As I said last time, I got started on my current D&D campaign by running Keep on the Shadowfell – the first official 4th Edition D&D adventure released by Wizards of the Coast. They’ve since released a PDF version for free, which makes commenting on the changes I’ve made super-easy as you all can follow along if you’re so inclined. Today we’ll be looking at pages 42-43, Area 8: Sir Keegan’s Tomb. My own rewritten version can be found here.
A detailed examination – and spoilers – after the jump.
The first things that struck me about this encounter was the same thing that strikes me about almost every adventure put out by Wizards (and most other publishing houses). The atmosphere, plot, and narrative all strike me as bland and boring. That’s a stylistic difference, and on top of that this adventure was written for thousands of groups – my version is only meant for my own. I’m not going to harp this point every time, but it almost always applies. For example, I’m in the process of wrapping up Thunderspire Labyrinth at the moment and I’m fairly certain I rewrote every bit of read-aloud text in the entire module (of course I also redesigned every single encounter to some degree, and drastically altered the plot – by the time we got going on Thunderspire, I was finished school and had the time to really take an active hand in my own game again).
Beyond the simple narrative, there were three specific problems I identified with this encounter.
The first was logical – Keegan is a level 4 solo. Kalarel (the adventure’s final big bad) level 8 elite. While I’m not saying Keegan should have butchered Kalarel by any means, if he’s so opposed to the reactivation of the rift you’d think the skeletal knight would be doing something other than just kicking back in his coffin waiting for a band of heroes to stumble upon him. So I rewrote the backstory, indicating that Kalarel had expected to make a servant of Keegan – only to have the plan backfire. Thus the necromancer had actually warded the tomb doors, sealing Keegan inside – helpless to interfere. Also, crossing the ward gave me the opportunity to provide one of the players a mild hat-tip – Malyce, the drow wizard, took the Vampiric Heritage feat. Crossing a magical barrier meant to forestall the undead caused her to be slowed and weakened (save ends) at the start of the fight – I’ve really been trying to integrate my players’ character choices into the game in these small but noticeable ways. Dhampir isn’t a feat – it’s what Malyce is, a half-vampire shunned and exiled by her own kind.
The second issue was the division of challenges. As written, the players undergo a skill challenge – fighting Sir Keegan only if the challenge was failed. This made the skill challenge less immediately threatening. Instead, I had Sir Keegan emerge into combat right away – with the skill challenge serving as an early “out“. This was a good idea, though poorly executed – it was the first skill challenge I’d run during combat, and the result was sort of awkward. Once they realized there was a lot more to gain from talking him down than killing him, one character kept him marked to draw his fire and all the others focused on using skills. I should have designed the challenge in such a way that the threat and excitement was kept higher, though I’m still not sure how.
The final problem I had with this encounter was that it was a waste. In my opinion, Keegan is without a doubt the most interesting and compelling character in the entire adventure – as written, the party either beats him down or convinces him to aid them, and then you never hear about him again. So I decided to expand on his role in the adventure – he’s involved in the final confrontation with Kalarel, foreshadows another NPC (Vencel), provides a major quest, fills in a number of blanks about what’s going on, and also sets up some additional quest lines for further down the line. Specifically, the references to IV and his predecessor II will get their own blog post on setting up dramatic and satisfying villains and opponents.
From a mechanical standpoint, I had to adjust the fight in a few ways. I have a party of six characters afterall, and I believe they were level 2 or 3 at this point. I upped Keegan’s level and tossed around the idea of adding in a pair of skeleton warriors. I decided not to go with this second option because I thought it would make the encounter too challenging – my mistake.
Then I tricked out Keegan with some new powers – specifically making his charge attack more resistant to the fighter’s ability to stop movement with opportunity attacks, thus presenting him the chance to dash to the rear of the party and start cutting into the more melee-vulnerable backline. I also gave him Meet the Charge, specifically meant to counter either Raif (the goliath fighter, who has a number of charge-capable attack powers) and IV (minotaur runepriest, who loves loves loves his goring charge). This was the first time I used an enemy that could really counter a player’s attack, but I wanted the party on notice that such things would occasionally come out of the woodwork – unfortunately he never got to use it, for the reasons described above.
All in all, this encounter was a very satisfying one – for me and my party. That said, it was more satisfying for roleplaying and narrative reasons than as a combat encounter or a skill challenge. It was a learning experience, though – and Sir Keegan is almost certainly still the most popular NPC my players have encountered thusfar.