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Wednesday, 4th May, 2011, 07:40 PM #1
Defender (Lvl 8)
Pre-Release Review of The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond by WotC
It was heralded by the first of the Players Options books, Heroes of Shadow - and the anticipation is growing as Wizards of the Coast is poised to release a new campaign setting based upon the Shadowfell, that dark realm of death which exists in parallel to nearly every D&D 4E world! Fortunately for me, I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced copy of the new campaign setting, The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond, and this boxed set is packed with tons of doom and gloom. But believe me, that’s a good thing.
The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond
- Designer: Andy Clautice, Erik Scott de Bie, Matt Goetz
- Illustrations: Tyler Jacobson (Campaign Book cover); Adam Gillespie (Encounter Book cover); Jason Engle and Mike Schley (cartography)
- Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
- Year: 2011
- Media: Boxed Set
- Price: $39.99 ([ame="http://www.amazon.com/Shadowfell-Gloomwrought-Dungeons-Dragons-Supplement/dp/0786958480/ref=as_li_wdgt_fl_ex?&camp=212361&creative=383961& linkCode=waf&tag=neurogames-20"]$26.39 from Amazon.com[/ame])
The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond is a boxed set campaign setting detailing the shadowy parallel plane of the Shadowfell , its greatest inhabited city, and surrounding environs. The boxed set includes a 128-page Campaign Guide containing details about the Shadowfell, along with a 32-page Encounter Book with both combat and skill challenges ranging from EL 4 to EL 24. In addition to the two booklets, the boxed set includes two sheets of card-stock counters of creatures native to the shadowy plane, a full sized and double-sided poster map of Gloomwrought and backed by a city street encounter map, and a pack of Despair Cards – a new game mechanic designed to add role-playing depth to adventures in the Shadowfell.
Overall, the production quality of this new boxed set is very good, with some awesome writing, excellent presentation, and a great new game mechanic – the Despair Deck. Although the books are not hardbacks, the square-bound Campaign Guide feels solid and hefty in your hands, and the Encounter booklet is stapled to allow it to lie flat at the gaming table. Separating the Campaign Guide and Encounter booklet was a good decision to my thinking, making sure that buyers won’t have to crack the spine of the larger book to get at encounters, as I’m sure some gamers did with the other planar sourcebooks.
The Despair cards are printed on light cardboard, and have a slightly slick finish. In weight, each card felt pretty much like cards from a MTG deck or from the Alpha Mutations deck included with last year’s D&D Gamma World Boxed set. I had no trouble shuffling them as I would any other standard deck of cards, albeit a small deck, as there are only 30 cards provided.
The artwork for the booklets, as well as for the counters and the Despair cards, is really stunning, and there were quite a few fantastic illustrations in the booklets which really enhanced the reading experience. As for cartography, it was somewhat of a mixed bag. I thought the endless repetition of dark clumps of houses on the Gloomwrought map to be a bit unimaginative, but it does get the job done, and I suppose lends itself to the gloomy style of the city. On the other hand, there are two illustrations of parchment maps for Darkreach and Letherna in the Campaign Guide were fantastic looking, with that Tolkien-esque hand-drawn feel that would make them great hand-outs to adventurers traveling beyond Gloomwrought’s walls. The poster-sized street map was nicely rendered, and the maps in the Encounter booklet looks like they use tiles from a variety of existing sets, so DMs should have no trouble using those.
Now I would have given the overall production quality an excellent rating if not for a couple things. First was the lack of maps of regions both inside and outside the city. Admittedly, as the Shadowfell is supposed to be a dark reflection of any campaign world, the plane will have many similarities to the origin world of the PCs, and therefore different in every campaign. However, I would have liked to see maps of other regions done like the Letherna and Darkreach maps for places like the Oblivion Bog, Thyrin Gol, and other smaller regions, which a DM could then place in his or her own campaign world’s version of the Shadowfell. And given the number of truly unique buildings described in Gloomwrought, I would have liked to see at least one or two maps drawn of those locales, even if they were just exterior maps.
The second issue I had was the box itself – it was flimsy feeling, and repacking the materials back inside it, due to some interior cardboard construction, was a little tedious. I ended up chucking the interior supports, which made the box feel flimsier, but made it easier to repack the counters, cards, and booklets. Personally, I think I would have preferred a standard box, like the one designed for the Red Box Essentials edition, over what TS:GAB came in.
The Campaign Book
The Campaign Book for The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond covers a wide range of topics, from running a Shadowfell based campaign, to the City of Midnight as well as regions outside the city, and a selection of monsters and notable NPCs complete with stat blocks, lore, and tactics. It is divided up into four chapters: The Shadowfell, City of Midnight, Beyond the Walls, and Dark Threats, with an additional appendix table showing Monsters by Level for handy reference.
