by Mike Shea on 27 April 2009
Though nearly a year old now, Keep on the Shadowfell (KotS) remains the most-discussed adventure for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. Today we will discuss three tips for running and improving this 4e starter adventure. Though these tips focus on the Keep on the Shadowfell, the philosophy behind these tips also apply to other published adventures.
Warning: This post contains spoilers. If you plan to play through this module, you may want to stop reading now.
And now, the tips.
Tip 1: Who Is Kalarel?
Kalarel, the main boss of KotS, is an excellent villain without much backstory. All we get from the adventure is that he's a priest of Orcus attempting to spread the plague of undeath to the mortal world. Kalarel can be much more than the boss of the final encounter. How did he come to the Keep? How did he get an army of kobolds, goblins, and hobgoblins to do his bidding? Where did he come from and where does he want to go? Why does he believe what he is doing is right? What pushed him to become a priest of Orcus?
Answer these questions and you'll have a much more believable villain. Give tidbits of this information to your players through background stories, lost journal entries, discussions, or interrogations with Kalarel's minions. Make Kalarel a villain known to the PCs from the first day.
In my own run of KotC, Kalarel was a Ted-Bundy-like serial killer and the party tracked him down through his grizzly crime scenes. Kalarel also left wells behind, cauldrons of vile necrotic substances used to create his undead minions. These showed the party his growth as a priest of Orcus as they came closer to the portal at the end of the adventure.
Tip 2: Forshadow the Long War
Keep on the Shadowfell's story can be the driving force for an entire campaign against Orcus himself. Kalarel's fate at the end of the adventure leaves room for a return later on. "Death's Reach" would be a great adventure to re-introduce this villain. The central seed of your campaign against Orcus can be defined by the events in Keep on the Shadowfell. Also, introducing NPCs from later adventures in these first days can build relationships between the PCs and these NPCs further down the road. The prince's seed from King of the Trollhaunt Warrens can be much more powerful if the PCs met him early on.
Tip 3: Enrich the Winterhaven NPCs
As you introduce NPCs from further adventures, also fill out and define the NPCs from KotS that will re-occur in later adventures. In particular, the mage Valthroon and the lord of Winterhaven, Lord Padriac can be campaign-long friends and allies of the party well beyond this adventure. Likewise, Winterhaven itself makes a fine recurring city for the party, though the Seven-Pillared Hall in the Thunderspire Labyrinth module makes a somewhat better home town.
Keep the number of fully-rich NPCs small. A group of players might not be able to keep track of a dozen different NPCs, but three or four good friends or arch enemies can really add to the story of a campaign. Keep it simple but keep it deep as well.
While the above three tips focus on expanding Keep on the Shadowfell, expanding the right NPCs can improve any module or series of modules you are running. Our "Three Tips" column will focus next on Thunderspire Labyrinth. Keep watch!