidda explicitly spared him, only to have the “good-aligned” human wizard kill the poor bugger when she turned her back.) Soon enough Lidda learned, though, that the goblins in the keep were just as murderous towards evil gnomes as good-aligned halflings, so in that regard it was a waste of time. After I had also demonstrated my D&D-failureness a couple of times by doing long-range and mid-range scouting (which apparently breaks the system in D&D), I pretty much just gave up and let the GM run us through the encounters in the way they were supposed to be played.
  • The last fight of the adventure was rather unlucky for the adventurers: two died while two got away. I suppose that Krakoa also awakened his evil Orcus-mojo after the adventurers escaped, after which darkness presumable swept over Winterfell. (I don’t exactly know what happened; the adventure does not dwell on the possibility that the adventurers would fail.)

D&D experience

I probably shouldn’t bitch about something as integral to the game as this, but it seems that I simply can’t get over some of the basic features of D&D fantasy. Namely, the fantasy races suck ass, as far as roleplaying is concerned; I get immediately ousted from any semblance of serious fiction when all the heroes are some sort of weirdo non-humans, their enemies are intelligent small lizards and everybody in town seems to think it completely natural that they’re conversing with an intelligent half-dragon or something of the sort.

Of course this weirdness doesn’t end with character races, it continues with xp grabbing, a weird economy and non-player characters who apparently have no minds at all. Characters are promised 250 gold pieces for the whole adventure, while they already loot more than that from some random kobolds in the second encounter. Meanwhile the same characters are supposed to risk their lives for 100 gold pieces, in total. And everybody thinks that it’s fair and just for them to kill the kobold highwaymen and appropriate their loot, instead of returning it to the citizens of Winterhaven. Real nice guys, these.

This is a matter of taste, you understand, but as far as I’m concerned D&D can go hang, insofar as the setting goes. If I were given my way, my character would spend all his time deconstructing his environs: why is it OK to mass-murder these folks over here, but not these other folks? Why are these Gods constantly throwing lightning bolts at everybody? Why is it all like somebody took two tokes too many out of the long pipe? I find it ridiculous that I’d actually roleplay in a setting like this; works for a miniature fighting game to be sure, but makes no sense at all for an adventure roleplaying game, I think.

Impressions of 4th Edition

Based on my experiences of play:

4th Edition D&D is situated solidly in the exact hobby space that Warhammer miniatures games dwell in: it’s directed at 14-year old teenage boys looking for a skirmish battle game with intricate campaigning options. Its strength as compared to Warhammer is mostly superior campaign rules learnt the hard way by 30 years of campaign-type roleplaying. It is ironic that the campaign structure of 4th Edition seems weakest by far of any D&D edition – I could not imagine playing a campaign of this, frankly, if it was all as frail and static as the Keep on the Shadowfell. Individual combat encounters are tied together by the thinnest of strands of causality, all carefully delineated and factored into the adventure structure, with no space for player creativity.

The rules-system is superior for its purpose, however, being by far the most balanced and tactically interesting version of D&D. My only complaint at this point, concerning combat, is that the whiff factor is just insane: there’s nothing more annoying than having an encounter or per-day power that you lose because you missed the attack roll when activating it. It’s not really rewarding to blow all your interesting special abilities with no effect and get stuck rolling that “Sly Flourish” ten times in a row, like my halfling rogue ended up doing most of the time. Time will tell how all this scales for higher levels.

If this sounds like condemnation by the way of faint praise, that’s because it is: I find myself utterly disinterested in the kind of fantasy “roleplaying” provided by the game depicted in the Shadowfell. I suspect that the GM’s book for the whole game will provide for considerably more leeway in campaign creation; I’ll be interested to read it to see how and whether it supports my style of adventure gaming at all, or if it’s all this same kind of railroaded encounter-strings. Regardless of GMing paradigm, though, I suspect that the character and combat rules will make it rather difficult to play anything where player maneuvers outside combat affect anything meaningfully: from our experimentation it seems that you can’t really buck the system by surprising helpless enemies (automatic maximum damage on the first strike), bluffing the enemy (apparently they’re immune to it), choosing your battles (at least here the GM is playing the illusionism game: the enemy is only there when he feels like it), finding allies or any other way. And when battle is actually joined, the system is so carefully balanced that the luck of the dice is really the sole variant in the events.