The first chapter, The Shadowfell, discusses ways for characters to take part in a campaign in the deathly realm of the Raven Queen. Although only a short eight pages long, there is some excellent background about the Shadowfell, including ways for heroes to get there from the mundane realm, a discussion of the powers vying for control of the domain, and a collection of hooks for starting adventures there. Coupled with the additional source material regarding the nature of shadow magic and shadow-born races from the Heroes of Shadow Players Options book, and Dungeon Master should have no trouble in adding a Shadowfell adventure arc to any existing campaign. The final section of the first chapter deals with the Despair Deck, which I will discuss in more detail in a separate section (see below).
The second chapter is the largest in the Campaign Book, and discusses details about the City of Midnight over the course of more than fifty pages. After an overview of the city, it examines each of the seven major sections of the city in greater detail, which include the flavor of the district or ward, its inhabitants and “power players”, and what sort of encounters and threats might exist there for heroes to experience. Admittedly, I was a bit concerned at first when I started reading this section, because of the similarities I saw between the greatest city of the Shadowfell and the city of Sigil out in the planes. Both cities have mysterious and seemingly sentient natures, as well as bizarre and creepy entities which tend them (Dabus in Sigil; Keepers in Gloomwrought), but thankfully that’s pretty much where the similarity ended, and I found City of Midnight to actually be a very unique and creepy locale. And one feature I particularly liked, was that each section of the city, and in some cases each major dwelling or business, had specific adventure hooks written about it to give DMs a quick-start into running a campaign there. So in many respects, Chapter 2 is written like an adventure setting, similar to Vor Rukoth, with plenty of plot and adventure hooks for DMs to use with their player-characters, regardless of their level.
In the third chapter, the authors take the reader Beyond the Walls of Gloomwrought, and into five other regions of the Shadowfell, each with their own history, inhabitants, and factions for adventurers to experience. This section of only about twenty-five pages long, but has some excellent material for creating a wide-range of adventure from exploration to intricate questing. Like the previous chapter, it is written in adventure setting style, providing the Dungeon Master with hooks in each the region to jump-start adventures there, and at least two of the regions (Letherna and Darkreach) have specific maps which would make great hand-outs during play sessions.
The final twenty-four pages of the Campaign Book are devoted to Chapter 4 - Dark Threats. This section is a combination monster manual of creatures mainly from Gloomwrought, and include monsters as well as faction groups such as the town guard (the Deathless Watch), gangs (Midnight’s Own and Ghost Talons), and other threats which wander the dark city’s streets. There even is a section on the Power Players in Gloomwrought which offer stats on major and unique NPCs like the city’s Prince Rolan and his consort Feria, the mysterious Keepers, various noble House leaders, and other important figures. Each entry has plenty of background information and lore, along with the stat blocks, which should prove extremely helpful when working these monsters and NPCs into adventures. The section wraps-up with an appendix chart of monsters/NPCs listed by level for easy reference.
The Encounters Booklet
The 32-page Encounter Book contains fifteen encounters for use in Gloomwrought and the surrounding areas. Four of them are Skill Challenges, with the remainder as combat encounters, and they range in Encounter Level (EL) from 4th to 24th Level . The Skill Challenges include events like traveling through the Oblivion Bogs, pursuing enemies across the rooftops of Gloomwrought, and a nifty little whodunit called “To Catch a Thief”.
The combat encounters in the booklet look solid – although I must confess I have not had time yet to playtest them – and include a range of settings from street and alley brawls, to swamp scenes, and underground dungeon-crawl styled battles. I recognize almost all of the dungeon tile sets used to make the maps for the encounters, which include (at my best guess) Caves of Carnage, Halls of the Giant Kings, Arcane Towers, and Master Set: The Wilderness. But regardless of the tiles used, the encounters, both Skill Challenge and combat, read like they will be a lot of fun to play, and are a good accessory to include with a set like this.
The Despair Deck and Tokens
First, a quick word about the tokens. The two sheets of cardboard tokens are a nice addition to The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond, and are designed using the artwork from illustrations of monsters and NPCs in the Campaign Book. They also include something not seen on previous token sets – the name of the creature or NPC on the “bloodied” side of the token for easy identification, which is a really nice touch. It really makes me wish that WotC would consider creating a token set like this for the Dark Sun Creature Catalog, which I think is the only campaign setting without a token set. Personally, I’d happily shell out a few bucks to get a set of Dark Sun critter tokens.
Now with regards to the Despair Deck - and before folks start groaning about another collectible card set – this is really a brilliant role-playing mechanic! The Despair Cards come in three flavors – apathy, fear, and madness – and characters begin to be affected by these cards after their first extended rest in the Shadowfell. Each Despair Card comes with a type and title of the card (for example: Apathy-DISTRACTED), flavor text (“Check out the clouds! Aren’t they beautiful?”), and the effect of the card itself (You take a -4 penalty… blah blah blah). These cards contain some fairly major effects, and constitute the power of the Shadowfell over the characters in the form of irrational behaviors and neuroses that develop by prolonged exposure to the plane.
