Posted by : David Guyll August 19, 2014

I rarely use published adventures, and when I do it is even rarer for me to run them anywhere close to "as written", because players.

I have however read quite a few in my time: In Search of the Unknown, that one adventure with the crashed space ship, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, every single goddamn adventure from the Age of Worms, Savage Tide, and Rise of the Runelords adventure paths, all of the official WotC ones for 4th Edition, a bunch from Dungeon (from 2nd to 4th Edition), and more.

Some are okay, but most are pretty forgettable when they aren't terrible (though there are some "memorable" stinkers in the mix), which is just part of why my favorite would have to be H1: Keep on the Shadowfell, aka a shining example that Mike Mearls has no fucking clue what to do with 4th Edition (which would explain his "warlords shouting wounds closed" statement).

To be fair it's not the worst published adventure out there, but between the fucking nonsense plot, confusing motivations of the utterly inept villain (who also left letters on his hired help, and was trying to open a portal to a plane that was in fact not inhabited by the guy he was trying to summon), and seemingly random assortment of monsters it comes pretty damned close. So if it's not the worse, and certainly not the best, why the hell am I choosing it?

Because ironically it is the adventure that I have simultaneously run the most, and put the most work into improving (as well as converting it to 5th Edition and doing a post on running it in Dungeon World). My group was barely able to get through it the first time because of how retarded it was, so after that I started just pulling shit out of my ass and largely make it up on the fly, only keeping the general idea that there were kobolds doing kobold things, and a death cult doing death cult things.

I blogged numerous times about the changes I made, and eventually compiled all of them into a document that changed virtually every aspect about the adventure, from the kobold lair (which featured a young green dragon as the "end boss"), to the ruins of Shadowfell Keep, to the catacombs underneath (which featured a pair of skill challenges to represent exploring the catacombs and trying to seal the gate). When I started converting it to 5th Edition some areas got improved maps, or maps at all, and both Sir Keegan and the ghost of his wife got more meaningful roles.

Call it a frustrating, sometimes disappointing labor of love. Call it something akin to Stockholm Syndrome. The main point is that in the end this terrible, confusing adventure has given me a lot of laughs (at the writing's expense), and eventually after a lot of work even some good times, and that's why it's my favorite.

{ 17 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. We actually tried to start playing 4e with this adventure, waaaay back.
    It was so awful, that on our 4th (i think) session we just quit.
    Also, it made me drop 4E for two years at least.

    Second time we started with DM-kit's "Reavers of Harkenwold", which was rather great, and got us hooked up on 4E.

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    1. Oh yeah, by default Reavers was WAAAY better. I also preferred Cairn of the Winter King, which I think came in the Monster Vault box?

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    2. Indeed it came in MV box, and we played it as second adventure in our campaign.

      Cairn is also great, but a little straightforward for our playstyle. I added custom made abandoned wizard tower, where the found the scepter which worked out superb. Than I added some social'n'politics stuff with local dwarf community... that fail was epic, a lesson for me.

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    3. The fail was epic? What happened?

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    4. I didn't invest the time it needed to make politics engaging, interesting or even worth messing with. So my party dumped whole session trying to figure out what to do, then just dropped whole story branch.

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    5. To be fair, politicking is a difficult thing to get right. All props to you for giving it a shot at least.

      I remember a similar flop in my 4E conversion of Red Hand of Doom. At one point, the PCs become part of a war council deciding how to defend a major city during an assault. For whatever reason, I went into the session thinking that the module would have the whole scene pretty well worked out... and promptly found myself at a complete loss for words about 10 seconds into it. The whole thing devolved into "You need to break a tie - do you think A or B is the RIGHT ANSWER for this situation?" We were able to rebound and have a good session afterwards, but it definitely jumped quickly from "This will be a focal point of the session" to "oh dear god end scene end scene."

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    6. @Oleg: Yeah, gotta say it was nice that you tried. :-)

      @Marty: Ha! I think I only ever ran the start of RHoD. Do you have any conversion notes for your 4E version? I'd like to try it with that, or mebbe Dungeon World.

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    7. I might have the Masterplan and Monster Builder files around, but the netbook I was using has been sent to the scrap heap so they may be gone.

      I didn't really adapt much beyond new monsters. The biggest changes were giving the PCs a few extra feats & encounter powers to compensate for there only being 3 of them. I also added an extra Act between parts 2 and 3, which involved the PCs running into Warlord Kharn's warband on their way to the Ghostlord.

