Sunday, August 14, 2011

D&D: Shackled City Review

Today I want to talk a bit about Shackled City (SC), my second most active campaign. As you might have noticed, I am not exactly going to split this up into several small parts as I did with Savage Tide, mostly because it would be way too time consuming. Also, my comments would be very similar overall.
Additionally, since my group is yet to complete the final part, I’ve attempted to keep this review free of any spoilers. Remember that my perspective is solely the one of a GM and therefore my comments will likely find the most use in the hands of another aspiring dungeon master.  You will notice that ‘Dungeon Master’ is certainly a much more fitting term for SC than ‘Game Master’. Because there are a lot of dungeons.
But I’m already getting ahead of myself. Let me, first and foremost, make one thing perfectly clear:
I don’t like Shackled City.
There are several reasons, but let us briefly examine the nature of our victim here.
SC was a series of connected adventures (‘A campaign’ in professional terms) running in Dungeon Magazine from March 2003 till November 2004. The original campaign was rather crude and for the same reason it was later upgraded in a nifty hardcover book that didn’t only look better, it also provided tons of additional information and fluff.

The very premise of the story is actually straight forward, and describing it in crude terms likely won’t spoil anyone. At least not anyone who’s ever played some of Paizo’s other publications or your average magazine-adventure. The heroes start out in the magnificent city of Cauldron, conveniently build on the inside of a dormant volcano, which will likely make any adventurer’s danger- sense tingle. There are several places to go and see in Cauldron, and certainly your fair share of NPC’s to interact with.
Before long, rumors of mysterious disappearances reach the aspiring adventurers’ ears. Walking down the classic and often trod road to fame and fortune, the players soon realize that something far more sinister has cast its shadow over Cauldron. And only they can save mankind.

I’ve been told that SC took home three ENnies at Gen Con 2006, among which was the reward for Best Adventure. Now, I am not entirely oblivious to this point, but I am certainly disagreeing and failing to see the logic behind this. Naturally, “Best Adventure” is such a broad term, and I frankly don’t know enough about the winning-criteria to start an argument in this regard.
I will, however, bring up my own experience, and why I quickly broke my shackles with this campaign.
Issue 1: What plot?
Progressive storytelling is a milestone in several campaigns, be it at the table or in the computer games. Story is driven onwards, becomes bigger and more epic, as the character-levels go up. Most of us are used to this and accept it as a basic premise. We all knew the Nashkel Mines were only a symptom of something sinister. We also knew that the stirring of the orc tribes is only because the real villain is using them as pawns for the time being. But this tends to work best if there is at least a certain pace to it, otherwise your viewers tend to lose interest.
And this is where one of my main points of critique lies with SC. Let me provide you with a short example.
I actually did play SC as a player, albeit only the first chapter. Once done, our GM eagerly asked me “So, what do you think of the plot?” and I was almost ashamed of my puzzling look, eventually confessing I didn’t really get the impression of anything besides a dungeon-crawl. I felt this put him off a bit, because he obviously (duh) knew something I was perhaps supposed to have noticed?
This is very iconic for my interaction with SC, even after I became the GM. I’m not sure whether I’m the real problem, but a really long time passed, in which my players frankly admitted “We’re just going on with this because it seems to be the main story…”
In my opinion SC spends a LOT of time and space instructing the GM about what happens as the consequences of the players’ actions and efforts. But very few ideas are given as to how to incorporate it. In fact, you have to advance the campaign for quite some time before the players even get the first hints about what this is really all about. Until then, they’re stuck with a couple of chapters with no apparent connection to each other, which one of my players aptly compared to watching an adventure-series on Saturday morning. The episodes are great, but the connection between them is so vague that you can easily watch them in random order.
For me this ended up like reading a fantasy novel, in which I saw the players speculate, ponder and even ambush various NPC’s. People who (by their not entirely illogical reasoning) could be related to recent events, but were in fact innocent.  They were like (retarded) children lost in the zoo, deciding to beat up various strangers in blind rage, till they accidently struck their parents or someone who’d take them home. And I frankly can’t blame them. Players are often like that. When they expect to see some kind of connection and don’t get it, they look for it. The alternative is to go home and wait for something to happen.
Those who know me are aware that I loathe this way of storytelling. SC doesn’t exactly utilize the mechanic to a pedantic level, but the transition between the chapters isn’t smooth either. The lack of any story-related link, especially between the first three chapters, is likely to blame for the majority of this flaw. After all, what should blur out the boundaries between stages of the campaign is the way the story develops in an ever escalating approach. The alternative is a segmentation of chapters, in which my players quickly forgot about everything they did two sessions ago. (All players do that, but trust me when I say this case was bad to the point in which they didn’t actually care).