I do, however, intend to fiddle some more with the game once the actual books come my way. I don’t think I’ll do any roleplaying with this game (too strange, unbelievable and cliched setting for me, and apparently the game has no interesting rules for stuff outside fighting at all), but I could imagine running some miniature skirmishes with the local Warhammer teenagers.

Design of the Keep on the Shadowfell

As a separate point, Shadowfell is similarly two-pronged: on the one hand each individual encounter is a slick design and supposedly interesting, on the other hand I find myself utterly disinterested in the encounter-string model of adventure that lacks even the most rudimentary dynamics. I would never go into designing a D&D adventure that didn’t have some kind of opportunity cost for taking a rest, for instance – otherwise the only thing keeping the players from resting their characters after every fight is group contract, which is again the kind of wacky shit that I don’t brook. Similarly, making an adventure where characters are motivated to do quests just because you get xp from them is… I don’t even have the words, really. Not my idea of fun roleplaying, let’s say.

I’m sure that the actual game does not require it, but I think it’s pretty funky when non-combat encounters are labeled “interludes”. At least the designers know what they’re doing, I guess.

Let’s take a look at the structure of the adventure by the way of flow charting the encounters:

I’ve marked the main route towards foiling the plan of the Orcus cult in red. The blue side-quest thingy is one of the three adventure hooks players are provided with at the beginning. The black encounters are purely optional, and as far as I can see are provided with no character motivation at all to explore. The “Hobgoblin barracks” is the only side-track that pertains to the rest in any way, as the hobgoblins there explicitly follow the characters later if they aren’t slaughtered then and there. The green scenes are non-combat interludes that do not, as far as I can see, affect anything at all in any way.

What confounded me constantly when playing was that according to the GM and the experienced hack ‘n slash contingent of the group we were supposed to run around doing all these side-quest things that had nothing to do with what our characters were in the scenario to accomplish: when we got into Winterhaven for the first time, that bastard Lord Beam was already there, ready to proffer that kobold sidequest as if his town weren’t in danger of getting run over by the forces of darkness. (Quite a rude awakening at our characters when they found out that the kobold sidequest wasn’t even level-appropriate; Lord Beam had been uncharacteristically cunning in sending the meddling adventurers to their deaths.)

The same phenomenon repeated itself again and again. If I were just playing my character, I certainly wouldn’t have him go and get into trouble with the goblins there, for example, when he full well knew from interrogating a goblin prisoner that the way down to Krakoa was nowhere in that direction. And that Gelatinous Cube – the way to that direction is explicitly blocked with a sign that says “keep out”. Regardless, according to the GM we’re supposed to go through all these extraneous encounters, murderizing monsters to gain xp and loot to get strong enough to encounter the cultists down below. In a believable world, in which my adventure gaming has traditionally been situated, endangering your life fighting carnivorous mushrooms (or whatever a gelatinous cube is) are not a part of the sound tactical package for overcoming the forces of darkness.

What adds to the overall weirdness in D&D is the rest system – instead of fighting a life and death fight against a dynamical and smart death cult, we’re cleaning a dungeon room by room and going up into the wilderness to rest in between for days at a time. And regardless of how long we spend out there, Krakoa is still down there just finishing his Orcus incantations when we first get into his room. Talk about static adventure planning!

Adventure & campaign design: vectors of influence

This was something I developed a lot in our break conversations during those “magical” 24 hours on the Shadowfell: why did the adventure suck so much? My theory is that it was because the encounter-based adventure structure did not allow for enough of vectors of influence from one scene to the next. What this means is that there simply was not enough continuity and long-term decision-making involved in the adventure for it to feel like anything more than separate sessions of skirmish.

