Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Shadow Week: The Shadows of 4e

It seems not many people like 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons these days.  While not surprising it is a bit disappointing. There was a solid game there and some fantastic lore built.  Creatively the authors were at the top of their design game even if the execution was a little short of the design goals.  Never the less I like to page through my 4e books as use the a lot of the fluff, and even a little bit of the crunch, for my 5e and Basic-era games. 

The following products helped define the Shadowfell, a region in the D&D Universe adjacent or part of the Plane of Shadow and connected to the Prime Material like the Feywild (Land of Faerie) is.  Essentially the Shadowfell would be that part of our world where TV shows like The Twilight Zone or Tales From the Darkside would have occurred.  So as you can imagine I was drawn to it rather quickly.

In every case I am reviewing the PDF and physical copy of the product.

H1 Keep on the Shadowfell & Quick-Start Rules

The Keep on the Shadowfell was the first-ever adventure published for the D&D 4 game.  We are introduced to the game world and the rules via a quick-start set of rules included with the game.  Nearly everything you need to get started with the D&D 4 game is here.  The adventure itself is designed to invoke memories of another keep, the Keep on the Borderlands, but here ante has been raised.  The keep is not near some giant monstrous humanoid condo, but on the veil between the material plane and the mysterious Shadowfell.   There is a lot more going on and it can feel very combat heavy and even a touch predictable.  But that is fine for a 1st adventure.  Everyone is still too busy figuring out moves and markings and surges to worry whether or not rumor X or rumor Y turns out to be true.  

It is here we are introduced to the newest god of the D&D pantheon, the Raven Queen, and this adventure starts an epic quest between the forces of good and the forces of evil in the form of Orcus.  Eventually, in later adventures the players will learn that Orcus is trying to steal the Raven Queen's power and become a God.  So there are also, er...shadows of the Throne of Bloodstone series (1e) here and eventually Dead Gods (2e).  It is also here we are re-introduced to the Shadar-kai, a humanoid race that lives in the Shadowfell and how it has changed them. It changed them a lot actually since in 3e they were elves.  Here they are human.  In 5e they will become elves again.  

I ran this adventure using the 4e rules and then again years later converting it to 5e.  It ran fantastic each time.  I also wrote up a set of conversion for BECMI style D&D Basic. I have run it, but it looks like it should work well with that too.  I start the characters off at 5th level for that. 

If you can find a copy in print it is a fun introduction to the D&D 4 game. The PDF is free at DriveThruRPG so it only costs you a click. 

Player's Option: Heroes of Shadow (4e)

The Shadowfell is now a feature of the D&D 4 landscape and many products have discussed it including many of the adventures and Monster Manuals.  With the Player's Option book we get classes and races based on the shadow realms and how they can be used.

One of D&D4's greatest strengths was it's modularity.  Adding or subtracting material from the game was easier than ever before.  It is a feature that 5e adopted, though not as radically as 4e.  Adding more classes then never felt like a bloat since you could limit the number of classes or races or any other feature.  The Player's Option books were that in execution. Heroes of Shadow introduces the Assassin class, the Blackguard Paladin option, the Vampire class, the Binder option for Warlocks, and additions to other classes such as clerics (death domain),  warlocks (gloom pact for hexblades), and the Necromancy and Nethermancy schools for wizards.  Since classes are so detailed this covers the majority of the book.

The Vampire class should be mentioned since it is different.  The idea behind it is that no matter what a person was before this, they are now a vampire and they can progress in power as a vampire.  Not for everyone, I am sure but there was an elegance to it that can't be denied. It also worked quite well to be honest.

There are some new races of course. The Revenant is back from the dead with the power of the Raven Queen with them. The Shade has traded some of their mortality for Shadow stuff.  This is the best version of the Shade since 1st ed. The Vryloka are living vampires, one of my favorites in 4e, and variations on Dwarves, Elves/Eladrin, Halflings and Humans.

There are new Paragon Paths for many classes and Epic Level Destinies.  A handful of new feats and some new equipment. 

It is a fun set of options that really had the feel of the shadow-soaked 4e world down. 

Plenty of great ideas for a 5e game using the same classes (all have 5e counterparts) or as fluff for other versions of the game. 

