Early last August, at GenCon 2010, members of the Wizards of the Coast R&D Department, along with writers from the Design and Development team, hosted the Product Preview Seminar. And during that standing-room-only seminar, Bill Slavicsek announced that in 2011, there would be a new D&D Player’s Option book – Heroes of Shadow – which would allow character to select powers and feats with from the shadow power-source to enhance their D&D 4E characters.
Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to receive an advanced copy of Player’s Option: Heroes of Shadow in order to work up a review, and I have been up all night (literally!) perusing the new 4E content. According to the Official WotC Press Release, not only will this book be released on April 19th, but its contents and material will be available the SAME DAY in the web-based tools accessible to DDI Subscribers:
Additionally, for the first time, D&D Insider subscribers will be able to access Heroes of Shadow content on the new web-based D&D Character Builder the same day as the book release. D&D players who are then willing to take a walk on the dark side with their Heroes of Shadow character can bring them to the next season of D&D Encounters, The Dark Legacy of Evard, and experience the deadly secrets of the master of shadow magic. So the real question is: What new content do D&D 4E gamers have to look forward to with this new Player’s Option: Heroes of Shadow release?
Player’s Option: Heroes of Shadow
Player’s Option: Heroes of Shadow is a 4th Edition D&D supplement which explores using powers, feats, and other options to allow characters to tap into the shadow power-source to add a dark edge to their fantasy role-playing experience. This D&D Essentials sourcebook introduces four new character classes and builds – Assassin (Executioner), Paladin (Blackguard), Vampire, and Warlock (Binder) - as well as shadow-based power options for existing Essentials characters – Cleric (Death Domain), Warlock (Gloom Pact), and Wizard (Shadow Magic Powers, Necromancy & Nethermancy Schools). Heroes of Shadow also provides an update to a Shadowfell-native player race (Revenant), and introduces two new playable races – Shades and Vryloka. Additional role-playing and background material is provided for other player races who dwell in the Shadowfell, including locales, organizations, and history for those born in this gloomy realm. Heroes of Shadow comes with ten new Paragon Paths, four new Epic Destinies, and a selection of 20 new Feats for use with characters who hail from the Shadowfell, or who have dabbled too much in soul-tainting shadow magic.
- Authors: Mike Mearls, Claudio Pozas, Robert J. Schwalb
- Cover Illustrator: Christopher Moeller (front), Ben Wooten (back)
- Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
- Year: 2011
- Media: Hardbound (160 pages)
- Retail Cost: $29.95 ($18.95 from [ame="http://www.amazon.com/Players-Option-Heroes-Shadow-Supplement/dp/078695745X/ref=as_li_wdgt_fl_ex?&camp=212361&creative=383961& linkCode=waf&tag=neurogames-20"]Amazon.com[/ame])
The production quality of Player’s Option: Heroes of Shadow is exceptional, with information revealed in a logical progression, sharp and exciting writing, and material presented in a format readily useful by D&D Essentials players.
Surprisingly, Player’s Option: Heroes of Shadow did not continue to use the smaller trade paperback style in which the previous “Heroes of…” players books were released. In dimensions, Heroes of Shadow resembles the Traditional D&D 4E supplements like Martial Powers and Arcane Powers – although personally, I liked the smaller format books, and can easily stuff my copy of the Rules Compendium into the front of my laptop bag for easy portability to game sessions.
The artwork in Heroes of Shadow is a combination of some great pieces we have seen before from sources like Dragon Magazine and Monster Manual, along with some new and really stunning illustrations that evoke the new shadow magic powers, the classes and races of the Shadowfell. Overall, the illustrations work to really enhance the Reader’s experience, and I think the art directors did a splendid job selecting the right pieces for this book.
The Player’s Options
Heroes of Shadow is divided into four chapters, each chapter touching on a different aspect of building a character tainted (or blessed?) by the power of the Shadowfell:
Chapter 1: Into the Dark
- Chapter 1: Into the Dark – a short introduction to the the Shadowfell, shadow magic and other related topics.
- Chapter 2: Shadow Classes – contains the new Essentials classes and class-options for designing shadowy player-characters.
- Chapter 3: Races of Shadow – detailing the new Shadowfell races, as well as pole-play options for other races born in the shadow realm.
