The official adventures from WotC have come in for a lot of flak since the first appearance of Keep on the Shaodwfell back in 2008. The internet is full of bad thngs to say about the ‘Orcus’ series, including, but not limited to: there’s no story, there’s nothing but combats, the encounters are dull, the paper is too thin, the villains dont make sense, there’s not enough maps, there’s no minis, they rely too much on minis, the cover art sucks, the fights are too easy, the fights are too hard, there’s no metaplot etc, etc… Some of these criticisms have a point, although far too often that point is buried under a general dislike of 4e D&D (or just D&D generally) and it’s hard to argue with such an opinion. So here’s my way of looking at them.
Let’s start with some groundrules and assumptions. First, I love 4e, it’s my favourite iteration of D&D, which in turn is my favourite RPG. Second, I’m a big fan of published adventures, they just work for me generally. Thirdly, and related to secondly, it’s my humble opinion that the vast majority of published adventures are not nearly as good as they could and should be. Fourthly, well, fourthly is pretty much the rest of this post.
Let’s call these things modules, or mods, for ease. Ok. So the idea of mods is to give you and your group something to do with the core rules of the game and the characters youve built. Simple as that. Like an adventure in a can, all done for you and ready to go. When you look at the Orcus mods purely from a functional viewpoint then they succeed already. In fact, they go a long way beyond that. They also serve as a tourguide to the D&D milieu (a word I learned from the original AD&D), and as an example of how to construct your own encounters and adventures at home. They also provide the very basics of a setting, with a cast of reusable NPCs and locations, as well as some physical props in the form of some delicious poster maps. They’re even wrapped up in a nice folder, and, godsdammit, I like the cover art!
As well as all that, it’s important to add in the real things that have happened at my table, because it’s only then, with real play under our belts, that I’ve come to appreciate these mods. We’ve played every week for more than 18 months now. We’re just about to finish Trollhaunt warrens with the party approaching 14th level (We took a 4 month sojourn into Forgotten Realms). I’m a long time gamer with many long campaigns under my belt. They include Horror on the Orient Express for Cthulhu, The Enemy Within for WFRP and Harlequin for Shadowrun. Even so, this is now the longest run of single system gaming I’ve ever encountered, and the same is true for my players, some of whom I’ve gamed with for 15 years now. That’s got to count for something. Not only that, but the party has stayed with pretty much the same personnel all the way through, including my lovely wife who is still playing Kallista, the human wizard pregen from the very first mod. Did I mention my wife plays? That’s right, a total non gamer who now enjoys playing D&D every week and has turned to writing her own stuff and is the first to nab my new books off me.
But what about the lack of plot? Tell tthat to Steve and Dan who every week, without fail, e-mail the entire group with the latest campaign updates. I’ve published a few of these on this very blog. The plot might be basic, but it’s workable, and by this point, more importantly, its ours. In game, there are a lot of combats, that’s true. To which the pat response is: it’s D&D, durrr. In truth, the fights are great. I had worries at a couple of points that there was too much and that they were overshadowing the game. My players put me right though, the love the combats, and their characters all get to play, all get to participate in a meaningful way in all kinds of exciting locales.
Our usual pattern is this. I put an hours prep into each week, fiddling with encounters, getting tiles and minis ready. The guys show up between 7:30 and 8 on Wednesday night. We get a pot of tea on the go and everyone gets their snacks out. We catch up on the weeks events, and swap lodas of DVDs, books and video games amongst ourselves. We have a quick recap and we’re off. Within 15 mins there’s usually a call for initiative and then it’s battle mode for an hour. We then take a break for more tea, and Dan nips out for a ciggie. back to the game and we roleplay some exploration or narration or whatever. Then we get into a second encounter for about an hour or so, and then that’s it for the night. All told we might play for 2 1/2 or 3 hours. I think that’s why it occasionally feels combat heavy, because back in my college days we played for 4 to 6 hours at a stretch. We don’t have that luxury anymore, so we tend to get straight to the action. Not unreasonable? All this means that we spend about a month of real time, 4 weeks, to level up. That’s suits us nicely. Gives us time to learn our powers and plenty of time to plan new escapades. That means each mod get 3 to 4 months of play with our group and that’s pretty good value in anyones money.
Earlier I mentioned the guided tour. Let me expand on that. I fell out of playing D&D for a long time while I tried other things. About 25 years off to be exact. So there are a bunch of D&D tropes that I simply haven’t ever encountered, and certainly haven’t got bored with. The sames true of my players, it’s really like virgin snow for most of us. I played plenty of AD&D back in the late seventies and early eighties, so there’s quite a few nostalgic kickers in this series for me. For instance, Keep on the Shadowfell, encounter 1. It’s set in a 30′ square room with stairs leading down to it and there’s a pit trap in the centre. The room is full of goblins. That could have come straight from the example of play in red box D&D, and I love that.
Let me give you a few more reasons to love the first mod:Kalarel, an evil cleric performing an evil ritual, bwa ha ha. Irontooth, the encounter that nearly everyone has played, and remembers. Winterhaven, a town to call your own. A kobold ambush. They have how many hits?! They get a free shift? What’s that? Valthrun the Prescient. He looks like Ming the Merciless. The burial site, with the dying words of your mentor. A ruined keep, with a dungeon underneath it. Rat swarm. Goblin minions, thousands of them! Skeletons pouring from coffins. A lawful skeleton knight. An ochre jelly! and a blue slime! A graveyard full of undead Wandering monsters Hobgoblins, including a warcaster A gelatinous cube ambush A chamber full of magic traps Vampires and deathpriests A tentacled portal to evil
Seriously, that’s like a checklist of cool things I’d want from any starter adventure.
Next time: Why Thunderspire is the new Vault of the Drow