Posted by : David Guyll April 10, 2011
I was able to snag Heroes of Shadows yesterday from a premier store, but unfortunately had to work most of the day so couldn't get around to it until 3am on Saturday. My first Mountain Dew-addled impression is that it seems a bit starved for page count, weighing in at 160 pages. But hey at least it's hardback, something we haven't seen since Dark Sun Creature Catalog. As the name implies, this book is all about the Shadowfell and shadow power source, providing flavor and mechanical content for players that want to manipulate shadows, drain the life out of their enemies, play around with undead, or just play a fucking vampire that can actually do vampiric things.
First things first, I want to get something out of the way that I read last week (and has subsequently spawned expansive forum threads): this is not an Essentials book. Yes, there are some builds and features that are limited to the mage class (school specialization) and warpriest class (death domain features), as well as a few new subclasses derived from the paladin and warlock. However, the majority of the mechanics--feats, powers, paragon paths, epic destinies, and races--can be used by anyone, as can all of the flavor content. This book does an excellent job of providing plenty of material both sides of the fence, such as it is.
I'll get more into this after the review. For now, let's take a closer look at the book.
Chapter 1: Into the Dark
The first chapter is six pages of flavor concerning shadow magic, specifically it details how shadow magic interacts with arcane and divine magic, and various ways one can discover or learn to use it. Several pages of this were previewed here, which basically accounts for half the chapter. The other half briefly touches on the Shadowfell, as well as ways that shadow magic can lure desperate people into its dark embrace.
Chapter 2: Shadow Classes
Unsurprisingly, this eats up over half the book. It not only contains four new classes, but additional options for clerics, warlocks, and wizards, beyond what you could already crib from the aforementioned subclasses. This is probably the source of the Essentials sentiment, as the "classes" aren't really new classes in so much as subclasses.
The executioner seems to be entirely unchanged from it's digital counterpart, and I've already blogged at length about it in the past. Suffice to say I like it a lot more than its predecessor, and I highly recommend giving it a shot.
Blackguards are basically the darker reflection of a stereotypical paladin, specifically the cavalier build. Instead of championing a virtue, they embrace a vice, with domination and fury currently your only two options. Their striker mechanic lets them add their Charisma modifier to damage, but only against targets they have combat advantage against, and one of their damage kicking powers requires you to declare it before attacking (though I've already seen mention of frost-cheesing them on the forums). On the flipside, they have hit points out the ass and can wear heavy armor, making them the most durable striker I've ever seen.
The vampire has also had plenty of preview coverage. In a nutshell, it is a shadow striker that starts out being able to deal necrotic damage with a touch, deal bonus damage by draining the life force of an enemy, and transform into a swarm of bat-like shadows. At higher levels you can change into a bat or a gaseous form, or dominate creatures with your gaze. At higher levels, these core abilities basically improve. It’s formatted Essentials-style, so the only real customization you get is which bloodline you choose when you hit paragon-tier.
The binder is an Essentials-warlocks subclass with the controller role. They can only pick from the gloom or star pacts, which determine your encounter attacks and summoned allies. I really like the new star pact stuff: the at-will prevents a target from seeing any allies more than 3 squares away, conjure up a zone of tentacles at level, banish creature to the Far Realm, gain psychic resistance, conjure up aberrant constructs that consume souls and give you powers, and more. Shit, yes.
Clerics get a bunch of new daily prayers, warpriests get the death domain, hexblades also get the gloom pact, warlocks and wizards get lots of spells, and mages get both the necromancy and nethermancy schools. Again, a lot of stuff we already knew.
Chapter 3: Races of Shadow
Like the executioner above, the revenant is DDI-content transitioned to paper (which I'm sure people will bitch about). It is almost entirely unchanged, except for the floating ability modifier that we already knew about. Since they've been around for awhile I won't really bother going into detail, since by now you should already know if you like or hate 'em.