- Chapter 4: Shadow Options – discusses new Paragon Paths, Epic Destinies, Feats, and a few new pieces of Equipment.
This is a really short chapter introducing readers to the nature of the shadow magic and the shadow power-source, and how they are often sought for by player-characters. Small excerpts of this material was provided on the official WotC D&D site back on March 7th, and you can read a selection of it here. The Shadowfell itself, along with its major city of Gloomwrought, are also touched on here, albeit briefly, undoubtedly to whet gamers’ appetites for the upcoming release of [ame="http://www.amazon.com/Shadowfell-Gloomwrought-Dungeons-Dragons-Supplement/dp/0786958480/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1302076676&sr=8-1"]The Shadowfell: Gloowrought and Beyond[/ame] - due out in May!
Chapter 2: Shadow Classes
It will come as no surprise that this chapter on Shadow Classes takes up the largest percentage of pages in Heroes of Shadow – over 100 pages of this 160 page book is devoted to just new Essentials classes, builds, and class power options! But while there is definitely some exciting new content, I do not necessarily see eye-to-eye with all of the Dev Teams design concepts for these new Essentials classes/builds.
For instance, the Essentials Assassin class, the Executioner, has changed little from the martial-powered, poison-using character that was introduced as a play-test in Dragon #391, although it is still a very nice option for players who want to portray a ninja in D&D 4E. Oddly, the Dev Team did little to increase the number of Executioner’s shadow-based powers, so this class actually has a much smaller percentage of overall shadow keyword abilities than does its Traditional 4E parent class, the original Assassin. Of course, as Heroes of Shadow is all Essentials content, so the original 4E Assassin is not supported at all by this book.
However, the new Paladin Essentials class, the Blackguard, is a fantastic design idea - and were I to play in a D&D Essentials game after this books official release, I would not hesitate to roll one up! I know there were some D&D gamers skeptical of changing a Defender class into a Striker class, but the cross-over is handled very well, and there are plenty of really good crunch as well as fluff reasons to consider a playing a Blackguard –whether it is as a fallen paladin, or as a more evil-bent death-knight like character. The idea that a Blackguard embraces one of two Vices to draw their power from – Domination or Fury – was quite evocative of the mythology created for Star Wars, particularly in relation to the nature of the Sith. In essence, the Blackguard is much like a Sith Lord, as opposed to a Paladin, which is more like Jedi Knight. And it would be hard to argue that a character like Darth Maul is not a pure Striker, compare to a Jedi Knight like Obi-Wan.
Sadly, the new Vampire class is by far my least favorite, both in design and execution. Although I read the Design & Development article posted this morning about the class, I still have a Dungeon Master’s innate dislike of a character class which is basically nothing more than a player-controlled monster. The Vampire’s basic abilities of darkvision, regeneration, and resistance to necrotic damage make it feel over-powered right from Level 1. Add to that the ability to gain healing surges and then expend for added damage and bonuses, an encounter flight form by Level 6, domination by Level 9, and an insubstantial-phasing form by Level 10, and I think all you have is a Dungeon Master’s worst nightmare sitting across the game screen!
The last new Essentials class – the Warlock’s Binder build – is nicely conceived class, and is comparable in some ways to the Summoner-build for the Traditional 4E Wizard. The Dev Team designed the Binder to summon and bind powers from either the shadow realms (Gloom Pact) or the Far Realms (Star Pact), and they actually gain a summoned creature to fight for them at 9th and 25th levels. The creatures have unique stat blocks depending upon their origin (Gloom Pact – Shadow Lurk and Gloom Beast / Star Pact – Soul Eater and Doom Hulk), and should be very handy servants in a big combat. Although any Warlock can take powers from the two dozen new pacts’ powers, the Binder is specifically designed to make the most of these dark spells.
Other classes are also given new options in this chapter, so that Clerics, Warlocks and Hexblades, Wizards and Mages, all can find something new to add to their class powers from the realm of the Shadowfell.
For Essentials Clerics, there are 17 new daily and utility powers available, designed for the servants of darker gods, granting them powers like Inflict Wounds (Level 1), Drain Life (Level 15), and Death Shield (Level 22) - not to mention a new set of Death Domain powers. There are 9 new Warlock powers available to any pact, plus a new set of separate pact powers (Gloom Pact) for the Hexblade.
