Heroes of Shadow
is an Essentials
-style supplement for Dungeons and Dragons 4E
that focuses on providing options for conceptually darker characters. A useful resource for a campaign exploring Ravenloft
or a similar environment, the options here are thematic and exist primarily to help foster the appropriate mood at the table. Those interested in anti-hero characters will also find something to enjoy here with the wealth of options for assassins, warlocks, and dark wizards along with the addition of several new races and support for playing vampires from level one onward.
The Good: Many of the individual powers are fun and work well for characters discovering dark lore, for darker characters such as necromancers, and even for a DM to steal to add a little something extra to a big bad NPC. The Vryloka are an interesting addition, and the Necromancer adds a wonderful option for an arcane character.
The Bad: Many of the mechanical options, and much of the fluff, is bland and difficult to get excited about.
The Physical Thing
This 160 page color hardcover showcases the same quality production values found in all Wizards of the Coast products. The detailed table of contents makes it easy to find anything needed here while the formatting results in an easy to read product. Good use of art brings the options to life at every turn.
Under the Cover
Heroes of Shadow
involves very little setting discussion, with little more than a nod to the Shadowfel and Demiplanes of Shadow as being involved with these powers. Since the book immediately delves into mechanics I'll do the same today by first examining the new classes and class options before turning to the new races and general options.
The Executioner is a Dex/Cha Assassin option, a martial striker that uses the more unusual weapons of garrote, poisoned daggers, hand crossbow, or bola depending on a player's selection of At-Will powers. I particularly like the mechanics behind the Poisoned Dagger At-Will as it will deliver any of the varied included poisons even on a miss, giving a well-geared Rogue the opportunity to switch poisons as needed. As the Executioner continues to level up it gets increasingly skilled at stealth, poison use, and surprise attack abilities. The class accomplishes no more or less than what it sets out to do – a classic Rogue-like striker with all of the tricks expected of an assassin. Paragon and Epic advancement largely continue to advance the same skills, providing greater bonuses to the things the assassin is already quite skilled at.
The Blackguard is a Str/Cha Paladin option, a divine striker that enjoys a mix of different types of powers including: control, survival, and cold/necrotic damage. The class feels more like the classic D&D Blackguard, the Shadowknight from Everquest, or something more along those lines. The designers are clearly trying to play up the unholy aspect of the class with the mix of possibilities here. I love the At-Will melee attack which provides 1W + damage equal to two times the number of advacent enemies to a maximum of eight. It encourages the Blackguard to stride into the thick of battle, weapon swinging. Blackguards may further specialize as either Domination or Fury focused, with Domination providing more temporary hitpoints, survivability, and group support while Fury seeks to award the Blackguard combat advantage as often as possible.
The Vampire is a completely new class, a shadow striker based on Dex/Cha that uses holy symbols and implements to deal necrotic or psychic damage while exercising a moderate amount of battlefield control and self-preservation. Vampires gain all of the benefits of being undead, which also includes darkvision and resist 5 necrotic. The high price for this is vulnerability 5 radiant and taking 5 points of radiant damage when exposed to direct sunlight without any cover. Vampires are hard to kill as they gain regeneration (Cha) when bloodied unless exposed to radiant damage and may purchase a level one At-Will to gain two plus Cha modifier temporary hit points per strike. At lower levels, in particular, this makes a striker with decent damage exceptionally survivable.
There are downsides to the vampire, however. For one, it's a very linear class with few options for player customization. At the vast majority of levels a player simply gains the listed ability, abilities which do a good job of evoking the feel of being a vampire but which often offer very weak support to the vampire's primary role as a damage dealer. That's the other problem, that the vampire likely lags behind other strikers and can bring little to the adventuring group to make up for it.
Finally, for the Warlock we are introduced to the Binder option which focuses on dealing larger amounts of single target damage. The Gloom Pact variant adds a good amount of battlefield control while the Star Pact provides easy invisibility. The powers are largely cold and necrotic, as with the rest of the material, and they typically include a debuff on top of high single target damage and either invisibility or small amounts of control.
As for other classes, the additions they receive here are thematic but relatively tame as far as actual impact on the game is concerned. For example, a level one cleric Daily, Inflict Wounds, offers 3d6 damage but is a pale offering in light of the other options a leader character needs to be able to fulfill a specific role. The Warpriest, at least, can pick up the Death Domain for more interesting support options through new debuffs. The Gloom Pact Hexblade gains insubstantiality and phasing for one turn after dropping an enemy in combat. As with the Blackguard, the remaining abilities are a big mix of options meant to evoke a darkness-embracing feel to the class more than anything else.
