In the Midnight campaign setting where the dark god Izrador has conquered the lands of Eredane, one of the greatest “switches” players have to contend with is that the possession of arms and armor is punishable by enslavement, death, or whatever other imaginative punishment the orc or legate can come up with.
Steel and Shadow is a warrior’s sourcebook for DMs and players alike (most Midnight supplements are written for DMs), full of mechanics, new prestige classes and alternative rules.
A disclaimer is need here: I do not consider myself a good judge of rules, prestige classes, feats, and actually any other thing that relates to the mechanics of d20; and while I will certainly describe some of these rules here, know that I cannot say if they are balanced or not, just how fitting they are in the world of Midnight. I will focus my review on the content of the book accompanying said rules.
As is usual for Midnight supplements it is a 64-page, black and white soft-cover.
The front cover of the book depicts two warriors (one of them is clearly a Sarcosan, while the other is probably an Erenlander) fending off an assault of orcs in the woods at night. The painting is nice enough, but I can’t say that I really care for it that much. The interior art, on the other hand, is excellent as always, managing to blend both gritty darkness and heroic efforts seamlessly.
The book consists of an introduction and four chapters.
The introduction tells the story of the armed forces of various cultures in Eredane as they were on the eve of the fall of Eredane, the end of the Third Age; and how a hundred years after the fall of the Shadow upon the land, some of these cultures still resist martially, and how these cultures’ warriors had to adapt to the new reality. The introduction, as it should, sets the tone to the rest of the book.
Chapter 1 opens up by giving a description of the kind of war each race, due to its distinct location, has to contend with, and what skills and feat are probably most used by warriors of these races. An optional idea given here is that each race trains its warriors a bit differently, so that these warriors will be more effective in their home territory. So for example a dwarven fighting in the Kaladruns will loss Handle Animals, Knowledge (nature), and Ride as class skills, but gain Disable Device, Knowledge (architecture and engineering), and Knowledge (dungeoneering); or that elven fighters could swap proficiency with heavy armor and all shields but gain the woodland stride ability. These small changes can truly make each race’s warriors unique and fitting to their own race.
A handful of feats are also presented in this chapter, but most of them have to deal with giving the character access to a new mechanic introduced later in the chapter: the Fighting Techniques. Each race gains a number of fighting techniques that may be learned if a character has the appropriate feat, finds a mentor, and spend the time (a month) and XP needed to learn it (this is an incremental value starting at 50 XP with the 1st technique learned and slowly increasing). Along with the technique we are given descriptions of why these tricks were developed and where they might be learned; any of these description can provide a DM with a campaign arc if the players wish to invest the time in finding a mentor, or an NPC or two that might interact at some level with the players.
Chapter 2 first presents us with new Heroic Paths (one for each race) called Champions that capitalize on the Fighting Techniques introduced in chapter 1. Characters with these Paths learn Techniques freely, may teach new techniques to others at a reduced XP cost, and gain several abilities that build on the strength of each race.
Secondly we presented with a new kind of magical item (sort of like Charms) called Totem Heads. These totem heads may be used only by he who slew the beast, and depending on the HD of the creature killed (and if the Charm crafting was successful) may provide a certain True Charm effect, as well as have a certain amount of spell energy to call forth a chosen power (anything for a +1 to AC or Damage, to spells like Bear’s endurance or Cat’s grace). I have to say that I like this idea, and the fact that it might encourage warrior types to learn the skills necessary to create charms is even more appealing to me. Warrior’s Sacrifice is a simple mechanic that claims that certain places have a stronger presence spirits in it (maybe even Aryth’s spirit) that might grant a warrior a small bonus if he or she offers a “worthy sacrifice” (anything from a deer’s heart, to a song, to a polished stone) and may really be anything the DM deems worth. The warrior of course still needs to know where and how to perform such a sacrifice and this may be signified with ranks in an appropriate knowledge skill. Additionally two new covenant items are introduced in this chapter.
Mainly due to the different mechanic for magic in Midnight, but also balanced with that “special” feel needed to achieve in a Midnight class, many of the PrCs from other books do not fit into the Midnight setting. And so, chapter 3 is the largest and contains ten new prestige classes, some are specific for a certain race (such as the Dorn’s Cendaran Cultist, or the Erunsil’s Dire Blades), most have special requirements (for example: killing an outsider to become a Banisher, or being no taller than 4’6” to become a Tunnel Wraith). But all of them, with no exception, fit the Midnight setting like a glove. We are told who usually takes that certain path and why and how they would react in certain circumstances. This is not telling the player how to act, but gives him or her an idea of what others who feel the same calling as he or she did usually act.
All characters in Midnight are extremely familiar with the land on which they grew, and this is implemented in Midnight by giving them Knowledge (local) as a class skill (local is not a general term but very specific: Northlands, Veradeen, Aruun, etc.), and a bonus to Survival and Knowledge (nature)in that area. In chapter 4 we are given three variant rules as to how this familiarity with the terrain may be further implemented. These rules go from the simplest (gaining a certain bonus if the character has enough ranks), to the most complex in which depending on the DC reached, the character my reduce, ignore, or even gain a bonus to action in certain hazards and terrains such as blizzards, Bog, Forest, Fences, Rubble, Quicksand, and more. Each of these is described shortly, along with an entry on the penalty or bonus depending on the characters check. As the authors admit, this rule is a bit complex, but could certainly give characters who “know” their region a distinct superiority in it.
The second half of the chapter present three “Battlegrounds”, including maps and new hazards, that illustrate better and build on the aforementioned variant rules. Each battleground is of course also presented with a short and interesting history.
One thing I did not mention so far, but that I really liked were the several “legends” that were spread out throughout it; these were presented as rumors and campfire tales, as tales of hope told by desperate people. If they are true or not is up to each DM to decide.
While mostly a mechanic book, Steel and Shadow managed to grab a hold of me due to it being well written and interesting. The short stories and adventure seeds that are seamlessly, almost casually, integrated into the description of the new rules, made it so much more than a pure mechanic books.
For other d20 users who are looking for new variant rules and prestige classes, I cannot whole-heartedly recommend this book, as all the rules ooze of Midnight with perhaps the sole exception of the variant terrain rules presented in chapter 4.
But for Midnight players and DMs, this is just about right.