I don’t have bad players, really. They have all played for years and know their trade. They love story as much as I do. But when we were done with the third chapter, and one of them asked me ‘Forgive me if I’m not getting something here, but is there supposed to be a main story?’. I had to tell her that there was indeed a story, but the best thing to do was to hang on and watch events unfold.
All being said, once you pull your weight through the sixth chapter, things do indeed become clearer. But at this point your players are likely around level 11, which is a long time to stumble around in the plot-darkness.
The very irony of this is that once the grand scheme was revealed, everyone was pretty much disappointed. Personally I got that out of my system from the start, but granted; the overall story and plot in SC is pretty boring, tame and unoriginal in basically every way. Compared to other campaigns, such as Savage Tide which I felt at least tried to come up with something new, the MacGuffin here is certainly not going to swipe you off your feet.
Issue 2: HALT! Stehen bleiben! (‘That’s about as far as you’re goin’, son…’)
A tendency which on the street would be roughly translated into ‘cock-blocking’ is also sadly prevalent in SC. In this case I am mostly referring to elements which will appear in one chapter, disappear entirely and return in much later chapters. This also happened in Savage Tide, in which the heroes met the gorgeous pirate-captain, only to wait six chapters to see her again. The players were even told not to follow her and it was slightly hinted that it would be in vain to even try. Even then, descriptions were actually given about her journey, in case the players felt brave.

I don’t get this feeling at all in SC. Instead, the players are able to advance various elements to a certain stage, after which they only bang their heads against the wall. For example, during the first chapter they are able to acquire the name of a certain culprit involved in the abductions, but in no way able to go after him. First and foremost because he’s too high a level for them, secondly because he is nowhere to be found till around chapter eight. Third, he naturally knows a lot about what’s going on so getting to him would reveal too much of the story too soon.. Another brilliant example is in one of the later chapters, in which my players took a liking to a certain NPC they got involved with. Sadly, said NPC and the related plot disappear entirely at the end of the chapter, basically stranding the heroes in a dead end. From thereon the players won’t interact with the NPC till several chapters later, no matter how hard they try.
It isn’t exactly railroading, but neither total freedom. Most players are quick to notice when they’ve hit the border for current plot-advancement, but they usually don’t approve much of it. They aren’t stupid either, so even though you’d feed them a little song and dance they’ll likely acknowledge this for what it is. The end of the plotline for now.
“But you’re bashing SC for something done by so many other adventures out there!” I hear you say. Yes, I am, because SC falls into this trap a lot. Along with Issue 1 it only combines into an even bigger feeling of lacking coherency. There are some examples, a lot of them spoilers, but the common purpose seems to be to invoke the curiosity of the players. But in my experience players aren’t really like that. They don’t take things in moderation - to the contrary. They pursue a plot because they think it will advance the story.
The logical initiative for a lot of people, once the children have been saved in the first chapter, would be to track down the culprits and bring them to justice. My players thought “Why, the next logical step is to find out who did this fiendish act!” (especially with two lawful good players and a paladin). But no, you’re not. Not yet. You’re supposed to say “Ah well, we’ll get him later!”. Yes, the players WILL have that chance much later, unless you do some GM-intervention beforehand. And even then you have to alter the story a bit, or simply let the people higher up in the criminal syndicate know very little about what’s going on, once the player-interrogation begins. Which will only lead you to the same problem of a sudden plot-halt. Instead the players are expected to celebrate and wait for the next big thing to happen, and frankly I was quite confused as to how I could best imply this to them.