      I'll see what I can dig up, though; the framework of the adventure is pretty good, if a little railroad-y. And there are definitely one or two "Dear henchmen, this is my evil plan. Love, Badguy" letters.

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    8. I will say though, that having run the first part of the adventure in 3E and the whole thing in 4E, 4E works WAAAAY better. Not just because I prefer the system -- minions make the adventure work, like.... at all.

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    9. Fished through my hard drive, and it looks like all I have is my Masterplan file. I've barely used Dropbox, so hopefully the permissions aren't totally wrong.

      https://www.dropbox.com/s/zxvi2gshfvmgi1x/Red%20Hand%20of%20Doom.masterplan?dl=0

      It's fairly sparse, unfortunately. I mostly just a flowchart of events with page references and notes about encounter compositions, which are kind of useless without the swath of custom monsters (and sometimes Treasures) I made. But hopefully it'll be of at least some use. I had 3 PCs starting at level 2 (with a bonus 1st level encounter power each), and had them wrap up at level 10 by the end of it.

      But in general, it's a pretty good adventure that suffers from weak connective tissue between the big "Acts" of it and a somewhat railroad-y structure. (Though some of that is simply because there's a big level disparity if you go to the Act 3 zone before Act 2.) If you don't add in more hooks and/or really stress the few that are in there, you'll end up needing NPCs to pretty much say "Maaaaybe you should go to X and do Y." I took a few leads from an old ENWorld thread that I can no longer find, but a few things off the top of my head:

      In Act 1, you absolutely need to make sure the PCs make it to -- I think it's called Cinder Hill? That's where they can see a gigantic hobgoblin army and make the obvious conclusion that a handful of heroes and a tiny hamlet aren't going to stop it. Mine didn't go there, so they started to set up a defense, only to realize when the army got there that they'd just wasted a bunch of time. Also, if they don't get Wyrmlord Koth's map from Vraath Keep, they're REALLY short of info; the module assumes the PCs acquire it and make some pretty bold conclusions based off of its scribblings. Also, the spy angle they introduce is totally half-baked. It's a good idea, but there's nothing behind it except for "there's a spy, also the spy is a spider monster."

      Act 2, I framed as seeking out a kooky old wizard rather than (or in addition to) the elves. That was a simple bait and switch though, since they just found a dead wizard and a couple spawn of Tiamat, running into the elves shortly after. The bigger change overall was in fleshing out the Ghostlord (who appears in act 3) based on those ENWorld suggestions. Essentially, he became a fallen apprentice of the leader of the elves (which mitigates the need for a letter from the badguys saying "This is his phylactery, definitely don't take it back to him"). Also gave him some backstory about trying to conquer the vale previously before being stopped by the army of (the now ruined) city of Rhest, which can help tie together the Lion theme. That's also a good way to potentially introduce him in Act 1 as a different danger/front rather than just following the trail of NPC advice.

      Like I said before, I added in a segment between Acts 2 and 3 where the PCs tried to assassinate Wyrmlord Kharn since the incoming army is basically between points A and B anyway. That introduced some deception dickery and gave one of the bad guys some actual facetime. Because it's D&D and levels matter a ton, Kharn & company totally outclassed the PCs, and one ended up KO'd and captured. Which meant even more face time with the villain as well as a crazy scheme to break out the captured PC. I also added in the missing white dragon (all of Tiamat's other colors appear in the adventure) here.

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    10. Act 3 is largely okay -- just a dungeon crawl where the goal is to reach the end and negotiate with a batty old reclusive lich that could almost certainly kill everyone if you annoy him. It does take you in the region of the dwarves that are being solicited as mercenarys, but there's absolutely nothing in the adventure about them except for "there is a treasure chest full of gold headed down there." My Masterplan file has a sketched out side-quest involving them since my party was 2 dwarves and an elf who thought dwarves were totally rad, but it never came up so it's mostly just notes.

      Act 4 is a bunch of good ideas that really need another pass of editing. VPs based on campaign-level decisions come up quite a bit (hope you've been keeping track of details throughout the campaign) but the politicking segment needs a lot of workshopping. The PCs are likely meeting a bunch of the NPCs for the first time, and yet a lot of the segments involve deciding what the city is going to do and hoping you picked the right answer, which yields Victory Points for the scenario but not a consequence in terms of what the future battles are. I through in a few oddball fights to mix things up. One was against ogres who were more interested in breaking down the city walls than fighting the PCs, and another was basically a tower defense game as enemies surged into the city -- if X enemies reached a "finish line" zone before Y rounds, it basically meant the PCs had lost. I feel like I'm being hard on this segment, which sucks because we had a great time with it. It's sort of emblematic of the adventure in general though - really cool ideas that just aren't quite connected well enough.