This same concept holds true for both adventure design and campaign design, in roleplaying as well as war games: if you want a meaningful campaign experience, you have to provide for vectors of influence from one scenario to the next. Computer games often have campaigns that lack this feature, which simply comes to mean that those campaigns are not useful for the added value of strategy proffered by a campaign; rather, they are useful in that they’re prepackaged scenario-sets that remove the necessity for the player to choose what to play next himself. I know that this is how it works for myself, anyway: when I play something like, say, Command & Conquer, I choose to play the “campaign” simply because that way I’ll get a suitably paced set of scenarios that highlight different parts of the overall game. But this has little to do with real campaigns of interconnected scenarios like evidenced in classical rpg adventures (what is called an “adventure” in a challenge-full rpg is often a “campaign” in war game terms, insofar as instances of framed conflict scenarios are concerned) and wargames.

The Shadowfell adventure, as it fails to provide for any interconnectivity between the individual skirmishes (apart from accumulating xp and treasure: a lame connection that has little significance in the short term), is a campaign only in the computer game sense of bunched-together encounters. I believe that we would have been favorably served by playing it like Descent, which I played quite a bit last year; it was often remarked over our Shadowfell sessions how Descent does almost everything provided by Shadowfell in a superior manner. I even understand that the new campaign mode for the game actually has some strategic choices involved, instead of the humdrum railroaded encounter strings Shadowfell has to offer.

The GM factor

I should perhaps note that as always, the nature of the gamemastering certainly affects the overall experience in a D&D game. While I don’t begrudge Markku his style of Dungeon Mastering, I certainly wouldn’t be so quick with the stick myself – Markku was quick to squash any and all plans we made that did not accord with commonly accepted D&D tactics, such as using advance scouts (one would think that this’d be a good idea, but apparently you’re only ever supposed to scout at most 10-15 meters in advance of the party in D&D), priorizing our strategic goals (like, say, dealing with the death cult before some kobold highwaymen), bluffing monsters (I still have difficulty believing that all the trouble I went through with my evil gnome disguise did nothing) and all the other things we invented that weren’t explicitly included in the adventure. I do think that part of this has to do with the D&D rules system – it does not reward risk-taking or innovation in any way or form, while punishing the same horribly in the case of failure. The few times our dice-rolls succeeded so well that the GM couldn’t hit us with a stick, the results were lukewarm at best – a phrase of inconsequential scene description or a +1 to some attack check. When these are the conditions, it’s no wonder if players put their faith to substantial to-hit bonuses and lots of hitpoints instead of inventive strategy and tactics.

I have some hankering to run the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure myself later, when the core books are released – I already suggested this to Markku when we were playing, in case he’d like to try the adventure from the other side of the table. I believe that I’ll need to rework the adventure quite a bit to stand it, though; I want believable character motivations, solid tactics from the enemy, dynamically changing environments and some reason for the characters to actually press on and endanger themselves instead of methodically spending 24 hours in recuperation after each skirmish. Oh, also, dynamic and staggered adventure goal array, so the adventurers actually have some meaningful reason to, say, retreat when the fight is going against them. There simply can’t be satisfying challenge roleplaying for me without these things, it seems; the play without them is just a matter of miniature skirmish battle game, not anything where I’d care to put in any effort at roleplaying.


18 Responses to “24 hours on the Shadowfell”

  1. Richard Hughes Says:

    Your GM was doing you a great disservice by punishing your clever ideas and failing to adapt to the roleplay you presented. I would have gone along with the evil gnome plan in a heartbeat. Of course, when I ran the game, our Cleric of Bahamut converted half of the kobold tribe to the Reformed Church of the Mega Flare, so perhaps I too was ‘doing it wrong’.

  2. Richard Hughes Says:

    Further commentary: I’m currently running the game. Thus far, we’ve been approaching it in a fairly ‘game-ish’ way, so we haven’t had too much trouble, though there has been some deeper RP as regards NPCs in town and captured foes. No church of the mega flare this time, however. What sort of re-designs are you proposing?