The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond (4e)

Gloomwrought is a large city located in the Shadowfell. This product came in a box with a 128-page Campaign Guide, a 32-page Encounter book, a poster map of Gloomwrought, monster counters, and a 30-card deck of Despair cards.  The Despair cards were a nice feature since they could add to the mood of "gloom, despair, and agony on me."  While the cards had mechanical effects, the vast bulk of this product is fluff.  The crunch amounts to some NPCs and encounters, all easily converted. There are a couple of monsters, but they analogs in every other version of D&D. 

Gloomwrought gets the most ink here and that is fine. The city is something of a crossroads in the Shadowfell and it is likely where characters will end up.  

One of the nice things about the D&D4 Shadowfell line being done is it is now easier to go back and include something like Gloomwrought in the HPE series of adventures that had come out three years prior.  In fact, it is entirely possible to make ALL your D&D 4 experiences live and act within the Shadowfell if one chooses.  I find this personally satisfying since my 2nd Ed AD&D experiences are largely molded by my chosen campaign world of Ravenloft. 

Use with BECMI or 5e

If you look back at my "sunk costs" posts I have been building this idea of running the HPE series with either BECMI or 5e from a 4e conversion.  These books could work rather well with those ideas.


centauri said...

Good review, thanks. I liked the idea of the "reflection" worlds, but I'll be honest that I never quite understood what the Shadowfell was going for. It struck me as just generally unpleasant. Every locale in the game should be dangerous, but the Shadowfell was glum in addition. Not my bag. But I liked how they developed it.

Dick McGee said...

Odd, as a 4E fan I'd say that if anything, it's getting more positive buzz than it was pre-5th edition. The bloom is well off the rose on the latter for many people, and 4E is starting to get significant amounts of people pointing out that it was really quite good in a lot of ways that 5th should have adopted. The old mobs of folks shrieking about how it changed too much have dispersed, and many of us have realized that the some of the mouthy bastards never even played 4E in any meaningful way anyhow - they'd jumped ship to Pathfinder and were just bent on spoiling it for anyone who'd stayed with WotC.

That aside, I quite liked the "Shadow" material here. The module was fun and a good intro to the system when it was new. The Shadowfell being more accessible at all levels was a nice idea just like being able to adventure in the Feywild or Elemental Chaos was. Planescape had tried to make other planes more open to PCs but didn't manage it quite as well at lower levels than 4E did IME. The Gloom cards were a nifty idea if a bit intrusive at times, and Gloomwrought itself was a good adventure locale.

The Heroes of Shadow PC options were a bit uneven. Blackguard was quite good as a pseudo-anti-paladin, the Assassin was an interesting take on an old class, and the Vampire (while a bit limiting) played well and very differently from any other class, but the Binder Warlock had some mechanical issues. The book (along with Heroes of the Feywild) were some of the more mold-breaking 4E supplements - and they did bring us a ton of jokes about pixie vampires, a class/race combo that worked far better than was probably intended. :)

mbeacom said...

Nice writeup. It's always good to have more voices speaking the name of 4E without taking it in vain. I think Dick is right. I've started to see more people with some years of 5E under their belt looking at 4E and seeing it actually fixed things 5E rebroke. But edition wars aside, the shadowfell is/was badass. I used it extensively.
I'll not reiterate what you've spoken here about the products you detail. But I'll add that there was some really good Shadowfell content in addition.

The Tomb of Horrors super adventure which consisted of 4 tombs across the planes. One was in the shadowfell and the party has to traverse Moil to get there. It was really good. The encounters were exciting and the foreSHADOWing of the tomb was well done. The tomb itself was fantastic, the walls literally oozing black oil. To the point that the party is knee deep in the stuff and frequently slowed. Under normal circumstances, it might have been tedious but in this case, it felt overwhelming and oppressive and really set the mood. Context matters. I had some special incense that I had previously found somewhat cloying and had avoided it, but in this case I used it for those sessions and it went over really well. I was glad to be rid of it, lol.

At one point in our campaign, I also used a promotional adventure called Domain of Dread: Histhaven. It took the players to the Shadowfell and really nailed the feel. It was very much like an episode of Resident Evil where they went to a town that was just so dark and dreary and everyone acts suspicious, like the whole town is in on it. But it turns out the whole town was the victim. Turned the trope on its head and worked well.

Anyway, if you like the Shadowfell, I recommend taking a look at both of those if you can find them. The PDFs are likely available on DTRPG.

grodog said...

I'm not familiar with 4e in general, but have heard good things about the Shadowfell books. Will check them out. Thanks!