H1 Keep on the Shadowfell is the preview adventure for Dungeons & Dragons 4E. It was released 18 days before the actual rulebooks, being apparently pushed for the really impatient gamer crowd. Effectively, it was eight days before the rulebooks, since someone on the inside leaked high-quality pdf files of the rulebooks to a torrent site. Personally, I am surprised it took this long.
Me, I’m reviewing this because a friend of mine received a complimentary copy and gave it to me on the condition that I review it here. I would never have paid money for this, since what you get for your €30 is a flimsy cardboard folder (like with The Shattered Gates of Slaughtergarde) with 16-page quickstart rules, an 80-page adventure booklet, and three two-sided poster maps for miniature battles. Two of the poster maps are recycled from the Fantastic Locations packs Dragondown Grotto (Dragondown Grotto/Forest Cliff Lair) and Fields of Ruin (King’s Road/Dungeon of Blood). The booklets are flimsy, printed on cheap paper and have no covers, making them very vulnerable to wear and tear – but then, this is more or less a disposable product anyway, to tide you over until you can get your sweaty hands, dirty with printer ink, on the core books.
The poster maps have been marked for use with D&D, not for Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures. They don’t have starting zones or victory areas marked, and at least one of the new maps is obviously not balanced for the game. They are awfully pretty, though, and I may adapt them for use with something else.
It probably should be mentioned that I playtested this, though you’ll have to take my word for it. No playtester credits on this one. I won’t elaborate on how many of our suggestions made it in. You can probably guess.
I won’t go over the rules here. The quick-start rules are in there, and they’re sufficient to play the module. I’ll tell you what I think about the rules when my Player’s Handbook arrives.
Incidentally, the following review will contain SPOILERS, so don’t read this if you’re planning on playing this. Instead, refer this to your prospective DM and see if he’d run something better.
Down to Business
The adventure comes with five pre-made characters – a dwarf fighter, a halfling rogue, a human wizard, a half-elf cleric of Bahamut (not that your deity choices affect anything in this edition) and a dragonborn paladin. They are unnamed and ungendered, just a collection of stats. They’ve been given advancement schemes up to third level. Funnily enough, only the wizard’s art matches the character. The rest have wrong weapons, with a sword and shield for the axe-wielding dwarf or some sort of huge two-handed weapon for the sword-and-board paladin, and so on.
I think here is the first missed opportunity of the adventure. If I was going to put pre-made characters into an adventure module, I’d give them names, personalities and backgrounds, and a personal stake in the adventure or a reason to be in the area. As it stands, you’ve got a hook tying the party to a side quest and one that could apply to the cleric, but on the whole, the story opportunities here have been missed. Some personality for the PCs would’ve been good, and I would’ve given each of them a personal quest of their own.
The adventure itself begins in medias res, with a fight on the road to Winterhaven. This pretty much sets the stage for the rest of it. It’s one fight after another, with chances for rest and talking to a few villagers in between. It runs on rails, scripted.
The encounter format isn’t bad. You’re given a two-page spread with a tactical map, all relevant monster stats, notes on illumination, possible uses for skills, monster tactics, and all that. It’s pretty good for running tactical combat encounters, which seems to be the only thing there is in this.
There are a few amusing errors here, such as the following. Note also the grammatical error, which is by no means a singular occurrence. There are also a couple of typos and in one case, a reference to the wrong encounter area:
As the adventure begins, the player characters find themselves traveling down a road that hasn’t been maintained in nearly a hundred years ago.
Said road is a clear, 15-foot-wide dirt track that cuts through a forest. It doesn’t have so much as grass growing in the middle. Rather than elaborate, I’m just going to link you to History Channel’s wonderful documentary Life After People that I found on Google Video, and move on. It’s got a lot of material to mine for games.
Also, the road leads to Winterhaven, a village with a population of 977 and seventeen buildings, including the public ones. I’ve discussed this before, and will just note here that it’s glaringly stupid.
Anyway, the party fights, goes on to Winterhaven, is directed by plot imperatives to complete at least one, possibly two side-quests (consisting of going somewhere and killing something) before they tackle the main event, the Keep on the Shadowfell, where there’s the sorriest cult of Orcus I’ve ever seen. Okay, the NPCs are given motivations for why they do this. They’re not particularly plausible ones, but they’re there.
Stupid NPCs are a recurring theme in the module. One of the side quests is about an archaeological dig, where the PCs must go and investigate. The dig leader is a bad guy, who has a kidnap victim hidden away. Instead of even trying to glibly persuade the PCs, an obviously well-equipped and dangerous group, into believing that everything is alright and there’s nothing to see here, he will attack immediately when the PCs are in range or suspect something.
The Shadowfell portion of the adventure manages to hit most bases for bad adventure design. It’s overly long, with a total of 19 combat encounters, most of them repetitive. You will also end up fighting rats. Twice. Fatigue hits about halfway through, when you’re mowing down yet another band of goblins or horde of zombies. A lot of these are just filler, stuff for the PCs to kill so they can get to level three in time to face Kalarel (or Kaulruel, as the module also refers to him), the Big Bad Evil Cliché.
Tactics are given for the monsters in the context of their own encounter areas, but there’s little on what they do if they manage to flee and alert the others. In one area, it’s specifically noted that monsters will not venture out of their area to help their comrades, trusting them to be able to overcome whatever it is they’re fighting.
Then there’s the room with the obviously trapped statues. There’s Splug, an obvious attempt to artificially recreate the popularity of Meepo from The Sunless Citadel (a much better adventure). There’s a place where you can get infinite mook skeletons to fight and kill for experience points.
In the end, you face Kalarel, a high-priest of Orcus, and his merry band of undead. He’s trying to open up a portal to the realm of Orcus. Interestingly, there’s an instant kill condition related to the portal. There are streams of flowing blood, a 20-foot statue of Orcus, braziers, the whole shebang. Very Temple of Doom, except not as cool. The fight against Kalarel, unfortunately, reminds me of a boss fight in Scholomance, with his conditional teleporting and variety of powers ranging from healing minions to debuffs.
In closing, H1 Keep on the Shadowfell is an uninspired, overly long and badly edited adventure. The plot is nonexistent, the combat encounters get repetitive, and on the whole, it’s poorly thought out. The production values are low and the price is too high. Something good could maybe be extracted from it, but there’s no point since it’s easier to just construct a better adventure from scratch. With the rulebooks so close, there’s really no reason for anyone but a diehard collector to pick this up.