  3. William Leblanc Says:

    I will be running a 4ed game on Tuesday, and I own KotS, and have been trying to decide how to use it. One idea I had was to make lemonade out of lemons, and take advantage of the fact that most of the encounters are poorly tied together. That is, I am thinking of designing my own setting and situation, and then dropping the encounters from KotS into the game. I might also change the monsters from kolbolds into redcaps or demons or something – same stats, just change the flavor around so it’s a) more a product of my imagination b) makes more sense and c) allows me to construct opportunities for the players to impact the setting and situation more.

  4. William Leblanc Says:

    Oh, I’m also curious about why you felt the game was inferior to Descent. Suppose I came at the game as 100% boardgame, with absolutely zero pretensions that it was a roleplaying game at all. What did you find in your experience would not work well for that approach?

  5. Rob Says:

    Thanks for the “flow charting”, I think it does show a logical problem with the adventure.

    It contains many spokes out from central hub (as a sandbox might), but is written with a clear “mission” that well-role-played characters would follow and arrive too XP-poor to accomplish (I posted about this on gleemax a few days ago).

    I think that’s a design flaw in the overall scenario, which would be fixed if the “threat of the cult” was downplayed to start and what was played up at start was the growing raids by critters. Peel that onion of kobolds etc. and find the Keep, peel the keep and find the cult etc.

    Set it up as a sandbox with the cult as the landmine in it.

    I also think the “threat” is over-stated for a 1st level adventure and should be tone down in terms of “what happens if you fail”. Failure should “Change situation to be played” not make it “run away away away”.

  6. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Richard: I’ll perhaps write more about what I’d do with the Shadowfell a bit later – depends partly on whether I’ll actually run the thing or just speculate about it.

    William: Descent is better first and foremost because an individual unit of play (scenario in Descent, encounter in D&D) has a much better strategic and dramatic arc in Descent – your characters actually gain all those cheesy magic items, encounter several waves of monsters and fight the big bad at the end. Choices made in individual rooms also impact the whole quite strongly in that the Overlord and players both have a precarious resource balance that shifts around. Shadowfell was piteous in comparison: individual encounters do not affect the strategic whole, players are not posited with any goals apart from following the railroad, resource levels are carefully meted out for optimal consumption and the whole simply never feels like a game of challenge. The thin strands of treasure (nothing to spend it on without the rulebooks, note) and experience (which should be a fucking metagame conceit; did the designers retard into 10-year olds suddenly, or what?) do little to create a concrete arc of progress through what amounts to set-piece battles with little player influence involved.

    (Of course Descent is still nowhere close to a real roleplaying game – no variable or dynamic goal-setting, no intraparty conflict, limited hidden information and so on. But as a skirmish game with a dungeoneering theme it’s superior.)

    Rob: Agreed on all points, that’s one way of doing it. Another is to present the situation as genuinely hopeless and dangerous.

  7. Brand Robins Says:

    I have vast waves of agreement on many points, E. However, I also think that there are ways in which the “vision” of D&D held by the GM in some ways may have actually harmed the actual play of D&D as it sits in its current incarnation. (Or some previous incarnations, for that matter.)

    I mean, I haven’t gotten to play yet, but things like the skill challenge system seem ready made to do things like scouting ahead, pretending to be an evil gnome, and setting fires to flush out the kobolds.

    Reading your description there were several points at which you said “because that isn’t what D&D is supposed to do” that made me blink. I haven’t played a huge amount of 3 to 3.5 its true, but I played D&D from 78 to 96, and a lot of those kinds of sneaky thinking, long range planning things are things that always, always worked in D&D and were nearly essential to the game.

  8. Linnaeus Says:

    While Keep on the Shadowfell is mostly designed to show off the combat system, it sounds like Markku stripped out some of the colour that is in it. For example, the kobolds are highwaymen (the first fight is actually them ambushing you on your way to town), and the local law enforcement system would probably execute them if it got its hands on them, so summary execution by the PCs is not really morally out of line. Vigilante justice, but not outrageous in the eyes of the setting.

    I doubt there’s enough colour to satisfy your need for rationality, but it’s better as written than your experience indicates.

