In defence of the H/P/E adventures

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



Filed under RPG

13 responses to “In defence of the H/P/E adventures

  1. Daz

    Hi Baz, much like yourself, me and my mates played AD&D back in the day and stopped playing for about a decade or so. Keep on the Shadowfell served as our introduction to 4e and back to gaming in general. We all had a blast although this was partly due to the 4e rules which we all loved right off the bat. I think the old school dungeon crawl nature of the module provoked a certain amount of nostalgia (and it doesn’t get any more old school than gelatenous cubes!).

    The only criticism I had of the module was the difficulty of a couple of the encounters. The party barely survived Irontooth and Kalarel wiped the entire party. (They just couldn’t hit him with his high defences augmented by standing in the magic circle). However, the party still enjoyed the module in spite of the anti-climatic ending.

    After H1 we started out again with new level 1 characters and switched to the Scales of War adventure path, so we never got a chance to play the rest of the mods in the series, so I’ll be interested to hear what you thought of them.

    • Hi Daz,

      I’ll be noting my thoughts on the restt of the series… when I get round to it! Hopefully that won’t be too long. I have to say that overall I think the Scales of War campaign is probably a touch better than the heroic tier of Keep/Thunderspire/Pyramid, but there’s not much in it. If Scales had provided poster maps, that woud have sealed the deal.


  2. Your gaming session sound very much like ours, right down to the pot of tea.

    We played “Keep on the Shadowfell” as our introduction to 4e. By the end of it, none of us were impression by the system or by the module but I don’t think it was the module’s fault.

    Keep’ has a plot so thin and transparent it is a miracle it doesn’t just float away. It is very combat heavy and it does not have many role-playing opportunities built in…

    … but as an introductory adventure, it is perfect. This is exactly what you want from a module trying to teach you the game mechanics. The module was designed for a purpose and does it excellently.

    I haven’t played the later modules and if they continued in the same way, I expect I would find them a bit dull. But a good GM can always lift even the weakness dungeon.

    • Hi Chris,

      Stevie makes all the tea at our sessions and it’s a task he takes very seriously indeed. In fact, the tea and snacks are worth a guest post on their own.
      Now then, you make mention of the lack of roleplaying opportunities. I have a fairly lengthy response to that (in summary, I disagree) so keep an eye out.
      Your point about a good GM is spot on. When I read (and write) reviews it’s always worth remembering that the written work is maybe only half the ingredients for a good game, the other half is made up of the people at the table and the GM usually leads from the front on that score.


  3. Amen to all that!

    Shadowfell deserves a lot more love than it gets on the intertubes, for all the reasons you list and more. It’s a terrific 1st level jump in at the deep end seat of your pants introduction to 4th Edition that manages to get the balance just right for new GMs (who can run it as written) and experienced ones who can have a lot of fun with the role-playing opportunities inside it.

    Sure, it has a few (minor) flaws and inconsistencies, but what adventure doesn’t. Me, I rate it right up there with the Sunless Citadel as a classic first adventure for a new edition of the rules.

    Looking forward to hearing more of what you think about the rest of the series!

    • Hi,

      Another yes vote! I wasn’t expecting that…
      Unlike Chris, you say there are roleplaying opportunities available. I agree, and I’ll explain why later.
      I haven’t read The Sunless Citadel, but I’ll seek it out based on your recommendation.


  4. Have you used the orcus updates to H1-H3? They are a fan mod that greatly improves the plot. I’m running H1 online now, using that and a couple twists and such of my own invention and having great fun.

  5. danurai

    I think the win is in the sit-down-and-play factor, stat blocks and area features are all there handily laid out on a 2-page spread. It would be cool if there was an overarching campaign theme to them – an Epic level goal – but 4e is about the PCs, they write the Story and the mod is just the road they’re travelling on.
    I was thinking of writing something for my slow-running Eberron game but am fairly well invested in Seekers of the Ashen Crown now I’ve read some of it. There are some things I will change\add\ignore because it’s not a regular weekly game – actually I’d love to jump to about the 12th encounter (no spoilers).
    So after playing through H1-H3, I think my favourite has been Pyramid of Shadows. Karavakos was a very real Bad Guy, we knew who he was and recognised him when you stuck a big Tiefling mini on the map. The subject matter appealed to my character (Tiefling starlock) and has helped develop him in my head and Vyrellis was a great NPC that divided the party and provoked roleplay. But I think eventually it was Karavakos that had us emotionally involved in the story.

    • “4e is about the PCs, they write the Story and the mod is just the road they’re travelling on.” Dan, you speak great wisdom. I’m keeping this quote handy for future interweb wars.


  6. Pingback: Thunderspire Labyrinth. Try it. « Treehouse:

  7. Our group just bested Kalarel in our last session (the corresponding adventure journal will be posted to my blog tomorrow). I made some minor modifications to a couple encounters, but played the adventure pretty much As Written, and everyone had fun. There was even some roleplaying.

    Thunderspire looms on the heroes’ horizon, after a short break where we switch DMs and try out some Paragon level PCs for a one-shot.

  8. Pingback: Role playing opportunities « Treehouse:

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