After a character takes an extended rest in the Shadowfell, they must draw a card and are subject to the effects until their next extended rest. The player can share the card or keep it secret, and simply role-play the given effect on their character. After a milestone has been reached, the player gets to make a standard saving throw, possibly modified by an appropriate skill, to throw off the penalty effect of the Despair Card. If successful in their check, this allows them to reverse the card and take advantage of a boon! At the next extended rest, all Despair Cards are discarded, and the characters gain new ones for the following next day.
This mechanic is really exciting, providing a tangible and grim reminder that the deathly nature of the Shadowfell has a palpable effect of creatures that dwell there – or just pass through for a quest or two. But these cards could also be used in adventures involving dealing with other areas of horror in the mundane world, like a lich’s tomb, a haunted castle, a region touched by a Far Realms incursion, or any other place where a miasma of dread and evil are palpable things, capable of unhinging even the most hardened adventurers mind just a little bit.
Overall Score: 3.8 out of 5.0
The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond is an awesome new campaign/adventure setting for D&D 4E, and goes a long way to fill in “lore gaps” which cropped up with the changes to the new cosmology, much in the way that The Plane Below: Secrets of the Elemental Chaos and The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea did for the outer planar realms. While the amount of material in The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond was comparable to the contents of the previous planar setting books (about 160 pages worth), the inclusion of the token sheets and the Despair Deck popped the final retail price up by ten bucks - and that’s over the price of a hardbound book! But there is certainly enough great material in this box to make it well worth consideration for any DM to pick up, and this campaign setting could easily keep heroes busy for level after level of gloom-and-doom questing in the realm of the Raven Queen.
So until next Review… I wish you Happy Gaming!
Author’s Note: This Reviewer received a complimentary copy of the product from which the review was written.
Grade Card (Ratings 1 to 5)
- Presentation: 3.5
- - Design: 3
- - Illustrations: 4
- Content: 4.5
- - Crunch: 4
- - Fluff: 5
- Value: 3.5
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Thursday, 5th May, 2011, 12:06 PM #2
Defender (Lvl 8)
I read in another review that the tokens are different than those in the Monster Vault, in the sense that they are not glossy, but rather in a matte finish. Is this true? I actually don't think I'm a huge fan that the name of the creatures appears on the bloodied side. This is because, especially when it comes to NPCs, I tend to just grab a token that looks good and make it a stand-in for an NPC in my homebrew. Maybe it can get kinda distracting looking at the battlemat and seeing loads of names that have nothing to do with who is taking part in the battle.
Anyway, I'm looking forward to this box set!
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.
Thursday, 5th May, 2011, 02:12 PM #3
Defender (Lvl 8)
Thursday, 5th May, 2011, 06:51 PM #4
Novice (Lvl 1)
You commented on the 'Flimsy Box'. Are they in the similar style as how the Famine in Fargo and Legion of Gold packaging was done?
Friday, 6th May, 2011, 01:01 AM #5
Defender (Lvl 8)
Admittedly, The Shadowfell box is designed to lock to make sure that the cards and tokens can't fall out, but I have some concerns for the long term wear-and-tear on it. It just didn't feel as tough as those other boxes.
Hope that helps.
Friday, 6th May, 2011, 04:42 AM #6
Acolyte (Lvl 2)
before folks start groaning about another collectible card set
Too late :/
And is it going to be a random collectable thing for sure?
Friday, 6th May, 2011, 05:04 AM #7
Defender (Lvl 8)
Sunday, 8th May, 2011, 09:19 PM #8
Guide (Lvl 11)
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Are there stats for the Raven Queen in the set?
Monday, 9th May, 2011, 12:50 PM #9
Defender (Lvl 8)
There is also alot of great lore regarding the Raven Queen, including her relationship with Nerull, and her struggles against usurpers like Orcus and Vecna. Some awesome fluff with potential for high level campaigning just begging to be used.
Wednesday, 11th May, 2011, 03:20 PM #10
Acolyte (Lvl 2)
Thanks for the review!
Thanks for the review, neuroglyph! I'm glad the set works for you.
Vorkhesis and most of the Raven Queen-related lore is my baby, and comes out of a similar design philosophy to my work on Plane Above. I for one saw this project as kind of a combination planar book and city-focused campaign setting.
If anyone has questions, comments, or feedback, I would like to make myself very much available by email (erikscottdebie AT yahoo DOT com) or at my website (www.erikscottdebie.com).
Happy (or Gloomy) Gaming, All!