Sunday, July 26, 2009

Wrapped up H2: Thunderspire Labyrinth - not as good as Keep on the Shadowfell...

I ran Keep on the Shadowfell for the D&D group that plays periodically at Timewarp Comics & Games, right as D&D 4E was released. The particular d&d group that was playing it there meets roughly once - sometimes twice - a month, so it took us a good 6 months to play through the whole thing. This was during the honeymoon period for me with Fourth Edition, when a lot of the new powers and class permutations seemed pretty novel and exciting. After DMing the game for a few months though, for different players, I started to feel a little differently, feeling that each combat was becoming repetitive. ("I use magic missile." "I use magic missile." "I use magic missile.") It seemed to me that despite the efforts to add new options to character classes, a weakness for some classes from1st Edition had reared its ugly head again - there are courses of action that are far more preferable for certain classes, and you'll use them over and over again, despite having other options. Magic Missile might have been the weapon of choice for a 1st level magic user in 1e because that was the most effective option, but at least by 4th level, you had a lot of other options. In 4E, after a wizard has blown their encounter power(s), they're still using magic missile a heck of a lot, even at level 8 or even higher...

So why did Keep on the Shadowfell work for me, aside from the honeymoon stage piece? Well, it was a well done module with lots of hooks for encounters and NPCs that weren't fleshed out. It was vaguely reminiscent of T1: The Village of Hommlet from early AD&D, in that the town itself was just as much the adventure as the encounters themselves - meet the town wizard, meet the innkeeper, etc. The end of the mod felt a bit like a railroaded closing to what had been a pretty promising adventure, but that's in my opinion a necessary evil of published adventures - they need to establish closure somehow, and if there are a lot of well defined plot hooks along the way, the closing sometimes can be a bit abrupt or have some urgency to it, just for architecture's sake.
My buddy Josh ran Thunderspire Labyrinth for the same group, though, and my feelings are not the same as they were for Shadowfell. Thunderspire Labyrinth had a lot of potential - the party saves slaves captured by evil Duergar - dark dwarves - in the Underdark, have to fight off a cult associate with an ancient Minotaur temple, and more. That said, this module seemed way more heavy on the encounters and factions that were pretty two-dimensional (we get it - Duergar are evil dwarves...) rather than providing an adventuring environment and NPCs that the PCs really had any interest in protecting. The concept of a town in a mountain was great, but I didn't feel like there were any strong hooks for making this place a home for the PCs - something I always look for in settings (create a place where the PCs wouldn't mind staying, and adventuring some more).

I have a lot of respect for Baker and Mearls, I just felt like after the wide-open, sandbox-y feel of Shadowfell that Thunderspire gave a lot more potential for play outside the pages of the module, whereas Thunderspire Labyrinth had some great scenes and ideas but was more of an adventure to play as a path to completing the Heroic Tier so that you could get on with the Paragon stuff.

We're going to play a sandbox game of Forgotten Realms as the next game with this group. I'll be DMing, and the party will find themselves in the Moonsea, leveraging a lot of the things I thought Baker has done well with the Swords of the Moonsea series, and giving the players an open ended world to play in.

What'd you think of H1 and H2? Is H3 worth incorporating into our game? Interestingly, I've seen lots of folks say they thought H2 was far better than H1. Discuss!

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