We were extremely fortunate to get an early copy of the upcoming D&D boxed set called The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond to unbox and show you all today. It comes packaged in a thin box the same size as the Red Box starter set and comes with a very sturdy 127 page paperback Campaign Guide, a 31 page Encounter Book, two sheets of cardboard tokens, one poster with a map of gloomwrought on one side and an encounter map on the other, and a Despair deck of 30 cards.
The first thing that I noticed within the boxed set is the size of the Campaign Guide. Though it is a paperback (the cover is a very nice quality card stock) at 127 pages it is only 30 pages short of the smaller hardcover books that Wizards of the Coast has put out for 4th Edition (Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide & Eberron Player’s Guide for example). Inside of the book you get the first 12 pages dedicated to running and playing D&D in the setting of the realm of the dead, including some ideas for adventures to have there and the new rules for the included Despair Deck. Following that you get 50 pages all about the so called “City of Midnight”, Gloomwrought, including pretty much all that you could want when running a game that involves the city. This part of the book includes the various factions within the city, in depth descriptions of the various quarters and districts that make it up, and picture references to the larger city map that is included in the box set.
Next the book presents us with 30 pages on the areas of the Shadowfell around Gloomwrought, titled “Beyond the Walls”, which includes places such as the Oblivion Bog, Dead Man’s Cross, and the Darkreach Mountains. Perhaps most importantly there is a section detailing the realm of Letherna where the most powerful entity of the Shadowfell, the Raven Queen, dwells and attracts the souls of the dead. I was very happy with every section of the book that I read, the content and writing reminds me of the Plane Above and Plane Below books which are some of my favorites since the release of 4th Edition and will be my go-to books for campaign and adventure planning for years to come. I am extremely pleased with a book of this caliber about the Shadowfell, especially in the light of the Ravenloft setting being shelved, because this book provides me with a lot content along the same lines as what I would expect from Ravenloft (but it just FEELS different when it has the word Ravenloft on the cover).
The last 25 pages of the book are, no surprise, where the new creatures/monsters are presented! Right away I noticed and enjoyed how they presented monsters a bit differently for this book, presented in groups such as the Deathless Watch, Ebony Guard, and the Ghost Talon. Each of these groups is mostly made up of humanoids but presents a style of “thug” that can easily represent a character of any race that follows each order. Also presented are some very appropriate (though a bit silly) feeling golems including the Wall Golem, Street Golem, and the Hearth Golem. The mysterious Keepers of Gloomwrought are expanded a bit here, as well as a few more cults and cabals that are pervasive in the city and the plane. Last but not least there are more than a handful of named personalities presented with histories and statblocks ranging from humans and elves to vampires and ghosts that have become important personalities within Gloomwrought and the Shadowfell.
The Encounter Book presents a wide range of encounters and skill challenges for characters of 7th to 23rd level. The elements are presented from front to back in order of level, and the book has a very good mix of encounters and skill challenges that present a wide range of situations that can occur within the realm of the dead. Though I have not had a chance to play or run any of the encounters, I read through quite a few of them and I think that these are going to be great items to have on hand to throw into adventures when needed or to help while planning. I paid particular attention to the skill challenges, and while they are presented in the same manner that they have always been I was surprised at a few of them which very heavily incorporated elements of roleplaying and changing situations into the mechanics of the skill challenge. The encounters appear to include a nice range of locations, situations, and most important monsters ranging from zealots and cultists to vampires, ghosts, and skeletons.
Tokens and Maps
At first I was disappointed that the poster map only had an encounter map on one side, but after looking through the Campaign Guide book and seeing the details on Gloomwrought and the pieces of the map highlighted within it, I can clearly see how the larger map of the City of Midnight would be a great resource for a DM running an extended group of adventures within the city. That said, I still would have loved an additional poster map with even more encounter locations to go along with adventures in the Shadowfell seeing as there is no “Dark and Gloomy” dungeon tiles set.