Savage Tide did a much better job in this regard since there is so much continuity between chapters. Especially as the story progresses into the higher levels. In the final chapters, you actually aren’t talking about chapters anymore. The only reason they’re divided is because the magazines had limitations for how much could be printed. Especially the final four installments fit so nicely together that you, as a GM, should in fact read up on them all at once, and I guarantee you that the majority of players will hardly notice the change of chapter.
I WILL admit, though, that SC DOES become better at this later on. The final chapters work better in synergy, but I thought it was a long walk before we finally got there.
Issue 3: Dungeons (Tiny non-story mechanic spoilers might appear)
This issue truly borders a debate of gaming-mentality, so I’m likely arguing for personal taste here.
I frankly don’t mind dungeons. Neither do my players. After all they constitute half of the game we’re currently playing (the other half being dragons, of course). But we all agree on the notion of all things in moderation, which frankly would’ve befitted SC a lot. Don’t believe me? Let’s have a look.
As mentioned earlier, my initial experience with SC was on the players’ side of the table, and I truly remember spending about four prolonged sessions trudging through the first dungeon. That’s really a lot of dungeoneering, especially if you (like me) think that dungeons should consist of something else beside the ever so repetitive enter-fight-heal-search cycle. If you disagree, SC is truly a campaign for you. The first dungeon in itself consists of more than a 100 rooms and the majority of these have to be unlocked by gathering a series of keys so you can access other rooms with other keys that lead to even more rooms and so on.
Why is this funny?
Seriously. Is there anyone out there, at all, who can honestly tell me they had a great time playing around with this ass-smelling system? Because I don’t see how this could entertain anyone with an IQ just slightly above average.
To add insult to injury not all of these rooms contain anything remotely interesting. Some of them are downright devoid of anything or merely rooms to be searched for small treasure. When I played this only one of us could be assed to say “I use the key. I search. Then I open the other door with a ‘J’ on it.” The rest of us stared out the window and woke up once encounters began.
Luckily, dungeons do get more interesting as you progress, and even the first nightmare has its merits. For the same reason, when I Gm’ed it, I simply cut out the key-element and several of the pointless rooms. I left the interesting ones behind and my players were really happy about it.
Some of the dungeons are even quite interesting, and manage to downgrade enough in size so that they can be easily completed within a session. Towards the end they really do become so small that they’re almost trivial.
Issue 4: No love for Team Evil
If you’re going into SC with a team of evil players, be prepared to do some improvisation. Whereas Savage Tide did implement an incitement for evil aligned parties very early on in the campaign, most of this campaign simply assumes that the player characters will act out of the goodness of their heart. As one of my neutrally aligned players asked, once the great evil had been unveiled “Why don’t we simply just ally with it?”. That’s quite a viable option. Perhaps this is not as much of an issue as it’s a word of advice. If you suspect your players taking that direction, you do need to compensate for it one way or the other.
Even neutral mercenary-characters who are relentless in their bargaining might end up refusing to help the city, due to insufficient amounts of gold. This could potentially mess up the story badly, even wreck the remaining campaign if you’re not prepared.

