The town of Winterhaven stands watch over a ruined keep that was once a bastion of good in the realm. This keep overlooks the Shadow Rift, a dark scar in the world that was once a gateway to the Shadowfell but has been dormant for many years. Now, an evil cleric of Orcus, Demon Lord of the Undead, seeks to re-open the gate, and the only thing standing in his way is a small yet determined band of heroes.
Wizards of the Coast: H1: Keep on the Shadowfell comes out this May… with the “H” standing for the Heroic Tier, as the adventure is set for levels 1-3; so for many folks, this will formally kick off their 4th Edition campaigns. But before we talk about the adventure itself, let’s talk about the fact that Keep on the Shadowfell will be the first 4th Edition product for sale—why release the adventure in May before the core rulebooks in June?
Bruce Cordell: D&D is about adventuring. What better way to get players introduced to the new edition than with an adventure they can jump right into? This first adventure has quick-start rules and pre-printed character sheets that’ll allow DMs a minimum of trouble in getting their game off to a great start.
Mike Mearls: You can also think of the adventure as a test drive before getting the full game. When you play through the adventure, you have a chance to learn all the rules, then you can leap right into a full blown campaign when the three core rulebooks come out. Since you already know the basics, there's not much of a learning curve for the full game.
Wizards: As the first official 4E adventure for many folks (aside from those who attended D&D Experience), what types of threats and challenges were you interested in presenting? In other words, what do you want players and DMs to learn and experience in 4th Edition through this adventure?
Bruce: I’m most interested in displaying how well the rules suit the kind of play people want to experience, both fighting and roleplaying. I want players to be thrilled when they realize just how their characters and the powers available to them work, and I want DMs to have the same kind of thrill when they realize how much easier it is to run an encounter with 4E monsters already sorted and designed to fill specific roles.
Mike: I really wanted to show off how the flavor of kobolds or goblins comes through in their new mechanics and custom-made variants we included in the Monster Manual. I hope that players feel like the fight with the goblins feels more like how a goblin fight should than ever before.
Wizards: A three-part question rolled into one: As a 4th Edition adventure, in what ways does Keep on the Shadowfell differ from a 3rd Edition adventure—first, in terms of playing through it as a player? Second, in terms of running it as a DM? And finally, in terms of designing it?
Bruce: First off, it’s a new adventure and a new story. It launches the first loosely-connected story path of the edition. As a player and DM, I touched above on the mechanical differences—however, those used to playing D&D will find much that’s familiar, too. The same is true on the design side. There is a lot of familiarity when it comes to writing the story of an adventure. However, the thing that really makes it easier for a DM is also the same thing that makes it easier for a designer—the monsters come in such a plethora, each one suited to a particular role in a melee, that it would be hard not to design a balanced encounter.
Wizards: As for the adventure itself, what can you tell us about it—beyond the introduction above, what should players prepare themselves for? And which parts of the adventure did you each design, or was it more of a collaborative effort all the way through?
Bruce: The adventure design was very collaborative. We kicked off the process months ahead of time in a meeting where we roughed out the general idea of the story, how we wanted to use battle maps (and how those battle maps would tie into the story). Then we each took various chunks when the time to write came ‘round.
Mike: Players should be ready for a full blown adventure, not a simple dungeon crawl. We designed encounters that take place back at the “home base” to give the adventure a good story and a good flow. While exploring the dungeon is an important part of the adventure, we wanted to give a complete package, not just a series of connected rooms.
Wizards: The first adventure for 3rd edition, Sunless Citadel—penned by no other than Bruce Cordell—featured kobolds as one of the monsters that adventurers would face. Kobolds make a return in Keep on the Shadowfell, but indicative of 4th Edition monsters, how are these 4th Edition kobolds different from 3rd Edition kobolds?
Bruce: In 3E, a kobold was a kobold. You could apply templates or classes with some effort, and distinguish different kobolds by personality (hello Meepo, I’m looking at you). In 4E, right off the bat you get several pre-designed kobolds handed to you, of different power levels. Saved are the nitpicking hours of coming up with new stat-blocks—now personality can be focused on exclusively, if that’s the way you want to go (no, Meepo will stay with Sunless Citadel). Of course, there are customization possibilities still available; they just aren’t required right out of the starting blocks.
Wizards: While Sunless Citadel gave us Meepo, who is this Splug character in Keep on the Shadowfell (already a popular NPC among internal playtesters)?
Mike: Splug is an iconic character I've used in dozens of D&D adventures over the years, and in keeping with the idea of making this more than just a dungeon, I added him in to give roleplayers someone with whom to interact. Splug should be a fun character for DMs who like playing borderline outrageous NPCs. He provides some comic relief, but he's also not the kind of guy you want to leave in position to stab you in the back.
Wizards: Orcus happened to be the codename for 4th Edition, back in its early stages. Was it happy coincidence that followers of Orcus appear in this adventure, or was it indeed a conscious nod?
Bruce: Conscious decision.
Wizards: As the title is Keep on the "Shadowfell", what can you tell us about Shadowfell? We’ve seen an introduction in Worlds and Monsters, but how does the Shadowfell factor into the adventure, and how does it interact with the game’s setting?
Bruce: This is from the intro: “Realms, both wondrous and dire, border the world. One such realm is the Shadowfell. Although not inherently evil, the Shadowfell is fraught with dangers, and the barrier between worlds can be thin. Sometimes the darkness breaks into the light.”
I think you can see where this is going ;-). Anyhow, one of the goals of this adventure is to foreshadow potential later adventures related to this one.
Wizards: Finally, this is but part 1 in the H series. Following Keep on the Shadowfell, where can we expect the series to take players next, if you’d be able to set up H2 Thunderspire Labyrinth (Mike, we notice your name as one of H2’s designers as well!)?
Mike: For H2, and as you'll see in H3, we tried to come up with a central concept for the adventure that the plot and story could hang on. In H2, we created an Underdark trading post of sorts, a tense neutral ground that draws some cues from Skullport in the Forgotten Realms. That's the jumping off point for a series of expeditions into an underground, ruined minotaur city.