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Like a lot of people eager to get an early taste of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition (D&D 4E), I picked up the adventure/quick-start kit Keep on the Shadowfell. Like a lot of people, I checked in on other people’s progress in the adventure by perusing “KotS” threads on the EN World message boards. It looked like a lot of people were just getting a couple of encounters into the adventure during their first sessions, hindered by the drag caused by even a modest learning curve.

Since the first couple of encounters were simple battles with some repetitive (albeit nontraditional) kobolds, and I didn’t expect to play this adventure more than once or twice before I started designing my own, I opted to mix things up. Some great encounters were waiting deeper in the adventure, so I pulled some of those out and rearranged them into a new mini-adventure. It was easy, just unplug and play.

The goals: Try out a few different kinds of encounters, try out as many player characters as possible, and aim for something atmospheric but shallow, focused on packing in a lot of play even at the expense of narrative.

Click, read on, and see what this one-session remix looks like. Read on, and see just how badly I screwed it up. Read on, and see why I continue to be excited about D&D 4E despite one bad first impression.

If you haven’t yet read or if you plan to play Keep on the Shadowfell, you should probably avoid this article. Though the map used here isn’t the one from that adventure, the encounters are taken directly from the book (and then reorganized). Don’t blame me if your DM gets all mad that you know this stuff.

Adapting the Scenario

I did it mostly wrong. Thinking that D&D 4E was still power-balanced on a four-PC adventuring party, I didn’t think I’d have to do much to adapt encounters to my three-PC party. But it turns out that 4E is built around a five-PC party, so my players were outmatched more than I thought. My plan was to tip the balance here and there by making richly characterized but tactically weak choices during combat, without fudging dice rolls. That is, I’d roll the dice in the open and take what came, but I’d arrange for kobolds to make emotional rather than strategic decisions. Give the PCs a little wiggle room.

Factoid: This is the longest GPW article to date.That wasn’t enough. To make things worse, it turns out we were mis-ruling the effects of a few enemy powers during the remixed encounter, “Trapped Kobolds” (below). As written, I think we were right to surmise what we did, though.

Truth be told, Keep on the Shadowfell is riddled with little editorial errors that, based on my experience, smell of a product caught in the midst of other products’ development cycles. I look at the text of this kit, and I see a product that was revised and revised again as the 4E rules changed all around it. Here and there are linguistic artifacts left over from the game’s previous edition. Some things, which maybe seem obvious if you have the complete rules at hand, are left under-described or merely implied in the quick-start rules. So it goes. Viewed as a playable periodical-level product, and purchased at Amazon prices, I feel like I got close to my money’s worth. If I use the poster-maps that came bundled with it, it’ll pay for itself.

All that aside, adaptation was easy. I plucked a handful of encounters out of the book, based on their relative Encounter Level (EL; that is, their difficulty) and the elements of the game they showed off, and arranged them in a way that amused me. And, here, I made another mistake. The adventure, even when it’s arranged for 1st-level characters, is light on Encounter Level 1 challenges. Figuring, though, that the book knows better than I do, and seeing that it pits 1st-level PCs against EL 2 and higher encounters, I figured I could just gently adjust the balance during play and things would stay on track. Characters, I thought, must be able to take on challenges of ELs higher than their character level, since the book was throwing them up against tough encounters all over the place.

Remember, though, that I’d already underestimated the effect of having too small a party in play.

Adventure Background

Kept this simple. I like barrows, from Maeshowe (which I managed to miss) to the Great Barrow, so I set this little adventure in one of them barrows:

“Long ago, the great knight Sir Galavere slew the wicked and heartless dragon what had been nesting in a cave not far from town. In the fighting, Sir Galavere himself suffered a fatal wound. When it was time, he was buried in a barrow built up adjacent to the dragon’s lair, so that its remains would be watched over by Galavere and his loyal men-at-arms, lest the creature ever return.

Two nights ago, strange and scaled creatures marched up to the knight’s barrow and, avoiding the ceremonial entrance, dug their way inside. By day, it was discovered that they had collapsed their tunnel. No doubt they’ve made off with treasures from the barrow.

Help us, brave souls! Venture inside the barrow, through the ceremonial entrance, and see what damage they’ve done. Then, if possible, recover what has been taken before it is put to some evil use.”

