Yeah, I just rolled up a new character. He’s a paladin, but, like, a dark paladin. He’s really dark. And tormented, with, like, scars and he’s sort of angry and mysterious and brooding and dark. No, he’s still a good guy, just really dark. Even his sword is dark, man. I thought of making a vampire, but vampires these days are kinda…you know. [The alternate intro to this review compared dark paladins to honey badgers.]
Heroes of Shadow is a new “Player’s Option” book for 4E. It’s similar to the “power” books that came out earlier in 4E. If they’d stuck with the naming convention, this would have been called “Shadow Power,” since it’s focused on characters with the shadow power source. This doesn’t follow that old convention in part because this book is based on Essentials and not the earlier incarnation of 4E.
There’s been a lot of controversy about Heroes of Shadow and how it relates to Essentials. Because the book is Essentials-centric, people are saying it’s a sign that Wizards has abandoned Player’s Handbook style characters, making Essentials, for all intents and purposes, into 4.5. I disagree. All the classes (well, most) printed in the first three PHBs had their day in the sun with the original power books. There’s no reason to expect Wizards to continually print new material for those same classes — indeed, it would be pretty lame if they just kept layering on the options instead of doing something new. Essentials material doesn’t preclude PHB material. The rules haven’t changed. They’re different types of characters, and now they have their own options book, but they can exist alongside old-style characters with no conflict.
That’s not to say I don’t have other problems with Heroes of Shadow. The treatment of antiheroes feels very adolescent. I know a lot of people go through that phase, especially gamers in their early teens. It’s why comic books like Spawn and Punisher were so popular in the 90s. It’s why we all love Wolverine. Hell, my current 4E character has become something of an antihero. The fluff in Heroes of Shadow (which takes up a scant 10 pages) could have been more nuanced. Instead we get a lot of info about darkness and sacrificing your soul to tap into the power, and the stories of some people who performed this sort of dark sacrifice. Then they rub our noses in the cancellation of 4E Ravenloft by shoe-horning in a few paragraphs about the Vistani and the Domains of Dread. No actual plot hooks or anything, though.
The rest of the book is highly crunchy, with three new classes: the assassin, the blackguard, and the vampire. Nevermind that the assassin was supposed to be a DDI exclusive, or that a vampire isn’t really a class the way being a warlord or a ranger is. There are some shadowy variants of a few older classes, and then a bit of info on playing darker versions of still more classes (the shadowy cleric, for example, doesn’t seem to do much a regular cleric doesn’t, but the power names are all about death, gloom and despair).
Then we get some new races, and it’s here where the book starts to slip off the rails. Revenant, Shade and Vryloka. Let’s start with Revenant (a character who has died and come back undead) and Shade (humans who trade “part of their souls for a sliver of the Shadowfell’s dark essence”). Those things aren’t “races.” Those are things that happened to someone. It’s like saying my race is “hockey player,” or “diabetic.” Then there’s the Vryloka, which are vampires. That’s fine. Vampire as a race makes a little sense (even though it makes more sense as a template or theme). But we’ve already established that vampire is a class. So now, if you really couldn’t get enough vampirism out of current pop culture, you can go ahead and play a Vampire vampire.
One last pet peeve — ridiculously literal captions for every damn image in the book. I used to pour over the art in old 2nd edition books for hours as a kid, pondering the little tales unfolding within them, contemplating who each character depicted was, what kind of grand adventure they were on. I don’t need a caption telling me, “A vryloka wizard brings forth shadowy skeletons to join the fight against a savage ettin.” Way to talk down to your audience.
I know this seems like a harsh review. The fact is, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Heroes of Shadow. It’s not a bad book. It just feels very…perfunctory. If what you want most out of life is just more 4E D&D stuff, more paragon paths, more classes, more races that don’t really make any sense as races, more powers, feats, more more more, then this book is perfect. It is jam packed with that stuff, cover to cover.
Maybe I’m just getting jaded this far into 4E’s development cycle. Maybe awesome books like Monster Manual 3 and Dark Sun raised my expectations too high. I can’t help but feel like the basic set of rules and the powers system of 4E is a great system that’s growing stagnant and stale through lack of innovation. Wizards proved that they could bend the system to interesting uses with Gamma World (even if I didn’t totally enjoy the execution). I wish the things coming out of Renton looked more like that stuff, and less like Mr. Spooky Paladin up there.