The book Player’s Option: Heroes of Shadow is the first real print product we have seen for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons since the Essentials line and also marks what I hope is the end in what I perceived as a lag in print products for the game. Heroes of Shadow was delayed from March until April so that it could be printed as a hard cover book instead of a smaller format paperback, and I am very pleased with having a larger sized hardcover in my hands with 4E content in it after months without one. What this book contains is exactly what you would expect from a book focusing on player characters that tap into the shadow power source and draw their inspiration from the darker corners of your D&D universes. Its contents range from entirely new classes to new builds for existing classes to new races and more than a handful of new options for characters of all types that want to have a bit darker tilt to their abilities.
My first impression of this book is that it is a perfect combination of the production level of the original 4th Edition books with the quality of content that we have come to expect as 4th Edition and Essentials have progressed. One of the highlights that has stood out to me so far is that in reading through the book nearly every option presented for players seems appealing and immediately playable to me whereas in many 4E products usually 1/3 of the content has felt too specific or restricted for me to consider using it right away, in this book it seems like once you are past the primary caveat of wanting to play a character based in using the shadow power source many of the options are very interesting. If you are at all interested in playing classes like the Assassin and the Blackguard, races like the Revenant and the Shade, or making a Wizard that specializes in necromancy then this is a book that you will definitely want to pick up!
Details of the Book
The book is hardcover and is 159 pages long, overall the production quality appears to be top notch and consistent with some of the best 4th Edition content we have seen to date if not better. Classes included are the Essentials build for the Assassin, the Black Guard build for Paladins, the Vampire presented as a full class, and a Binder build for Warlocks. A selection of shadow based powers are presented for Clerics including some focusing on the death domain, as well as a selection of new warlock powers and the new Gloom Pact for the Essentials Hexblade build and the full Necromancy and Nethermancy schools for Wizards.
Races presented in the book include the new rules for the Revenant, the Shade race that represent people who have traded their souls to the darkness in exchange for new abilities, and the Vryloka that are aristocratic pseudo-vampiric humanoids. At first I was unimpressed with the Vryloka but as I read more about their concept and back story I was reminded of the first time I ever read about Tieflings and I started to enjoy the race more and brainstorm various interesting character ideas that could be used with this race. On top of that both the Shade and the Vryloka have a racial feature that inherently allows you to swap out utility powers for racial utilities which I think allows for some further customization and character to be added to the race and is an interesting design decision for the game. Lastly the book includes quite a few pages to the classic D&D races and how they relate to the shadow power source and presents ideas for shadow characters of each of those races.
The next chapter is simply called Shadow Options, but what it presents are numerous paragon paths, epic destinies, feats, and other resources for all types of characters that can tie them to the shadowfell and the elements this book is all about. The Paragon Paths included and a bit about their prerequisites are:
- Battleweaver (arcane illusion characters)
- Dark Watcher (good or lawful characters)
- Disciple of Razaundra (Warlocks – Gloom Pact)
- Dusk Oracle (training in insight and religion)
- Nocturnal (Primal characters)
- Ravenkin (arcane, trained in religion)
- Shadow Dancer (teleportation powers and stealth)
- Shadow Shaper (Wizard, illusion spells)
- Shadowthief (arcane characters)
- Veiled Master (training in stealth and perception)
The Epic Destinies presented in the book are:
- Guardian of the Void
- Keeper of the Everflow
- Marshal of Letherna
- Twilight Tribune
One element that surprised and intrigued me is that all of the new epic destinies have powers that are enhanced if more than one character of the same epic destiny is present in the encounter, meaning a Guardian of the Void is boosted if there are more Guardians of the Void around. This confused me at first but I can see it adding some interesting roleplaying and game play elements into a campaign as two characters decide to pick the same destiny or even the entire party devotes itself to the same shadow-based cause and the majority of them choose one of these epic destinies. This is an interesting design move for WotC and I will be watching future Epic Destinies to see if it continues or how it’s built upon in upcoming products.
At the end of the Shadow Options chapter there are a handful of new feats, some for the new races but mostly just a selection of feats that build on the shadow themes already set forth by the book. I did notice that it seems like for the most part the feats are mostly free of prerequisites which seems to be a trend lately of making the majority of feats more accessible to a wider range of characters, and I think that with very thematic feats like those presented in this book that is a good decision. Lastly there are a handful of new adventuring gear items presented that relate to the shadowfell and to the assassin class, but there’s really nothing ground breaking here in the form of items and no new magic items are presented which I think is a missed opportunity.
A Few Months of Anticipation
I have to say right up front that this book was the only book in the last several months that I have been really excited for, not just for a seeming lull in 4E content but also because back in June I posted the preview catalog shot of the cover and ever since then I have been waiting and waiting for things like the Black Guard, more support of the Assassin class, and most of all a more complete option for Necromancy in 4th Edition. Back then I posted the catalog snippet for this book, and I will post it again here:
Player’s Option books are aimed at players who are ready to move beyond the Player Essentials books, Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms. The Player’s Option series presents advanced Dungeons & Dragons character options as well as new ways to customize and optimize one’s existing character.
It was made pretty clear back then, and I had my share of concern about it, that this book was a clear progression from the Essentials D&D products into the future products for 4th Edition. So that raises what may be one of the biggest questions about this book…
Is it Essentials?