    It is a stone cold railroad, though, which rather disappointed me.

    Also, there is a system in the actual rules for dealing with non-combat challenges. It just isn’t included in the quick start rules in Keep. Frankly, it hasn’t gotten much attention in WotC’s promotion in the run-up to 4e’s release, either.

    I think you might be able to run 4e happily with a bit of bending, and some work on setting design. It certainly doesn’t seem any worse than AD&D2 to me.

  9. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Brand: yeah, I was being ironic – of course everybody plays their own way. My brother just happens to run a rather tight ship, and isn’t above complaining when players do strange things he isn’t expecting.

    Linnaeus: the skill challenge rules seem like solid conflict resolution to be sure – speaking of which, the one sample skill challenge in Shadowfell sucks solid ass as well: we were literally laughing out loud at the cheesy lines from the undead lord who “tested” us with meaningless skill checks. Way to turn a mechanic with painstakingly crafted connections between the fiction and skill values into a mockery of itself.

    But other than that, of course D&D can be made to jump through hoops. Right now it seems that the game will be written to appeal to a rather low common denominator, but if the basic rules system is solid anybody can of course use it for whatever. I doubt that it’ll be me, of course – enough work with my own design, and plenty of good games that don’t require houseruling to that extent.

  10. Linnaeus Says:

    Fair enough, although I’m not sure it’s a matter of houseruling as much as emphasizing colour a lot more than Markku did. I really think a lot of DMs overlook how important good colour is to fun challenge-based play (or else, on the traditional play side of things, try to elevate colour to the role of “something important,” to the point of completely fighting the system).

  11. NiTessine Says:

    I just reviewed the rotten thing on my own blog. It surprises me that someone would actually publish a static dungeon setting in 2008.

    A friend of mine raised an interesting comparison between KotS and the 3.5 adventure Scourge of the Howling Horde. The stories and settings are very similar, except that the latter is so much better it’s not even funny. SotH emphasises the differences between D&D and a computer game, in that the dungeon is dynamic and feels alive, while KotS is more like a WoW instance played as a board game.

    It’s somewhat amusing that though our gaming backgrounds and approaches to the pastime are completely different, our conclusions about 4E are pretty much the same.

    That said, KotS doesn’t suck because 4E sucks. It sucks because it’s a really badly written module.

  12. markkutuovinen Says:

    Here is a rephrasing of Eero’s original request: “I have never played an old-school D&D adventure from beginning to end. Please run such a game for me.” That was the agenda.

    This is where I come as a D&D GM: we’ve played weekly for four years, and I’ve GM:d perhaps 40% of the time. We play on Monday or Wednesday night, when everybody has had a long day at work or university, so nobody is up to high-falutin’ character-driven narrative shared storytelling; instead, they just want to have a few laughs and roll a few dice. For that, D&D is pretty good (we’ve also played Warhammer *shudder* and Warhammer 40k by using GURPS [it was okay]). There is zero investment to the game world, and NPCs are just cardboard cut-outs, since players do not have any interest in developing their characters through relationships and other links to the world.

    I GM’d a seven session run of BW over this spring. One summer I GM’d a pretty satisfying five session run of TSoY, and on another a three-month run of Donjon. I’ve played Capes two-three times, and right now I’m working up another game with three other people. Dogs in the Vineyard and The Princes’ Kingdom are simply tremendous games. So I’m aware of the enormous potential of roleplaying as a tool for shared storytelling (D&D is not it). However, it’s an enjoyable pretext for meeting our diverse group of players (a veteran of Bosnian conflicts, a struggling student, a successful student, an ex-student who found such good a job that there is no time for studying, an executive of a multinational bank, a day-care center worker [an ordinary dude in an ordinary job]).

    The limited time-frame (24 hours) did not allow for actual role-playing. In spite of the limited time, Eero started the play by kvetching about the slim background hooks on character sheets instead of pushing for the first battle, which is the typical behavior of a D&D player, especially in a demonstration adventure played with pre-made characters.

