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Heart of Shadow

Nifelhein

First Post
What is it?

Heart of Shadow is a 64 pages supplement for the Midnight Campaign setting written by Iain “Shadowfane” J. Borgan and Eric “Kane” Olson, both former fans of the setting that entered the RPG freelancing out of love for the world of Aryth. The book is published by Fantasy Flight Games and is available in both print and PDF, being the 12th book released under the Midnight logo it is completely compatible with the 2nd Edition Midnight Campaign Setting Bok and the 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons ruleset, but those who have only the first edition book will have great use from the book nonetheless, wherever appropriate I will point out details that first edition book users might have problems with.

The book presents itself as an attempt to cover the Northern Marches, detailing it with geographical, historical and political aspects of those living in it, as well as detailing the ones that live in such a harsh land. Since this is a 64 pages book there isn’t much room for making all that with the amount of detail we might want, so you might feel the book does less than desired, but overall it does cover what it came for.

The book is directed toward DMs, with players having absolutely no benefit from it other than a good read, just make sure your Dm is okay with it before getting the book, because even if you play an Orc character or has an Orc campaign in the northern marches the book is still DMs only style.

What does it look like?

The book has a full color cover by John Gravato, that is inspirational for the setting mood and raises expectations of what one will find inside, the interior is Black and White using the same layout and formatting of the 2nd edition Midnight Campaign Setting book, though there is about 1 centimeter (less than half an inch) between the words and the page’s edge it looks like a bit much to the eye when you first glance through, it is not much though, and by the time you finish the book it will probably not bother you anymore. All interior illustrations are black and white, including the regional map at the end of the book.

The interior black and white illustrations range from average to good, enough to make them go by mostly unnoticed and without second looks, what is in line with the usual quality of art in the Midnight line. Most of the art does have some connection to text contained in the book but not all are closely placed enough to directly present this link, and in Chapter 3: Dark Minions there are very few illustrations, giving us mainly text to base our imaginations, a loss when you compare it to the “all monsters have illustrations” standard that monster books have lead us to.

I am a little hard on graphical designs and artwork for books but the book while failing to impress me also does not fall low on my considerations, possibly a higher than usual quality for most people out there.

The regional map in the end of the book is black white and looks like hand drawn maps, it does not look very god and the scale seems to be wrong whenever you compare it to the Eredane maps you may have around, whether from the 1st or 2nd edition, the map seems to make the vast stretch of land between the two great mountain ranges of Eredane look like a park inside a largely populated city, the map does not make a good job of presenting geography too, other than the clearly defined woods/forests, mountains, rivers and The Scar. The amount of small lines in the map makes it rather busy to the eye and seems to be the ones that were meant to give you the idea of a Vale and hills or cliffs, if you want to understand the map, you would better read the book and reference the map as you go, so you will see that all those flatlands are really divided among marshes, the Vale of tears with Cliffs and broken mesas separating it from the lands around and the like.

One of the most interesting graphical aspects of the book is the first page of each chapter, where unlike the 2nd Edition Campaign Setting book you will not see a stand alone art, but rather a mixed work with the piece of the map that relates to the areas detailed in the chapter and a piece of one illustration you will find somewhere else in the book. While it is not very nice to have the same illustration be shown twice in the book the work is well done and really looks good.

What is inside it?

The book is divided in four chapters and has a half page introduction with the first page containing Credits and a Table of Contents that summarizes the Headings all over the book, you will hardly have a problem finding what you want during game preparation or during a session.

Now that you know how the book is looks like, let us delve into the words therein.

Introduction

The whole point in this is to give you a general view of the whole setting information inside, it is a very well written and mood inspiring section that also presents a key assumption of the book, that the Heart of Shadow is actually “the grave of the god that was Izrador and the cradle from which Aryth’s suffering is born”.

Chapter 1: The Marchlands

The Marchlands are the lower half of the Northern Marches and it is further divided in four major regions, the Withered Wood, the Cold Downs, the Ishensa Basin and the Frozen Barrens.