To its defenses…Some good things should also be said about SC. You know, those that made me feel like I hadn’t really wasted my money entirely.
Score 1: The NPCS
There are some really good NPC’s in SC. Frankly there is a lot of them, especially once you’re halfway through the campaign, so you’re players are bound to find at least someone they can relate to. Of course the campaign politely recommends some of the key-characters the heroes should become acquainted with. Ironically those were the ones my players liked the least, but it didn’t matter as they quickly found allies elsewhere. Many of these are quite enjoyable to act out, if you like that sort of thing, and as a GM you’ll likely find some of your own favorites eventually.
Score 2: The extra material
The SC books comes with a lot of great stuff which really makes it worth the while. Besides maps and some really awesome artwork it also includes a vast amount of information about the city, some of the shops and a detailed guide for character building. There is also a handful of advice to the GM about various encounters and how they potentially work with the current party setup.
Somehow you can wonder a bit about the priorities, though. For example a lot of pages are dedicated to one single shop the players are expected to get involved with (my players barely visited it) whereas I’d hoped for at least guidelines for other plot-relevant factions and their respective homes. This is no biggie, and in the end there are plenty of maps on the internet. But it’s a lot of attention given to one very small element of the campaign.

Score 3: The fights:
SC features some great fights, especially among the “bosses”.  Most of them are made to hit like a truck and can easily crush your average group of players.  This does bring some requirements to the table, regarding the players’ party composition, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. None of the encounters are downright unfair, but they are lethal, especially at the lower levels. As GM I wasn’t bothered by this since I have players who prefer to build strong characters, and despite a few very tight situations they are still managing nicely.
Score 4: The Lore
Not only Cauldron but its surrounding areas are rich with history, lore and details to relay to your players. This is in no means any part of your generic anonymous fantasy campaign, but instead there are stories, locations and sights to see and hear. And on top of that the players do indeed have the chance to explore a bit. I in particular liked the chapters that involved a tiny hamlet not far from Cauldron, in the idyllic countryside. There are a lot of possibilities to expand upon if you’re in the creative mood.
What should I think of this?
As said, I’m still not that impressed with this campaign, but all in all I think the old SC-saying bears repeating. This is a campaign for the involved GM. I’ve heard this saying so many times and gradually came to agree with it more and more. Whereas it can certainly be played ‘as written’ there are so many silly, weird and downright boring elements that should be modified, at least in my book. Things worked out a lot better when I sat down beforehand and edited the upcoming chapter. Of course I shouldn’t be surprised about this. It’s basic preparation and it usually improves most things.
In that line of thought, my main criticism with this campaign is about the amount of editing it has required so far, and how many things that just didn’t work out.
It’s not a downright bad campaign worth of any hate. Don’t get me wrong; if you’re considering this I’m actually encouraging you to try it out. There are some things that work really well. Perhaps I was unlucky; perhaps some things weren’t handled properly. Perhaps my mentality or that of my players doesn’t apply to the premise of this book. Hard to say.

Perhaps you can look through the boring plot, the weird coherency and massive, massive dungeon-crawls. Perhaps you’re fiercely disagreeing with me, with no idea where I’m coming from with all this. That’s perfectly fine too. I’d love to have a chat with you about it.
This review has been an attempt to portray the negative sides of SC which I will argue are present and hard to steer around. I still think the ‘Well, you need to be a seasoned GM’-argument is only partly valid, as most seasoned GM’s are able to spice up even the dullest of plotlines.
A lot of people have praised this campaign, at times to unreasonably high degrees. While it will certainly do the job if you’re in a tight spot, my advice is to try out Savage Tide instead.


  1. Currently playing this. We were frustrated quite a bit at the lack of apparent plot, and did a lot of speculating until later chapters. The early game was very difficult and lethal, whereas at present we've used divination magic on the opposition, teleported in, and fought our way out of the dungeon boss first no less than three times. We're enjoying roleplaying a pack of smug, hyper competent mercenaries now though.

    1. Forgot to mention that some of the dungeons have features that are highly exploitable. The DM was surprised when we elected to set up shop in them once teleportation was readily available, he says the book does not anticipate this despite it being so attractive. The most recent chapter we completed dropped an obvious opportunity to possibly derail the setting (and certainly to exceed WBL), in the form of a certain magical suit. We refrained from exploiting it to the extent of our imagination out of pity, really.