    It was not fun to try to run “an old-school D&D adventure” for Eero, since he has such strong views how things should be run. However, the game was intense, educational and very interesting, and therefore it was worthwhile, after all.

    Here is an example of our decoherence (the first visit to Winterhaven):
    Eero: “I’ll gather information. I’ll use Intimidation.”
    Markku: “You sure? Not Diplomacy?”
    Eero: “My character does not know Diplomacy. I’ll use Intimidation.”
    Markku: “Okay… will you question one person or several?”
    Eero: “Several.”
    Markku: “Okay. Roll for it.”
    Eero: “24”
    Markku: “Fine. You kick in the smithy’s door and reduce the smith to a blubbering wreck by yelling at him and threatening him with bodily harm unless he tells you what has been stolen from him. He tells you that the kobolds stole a magic armor from him. Then you proceed to the temple, kick in the rectory door and start interrogating the local priestess. She tells you that she’s lost a healing medallion. At this point the local guardsmen come to arrest you and drag you to the inn where Lord Padraigh is enjoying his evening meal.”

    Eero was unhappy, since he would have used much subtler methods of intimidation. A kobold-eating dwarf called “Mor the Dwarven Butcher” would have been subtler, eh? The paladin made rounds and gave up all of his money (5 gp) to the temple and the smith (who demanded 15 gp for his door, so paladin gave up his plate armor [-8 to AC]). The party’s “leader”, Tiefling Walord (sic) (WotC’s sixth character for KotS), was not going to pay up to get the armor from the hock, and Lord Padraigh was not going to pay more for eradicating the kobold problem, either, so we spent quite a while discussing this situation. At one point Lord Padraigh got fed up with the “good” adventurers who came in to terrorize the good folks of Winterhaven, make demands on top of demands and completely disrespect him.

    The game would have been better, if I had ditched the original agenda right at the beginning and started enabling a more free-wheeling game. We could have spent some time on character creation (tying the pre-made characters to the game world and each other so that they could have motivations other than slaying and looting) and figured out methods to allow for innovative approaches to battles instead of just plopping down the next battlemap and framing the situation as given in the module.

  13. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    I assure you, gentle sirs and madams, Lord Padraig is surely a villain and a scoundrel, not a gentleman at all. Town of Winterhaven will be better off without him and his miserly ways – they need a Lord with panache and vision, one who understands the world and the larger than life appetites of your common Hero(ic tier adventurer).

    That being said, as I intimated earlier, I don’t think Markku’s gamemastering was particularly wrong or at fault – I’ve read the scenario booklet afterwards, and it accords in tone and advice with how Markku ran it. While the material could be adapted in rather different ways, and there’s some subtext to support such, any concrete benefits for our group would certainly have come at the expense of faithfullness to the scenario, wretched as it may be.

    I’ll write later about how I might adapt the adventure into something interesting for myself – our weekend in Winterhaven certainly brought the differences in our preferences to stark contrast, as it seems that I simply can’t take a challengeful adventure rpg seriously without a living setting and dynamic situations – it’s all just a clumsy skirmish battle game if “roleplaying” is understood as a surface skim of dialogue and description that doesn’t affect anything in the game.

  14. William Leblanc Says:

    For the record, iirc the players need not know anything about the cult. The scenario has 3 initial suggested quest hooks; one is to find a missing mentor, one is to map the keep, and the third is to defeat the cult. The GM is told to use any or all or none of these hooks, or make up his own. The only way the players will know about the cult is if the GM decides to use the cult quest as one of the story hooks.

    It seemed to me pretty intuitive that if I were to run the game as is, I would use only the missing mentor hook, because the adventure just does not support the players going to the keep first. On the other hand, iirc the adventure doesn’t really give good support or advice on which of the hooks one should use.

  15. The Chatty DM Says:

    For what it’s worth, with the DMG in hand, a DM could adjust monsters on the fly in a matter of minutes to allow a party to follow the adventure’s ‘critical path’ and meet up with the Big bad at level 1 or 2.

    However, as the game’s mission was spelled out as a classic Hack and Slash game, that form of hacking might not have been called for.

