As I’ve mentioned before, I recently finished running my D&D group through the published adventure; Cairn of the Winter King. This is the adventure that comes included in the Monster Vault boxed set. It’s the typical 32 page glossy we’ve gotten to know from WotC. It’s the same format as the two-part story entitled Reavers of Harkenwold that is included in the DM’s Kit. Overall, I thought Cairn of the Winter King was a pretty good module (Reavers is Excellent BTW). The Monster Vault was an amazing product and getting a fun adventure included was a great bonus. However, in running it, I was reminded of lessens I learned long ago. Player choice can and should make a difference, but it shouldn’t ruin the experience.
(I’ll try to write this without any significant story spoilers, other than the obvious one inherent in to the title of the article.)
The issue began for me and my group not long after the heroes made their way to the Keep of the Winter King. In case you don’t know, this adventure is made up largely of a traditional dungeon crawl as far as the actual layout of the main encounter areas. However, the encounters are designed to tell a story, to reveal the truth of the Winter King and what has lead to the players involvement. It does this by introducing the players to both enemies and potential allies as they travel deeper into the unknown. Reading the adventure, this made perfect sense. You’re introduced to NPCs in a logical progression and the heroes are introduced to obstacles early in the adventure while they come across potential solutions later.
However, this all hinges on whether or not the players choose to go left or right after the first encounter. You heard it right. This simple decision can alter the entirety of how the story unfolds for the PCs. For the most part, the adventure assumes the players will go right. Not wanting to railroad my group, I was supportive of them going whatever way they choose. But as the adventure played out, it became clear to me that this was a story best told in a more linear fashion as opposed to a branched narrative. By choosing to go left (always left), my players were introduced to the solutions of the problems before they ever saw the actual problems. In this way, as they were eventually introduced to the problems, the solutions were painfully obvious. Comments like “Oh, so THIS is what that item was for all along!” were pretty common and somewhat disappointing.
Also of note, the encounters escalate as you move deeper into the dungeon (more or less). By going one direction, they get steadily more challenging. By going the opposite direction, you face the most challenging encounters early and the easier ones later. My group actually leveled up midway through, making the final encounters a real breeze had I not rebalanced them in advance. This could cause some problems for new DM’s as rebalancing on the fly can be a challenge if you’re not familiar with the mechanics of 4E.
Ultimately, we had a good time. The group is a real blast to run for and everyone feeds off of everyone elses energy. The story and NPCs are engaging and it spins its yarn off the base of Fallcrest that is presented in the DMG1. I definitely recommend giving this adventure a shot. Just be careful that you know going in how things will work if your players are like mine and choose to “Always Go Left”.