The Withered Wood rests in the edge of the Highhorn Mountains and, while having roughly two paragraphs of description, has two of the most interesting features of the book, both presenting the usual plots and hooks ideas we got so used to while reading Midnight books. One involves a twist of expectations, as well as a new weapon enchantment, and the other a reference to lost nobility.

The Cold Downs are and inhospitable but still life supporting area that range from the Ishensa River to the Highhorns, it is the topmost area of the setting maps, just north from Riismarck and Steel Hill. In this section you will have a fantastic and dangerous weather phenomenon of the area and a location of importance that is hidden from all by the veil of time.

The Ishensa Basin is the source of life in the Northern Marches and the ideal place for movement of troops and their gatherings, but has been strategically left out of any war effort. In the area between the two branches of the Ishensa, which is known as the Blood of Shadow, is the fortress of Gasterfang, a stronghold and series of warrens that lie in the same place where they first heard the whispers of the dark god. The place is also where the Eye of Shadow, a place of great importance o the Order of Shadow in the past that only the most knowledgeable and ancient prize in the days of the last age.

Next comes the Frozen Barrens, a continuation of the Cold Downs, this forsaken land is where the ancestors of the orcs traveled after being expelled from their home. The area stretches from the eastern side of the Ishensa Basin to the cloud-obscured peaks of the Icewall Mountains and is frozen taiga and testimony to the war that the dwarves have endured alone against the orcs. Ferakdum is an ancient warren where the Feral Mother orcs support the siege of Calador and where Durgan, a dwarf slave has his title as champion of the Pit.

The major Orc tribes and their struggles in the area, a Dorn who fights alone and called The Bleak Knight, an aging Orc who speaks of the orc’s stolen destiny, a so called Prophet and the pale Dorns are detailed in the remaining pages of the chapter. The Pale Dorns make a come back from the awe inspiring story sidebar from the Steel and Shadow supplement, now in deeper detail and as world elements and not just stories.

Chapter 2: The Far North

From the fractured Cliffs of the Weal to The Scar left by the fall of a god from the realms beyond this chapter details the places where even the Ordrendor dare not go.

The Weal is the place where the Cold Downs meet the Vale of Tears and is a 500 miles canyon when approached from the south and a cliff when seen from the north, in this broad area made of endless mesas, buttes and rock spires Orcs still make their Warrens, this is the place where they left all they were before and became the Ordrendor. In this section you will find a sidebar containing a mention to the great tribes of the orcs, with name, lands they control, warlord and head mother, as well as a sample of the lesser tribes and mention to a few exiled or outsider tribes as well as information on the inhabitants and way of life in the region. A new material, the Black iron is presented in this section too.

The Vale of Tears, where the suffering of Aryth is more readily seen and felt is a land ravaged by the Shadow’s depravations where the air screams in anguish and weeps tears of bitter ice. From the Black Road, the only safe passage known through this cursed land, to the Blight Marsh you will be given environmental hazards, elements of the direct influence of Izrador over the land’s fate, a coven of ancient kurasatch udareen that oversees the whole region with cauldron and spells, the pit of a tribe thirsty for revenge and a whole area where the dark god punished two clashing armies of his chosen one, now a place of ghosts and spirits, a token to make the orcs never forget that even them can fall from their lord’s grace.

The last area of the Frozen North to be detailed is The Scar, a toothy maw that marks the time of the Sundering and is proof enough of the fall of Izrador. From its frigid edges to the very tomb of god flesh this place reeks of evil and corruption, with the Citadel of Kazak-Dûr and its advanced outpost, the Darkfast, a land of broken terraces with ruins of an once golden and thriving city of the elthedar destroyed in the cataclysm, this city is now a corrupted place where magral, the maggot-formed, live and hear their master’s whispers, there is also the Black Chantry, where all those far away vileness and corruption is sown into breeding programs and twisted prayers, the very pace where we all make reference when using twisted and unearthly creatures made by the shadow. You have lots of details of who are those that live here and how corrupted they are, to crown this all, the tomb of a god is presented, not as glorious as one would hope, but then, it is the tomb of a defeated god.