    But then truly old school gaming was exactly about dying because characters got way over their heads by opening a wrong door and trying to survive.

  16. deadlytoque Says:

    Length warning (and apology).

    I’m running a 4e game now, and I’m not starting from KotS, but I am running in to a lot of similar problems noted here, particularly a disconnect between the encounters and the in-character decisions. What difference does it make what motivates the characters if they are still going to have to go door-to-door fighting goblins or kobolds or whatever?

    I so naturally fell into a homebrew solution that it didn’t even occur to me that I might not be playing the game as intended. I just don’t use “major quests” as much, and rather give “minor” quests in the form of jobs. My PCs are a mercenary company, specifically hired by a local lord to defend his town and its environs from monster incursions, and all of their jobs so far have been to rescue/protect villagers from actively hostile monsters. As such, their quests are things like “recover missing children” which leads to a roleplaying scene in the children’s home, a skill challenge where they try to piece together where the circumstances of the disappearance, and a fight with the ettercap responsible.

    If I do add more major quests, it’s based on player response to the minor quests. If the players are forming an attachment to certain villagers or other NPCs, then those characters will become the focus of major quests; if someone says “I wonder if those gnolls are shaping up to a major attack on the town”, then I’m going to use that, and craft a quest out of it.

    My roommate ran us through a few hours of KotS last night, and my first thought upon arriving in the town, following the Missing Mentor quest was the same as many above: why am I going to give up the quest for my missing mentor in order to chop up a few kobolds who wouldn’t have made him break a sweat? Well, our party rationalized it by saying that said mentor would want us to protect the town first, and find him after. No idea if that’s actually the case, but that’s what we said.

  17. Victor Spivey Says:

    Quite a long and interesting post. His taste and my taste are very much the same. I too hate cliche’, bad plots, boring opponents, and limited choices. He sounds like someone I’d like to game with. I do have to disagree with where he puts the blame.

    All game rule systems strive toward creating virtual reality on paper. There is something fascinating about the way subtle variations of a game’s rules can steer players toward good play (rollplaying and solid tactics) or bad (mindless die rolling). Such subtleties can be analyzed and preferences stated forever.

    Ultimately though, I’ve never had much interest in game hopping. That’s because the rules don’t really matter much. The rules define only the mechanics of how player choices will be expressed in the game, not whether choices will be allowed. This is where the game master comes in. This DM (since we are talking Dungeons and Dragons here) simply wouldn’t allow players to make choices. He did it for reasons that are his own. Alternate game mechanics won’t transform a gaming session where you’re constantly told ‘no you can’t’ into one defined by ‘yes you can’.

    Play RPG’s long enough and you will eventually experience having to stand up and leave a gaming session or group. When you hang in there, not liking it – the problem is you. To enjoy playing you have to find a DM and group that like the thing you like. Blaming the rule system won’t help.

    I do share his frustration with bad store bought adventures. By and large they are not good – thin, unimaginative, incomplete, inconsistent, you name it. After playing for a number of years, you eventually take to rewriting them or creating your own. I’ve been playing on and off for twenty five years and this has always been true. This is because all RPG game companies are in the rule book business. That is where they put there time and money. If there is anybody out there who knows a RPG system that consistently delivers good for-purchase adventures, please let me know.

  18. K Says:

    It sounds like the problem is with the GM, rather than the players. Setting forest fires to drive kobolds from cover is a great way. Lord Padraig has to be in league with the cultists. It’s just logical. Seriously, the guy in charge of the town doesn’t know what’s going on in his area? He’s the one who sends the PCs to be killed by kobolds! That evil gnome plan was brilliant, and I’d have the hobgoblins wanting to see if they’d join their company. After all they’re, -mercenaries-. Scouting is what thieves -do-. As for the kobolds, they don’t have to go that cavern. They can refuse the quest, and go look for clues to the cult. They’ll still get ambushed on the road to the keep by kobolds where a wyrmpriest holds an interesting clue. Hell, the players came up with questions not in the module, and they were answered.

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