The Slaying Stone – A stellar starting experience for D&D fans new and old
Many DMs these days have a love hate relationship with Wizards published adventures. From where I’ve been sitting through the life of 4th edition, they seem to be less and less popular as far as basing a campaign on them goes. They tend to fill gaps, or have bits of them appropriated for the DM’s needs. I maintain a library of several Wizards published adventures. I use many of their assets, particularly the maps, but beyond that they just sit there collecting dust.
Recently my group took an extended break from our campaign as one of our players was abroad, and everyone else had some other stuff going on. We played the odd board game here and there killing time, and decided to play a night of D&D with pre-made characters before we resumed the main campaign to refresh people, teach the newer players the intricacies of combat, and introduce people to the play styles of other class roles. The options available to us were Keep on the Shadowfell, Dungeon Delves, and The Slaying Stone, which i recently picked up. I wanted to play a completely premade adventure in a more classic style, and after fielding the options to my players, we settled on the Slaying Stone, primarily due to our token dwarf finding the artwork and title on the cover to be way more awesome.
We only got about halfway through it, but I was very impressed at the end of the evening, and I’d like to tell you, faithful readers, why I think this is the best starting adventure for a 4th edition group, especially if it includes players new to D&D.
1) The encounter difficulty is excellently balanced. In a party with at least one of each role, my players were able to tackle combat effectively without being overwhelmed, and learn a bit about the combat nuances as well. This doesn’t go for the boss encounters, which are definitely more of a challenge, but the fact that the encounters ended in only a few rounds with my players confident in their performance and with a better grasp on playing the field, is worth the reduced difficulty.
2) Simple skill challenges, with relevant and easy to understand skill pairings. The second encounter is a simple challenge involving sneaking into the town of Kiris Dahn. The complexity is low, and it is presented with a general lay of skills and separate paragraphs describing increased and decreased difficulties based on where they approach the town from. That didn’t stop my players from bending the skill challenge to fit their characters, using ghost sounds and shear strength to cause a commotion drawing goblin guards away from the gate. Keeping the choices few, but with room for improvisation really brought out the creativity of my players without them feeling overwhelmed. Most of the adventure is framed by an ongoing skill challenge as well, which increases the tension, abstracts the play-field, but keeps everything relevant to the characters and gives them a lot of room to experiment. Their failures also change the alert level of the baddies, effectively changing their environment. Keep it behind the screen unless your players demand transparency, and it really makes the town feel alive.
3) The story. It’s simple, but with enough room to add your own hooks. The players are searching for a lost artifiact, but it’s location is not known for certain, other than being in a town infested by goblins and kobolds. The twist comes with the revelation of who currently holds the artifact, as well as with the arrival of a new antagonist faction, seeding themselves slowly through each encounter, culminating in a boss battle and the ultimate action set piece for the adventure. The book even lists some great alternate endings and hooks depending on where your players seem to be going.
The adventure is really expertly constructed, introducing different battlefield conditions, flexible encounters, and a free flowing adventure based on a loosely laid out time table. It reminds me of the old Dragonlance adventures, where things were always happening off table whether the players knew it or not. My players really got into it, between the light role-playing, quick combat, and easily grasped and fairly transparent skill challenges. I get the feeling they would rather resume this secondary campaign instead of our main one next week.
In a nutshell, this is what published adventures should be. Richly detailed, not overwhelming, and educational. It does help to have a decently experienced DM though to keep track of everything. Provided your DM has a few games under his belt though, and you don’t have the time or desire to craft your own adventure, you really can’t go wrong. As an introduction to D&D it is quick and interesting to the players, and yet the complexity under the hood makes for some great moments as the adventure progresses.