But Wizards and Mages gain substantial power when pursuing shadow-magic studies, and have over three dozen new powers of all types – at-wills, encounters, and dailies – to add a darker edge to their arcane castings. Many of these have names of familiar spells from older editions of Dungeons & Dragons such as Ray of Fatigue, Darklight, Wall of Gloom, and Enervation. But what I really liked were the new powers from the Necromancy and Nethermancy Schools, and the care that the Dev Team went to make them distinctive from each other. I think that separating the ability to raise and control undead and undead-like powers (Necromancy) should be kept separate from the use of shadow power in one’s arcane spells (Nethermancy). It should be noted that the famous old wizard, Evard, makes his debut in 4E as a nethermancer, and several new powers are attributed to his name.
Chapter 3: Races of Shadow
In this chapter, several races are given extensive histories for how they came to live, and continue to exist for generations – with some notable alterations – in the glooms of the Shadowfell. These include dwarves, halflings, humans, elves, and eladrin, and there are some exciting background fluff material to create characters which have their origins in shadow. But there are three races which are given extensive write-ups in this chapter, detailing not only fluff material, but considerable crunch as well – the Revenant, Shade, and Vryloka.
For those already playing a Traditional D&D 4E character, the Revenant has been part of the D&D Insider exclusive content since 2009, and the version appearing in Heroes of Shadow differs very little from that original race. The only notable exception is that players will now be able to choose between Charisma or Constitution for their character’s secondary attribute +2 bonus. On the other hand, the Shade and the Vryloka are completely new races selectable for D&D Essentials characters.
The Shade was first introduced as a monster in AD&D’s Monster Manual II, and later made into the game as a playable race in the Forgotten Realms Setting under 3.5 edition rules. This new Essentials player race does bear some notable similarities to the monster of old 1st Edition, being able to manipulate shadows to their advantage, and having amazing skills at stealth. Unlike Shades from previous editions, they do not suffer deceasing levels in their abilities when subjected to increasing intensities of light, but they do retain a number of powers to manipulate shadows - portrayed as racial utility powers which can be substituted for class utilities.
The Vryloka is another variant of a monster from previous editions of D&D, and it debuted as a vampire known as the vrykolaka back in old AD&D’s Dragon #125. This new playable race is a potent half-vampire exhibiting traits of both humans and undead blood-drinkers. Like the Shade, the Vryloka has a number of racial utility powers which can be substituted for class utilities, ranging from assuming the form of a wolf (Bloodwolf Form), or flying as a bat (Crimson Wings), or even raise a dead comrade (Vryloka Bloodbond) – although this latter ability will cause a human character to become a Vryloka as well!
Although I really liked these two new character classes, there was one oddity which I noted in this chapter of Heroes of Shadow - both the Shade and the Vryloka have a selection of Racial Utility Powers, but the Revenant was not given any as part of their expanded racial description. Although all three new player races have been given extensive role-playing development (ie. fluff), the lack of Racial Utility Powers for the Revenant makes it feel just a little bit unfinished. I can only assume that the Dev Team decided not to make too many changes to an already existing character race, to avoid problems for Traditional 4E players who choose to make use of the Essentials options in Heroes of Shadow.
Chapter 4: Character Options
The final chapter of Heroes of Shadow offers not only new Feats for characters, but advanced options for higher level D&D Essentials play, including new Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies. There are a wide range of Paragon Paths in Heroes of Shadow, with several that focus on arcane classes wielding shadow magic and illusions.
There are a couple of interesting exceptions to this, such as the Nocturnal, a primal-based Path invoking wild night-predator powers, and the Veiled Master which is a Path for martial artists who have learned to fight in complete darkness. The old 3.5 Prestige Class, the Shadowdancer, has been given new life as an Essentials Paragon Path of the same name (Shadow Dancer), which relies on moving and teleporting between shadows. And one Path I found intriguing was the Ravenkin, designed for a character that has come to the notice of the Raven Queen and is followed by a shadow raven familiar with potent powers.