Of all of the options here, it is the wizard support that I see as the strongest. Wizards pick up a mix of anti-undead powers, thematic control powers that can fit well with existing builds or support a necromancer specifically, and new summoned creatures that helpfully fill in the gaps in a summoner's selection or allow for, once again, a classic necromancer-style character. Two new schools are added for mages to select from, necromancy and nethermancy, both of which add fun bonuses. The necromancer, in particular, is very well done especially in its level ten ability to ignore necrotic resistance. This makes a lot of sense as the necromancer should be using a lot of necrotic attacks, but should also be effective at taking down undead.
The new racial options include the revenant, shade, and vryloka. The Revenant has returned from the dead and sports the undead trait, +2 Dex +2 Cha/Con, Low-Light vision, and a free action Encounter power that adds damage to an attack after a nearby creature is killed, among other abilities. My favorite part of this race is still considered a member of the race it belonged to before dying, which is a nice bit of mechanical fluff support. Otherwise, the race is very vanilla with a generic description that suggests these characters don't remember all of their past life and may be serving gods of death or fate. This is one of many options that could have been better with more engaging setting support.
The Shade trade part of their own essence for a part of the Shadowfell, taking on qualities of darkness. Mechanically they gain +2 Cha +2 Dex/Int, Darkvision, and a variety of abilities that enhance Stealth options. The back story is similar here, with a desperate person making a great sacrifice for power and then having to live with the consequences of that decision. Wandering darkness-filled social outcasts, the Shade race is almost a D&D adventurer stereotype made manifest.
Finally, the Vryloka are living vampires. This gives them +2 Cha, +2 Str/Dex, Speed 7, Low-Light vision, necrotic resistance, the ability to dictate whether they are considered living or undead when targeted by a spell, and an incredibly flexible encounter power triggered by killing or bloodying an enemy that allow them to shift their speed, gain five plus one half their level in temporary hit points, or gain a plus two bonus to all attack rolls until the end of the next turn. On the plus side, the back story for this race is rather creative and casts the Vryloka as dedicated servants of the Red Witch who created their lineage.
What remains are a few paragon paths and epic destinies suitable to a variety of character types including:
Battleweaver: An arcane character with at least two illusion powers that boosts the strength of those illusions and gains several new control powers.
Dark Watcher: A melee support character that buffs, debuffs, and generally makes the team more effective.
Disciple of Razaundra: A gloom pact warlock option that gets more powerful when the warlock is bloodied.
Dusk Oracle: May ask a single question of each corpse encountered, gaining a truthful answer, while specializing in overcoming resistances and the highest defenses.
Nocturnal: Focused on phasing and charging, a very mobile option for any primal class.
Ravenkin: An arcane class option that grants a raven familiar and various combat advantages from actively using the familiar.
Shadow Dancer: A master of teleportation and stealth with large mobility and control.
Shadow Shaper: Another arcane illusionist option, here the illusions become more potent and are more likely to strike given that the character may choose to target Fortitude instead of Will with illusion powers.
Shadowthief: This option builds up shadows from killing enemies and then spends the shadows on boosting rolls while gaining a mix of damage and mobility powers, all with an arcane class in mind.
Veiled Master: Focuses on removing light sources and blinding the enemy with melee attacks.
Epic Destinies include:
Guardian of the Void: Big survivability boosts, especially against necrotic damage.
Keeper of the Everflow: Swappable template powers, increased survivability, control, and general skill boosts.
Marshal of Letherna: Heavy control, especially with a passive ability that makes all squares within two of you become difficult terrain for enemies only.
Twilight Tribune: Focused around being insubstantial and harming enemies that strike the tribune.
The book wraps up with a smattering of Feats and Equipment. The Feats tend to be extremely specific, so much so that it seems very unwise to select any of them unless the campaign will very frequently encounter certain types of enemies (such as ghosts). The Equipment takes up only one page and provides mediocre fluff at best.
Overall I find the options included in Heroes of Shadow
to be fairly tame. While there are a few compelling new choices, such as the necromancer support for wizard, most of what is included is the same old material remixed with a theme tacked on. The fluff fails to inspire, with the exception of the Vryloka which have the potential to be an interesting part of any campaign world. If you intend to run an undead focused gain, to journey into Ravenloft
, or to evoke a setting akin to Van Helsing
then Heroes of Shadow
offers enough support to help your group build characters specialized for that task. For general enthusiasts, the collection of support here merely ranks as average.