Shades are humans that traded part of their soul for a sliver of the Shadowfell’s dark essence, which makes them insanely stealthy: not only do they get a floating bonus to Dexterity, they also have a racial bonus to Stealth and have an at-will racial utility that lets them make a Stealth check as a standard action, so long as they have any cover or concealment. Aside from their healing surge penalty, they can also swap out utility powers as they level up in exchange for racial utilities. This adds a degree of flexibility that I wouldn’t mind seeing in other races (even ones that have already been published).
Vryloka are humans that made a deal with an enigmatic entity known as the Red Witch, giving them some vampiric benefits without the drawbacks. Actually, they do heal less hit points when burning healing surges while bloodied, but that’s not anything major. This makes them the second race to have some sort of penalty, after the shade, and like shades can also power swap class utilities for racial utilities.
Other races—like dwarves and halflings—get about a page of flavor support each (touched on here), as well as explaining how they came to live in the Shadowfell and how they cope with it.
Chapter 4: Character Options
The last chapter is pretty small, and features ten paragon paths, four epic destinies, two pages of feats, and a smattering of new gear.
Most of the paragon paths are pretty flexible, requiring only training in a couple skills or a class from a specific power source (like arcane or primal). Of particular interest in the shadow dancer, which requires you to have any sort of teleportation power and be trained in Stealth. Its abilities focus on teleportation and concealment, allowing you to do stuff like teleport when burning an action point, and gain combat advantage after teleporting. Also, none of its powers or class feature are linked to ability scores, making it usable for plenty of melee-based characters.
The epic destines have abilities that gain benefits when other characters with the same epic destiny are nearby. For example, the Keeper of the Everflow’s level 24 class feature lets you regain hit points equal to your healing surge value once per day when you’ve been dropped to 0 hit points. If there are other Keeper’s in the encounter, you gain 5 temporary hit points for each allied Keeper.
Yet again, a lot of the feats have been previewed already. Some are alright, but many are highly situational, especially the ones that only operate in dim light or complete darkness (like Shadow Blood, which lets you heal 5 more hit points when you use second wind). Even so, Holy Symbol/Ki Focus Expertise are pretty rad.
The new gear basically does minor magical stuff: blessed soil stops undead from rising from graves that you sprinkle it on, while a ghoul candle doesn’t provide illumination for the undead (nifty way of being able to see in a dungeon without alerting everything else to your presence). The poisoner’s kit just lets you make poison.
My gripes against this chapter would be that things seem to be jumbled together. Some epic destinies bleed onto other pages, as opposed to starting on their own page (and making it easier to read). Otherwise, there’s a lot of fun stuff here, except for some stuff in the feats section.
This is a really well done book, and one of my favorites. Whether you love or hate the Essentials line, there’s a lot of great content for fans of clerics, warlocks, and wizards that have been waiting for necromantic options. The way I look at it is that even if you don’t like the warpriest or binder, you can still use those powers for a cleric or warlock respectively.
What WotC did with this book is actually convenient: if I want to make a cleric that can fiddle with undead, I have two options. I can play a warpriest and go with the Death domain, thereby having a nicely packaged character concept, or I can play a cleric and just pick the prayers that I want. The same goes with the blackguard, binder, and both of the new mage schools.
Essentials and non-Essentials content is only different to those who make it different. All the rules of the game are exactly the same, it's just that some classes advance different. It's kind of like how the druid got three at-will evocations, while other classes just got two, or how most of the psionic classes don't get encounter attacks (but the monk did). The martial classes out of Essentials are in the same boat, just by a wider margin.
I don't care for most of the martial classes out of Essentials, but the warpriest, hexblade, and executioner are all damned fine. What I'm really saying is why not have both? The cleric nowadays has a shitload of prayers to choose from. I have a lot of diversity when it comes to thinking up a concept and choosing class features and prayers to help emphasize that. If WotC wants to design a suite of storm-based prayers, that's cool. I can get my Sehanine (or Melora, or Thor, or whatever) on. If they wrap them up in a class, though? Even better, as now I have two ways of going about the process.
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