Courts of the Shadow Fey is a low to mid-paragon adventure (12-15) set initially in the Free City of Zobeck and later in the Realm of Shadow in the Moonlit King’s lands, this is a raucous sandbox adventure with a decidedly social bent that becomes more evident as the adventure goes on.

The cover is a very cool piece by Stephanie Law, done in a style different from most 4E material out there, setting the tone that this adventure is not what you would usually expect. This project was actually pitched twice before to patrons of Open Design, although the fact that it won this time around is fantastic for everyone, because it’s one of the first in the current wave of Open Design projects to be offered for public consumption upon completion.

Split into four acts, events in the first half build from the unexpected arrival of the Shadow Fey and their occupation of the city to the adventurers’ trip across the planes into the apparently unoccupied Royal Halls. The third and fourth acts ratchet up the tension as the characters become embroiled in the Fey politics and social competition, attempting to garner status and position within a court that more than likely considers them garish barbarians who add a fleeting exotic spice to their immortal existence. Finally, the source of the faerie invasion is revealed, and the characters are presented with the option of lifting it—perhaps at the cost of their own sanity or lives.

With easily 40 outlined and detailed encounters packed into 100 pages, Courts of the Shadow Fey is dense, offering an interesting chase encounter, at least a dozen skill challenges, a dueling mechanic and a social advancement mechanic that is sure to have the most bloodthirsty player looking at nonviolent encounters with new eyes. And in true Open Design form, the table of contents shows this adventure saw serious playtesting and review. Those looking for the delve format common in WotC products won’t find it, though, as the project chose to go with a flowing design found more often in adventures of earlier editions

The art is primarily black and white, but well done, offering a look at the various monsters and NPCs that occupy the adventure. The maps are also black and white, which is slightly disappointing for anyone who either runs adventures on a virtual tabletop or likes to print out the maps for table top use. In particular, I wish the Firebird chase map was presented in a larger, color format—if only because this is a tougher map to draw by hand and because it has so much interesting detail. One possible option for improvement might be to offer a separate map pack with the cartography presented in beautiful color—especially given the quality we’ve seen from Sean Macdonald in the past. However, even in black and white, the maps are nicely detailed and clearly note monster positions to help speed encounter preparation.

Overall, Courts of the Shadow Fey is a fantastic gateway adventure—it offers a great taste of self-contained urban, social, and planar excitement in a sandbox package that might shift the tenor of a game or provide a welcome change of pace. It presents a good mixture of roleplaying, investigation and combat that you would expect from a seasoned veteran of design like Wolfgang Baur and does so without being heavy handed. The sandbox format offers plenty of hooks while still ensuring the gamemaster has the tools to prod stalled parties back into the action. If you’re looking for an adventure that will keep your players engaged and offer a rich playground packed with many, many sessions of entertainment, you don’t need to look further than Courts of the Shadow Fey!

(Point to note: I was a senior patron and playtester. I contributed one skill challenge for this project, but did not participate much beyond development of the first act due to other commitments. I have reviewed the pdf version of this adventure. The print version was not yet available at the time of this review, but could be preordered.)