Whenever kobolds come up, I use a spin on the old legend of dragon’s teeth to give them some mystique. Kobolds, I say, are born when a dragon scale is left buried for a winter—each scale transforms into a fully grown and armed kobold. So, these kobolds are out looking for dragon scales they can use to make great kobold warriors. Or something. I just needed something to be at stake for this adventure, and a potential army of kobolds seemed like enough.

At this point, the three players had the six pre-gen characters to choose from (including the Tiefling Warlord from the D&D website). First up: the wizard, the paladin, and the fighter. They elected not to play two characters apiece, so we said the other three characters were still “on their way from a nearby castle” and kept them in reserve in case of a TPK.

From reading the forums, I thought we might need them. I was right.

Click any image to launch the gallery and read more about these pictures.

the sarcophagus
dungeon entrance
dungeon key
dungeon master key
The final encounter


1. Barrow Guardians:

The barrow is not a place meant for the living. It is low and dark. Its walls are packed soil braced with long etched stones. Funerary pots and gilded plates pressed into the clay-and-dirt walls marks the burial site of some long-dead swordsman or follower of Sir Galavere. The walls are studded with them, dozens and dozens of them, running along this processional passage toward the knight’s crypt.

Taken From: Area 7 (p. 50) — As written, this encounter is a spooky aside, revealing some of the history of the Keep on the Shadowfell and offering up an unexpected twist on an EL 1 encounter. It fit my barrow idea just fine and a slight puzzle element to it, which I like, so I made this my first 4E encounter.

Function: This encounter is a mix of minion-quality skeletal combatants and a pair of full-on skeletal warriors. Until a particular action is taken (in this case, until Sir Galavere’s sarcophagus at the end of the corridor is closed again), skeleton minions keep emerging from the walls every five rounds. Thus, it has the potential to be several EL 1 encounters, one after another, until the PCs flee or close up the coffin. It also shows off 4E’s new minion rules, which I dig.

Outcome: I ditched the coffins in the encounter as written and had the skeletal minions crawl straight out of the walls, smeared with dirt and claw and gasping for new life. The PCs were surrounded in a hurry (so their wizard-at-the-back strategy didn’t work for long) and bad rolls were making things look dramatic already—so far, so good.

It took us longer than I expected to get through the first wave of monsters (’cause of those bad rolls), so I offered up some Religion and Arcana skill checks (DC 15) when the second wave emerged. Success yielded a bit of exposition: The dead will not quit until the chamber is right for rest again. That did it. The wizard, in the back, yells out, “Close the coffin!” and the fighter rushes up to do it.

Once shut, the remaining minions collapse in the dirt and the next encounter is immediately triggered.

2. The Sarcophagus:

The moment the coffin lid is shut, a bright white light flares up in the air above it. As it fades, it reveals the hovering spectral form of a knight in ornate, old-fashioned armor, split and dented from battle. Pale and shimmering, it looks across the chamber at each of you, sizing you up. Then it places one ghostly hand on its sword and speaks: “Who are you?”

Taken From: Area 8 (p. 52) — This EL 4 encounter is sitting within reach of 1st-level PCs in the book, so I gave it a shot, too. A ghostly knight (in my case, Sir Galavere himself) appears and parleys with the PCs. If they assure him that they are here on noble purpose, he doesn’t fight them but awards them with his magic sword, so that they might better combat the evil in the dungeon. You know, as dead knights are wont to do.

In other words, only if the PCs make a mess of things do they actually have to fight the EL 4 ghost. Play it smart, and that’s 875 XP for roleplaying. Nice.

Function: Both as written and as played, this encounter was a simple introduction to Skill Challenges (about which more later). The book doesn’t call it that, but that’s what this is—and an easy one. Any skill is fair game. What the scene does is show how player inventiveness and narrative rationale play into Skill Challenges: Just what skill is eligible for use while parleying with the ghost is up to the players to rationalize through roleplaying. Logically, each player’s character will speak to the ghost using whatever skill that character is best at. The wizard (using the Arcana skill) promises to safeguard the magic relics within the tomb and prevent the kobolds from carrying out any evil rituals. The paladin uses Intimidate to show the ghost how fierce he is. You get the idea. A nice little storybook interlude.