The four Epic Destinies discussed in Heroes of Shadow have particularly strong ties to the Shadowfell, or the Raven Queen, and might not fit well in all campaigns. But still, they offer some unique opportunities for the highest level characters to become defenders of the Shadowfell, protectors of lost souls, or even commanders of the vast host of the Raven Queen’s armies!
Of the 20 new Feats in Heroes of Shadow, obviously there is going to be a bit of overlap between these Essentials feats and already available Traditional 4E feats. For instance, the three race specific feats for the Revenant already exist in 4E – Dark Feasting, Empowered Reaping, and Past Soul. There are a number of new feats, however, including a new feat to grant shadow-origin to characters – called Born of Shadow. Traditional 4E gamers might find that this feat is similar to the already existing Multiclass Feat, Haunting Shade. Being a multi-class feat, Haunting Shade has pre-requisites and is more powerful, than Born of Shadow, but the latter has the advantage of no pre-requisites and is itself a pre-requisite for five additional new feats. Taken as a group, these new Shadowborn Feats allow players to feel a firm connection to the Shadowfell.
Another interesting selection of new feats, dubbed as Ghostwise – no relation to Halfling tribes, by the way – offer characters exceptional ability to deal with non-corporeal beings (Ghost Eyes and Ghost Scorpion Strike), and to make themselves insubstantial for a round upon spending an Action Point (Spectral Step). All the feats in Heroes of Shadow have great flavor as well as usefulness, and I liked how the Dev Team grouped the feats to make selection an easier task.
Finally, the last chapter concludes with four new quasi-mystical pieces of adventuring gear – Blessed Soil, Ghoul Candle, Poisoner’s Kit, and Raven’s Feather. These items are inexpensive (10 gp and 25 gp) and perform minor magical functions useful to adventurers. Blessed Soil, for instance, prevents undead from rising from graves over which it has been sprinkled, while a Poisoner’s Kit is a self-explanatory piece of gear needed for the Assassin (Executioner) to make his toxins. The Raven’s Feather is a really nifty role-playing item that turns from black to red when the person to which they are attuned dies – the mystical feather could easily find its way into an adventure as an interesting plot device, or a warning!
Overall Grade: A-
With only a few exceptions, there is simply some amazing and exciting new content contained in the pages of Player’s Option: Heroes of Shadow. For D&D players who participate in pure D&D Essentials campaigns, or in “kitchen-sink” campaigns where 4E material from any source is allowed (Traditional and Essentials), there is no doubt that this book easily qualifies in the must-have category! The book does an excellent job of bringing a dark edge to the powers for a wide variety of character classes, linking their destinies to the Shadowfell and shadow-magic. Without a doubt, players of almost any skill level should have no trouble in developing anti-heroes and tragically-cursed champions to portray in their D&D campaigns.
In closing, however, while I cannot deny that Heroes of Shadow is a great book for Essentials D&D gaming, I still find myself extremely disappointed over this new Player’s Option book - because of what it lacks for gamers who want to maintain their Traditional D&D 4E campaigns. For those of us – and I include myself here – who choose not to play a pure Essentials campaign, and have no interest in a “kitchen sink” campaign content philosophy, this book offers nothing but a few pages of fluff material about the Shadowfell, and very little else.
During the Product Preview Seminar at GenCon 2010, Heroes of Shadow was promised as an option’s book for “Core players” after the ten Essentials products have been published over the last quarter of 2010, and this clearly is not the case. It makes me very uncomfortable as a D&D gamer to look at all the facts – but given that all content exclusive to Traditional 4E has now been removed from the calendar for this year - and given the fact that Heroes of Shadow has been published with 100% Essentials content - it is extremely hard not to find the situation very similar to how Wizards of the Coast released 3.5 D&D to replace 3rd Edition back – just three years after 3.0 had been released. I would like to think this is a coincidence of timing, seeing as how 4E is almost three years old itself, but it is pretty apparent from Heroes of Shadow that Traditional 4E gamers are not going to see any new content anytime soon – unless they choose to just give up, and accept the new Essentials content into their campaigns.
So until the next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!
- Presentation: A
- - Design: A
- - Illustrations: A+
- Content: B+
- - Crunch: B+
- - Fluff: A-
- Value: A-