I know that there is a lot of contention about the tokens Wizards has been releasing lately and the cancellation of their miniatures production, but I have to say the tokens included in this boxed set are great. For starters every single one can be flipped to represent the same monster while bloodied, and even better the tokens have the monster’s name on the back to help identify each token a lot easier. The two sheets include 12 large tokens and a ton of medium sized ones including five generic “Minion” tokens. What really sold me on these tokens is that they include named characters that are great for representing unique villains (something I hadn’t noticed in any of the previous token sheets), but more importantly the tokens include many of the characters and monsters that are presented in the Encounter Book which means that if someone buys the boxed set and doesn’t have a robust miniatures collection they won’t have to worry too much about representing things if they decide to run an encounter from the book.
The Despair Deck
To me this is the product that I can finally point people to when they complain about “trading cards in D&D” that I am confident adds something real and extremely fun to the game. Let me state that again just because it’s funny to say, I love the Despair deck! The deck is very intelligently separated into three categories – Apathy, Fear, and Madness. Each card is titled one very specific emotion/feeling that falls into its category. Some of the cards include Distracted, Clumsy, and Hopeless for Apathy, Paranoid, Insomnia, and Phobia for Fear, and Reckless, Delusional, and Jealous for Madness. Each card has a very short quote that can help the player get a better idea of how they should feel or act with that card, followed by a generally bad effect that the card imposes on the character. Penalties that the Despair Deck inflicts can range from minor to pretty major and from specific to relatively general, but overall I really enjoy how they add to the game. Effects include things like a -4 penalty to initiative (Distracted), a -2 penalty to Will (Paranoid), and the inability to use your second wind, take the total defense action, or take the first aid action (Reckless).
The rules for the Despair Deck are that each player draws a card at random from the deck after spending an extended rest within the Shadowfell (or any area that might impose extreme feelings of Apathy, Fear, or Madness on the characters). The characters suffer from the effect of their despair card until their next extended rest, but each time they reach a milestone they may roll a saving throw to overcome their despair effect. Every single one of the cards has a Key Skill listed that if the character is trained in that skill they gain a +2 bonus on their saving throw to overcome that effect.
Now I’m going to tell you about the part of these cards that I REALLY enjoy. Each card can be rotated 180 degrees where the card lists a Boon that is gained once the character overcomes that despair effect. Each boon is roughly the exact opposite of the penalty that despair card inflicted. At first glance some of the cards may appear to be much more penalizing than others, such as a -2 to Armor Class is a lot worse than a penalty to skill checks when you’re in the middle of a fight. However, when that card can be overcome to gain a +2 bonus to Armor Class, I feel that each card becomes relatively balanced because of the larger rewards for larger penalties. Certainly, as always, the DM should keep an eye out to make sure one player is not being overly penalized due to bad luck, but even then if the player is really into it they could have a great psychological moment to roleplay for their character that can add to the atmosphere for everyone playing. What happens when the noble cleric is overcome with insane recklessness and charges into battle, refusing to heal her allies? What happens if the brave knight is completely overcome by fear and unable to defend his friends?
Included in the Despair Deck are three miscellaneous cards that add a bit more randomness and luck to the deck with effects such as drawing an additional despair card or being instilled with indomitable spirit and discarding your other despair cards. The element that I really appreciate with these cards is the categories, because just last week as I was going through the boxed set I was also planning for my campaign’s first adventure within the Abyss. As a test I decided to use the Madness and Fear cards from the deck and give them out after the first encounter of the adventure. I really enjoyed how they worked out, though I wished we could have incorporated them even more over several adventures, but I think the potential for customization of the despair deck is really cool. It is also humorous to me because these are the kind of cards that I want more of and they are the ones that aren’t available to expand in something like a booster pack. I’m not saying I want Wizards to release boosters of despair cards, but I am very hopeful that they release future sets of cards within the three categories in this deck as well as adding more categories to go along with other types of environments.
Here are some additional images of the box set contents:
The Shadowfell boxed set will be released on May 17th by Wizards of the Coast.