One of the fun challenges of running a session in the Shadowfell is trying to convey the magnitude of wickedness, gloom, despair and violence. The DM can hit the five senses quickly through flavor text, but the Shadowfell seems to call for even more attention to detail in terms of convincing the players that they should be in a constant state of fear. It is a challenge I continue to face each week as my players continue to adventure in Gloomwrought (and Beyond).
A tool provided in the Shadowfell boxset is the Despair Deck, which is a nifty tool to layer additional mechanics into the game to demonstrate the negative effects of simply spending time in the bleak realm. The suggestions are to use the Despair Deck any time a character takes an extended rest while in the Shadowfell or if they witness a rather nasty scene such as “a lair where ghouls have been feeding off townspeople.” I tweaked this second approach over the weekend when the party arrived at an enormous pile of rotting corpses. The party decided to search through the pile in the hopes of finding gold or other valuables. At this point, I asked everyone who was searching to roll a saving throw; those that failed were required to draw a card from the Despair Deck.
The Save vs. Despair option seemed appropriate to the story, and I believe it’s a good tool for any DM to utilize. A fellow gamer suggested the DM should consider the character’s Race with Despair effects. For example, perhaps characters with the Shadow origin are not affected; also, there is now a Warforged in my adventuring party and I probably should have skipped him saving against Despair (his roll was successful anyway, so it turned out to be moot). Even without the Despair Deck, the DM can create potential “Save vs. X” effects based on the story and encounters in the campaign. This is another interesting way to navigate the Save vs. Death issue.
There are many other ways for a DM to convey the required emotions the Shadowfell outside of the Despair Deck. Below, I talk about additions I made to one of the published skill challenges in the Shadowfell Encounter Book to increase the level of horror in the adventure.
On page 14 of the Shadowfell Encounter Book, a skill challenge titled Rooftop Chase is presented. The challenge outlines a structure for a chase between the party and enemies. The challenge can be established as the party chasing the bad guys or the bad guys chasing the party. In our campaign, the party was tasked with finding a Shadar-kai who had betrayed his clan and was in hiding. The party was given a location and the chase followed soon thereafter.
The Setup for Rooftop chase encourages the DM to include dynamic, cinematic scenes for the chase. The end of the chase result in a combat encounter, and I followed the advice to base the difficulty of the encounter on the number of successes achieved by the party during the skill challenge. Each time a member of the party succeeded, one of the enemies fleeing the party was killed in a spectacular fashion. Meanwhile, a failure lead to an injury to the player and loss of a healing surge.
Because improvisation is not my strongest skill, I prepared ahead of time by creating a list of grizzly deaths for the enemies being chased by the party. The players got a sense quickly of what a success meant for the challenge, and they were eager to hear how the next bad guy was going to die. One of my players asked, “Did you just watch Final Destination or something?” I admit the descriptions were elaborate and perhaps over-the-top, but I think it satisfied the goal of conveying how brutal and unforgiving Gloomwrought can be to those caught unaware. The list of grizzly deaths I created is below.
- A shadar-kai thug running from you jumps to an adjacent building but stumbles on a slippery railing. He tumbles over the edge and you hear a sickening crunch of bones being broken and skin bursting wide open. As you run past, you see the broken body is impaled upon a gruesome gargoyle below.
- One of the shadar-kai teleports across a long alley. Jumping such a distance is out of the question. You can see the shadar-kai smirk and start to run off again. But the thug is engulfed by a passing wraith. She and the wraith emit high-pitched screams that dance in the night air as return to your pursuit.
- You pace the shadar-kai closest to you, measuring his every move. Unsheathing your throwing axe, you place a well-aimed shot at the target. Your throwing axe whistles through the air and connects to the back of the shadar-kai’s head. You continue chasing the rest of the thugs and – in one swift motion – rip the axe from the dead thug’s skull without losing a step.
- A member of the Ghost Talon turns around to fire a shot in your direction. However, the floorboards beneath him give way and he falls below several stories to his death. You leap over the hole he has made in the roof.
- The shadar-kai closest to you darts to his left and jumps an alley to reach another rooftop and dash to follow. But his leap is too short! As he clings to the rooftop, your boots land on his skull, giving you just enough leverage to tumble onto the rooftop. Behind, you hear him crash below to his death.
- The thug in front is preoccupied with your chase. He continues to glance over his shoulder as he runs from rooftop to rooftop. As you gain ground, you see a panic in his eye as he continues to look in your direction. Since his head is turned, he does not see the dilapidated pipe jutting from a nearby overhang. The rusted edge of the pipe sheers his head from his body, which rolls past you as you continue to pursue your prey.
- An amazingly nimble member of Ghost Talon flies with speed in front of you. Her movements are slick and nimble. It appears she will never be caught. The shadar-kai makes an impressive leap to an adjacent structure that has obviously been abandoned for many years. The entire building crumbles into dust as it swallows her whole. She will never be heard from again.
- You view a cascade of water up ahead streaming off a taller ledge. The thug doesn’t appear to notice in his desperate attempt to escape your pursuit. As you approach, the liquid does not appear to be water after all, but some type of necrotic slime. The shadar-kai is splashed with the substance and immediately falls in agony. You see clothing and skin melt away from his body as he writhes in pain on the ground. A final glance over your shoulder reveals a bubbling, smoking ruin of a corpse.
- A shadar-kai attempts to spin around and throw a dagger in your direction. Another thug unknowingly changes direction at that moment to avoid the party’s pursuit. The dagger plunges into the latter’s throat. Blood erupts from the wound as the second shadar-kai drops to the ground; the dagger firmly implanted in his neck.
- A thug uses a length of rope like a whip to swing from one rooftop to the next. He drops the rope leaving you hopelessly behind. But out of nowhere, a massive raven swoops down upon the thug and clutches him in its claws. Just as quickly, the raven flies off into the distance and disappears into the dark skies above. The wails of agony from the shadar-kai are cut short as the raven’s talons pierce his cruel heart.
- The thug is racing with all of his might to outpace you. You both feel burning in your legs from the effort. Your ears are pounded by an enormous cracking above your head. Blocks of a broken tower are peeling down. You dodge the debris at the last second but the thug is not so lucky; his body is flattened by the heavy stone and a quickly forming pool of blood spreads around the jagged rock and the grotesquely positioned body.
The scripted deaths certainly added some flavor to the skill challenge, and set the tone for the combat encounter that followed. The person of interest in the chase ended up dropping three members of the party unconscious with his battle axe – aided by two or three critical hits, which was awesome! The party may have suffered a TPK without a timely natural 20 death save by the Cleric and the Wizard going into flaming-tank mode. It seemed to be an enjoyable session.
- Attempt to integrate the Save vs. Despair mechanic into a campaign. If the Despair Deck is not in your current bag of tools, then create a few interesting penalties for the players to save against when they come upon a horrific scene.
- The Rooftop Chase in the Shadowfell Encounter Book is a great skill challenge that can be used in any realm at any point during a campaign. Spice it up with some grizzly deaths to add a sense of danger and doom to the proceedings.
All artwork in this column is from the Shadowfell boxset.