The Shadowfell boxed set is wrought with gloom, wracked with despair, fraught with a poster map and laden with creature tokens. All that makes for an excellent way to lead your PCs onto a path of horror and tribulation.
Shadowfell succeeds in so many places where Heroes of Shadow failed. It’s not just another stream of unnecessary character options gothed up in spooky sounding names. It is a DM-centric product filled with campaign hooks, locations and NPCs, fully dressed encounters and all the other things that can fire a DM’s imagination. But I want to start with a couple of odd things I don’t like about it; purely mechanical things.
Shadowfell is a boxed set, and boxed sets are awesome. I like one much better than a simple hardcover book. Boxed sets can offer you extra goodies like poster maps, decks of cards, and tokens, all of which Shadowfell contains. There’s nothing quite as sweet as lifting the lid off of a boxed set to see what mysteries lie within. Except you won’t be doing that with this boxed set. There’s no lid. It’s a sort of one-piece box, with one end opening. Then you slide out the various books and bits from this small flap. It’s such a minor detail, and I’m sure this kind of box costs less (it’s nowhere near as sturdy as the old style boxes), but it’s still a bit sad.
One other minor thing: this boxed set, it…well, I don’t know how to say this gently. It smells funny. I guess some new printing process was used, but there’s a distinct and unpleasant chemical stench that emanates from the box and the books when you read them. It’s strong enough that I can smell it now, with the box and components on a table several feet away. Strong enough that I had to hold the books away from my face when reading them. Neither of these things are a big deal, but still, they bug me.
Let’s just assume these are thematic touches (the frustrating box is a hint at the despair to come, while the smell brings to mind the fetid bogs outside Gloomwrought) and get to the good stuff. The heart of the Shadowfell boxed set is the Campaign Guide. This book is predominantly a gazetteer to the Shadowfell, and serves for all intents and purposes as this year’s “new” campaign setting, what with Ravenloft being cancelled. In fact, Ravenloft shows up with a few faint mentions of the domains of dread and how the Shadowmist which swirls throughout the Shadowfell helps to form them.
The Campaign Guide starts with a rough overview of what life in the Shadowfell is like, plus some ideas for adventures that can suck your PCs into this dark mirror of the real world. The next chapter, which takes up most of the book, presents Gloomwrought, a city within the Shadowfell. It is great to see this kind of city guide presented for 4E, and it’s really well-done. One side of the poster map is a wide view of Gloomwrought, while the other side shows some city streets at tactical level. The book takes you through the city location by location, providing a huge number of adventure hooks, background information, interesting stories and other details. There is virtually no crunch to be found.
The next chapter carries you beyond Gloomwrought to explore some other notable areas of the Shadowfell. There are some great ideas in here — my personal favorite is the House of Black Lanterns, a roving inn that provides protection and intrigue (and no, it does not contain the zombified denizens of the DC Universe).
The Dark Threats chapter is a Shadowfell Monster Manual of sorts, but instead of a pile of alphabetized creatures, the bad guys within are grouped by the nefarious organizations which they are inclined to support. If you’re seeking more singular threats, a host of powerful NPCs with full stat blocks await your company. I’m particularly intrigued by Feria, the Shadow Angel, a deva being slowly corrupted by her lover.
Once you’re done with all that awesomeness, there’s a whole other book. It’s more of a slender booklet, but it’s a good one. The Encounter Book is full of encounters for characters between 7th and 23rd levels. It’s something of a spiritual successor to the Dungeon Delves book, one of the best 4E products ever made. It isn’t just a pile of a combat encounters, though. This time they included an equal number of encounters based on skill challenges. The encounters are not linked to each other, so you can’t just play through them and call it a campaign. However, each one is linked to something in the Campaign Guide, whether it’s a location in Gloomwrought, an evil NPC group or an adventure hook. Nicely done.
Now that Wizards of the Coast has made the perfectly logical transition into becoming a company whose flagship product is a minis-based RPG, yet doesn’t produce or sell any minis, monster tokens are the big thing. The monster tokens are great, especially compared to not getting monster tokens in your boxed set. Compared to getting a handful of relevant miniatures, they are lame. They are also impossible to store in any kind of logical way if you have a fair amount of them, which means that you will never, ever find the token for the monster you need when you need it.
The Despair Deck, on the other hand, is pretty cool, and much better than Fortune Cards. They’re still not quite as awesome as they could be, but I think they’ll do a wonderful job of adding some functional despair to all of a DM’s mood setting and theme establishing when you’re in the Shadowfell. Here’s how they work: each time you take an extended rest inside the Shadowfell, you draw a card from the Despair Deck (optionally, you may acquire them upon witnessing certain horrific events as well). The card you draw will give your character an unpleasant effect. For example, one card gives you insomnia, cutting your surge value in half. To overcome your despair, you have to make a saving throw, but you only get to roll when you reach a milestone.
Each card also has a corresponding skill that helps you overcome it. If you’re trained in Nature, you get a +2 to your roll to overcome Insomnia. And things aren’t all bad — once you’ve overcome your despair card, you get a boon that lasts until your next extended rest. Insomnia, for instance, gives you a +5 bonus to your healing surge per tier. Other despairs include Paranoid, Reckless, Indifferent and other malign emotional states. I really like Quarrelsome, which causes all allies to grant combat advantage as long as they’re adjacent to you. With a party of good role-players, you can have a lot of fun with these.
If this is the direction future location-based 4E products will be taking, consider me a huge fan. This certainly has me looking forward to the inevitable (I hope) Feywild boxed set.