Chapter 3: Dark Minion

Here be monsters! The chapter has 5 new monsters (the Bloat Flies, the Rime Tusk Boar, the Shadowflesh, the Vardrath and the Yadruul), 4 templates (the Cold One, the Corrupted Creature, the Corrupted Spirit, and the Ghulam) and 3 unique inhabitants of the Northern Marches that range from a powerful matriarch of the orcs to a fallen disciple of Beirial the betrayer.

This chapter is where you will be disappointed, there is a kind of absence of artwork that bothers, of all those critters only two of the uniques have an illustration, and there is a situation illustration that hints to the creation of another, nothing else. Sure the cover shows us what the Rime Tusk Boards are, but this is where the least attention and care seem to have gone. Additionally, two of the templates are confusing due to errors in the stat blocks of the examples or outdated texts of the template changes, making understand the whole thing a puzzle in itself.

The monsters all have concept, niche and solid base though, if you are looking for those and rules are just something else that happen to help your game, this will not bother you, but if you want rules to be perfectly tuned, those two templates will draw your attention very easily. It does not detract from the quality of the product though.

Chapter 4: Magic of Shadow and Ice

Here you will find the long waited Kurasatch Udareen prestige class in its full glory, the prestige class is channeler focused and pretty straight forward, the innovative mechanics here are the dark roads, which dictate gifts gained by the mother wives and give the class much needed variance. There are new spells that seem to have been left out of the book though, and they surely could make a difference on the roads they would be granted.

The second part of the chapter, and taking most of it is the Taint mechanics, they are harsh and hard on the characters, it may be gained from something as simple as being inside a pale mirror’s are for a year to the unspeakable situation of being in the tomb of the dark god himself, redemption is out of the question, if you stay in a corrupting area you can live your life anyway, but being an adventurer and facing challenges, as well as moving in and out of corrupting areas will either lead you to possible destruction by the great rating of taint or by certain destruction by the loss of all taint, unlike drugs, you cannot get rid of it.

The remaining mechanics present how tainted channelers may use their taint as power and gives you many gifts and prices he must pay in this dark and dangerous road. This section is a beautiful work that can help set the mood and theme of many games, even though you might have to consider patching the taint mechanics before using them in a more heroic campaign where evil should not take a harsh price to be faced or just tolerated.

All in all the taint mechanics are so well done and interesting that changing the redemption or destruction bit seems rather minor, but something I would like to have done instead of house ruling myself, it is too harsh as is, even for Midnight.

To finish the book and chapter are new magic items, all unique features of the three unique critters presented before, they are both simple and inspiring, having a definite place in any game that magic items are not another random treasure without flavor.

Special: Fiction Pieces and Sidebars

In Midnight we get used to have plot hooks, mood setting and awe inspiring fiction pieces and sidebars, so much that this book has lots of those, and they are a very well used tool too, they detail the somewhat left aside matter of the orc tribes and their affairs with letters from legates to their masters and fiction pieces that help define better monsters that have no pictures to help.

I have found them to be worthy of attention and inspiring enough to give glimpses of the land and its people, but they will hardly give you plot hooks for whole campaigns.

Can you summarize?

Heart of Shadow is an invaluable supplement for anyone seeking information on the lands that gave birth to the Orcs and the many abominations that were set free in the warfronts and occupied lands, there isn’t much in terms of rules but it sets your mind in the ways of the corruption and suffering of the land so well that you barely notice any need for mechanics.

If you want lots of details on orc tribes, their ways and politics you better set your sights elsewhere, if you are looking for another D&D or D20 supplement to take things from, this is certainly not the book for you, but if you want to run or is running a game in the Midnight setting, this book presents much needed details and welcome additions to your knowledge of the setting.

The book is not perfect and without problems though, the absence of the few new Kurasatch Udareen spells, the errors in the template examples and rules text, as well as the harshness of the Taint mechanics make the rules part of the book a little lacking and less than what I got used to with Midnight, if you want nothing less than perfection, this will bother you deeply, if you can live with minor rule problems, then the book more than makes up for it.

What else could I look at?

Official Product Page
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