Outcome: Everyone succeeds, the ghostly knight is placated, and he gives the paladin a magical sword (taken straight from the book).

The terrain in these pictures is from Dwarven Forge‘s terrific line of modular dungeon and cavern sets. They’re pricey, but great fun. (I wanted them for a long while before I broke down and got them.) The miniatures are assorted D&D Miniatures, standing in for this adventure’s particular heroes and monsters.3. The Cube and the Dead:
Taken From: Area 15 (p. 70) — I’m a sucker for a good gelatinous cube, so I plucked this encounter from the book as soon as I saw it. It’s EL 3, but the players have numerous ways of trapping or fleeing the creature in the space I was using, so I figured it would be okay. Plus, I’d seen EL 3 encounters (and worse!) tossed against 1st-level PCs earlier, so how bad could it be.

Function: Uh… to show off how much fun I can be when running gelatinous cube encounters, I guess?

Also, as a supply of XP before the next encounter—if the players slay the two undead in this encounter, they gain an additional chunk of “quest XP” that, when divided over three players, could’ve bumped them to 2nd level.

Outcome: The fighter, scouting ahead, saw two wet and slimy zombies at the end of this corridor “standing in a sickly green glow” (they’re actually standing on the other side of the gelatinous cube) and said to his cohorts, “Yeah, let’s go the other way.” So we didn’t play this encounter.

4. Trapped Kobolds:

From the caves ahead comes the sounds of scraping footsteps and a small, harsh voice yelling in the gloom. “Dig with your hands, not with your mouth!” Something laughs an awful, inhuman laugh. It smells wet and moldy in there.

Taken From: A1 (p. 24) — This is one of the early encounters in the published adventure, taking place well before the PCs even reach the titular keep. Though it’s an early fight in the book, it’s also EL 2, so I thought it might pack enough punch for a semi-climactic battle with the kobold grave-robbers. For my own amusement, I swapped out this encounter’s kobold skirmisher for the kobold slinger with the fun special ammunition on page 16 of the adventure. (They’re both 100-XP critters, so it’s an even trade.)

I thought it was weird that four out of the five monsters in this encounter were higher level than the PCs. But whatever. The book knows what it’s doing.

Function: This is meant to be a straight-up tactical encounter, helping players juggle multiple capable opponents while coordinating their own teamwork and using their own powers to maximum effect. Also, this encounter teaches us how the element of surprise works in 4E, though I switched it around for the sake of my outnumbered PCs and gave them the advantage of surprise instead.

Outcome: TPK.

Here’s what we did wrong: We misunderstood just how the “Dragonshield Tactics” ability of the kobold dragonshields was supposed to work. That power looks like this:

Dragonshield Tactics: (immediate reaction, when an adjacent enemy moves away or an enemy moves adjacent; at-will) The kobold dragonshield may shift 1 square.
[Emphasis mine]

As written, the power seemed to allow the kobold to back away from any character that moves up to attack, so you need two characters to gang up on a dragonshield to really be effective—one to move up and trigger his ability, the other to move up again and attack, now that his ability has been used up. The other alternative seemed to be the charge action, which resolves itself before the kobold gets to back up in response to the triggering action. I thought the whole point was: gang up on this guy or charge him.

Apparently I was wrong. Suffice to say, the power merely facilitates controlled movement around the game board. As I was using it, it reduced the number of active combatants on the PCs’ side by one every turn—since it took two dudes to gang up on a dragonshield every turn. That, combined with the outnumbered PCs and a really bad run of dice rolls, did them in.

If you’re going to use kobolds in your D&D 4E game, be sure to have Mike Mearls’ Kobold Victory Chart at hand. It’s spectacular. The spell-casting kobold priest took the paladin and the fighter out with a blast of fire, leaving the wizard alone. But he couldn’t flee, because the slinger had snuck around behind him through the other entrance to the cave (b) and trapped him (d). The wizard fell on the following turn.

It was clear that the PCs were outmatched, but we still had some enthusiasm left to play with. Maybe now, with a better understanding of the rules (though, remember, we were still playing the dragonshields illegally), the back-up characters could defeat the kobolds. So we called them in—warlord, cleric, and rogue.