      Act 5 is basically a throwaway dungeon crawl and is easily the weakest part of the adventure unless your PCs are excited to punch Tiamat in the face. I've seen suggestions to actually steer the PCs there before Act 4, which is probably a good idea if you don't want to clip the segment out altogether. As is, it's just sort of... why does this exist? You've already broken the army (so maybe there are demonic reinforcements that they just didn't wait for?), and while you're ostensibly fighting the REAL leader of the horde, it's a guy who again has only showed up by word of mouth and maybe a letter or two. It's just not as cool as Kharn, the guy literally at the front of the army, who maybe kicked your ass once and then busted down the city gates and slugged it out with you on the fields of Brindol as the dawn's light peeked over the horizon.

      I do really like it as a 4E adventure -- you get a lot of mileage out of minions since the PCs really get to cut loose. The bit I ran in 3E mostly meant you either killed 3 hobgoblins and you had to be all "Yeah great job, those dudes were super important" or you were running 20 mooks who were totally ineffective in every way. Reframing it in Dungeon World terms, you should try to foreshadow as many of the "Acts" as Fronts/Dangers by the end of Act 1. The PCs don't need to have the full story, but they should have solid leads on stuff going down in the swamp, the Ghostlord being a potential problem, spooky rituals at the Fane of Tiamat, and an army about to bring the noise all the way to Brindol. That sense of "Oh god, everything is awful" should keep them from needing to be led around by the nose by NPCs, and since you're going to have to make up monsters for everything anyway, you don't need to rely on the adventure's scripted levels.

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    11. Also in terms of pruning the adventure, it might be a good idea to think of the "order" as Act 1 ==> Acts 2/3/5 ==> Act 4, and only give the PCs time to complete two of Acts 2, 3, and 5. If they skip 2, they don't have elves helping at the Battle of Brindol and have to deal with Spawn of Tiamat in the enemy army. If they skip 3, they don't have the dwarven mercs and have to deal with the Ghostlord & his lions. If they skip 5, they have the aspect of Tiamat and a bunch of demons to deal with. This is the sort of structure I'd actually like more in a video game than a tabletop since you could actually play through it 3 times and get the different experiences. But if you take a few minutes to remind them of their accomplishments ("The good news is, there isn't a blue dragon, green dragon, demons, or spawn of tiamat. The bad news is, there's a behir, a lich, and a bunch of spooooky lions.") it might go over well.

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    12. I was able to get the file and DAMN, that's a lot of info on handling the adventure! Thanks for the extensive writeup. :-D

      I could definitely see how minions make it easier to handle lots of things, and I LOVE the idea of making the players choose what to do. It's something I had hoped from Mass Effect 3.

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  2. One of our players tried 4e with a different group and eventually quit in frustration.

    He and I, years later, were talking about the problems with 4e launch. I started talking about how the first adventure was a huge problem, discussing the repetitive kobold ambushes and how it's weird having them break the shifting rules while you're trying to learn them.

    When I mentioned the Irontooth fight, he was like "Oh god! That was totally the adventure he was running! That was official?"

    And the Keep on the Shadowfell claims another victim.

    Cheers!
    Kinak

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    1. @Kinak: Yeah, I'm not sure WHY anyone over at WotC thought that KotS would be a good, well, anything for anyone: the kobold ambushes, the kobold cave that was just one giant room, Shadowfell Keep's neatly divided floors with goblins on one, hobs on the next, and undead on the last, the bizarre layout of the Keep's basement floor (and the fact that Sir Keegan and his kids all slept in empty, giant-ass rooms), Kalarel's letters, the list goes on and on.

      I can't recall anyone saying that they actually enjoy it as is, and I can't even imagine anyone who would.

      The next few adventures (Thunderspire Labyrinth and Pyramid of Shadows) were also pretty bad, and since we rarely got to Paragon tier I didn't bother reading the rest.

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  3. Castle Amber x2 absolutely! I played and DMed it like 20 times!

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/8/81/Castle_Amber_X2.jpg/250px-Castle_Amber_X2.jpg

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    1. Castle Amber? Wow, that's going back quite a bit. I didn't play much Basic or normal D&D...do you think it'd work well with 4th?

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