Last month Wizards of the Coast gave D&D players Heroes of Shadows, a tome full of anti-heroes to play. After whetting our appetites with the darker side of heroism, we’d be lying if we said we weren’t interested in exploring the potential of the shadow a bit more. Luckily Wizards of the Coasts must be mind-readers (or took a feat in it) cause they followed up that excellent book with a full box set!
This month they give Dungeon Masters a setting for those questionable characters to feel right at home in.
Until now the Shadowfell, the dark and imperfect plane which is meant as a reflection of the natural realm, has been a place talked about only in muted whispers. With the release of The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond it comes into focus… gloomy, unnerving focus.
If you want a little darkness in your D&D campaign, whether for a couple adventures or a full-fledged story arc, you will want to pick it up
The 127 page supplement starts off with a quick overview of the Shadowfell and gives a few details on how a character from the natural world may come to find themselves in the Shadowfell. It then quickly moves into the central focus, the City of Gloomwrought.
In the nightmare plane that is the Shadowfell, Gloomwrought (The City of Midnight) is the closest thing people will find to the comfort of their parent’s bed when those nightmares attack. That is, assuming your parents were evil necromancers and their bed may come to life and eat you. Gloomwrought is the only civilization in the entire plane, but there doesn’t seem to be anything in it that isn’t a problem. The city is highly mutable. Buildings within the city collapse, often with people inside, while new ones spring up across the street. Gates that give access to the city slide along the outer wall. It’s like the Harry Potter universe with Voldemort in charge of everything. There are a thousand and one theories as to why this happens, but no one is certain.
The supplement breaks the city down by section and gives you a nice overview of organizations and locations you will find in each neighborhood. It also drills down to give details with enough background information and story hooks to keep your players entertained for many levels of play. There are also descriptions of several power factions spread throughout The City of Midnight.
After details about Gloomwrought, there is an overview of its suburbs. With locations like Oblivion Bog, Dead Man’s Cross and the Darkreach Mountains, I’m sure you can figure out for yourself how enticing travel outside the city must be. The final section of the book covers over a dozen dark threats and power players your group may butt heads with in the Shadowfell.
All of that should be enough to keep your players role playing for weeks, but if they do start getting bored and want to roll some combat dice you can always whip out the included encounter booklet. It comes with 14 encounters of various levels from 7 to 23. Four of these are skill challenges which have never been my favorite, but these are presented well and look easy and fun to run. One of the time saving features of these books is the cross indexing. Every time something new is brought up, there is a page number listed where you can find more info on that person or place. They have extended that to include drops where an encounter from the booklet would fold in nicely. In doing this, the authors made it easy for you to follow a thought all the way through.
A large size, soft cover supplement book and encounter booklet sound good in the hardcover book price range of $40, but when you throw in two sheets of tokens and a poster map of Gloomwrought you have yourself a bargain. The poster does a good job at showing the scale of the city while hopefully instilling the players with an uneasy feeling about the latest stop on their adventuring life.
At first I was disheartened to see the tokens were a matte finish instead of the glossy ones from the Monster Vault, but after I thought about it the matte finishing really sticks with the theme of the supplement. Throughout it they stress how miserable the entire plane is and encourage you to get that feel across to your players. Looking down to see a glossy Shade Assassin stalking my token might take me out of that, “everything sucks here” mentality. I’ll go with that reasoning instead of the haters, “I bet they saved a nickel per sheet doing it this way!” I was also bolstered when I flipped over the sheet of tokens. Not only do they all have a bloodied side, but they have written the name for each token on the bloodied side.
They start early and often with the theme of instilling that fear and gloom into the players. Giving tips on setting proper mood at the table along with ones encouraging extra description of the locations their characters are in. It is always a fine line to walk as a DM to properly paint the setting for players versus falling in love with your own flowery boxed text. They give you some tips to do this well for the setting.
But wait, there’s more… The Despair Deck
So, you already have yourself a bargain. Throw in the optional role-playing enhancement of the Despair Deck, and you’ve got yourself a steal. I know what some of you are saying, “Oh no, I hated fortune cards!” These aren’t fortune cards. If your players haven’t taken to the fact that their new surroundings are a terrible place, and they shouldn’t be playing a colorfully dressed, chipper halfling bard the same way here as they would in the world, the Despair Deck is a way for you to club this fact over their heads.
Each card will give the player a hindering emotional state from one of three categories (madness, fear and apathy) and a specific in-game penalty to deal with. Some examples are:-2 to a defense, rolling a natural one knocks you prone, inability to use action points. As I was going through titles for the thirty card deck, I couldn’t help but think of the Seven Dwarves. In the Shadowfell, however, they would be: Forgetful, Wrathful, Mistrustful, Paranoid, Clumsy, Jittery, and Drowsy.
By the standard rules, after an extended rest players draw a despair card and are under its effects until they reach a milestone, at which time they can make a save. If they succeed, a boon, which is based on the penalty previously imposed, is bestowed to the character till the next extended rest. To encourage the roleplaying aspect of the despair cards, I will most likely give players a bonus to the saving throw based on how well they role played the original problem their character faced.
I like this mechanic much more than that of the fortune cards. The deck is standard so there is no using the players wallet to build a better deck, and, assuming they make the save, the penalty/boon are close enough in effect that they cancel each other out. With far less reliance on daily powers for Essentials characters, I see many more 5 encounter days for players, since everyone should make their save (on average) after 2 milestones, the whole party will then have their boon working for them.
Other Shadowfell Releases
All Essentials characters are supported by this supplement. But, as I mentioned in the introduction, if you were going to start a whole new campaign set in the Shadowfell I would recommend the newly released Heroes of Shadow. You can find our review of that here. Those characters and this setting will work perfectly together.
To encourage you further about support for this setting, this year’s product from WotC for FreeRPGDay is Domain of Dread: Histhaven. This is another supplement for the Shadowfell that details one of its Domains of Dread, a swath of the Shadowfell ruled over by a Lord who is kept prisoner there by their own evil. DMs for this season of D&D Encounters are also being encouraged to use the despair deck so it is a great resource if you are planning on running those games every week.
The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond will be released by Wizards of the Coast May 17, 2011.