Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Keep on the Shadowfell

I want to start this review with the acknowledgment that I hold Wizards of the Coast to a higher standard than I do other companies. They have the resources to do things right, and so I'm less willing to let things slide.

The physical package is interesting. You get a card stock folder with two pockets. In one pocket is the Adventure Book and in the other is the Quick Start book and three double sided battle maps. The books have flimsy paper covers, which means they aren't very durable at all. Even after a partial reading the ink on the covers will begin to smear. This is made more of a problem by the fact that the back of each booklet includes pertinent text. At the very least they should have had a back cover so that reading it doesn't smear up important text. Preferably they would have also made the covers out of heavier stock.

On the plus side, everything is in full color, the text is readable, and the artwork is attractive. This includes the three double sided battle mats representing some of the locations in the module. I understand that some of these mats have been reused from the D&D minis game, but that isn't really an issue unless you already play that game (in fact, it could be considered a plus as they've had markings that only mean something in the minis game removed so that they're more attractive for use with the RPG). These mats don't cover every location in the game. While it would be nice if they did, that would have required many more mats. Basically, they cover all the planned outdoor encounters and the module's climax. The remaining dungeon encounters are pictured in the module and should be easy enough to recreate on a blank battle mat, or even just a piece of graph paper if necessary.

The Quick Start book is meant to be read by both players and GM. It includes five pages of rules and five two-sided character sheets. Here's where my first complaint comes in that I probably wouldn't make if this wasn't WotC. This is a pre-release module designed for five players. I have one book of quick start rules with five character sheets included. How, exactly, is this supposed to work? Am I expected to have all five players share this book?

They should have found a way to further condense the rules so that they could include five character folios of four pages each that included both the rules and a single character. At the very least the character sheets should have been printed as separate sheets so they could be handed out to the players, or else provided as a free download online. There's not even a "permission to photocopy for personal use" statement on the character sheets! Apparently, everyone is supposed to buy their own copy of the adventure, or else just share the single book. I expect better.

Overall, the quick start rules are good, although certain sections are left out of the player's version for no apparent reason. For example, the rules for area effects are included in the Adventure Book, but not the Quick Start book. Since some characters start with area effect powers, this seems a little strange.

Unfortunately, the quick start rules don't cover everything that is in the module. For example, one encounter includes a creature that has both a reach attack and a power that recharges, neither of which are explained in the quick start rules. I can make an educated guess as to how they work, but I may or may not be correct. In another case, the players find a magical short sword, but it doesn't list the basic damage of a short sword. It can be derived from some of the monster stats, but again it's simply an educated guess as to what happens if a player decides to use the short sword.

The adventure itself is pretty straightforward in terms of plot, with lots of interesting encounters that highlight many of the new systems that differentiate 4th edition from 3rd. It also has a good level of internal consistency and provides logical reasons for the characters to be doing what they are doing. It's a good effort that should be relatively easy to fit into whatever setting the GM desires.

The end result is a product that is a pretty good introduction to the system for experienced gamers, but a pretty lousy one for people completely new to Dungeons & Dragons. Fortunately, most of the problems I have discussed occur later in the module, so with any luck many groups will have their hands on the full rules by the time they get to those points.

UPDATE: Having got a peek at the new rulebooks, they do indeed clear up the few issues I mentioned, and my guesses as to how things were supposed to work were pretty close to the mark. That doesn't change my conclusion that this is a better introduction to the system for experienced players than it is for people new to D&D.

1 comment:

BlackDiamond said...

You're right on with your review, of course. Some of the minor problems I didn't pick up, probably because I made assumptions and didn't bother checking the quick start rules.

The character sheet issue is one that some players have come back to me with at the store. They wonder if they should buy a copy too, which I strongly encourage them NOT to do. There seems to be a tendency to encourage players to acquire DM information, a philosophical choice I'm not happy with, but apparently is common in the computer game world. I found the listing of magic items in the new Player's Handbook to be kind of sad. So much for a sense of mystery.

I guess my only comment about target audience is that the D&D 4 initial release is marketed to veteran gamers. The goal is to get their buy in first. In the fall we'll see a new box set for beginners and there will be advertising targeting that demographic. The current 3.5 box set is a very well done beginners product that walks you through every step of the adventure. Shadowfell strikes me as a veteran product.

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