I'm running my first campaign with three friends. This is the first time any of us have done any table-top role-playing. I'm working the party through the H1: Keep on the Shadowfell campaign using just PHB1.

So far they have made it through the first two encounters and barely escaped death. To be perfectly honest, they probably would have died if I didn't fudge some of the enemy attack rolls ever so slightly.

I know my role as a DM isn't to keep them alive or kill them off, but I'm trying to at least not kill them for the first few encounters because I want to make sure they're having fun and I'd hate for them to worry about actually dying right out of the gate.

Yes, the players are having fun. They haven't complained about nearing death both encounters and it gives them a lot of satisfaction because they succeeded while staring death in the face. My question is then more abstract: is it normal for players to get so close to death in every encounter?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you add more detail? Is this the first time role-playing for all of you? What about D&D specifically? 4th edition? I found that, even as an experienced 1st edition DM that 4e rules were a bit confusing at first, and I made a bunch of bad rulings (that certainly could have contributed to situations like yours.) Also - how many characters are in your party? Keep in mind that most adventures expect 5 player-characters... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 0:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Keep on the shadowfell is an old old module. Are you using any of the rewrites for it? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 1:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: A PC dies every session - bad tactics or the normal outcome of adventuring? \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 1:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ "I know my role as a DM isn't to keep them alive…" That, I would have thought, depends on your group. If they don't want to be optimised for combat, and don't want to die either, your role may be to go easy on them. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 8:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ "My role as a DM isn't to keep them alive..." System dependant, in Paranoia your role is to kill them as much as possible. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rob
    Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 10:52

2 Answers 2


Keep on the Shadowfell is balanced for parties of 5 players

The default party size for 4e is 5 players, and all the official modules are designed to be an appropriate challenge for a party of 5. This is not to say that the game won't work well with 3 players (my experience has been that it starts having trouble when you have 2 or less players or 8+ players), just that the amount of monsters you'll find in each fight are intended to be a typical challenge for a group of 5 players, rather than 3.

Keep on the Shadowfell is admittedly pretty poorly balanced, since it's the very first module ever produced for 4e, back before everything was really thoroughly playtested, so how close to ideal it is for a party of 5 is debatable; nonetheless, it was designed for 5. I highly recommend checking out the rewrite of KotS that Brian Ballsun-Stanton linked.

Regardless of whether you stick with the original module or switch to the rewrite, you're still looking at something built for 5 players, so the real question is how do you deal with that? I've got 3 possible approaches.

  1. You can rebalance things for a party of 3 by removing approximately 40% of the XP worth of monsters for each fight; not 40% of the monsters, but 40% of the fight's total XP value worth of monsters.

  2. If your players are happy with the current difficulty level, you can always keep going as things are. Later on your players may need to seek advice (the official 4e Character Optimization forum would be a good place) on how to keep their characters sufficiently capable.

  3. You can compromise between approaches 1 & 2 by reducing the XP total for fights by 20%; this will balance things for 4 players, which should still be fairly challenging for a party of 3 but will also reduce the "almost dying every time" factor.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I kept trying to find in the module something about how many players it was expecting. My first thought was that it was expecting more than we had. I like the idea about scaling back based on the XP and not the monsters. \$\endgroup\$
    – Anthony
    Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 1:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Anthony: Scaling based on XP is actually how the system is designed (one of its major advantages over previous editions is how easy it is to put together a balanced encounter by simply putting in an appropriate amount of XP worth of monsters of near the party's level). Check out the XP budget & encounter design sections of the DMG. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 1:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ Will do! I'm learning by the seat of my pants. I'm mostly just glad everyone is having fun in spite of my setbacks. \$\endgroup\$
    – Anthony
    Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 1:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just saw your edit. The crazy thing is, the first encounter was actually just 2 players, the 3rd player was added in our second session. \$\endgroup\$
    – Anthony
    Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 1:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Anthony: It sounds like they like a challenge, so I wouldn't cut back the full 40% of XP until they indicate that the difficulty is becoming a problem. Remember you're always welcome to pop into our chat if you need general advice. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 1:45

No. First level has a very risky dynamic and Keep on the shadowfell is a very very old module that needs refinement.

First: initial players to 4e take a while to get system mastery. The relative lethality of first level doesn't help. They may have made choices in character creation that don't fit their requirements of "not dying horribly."

Second: Here is an excellent rewrite of KotS that... brings it more in line with the 4e design philosophy. Some of those early modules are just horrible.

Third: 3 newbies going into this module is something I would consider to be a "challenge". While a properly optimized party should have no problems, it requires a significant amount of system expertise necessary to achieve that kind of synergy. If you have any experienced players, perhaps ask them to play some moving meat-shields. Otherwise, drop a few monsters from the fights. (Don't pay attention to XP. In playing a 1-30 campaign, we ended up levelling when the plot called for it. The points just don't matter.)

Fourth: Magic items are important. If you give the players a large allotment of items appropriate for their characters early, it can make life much easier.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'll definitely check out the rewrite. I keep reading about people complaining about PHB1 and the H1 campaign being poorly balanced, but we started things pretty quick so I haven't been able to do as much digging as I'd hope. \$\endgroup\$
    – Anthony
    Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 1:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you using DDI and the new character builder? The system has received a lot of love since those initial publications. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 1:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ When they rolled their character we used the basic sheet and the single copy of the PHB I have, but then I used the character builder to make everyone a copy of their character sheet for their reference. It is really nice and helps ease us into all the more subtle calculations which are involved. \$\endgroup\$
    – Anthony
    Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 1:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, Since you have CB, make sure to grab the latest monsters from DDI as well. There have been changes, and some of those first monsters are just WTF. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 1:43

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