Monday, May 26, 2008

Shadow in the... no, Fell on the Keep's Shadow... no...

I'm currently reading through the first official 4e product, module H1 - Keep on the Shadowfell. No spoilers, I promise -- I couldn't expect Griff to not read his own blog, now, could I?

The module, being released over two weeks before the actual rules are, comes with a set of Quick Start Rules, as well as five premade character (six with the web download), since character creation isn't supplied. The Quick Start booklet is well-done, giving you just the information you need to play the adventure. It's hard for me to judge whether or not a newcomer to D&D could make do with this booklet, or if some previous D&D experience is required, as I find it hard to purposefully forget all of the concepts that I already understand. It does, however, give you all of the 4e-specific things that a 3e player would need to know to play.

The module booklet also duplicates all of the information in the Quick Start booklet, and adds a little extra information for the DM, such as Condition, Targets and a little more detail about Skills. The Skill section definitely reveals the 4e idea of simplicity, with the Perception skill consolidating the Listen/Spot/Search, Thievery grouping Disable Device/Open Lock/Pick Pockets/Slight of Hand, etc. The skills take up half of a page in the Quick Start, and two pages in the module -- I can't see them taking up much more space in the final rulebooks, which is a big change compared to the 3.5 section.

Of course, not everything is appealing. If you've read any of the previous posts in this blog, you know what we think of the "Miniaturization" of D&D, and this module only emphasizes things more. As expected, all distances are measured in squares, but it becomes more noticeable as you go on. Charging requires that you stop at the nearest square to your target. This isn't new, as 3.0/3.5 had the same requirement, but it only outlines the you-can-only-stand-in-this-5'-by-5'-spot feeling that you would expect from Miniatures, but not from a role-playing game, which by its nature should be more free-form. The worst case of tile-thinking is in the description of a "barrier" area-of-effect (such as a wall of stone I suppose):

Barrier: A barrier runs along the edge of a specified number of squares. A barrier must cross at least one edge of the origin square.

So not only do I have to specify a number of SQUARES, it also has to go along the edge of squares? What if I want it at an angle? What if I want it in the middle of a square? And if it has to run along an edge, how can it cross and edge? Even if I construct dungeons with rectangular, blocky areas, there's no way I'm not going to house-rule all over this one and tell my spellcasters they can put their barriers wherever the hell they want.

The new structure of hit points and healing and dying is something I'll just have to see in practice. PCs and monsters have a lot more hitpoints, and we have healing surges, and second winds, and... well, it's different, but until we actually try it, I suppose I'll not dismiss it. Yet.

I do like the new encounter layout, which isn't strictly a 4e thing, but has come out along with all of the 4e material, so we'll lump it in as "new D&D stuff". Having the flavour text, monster blocks, encounter map, tactics and treasure all nicely on two opposing pages makes it VERY handy for the DM. No page-flipping required; just leave the booklet open and it's all there.

And speaking of monster blocks... while they're nice and compact, giving you just the information you need, they also reek of Miniature stat cards. As I said, they're useful enough for giving the data you want, but it's yet another example of D&D becoming Miniatures With Roleplaying On Top.

And speaking of monsters... when I first read about Minions, it just sounded like a way to simplify things even more. Having seen how they're used in encounters (err, I mean, not to say that there ARE minions in this adventure...), I think they were actually well-designed. I've yet to actually run an encounter with them, but being a numbers-guy, I can see how they serve the purpose for which they were designed. In theory at least.

And speaking of monster roles... these blog pages have complained about the idea of roles, and I don't know that I understand their full purpose in 4e, but I did find that, while reading the adventure, I found myself looking at the roles for each of the participants, using it as a gist of what they were about. I may not know if Skirmisher means they get this power or have these hit points or whatnot, but at least I know their, err, role in the encounter. Not to say that there ARE skirmishers in this adventure...

The talk about reduced use of magic items in 4e also showed itself in this module, although being a level 1-3 adventure, I suppose it's comparable to the magic items you might find in a 3.5 adventure of the same level. Especially if it was a WOTC adventure, which are infamous for getting you to 20th level with a +1 longsword, if you're lucky. Not to say that there ARE magic items in this adventure...

The other 4e-style changes to things like skill usage, rewards and quests also get a little clearer in this adventure, and it looks, so far, that they've each been well-designed and playtested. Not to say that there ARE skill checks, treasure, XP or quests in this adventure...

Even with all of the Excerpts they've been throwing at us, it wasn't until I got this product in my hands and started flipping through it that 4e really become a solid, tangible thing that was coming, whether we like it or not. I'm warming up to it, but it will depend largely on how much we can un-Miniaturize the rules when we play it. Of course, summer is the worst time for 4e to be released, as we older geeks have yards to tend to and golf courses to terrorize, but hopefully our group will be able to find time to try this module out soon.

1 comment:

Griff said...

So... ummm, are there skirmishers, magic items, etc... in the module?

Seriously, this is disheartening news. I had been hoping that the miniaturization of DnD was just my jaded pessimism, but now...