Heroes of Shadow Predictably Dark

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.

19 Responses to Heroes of Shadow Predictably Dark

  1. Utterly stagnant, I think. Partly because the complex design makes it hard for Narrators & Players to build new powers; partly because the push towards character builder tools means you can’t use new powers/feats/items & be compatible; partly because the lack of a good open license means there is little third party innovation…

    …& partly because no one is making bold choices. Where is my “Book of Utility Powers” or my “How to have abilities that aren’t about doing damage” article? Nowhere. I like 4e, I’ll play 4e, & I certainly don’t think 3e was holy…but I think that the current cycle of publication is…well, utterly useless to me. I am a book buyer; I spend my money on gaming books. I LIKE to do it. I haven’t seen a book from WotC that I wanted to spend money on in a…long while.

  2. I have not seen the book yet, so I cannot comment completely. I posted my initial thoughts on Vampire being a Class on my site. But overall, I think WotC is painted into a tight corner by players.

    You haven’t accused them of this, but if they make modifications to the 4e system, then people complain that it’s 4.5 and they are abandoning 4e players. However, if they introduce more designs based on the same mechanics, other players cry foul and claim they are being stagnant.

    I’m sure there is a balance. I think the main positive is they are putting out new material. You can incorporate that however you wish into your campaign as a DM or PC. As long as they keep putting out material, then I’ll be happy. I recently purchased the Monster Manual 3 and Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, and I am benefiting from both titles. Plus, I still have books to catch up on from the past few years.

    I’m curious to see how their books shape up this year.

  3. So, do I get a discount if I choose to buy this book since I’ve already paid for the D&D Insider exclusive Assassin and Revenant?

    I think that is my biggest problem with the book, not even having had the opportunity to look through it. It would have to be very impressive in order to convince me to pay for the same material twice. Or maybe provide some alternative builds on the classes that Wizards seems to have forgotten they created.

  4. I read an article (editorial i think) about the ‘races’ that they keep adding to 4e. Essentially they are trying to make ‘races’ as unobtrusive in the established campaigns as possible. Which I appreciate, because I wasn’t very satisfied with the concept of ‘adding’ tieflings and dragonborn into a campaign world that was already established without the existence (or at least major presence-for tieflings) of these two races. Adding more, as was done in PHB 2, was a bit annoying. most of the new races, were designed in a way that would allow the DM to explain why they hadn’t been seen before.

    Also they mentioned something about vampire being a class rather than a race, because there are no mechanics for a race that gets better with levels (except some paragon tier selections perhaps). So I get why they did it this way, but it does still feel odd. particularly with the double vampire bit.

  5. I’d like to see a supplement that is simply a major city. I guess something like Waterdeep, though I’m not familiar with Forgotten Realms. I think that’s what the whole Midgard Open Design project entails.

    Instead of trying to detail an entire world in a campaign setting that is only useful to people who plan on running that setting, give me a city with districts, politics, NPCs, quest hooks, adventures, etc. Hell, even include a few PC options that are unique to that city, but books of rehashed classes and races and feats become less valuable. Spending the time to create original urban settings (and maybe supplementing those settings with the surrounding countryside through D&D Insider), is the kind of product that can find value in a lot of campaigns.

    Instead of the Dark Sun Campaign World give me a fantasy version of the city of Alexandria, a bustling port on the edge of a boundless desert. Give me a dwarven fortress city built at the entrance of Undermountain. A place for traders, adventurers, and power hungry wizards who hope to harness the magics buried deep within the mountain for their own evil ambitions. Give us the city in June and the dungeon in October.

  6. I agree with that Gavin. Plug and play locations are frequently the best. To a certain extent, they have to be generic, but I really enjoyed the City System of 2e that showcased Waterdeep. It was awesome. I’d love to see something for that in 4e. Throw in a poster battle map and I’m sold.

  7. Midgard is a whole campaign world, not just a city.

    Monte Cook’s “Ptolus” was a pretty massive product built around a single city, for 3.5. I think it came out too close to the end of 3.5 for it to get as much attention as it probably deserved.

  8. Do you have the Ptolus book, Ed? If so, I’d like to take a look at it since, based on about 2 minutes of research, it looks like the EXACT thing I had in mind.

  9. I seem to have stumbled upon the free 34 page pdf of “A Player’s Guide to Ptolus”. I’ve only read the introduction, and I’m already salivating.

  10. One of my favorite Magic cards is a vampire vampire, do to it’s ability of giving all creatures I control the vampire type in addition to any other types. I’d play a vampire vampire, and insist on being called such.

  11. I’ve been wondering about the Assassin-as-exclusive appearing in this book, but I have to wonder: is it just the more recent “Essentialised” build, the Executioner, that appears here? Because that would make the original Shroud Assassin still DDI exclusive. It’s a clever way to have your cake and eat it too. I’m pretty sure the Executioner was only presented in Dragon as a preview, not an exclusive. (Okay, an exclusive preview, but not a preview of an exclusive, right?)

    That said, I dig the Vampire-as-class thing. I hope there’s a Vampire multi-class feat though.

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