Many people when they pick up this book are going to feel like it is an Essentials D&D product, and the book even states at the bottom of the first page of content in the ‘About This Book’ section that it is a supplemental book designed to be the next step after the two player’s books from Essentials. This bothered me, and I imagine it’s going to bother quite a few of you as well, so what I have set out to do is to look at the book in an objective manner and determine what in the book is explicitly Essentials content and what can apply to the 4E content before Essentials.
The Assassin class is presented in the same style and format as the Essentials classes, and though the class has daily powers in the form of poison items it can use it clearly lacks encounter powers chosen as you level up and so I would categorize this pretty clearly as Essentials content. The same can be said for the Black Guard Paladin build and the Vampire class, they are presented in the Essentials formatting, style, and they clearly lack choices for encounter powers as they level so I’d say they are obviously Essentials as well. The Binder build for Warlocks is presented in the Essential formatting, but the power progression appears to be the same as other Arcane classes both regular 4E and Essentials, encompassing options for the Star Pact and the Gloom Pact, and though I would pretty much call this an Essentials class as well it seems like it would be incredibly easy to swap powers and builds with a regular 4E Warlock so I’m going to call this one Essentials but perfectly compatible with regular 4E.
So all of the new classes are basically Essentials material, but the 7 pages following those classes that present new shadow based powers for Clerics and Warlocks are clearly intended to be used with all 4E content, and even the 4 pages in that section specifically for Warpriest powers can be incredibly easily used by any 4E cleric no matter the build. The 4 pages for the Hexblade Gloom Pact seems like it would be harder to use as a non-Hexblade Warlock, so I’m considering that Essentials style content. The next 12 pages are filled with new Wizard powers for the Necromancy and Nethermancy schools of magic, and the book clearly states that ANY Wizard can choose these spells. This is where I see a clear presentation decision from WotC in the distinction between Essentials content and regular 4E, these pages of powers are followed by 4 pages that specifically cover the Essentials Mage build for Wizards and covering how they specialize in either of these two new schools, but from what I can tell out of those 12 pages of new Wizard powers only the one or two summoning powers reference the Mage schools while the rest are perfectly accessible to any type of 4E Wizard. To me this was a pretty clear indicator that some content is specifically designed to be compatible with all 4E content and some is designed to cover the bases of the new Essentials options that have come out.
The new races all incorporate some of the recent changes in race design introduced with Essentials, but the presentation in both style and formatting is largely the same throughout 4E so I’m going to call this non-Essentials content because it would be right at home in any 4E book. All of the Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies, with the exception of one or two paths that specifically require an Essentials build to take, are 100% compatible with all 4E content. The handful of new feats are also perfectly compatible with all 4E content.
If you were to ask me if the book Heroes of Shadow is an Essentials D&D product, I would say no on the principle that it does not say Essentials on the cover and that I have a pretty clear definition of what the product line was and entailed. However, I don’t feel that WotC has done a sufficient job making the definitions clear, and so I would say that this book very heavily favors Essentials content (especially in the front end of the book) and that it presents more new options for Essentials characters than for base 4th Edition characters. I think it is a shame that the book does not contain rules for creating a regular 4E Paladin Black Guard, Warlock Binder, or Gloom Pact Warlock character, but I am very happy to see options for Necromancy that are available to all Wizards and a slew of shadow based powers for all Clerics and Warlocks. Certainly you could take any of the content in this book and adapt it to non-Essentials characters, but I’m judging it on the basis of minimal effort needing to be put forth to make use of the content within the rules presented.
I think that what this book tells us about the direction for 4E D&D that WotC is taking is that new class design will be following the guidelines set forth in the Essentials products. New races, feats, items, and monsters all follow a new set of guidelines that came around mostly with Essentials, but I think the place we feel the difference the most, and the place where we really care, is in the design of classes. Overall I feel that this book tells us that the primary design direction for 4th Edition is going to be supporting the Essentials style of character classes, but with the vast array of options already available to non-Essentials classes (especially when it comes to powers), I have to really debate with myself if this is so much of a bad thing or not. Do I really want 2 new encounter powers to choose from amongst the 11 that I already have for my character? Perhaps if they were very specifically Shadow based powers, and I think that if you really search within this book you can find those powers and simply extract them for whatever character you may have.
So is it a Valuable Book?
If you’re interested in trying out new classes, whether they’re essentials or not, then yes this book is definitely worth it. If you’re even slightly interested in the darker aspect of heroic characters, most specifically in relation to death, necrotics, and the Shadowfell then this is a must-have book for you. If you like Assassins, Black Guards, Vampires, Shades, or Undead then this book will have a good selection of content that will be of specific interest to you. However, if none of these apply, or you’re looking specifically for shadow based abilities that aren’t for the Cleric, Warlock, or Wizard than this book doesn’t really present much that you’d be interested in.
I encourage you to check out Neuroglyph’s review of this book on EN World, and his own blog post discussing his more personal feelings on the product. A decent chunk of my own review was influenced by reading the book yesterday and today and then checking out his review first, so I thank him for staying up all night (a task I myself was not quite up to) just to review it so quickly!