This time through, the PCs kept the advantage of surprise until they could position the rogue in just the right spot to use his First Strike power. When they sprang into action, they snatched an immediate advantage in initiative. From then on, they used the rogue’s and warlord’s abilities to move enemies around, keeping the kobolds separated (and therefore weaker—they get an advantage for mobbing opponents). Pair that with the cleric’s and the warlord’s healing, and they did just fine. The dragonshields were slain. The slinger and his fancy ammunition was driven off in fear. The previous three characters were freed (e) and the kobold priest was surrounded.

Things started to change, then. It was getting really, really hot in the house. We had a barbecue to be at in about an hour. People we were carpooling with showed up. Real life encroached.

Still, like a dork, I kept with my pre-planned rules for the encounter: If the kobold priest was defeated in the pool of water (5), an object he was carrying would spill out and begin the next encounter…

5. Blue Slime:
Taken From: Area 11 (p. 58) — As written in Keep on the Shadowfell, this is a tangential (EL 3) encounter, present in the dungeon only by happenstance. I liked the idea of an object accidentally dropped into the water unleashing a potent solo monster, though, so I tossed it into my adventure as a conditional event: This encounter could be circumvented by simply keeping the kobold priest and his jug-o-ooze out of the water (5). The kobold priest from the previous encounter, meanwhile, would try really hard to be in the water when he died, creating another little tactical wrinkle during that fight.

Normally, I use music very carefully, very precisely, in my RPG games. This time out, for the sake of speed, I just slapped on one soundtrack, which I don’t usually do. It’s a good one, though: John Debney’s score for Lair, the PS2 game (which I’ve never played). [Available at iTunes] If you’re interested, maybe someday I’ll get around to writing more about some of the great film scores for gaming.Function: As published, this encounter is really just a sideshow, but it gives players a taste of combat against a single monster designed to face a whole party of foes. That was its real function in my adventure: let’s see what these “solo” monsters can do. I thought it might make a nice climax.

Outcome: Damn-near TPK. As an experiment, and for our own (rapidly dwindling) amusement, we set it up so that all six PCs would work in concert against this creature. I gave the party a five-minute rest while the monster swelled and bubbled and coalesced in the pool. The characters could flee (like cowards) or they could stop this thing from running loose in the barrow. We, the players, probably would’ve just fled the game at that point, but for some reason we soldiered on. (I’m thinking it was because I was pressuring us to do it.) So, some characters used their 5-minute rest to restore encounter-use powers and heal up, others used it to make Heal checks on the three previously defeated heroes. We ended up with six nearly bloodied heroes ready to make a last stand.

That didn’t work. The blue slime’s long reach and burst effects took quick care of the front-line fighters. Facing yet another crushing defeat, and being eager to go drink and eat brats, we settled on a quick gambit that would offer us a bit of narrative satisfaction—if it worked. Otherwise, we’d be left with a defeat fairly inflicted by circumstance.

The plan was this: if the halfling rogue could do damage to the slime and then flee toward the exit of the cave (d), the slime would follow him rather than finish off the dying heroes at its, uh, “feet.” We joked that the rogue would lead the slime to the gelatinous cube, and they would fight like stop-motion Harryhausen monsters.

That’s as far as our imaginations took it, though. Once we got the rogue into position and he’d damaged the slime, we declared the gambit a success, hailed the PCs are heroes or whatever, and got the hell out of the house. We were done thinking about 4E for the day. I left everything out on the table, wondering if I’d be able to get these guys to play the game after the real rulebooks were out.

I bet we’ll play again, and my enthusiasm is still high, but I think my players are wary now.

Dramatic Elevation vs. Actual Enthusiasm

drama chart

Yes, it’s a graph. What do you want from me?In my next article, I’ll look at the disparity between the enthusiasm and immersion of us players versus the supposed narrative arc and drama of the session as it appeared in the imaginary fiction we players were aware of but not exactly buying into. You can get a sense of it from the graph, though. Our enthusiasm for the game (red) began high, even while the dramatic stakes of the gameplay itself (green) were still low. Eventually, though, both peter out—and not even in sync with one another.

Why? We’ll take a look at that next week.