Ask and ye shall receive. I have been waiting months for the next D&D releases after their few cancellations. Since I wasn’t terribly interested in the Essentials products (but was pleasantly surprised) it’s been some time since I’ve looked forward to a release. But Heroes of Shadow is something that plays to my peak interests in D&D, as I said yesterday, and I’ve been bugging my local game store about it for some time. When I stopped in to get some more gaming paper, then, and saw it on the shelf I abandoned my other plans and grabbed it immediately. Below is my first hour with the book.
The first chapter, Into the Dark, is a fluff chapter which covers the scope of the book. The headings are pretty ominous: Soul Sacrifice, Shadow Scholarship, Creeping Gloom. It covers a wide variety of character options by the look of things, including those who “happen into” shadow magic and the more common scholars who pursue it for power, secrets, or desperation. The tone of the chapter is all in-character making it a really useful resource for DMs figuring out how the Shadowfell and shadow powers in general fit into their campaign. For those Ravenloft fans, a section on the Shadowfell describes crossing the boundary between worlds into one of the Domains of Dread through shadow magic or Vistani wiles. Between this and the Shadowfell book, you should be able to get 4e Ravenloft up and running in no time. The section after this is even better, though, and deals with actual benefits of selling out to the Raven Queen. In times of distress you can plead with the Raven Queen to get a critical hit, the answer to a riddle, or a sudden coincidence. All she wants in return is something simple like seeking out traitors among her church or fanning international rivalry into all-out war. Simple stuff. It’s a small idea (only a page and a quarter) but I think it’s a great out-of-the-box way to do something like the taint I wrote about yesterday without extra mechanics, if that’s not your thing.
Chapter Two: Shadow Classes is going to be why many buy the book, I suspect. Right off the bat it promises support for assassins, clerics, paladins, warlocks, wizards, and the now-infamous vampire class in this chapter. Before we get into this, I will say up front that I have not done my homework to see if these new class options are Essentials-type classes or Core-type but I’m hoping for a mixture. Starting with the assassin I have to say I’m worried. This class was released on DnD Insider before (as was the revenant later in the book) and was supposed to be an exclusive incentive for ddi membership. Now it’s back? This is the Essentials-style assassin, the Executioner, which debuted in Dragon 393; in fact, the first five pages of the book’s class are identical to the start of the Dragon article. There are some added and improved powers but over all this is just a reprint. I’d be ok if it was billed that way in Dragon but this feels sneaky. [Later edit: Apparently it was a “playtest” article so I suppose they’re off the hook a bit. It’s still mostly the same, though.]
Hopefully the paladin blackguard is better. It seems like it would be an evil paladin that lets PCs get away with murder because it’s in their class description. “The power o fvice is alluring because it offers fewer restrictions than virtue does. Though the power comes easily, a blackguard always faces the worst temptations of his or her vice…” sounds like a recipe for PCs-gone-wild to me. The blackguards pick between Domination and Fury which function like the cavalier’s Virtues but they favor high damage and nasty tactics, playing into the class’s divine striker role. There are daily aspect powers which are somewhat reminiscent of the barbarian’s rages, though you can have a couple going at the same time. It seems like a nice marriage of the assassin and paladin and very reminiscent (I have to say it) of the death knight in World of Warcraft. I would need to put some thought into giving them a little more dimension in my own campaign but as a dark, vicious, divine striker it does the job very well.
Now the piece de resistance, the vampire class. I was instantly swayed by the reasoning from WotC R&D that the vampire works as a class because then you can have a vampire of any race. Looks like another Essentials-style build which is alright (no reason to go overboard with a niche class) and the vulnerability to sunlight is even worse for these guys than in the Monster Manual. They take radiant damage (and they’re already vulnerable) and are weakened so that they could actually die from exposure rather than just being slowed and unable to regenerate (which the vampire class can only do while bloodied, amount equals Cha mod). The vampire powers all deal base damage (instead of weapon) but they get bonus damage from Charisma on top of whatever the Hit line says. Pretty powerful stuff, I might be on my way to ripping off a mortal’s head in D&D (after all, it’s so much fun in World of Darkness). The paragon vampire involves picking a bloodline to gain powers from while the epic vampire involves completely dominating targets which is always fun. We’re picking back up here.
The warlock binder looks pretty interesting but it actually seems more like the standard warlocks but Essentials-style. There are two pacts, gloom and star, and the Shadow Twist feature (+1 to ranged attacks) seems to indicate that they are the ranged counterpart to the hexblade warlock. An excellent improvement, however, is the summoning powers which call up creatures associated with their pact, such as a gloom beast ora soul eater. It’s an interesting adaptation and maybe makes something a little more showy for those who always thought warlocks were too goth and moody (I’ve never felt that way but I like my plots convoluted or not at all). After the binder section is some class powers for existing (Essentials) classes. The clerics in general get gems like inflict wounds and soul cage, while warpriests who want the Deak domain will get things like eye of the vulture and stay the hand of death. New warlock options let hexblades and binders alike take a bit of a controller feel with deathly conduit (that blinds targets), darkening fetch (which yanks them across the battlefield) and other intriguing options. Hexblades also get access to their version of the gloom pact (the star pact debuted in Dragon 393) which has a magical scourge of exquisite agony and some nasty flaying powers to go with it. Much has already been made about the two new mage schools, necromancy and nethermancy, so I won’t belabor them except to say that there is some sweet shadow beast summoning for mages who go that route.
Alright, just a short time (ten minutes!) left to look over Chapter Three: Races of Shadow. Revenants are not new (which carries all of the disappointing feelings of the recycled assassin) but the shades and vryloka definitely are. Shades are those tainted by the Shadowfell in body and soul; “gloom incarnate” as it were. They are missing a healing surge, have an at-will (!) racial ability that lets them Stealth to hide with concealment or cover, and the ability to take shade utility powers instead of their class’s utility powers. They have a typical backstory of “wandering outcasts” but shades became their gloomy selves after purposefully taking part in a ritual to make themselves shades. This reminds me of the dragon-race from Arcana Evolved and has the same subtle but awesome racial quirk: every shade wants to be a shade because they willingly preformed the ritual. There’s a plot hook there and you haven’t even chosen ability scores yet! The vryloka are described as “living vampires” who forsook their souls in exchange for power but not undeath. They can pass as human and have a necrotic resistance (making them pretty similar to necrotic kalashtar to me) and they can pull the same fun game of taking racial utility powers instead of class ones as the shades can. This might become a thing soon! Following this are some ways for making your dwarf, eladrin, elf, or halfling character a little more shadowy but I don’t have time to look them over in detail. They seem good, though.
In the final chapter there are paragon paths and epic destinies (two new things for Essentials) as well as some feats (including ghostwise, which isn’t just for halflings any more, shadowborn, and winterkin, for eladrin), plus some equipment which looks like it might fill a niche but probably won’t revolutionize.
All in all, the book turns out to be patchy. Everything in it is good but some of the content is reprinted from other sources. I don’t want to blow it out of proportion since only 22 of the 159 pages (14%) is repeating, but that’s more than I like. The fluff pieces are great and the races all look interesting, but if you’re looking for a 4e replacement for Heroes of Horror, it’s not quite there. I think it’s more like Complete Scoundrel with a dark and necrotic bent. The only thing I would worry about is the encouragement that the book gives to characters with an evil bent that excuse it one way or another. I’d love for one of my players to take up the grey morality presented in this book but they would have to be prepared for the cultural judgements which I would want, and which would be stronger than this book calls for.