Unboxing – The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond Boxed Set

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 Books

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.


  1. Looks awesome!

    Thanks for the preview.

  2. Yeah, unlike the fortune cards, the despair deck sounds far more like something I’d be interested in using or expanding.

  3. only prob i can see is lack of maps

  4. Thanks a lot for this. I was already looking forward to this one and now even more so!

  5. Thanks for the review! Can the encounters described (and I assume fully depicted) in the encounter book be built with the master tile sets? Or with the non-master tile sets? Or are the encounters given cartography at all?

    Cheers – keep up the good work,

  6. Gargs454 says:

    Thanks for the preview. Yet another product to save up my money for. 🙂

    The part about the despair deck is funny, because I too immediately started thinking that this was something I might use. I wonder how much of it is because the Despair Deck is more DM oriented (in that we create/control the deck to an extent) while the Fortune Cards are more player oriented (they can create/control the deck to an extent). More to the point, the Despair Deck is seen more as an obstacle for the players to overcome whereas the Fortune Cards are just collectible bonuses? I don’t know if this is the actual reasoning behind the preference for the Despair Deck or not, just curious if this is anyone else’s experience. Much as I hate to admit it, I think this is part of my thinking. With the Despair Deck I can make sure that its only used where its really appropriate whereas with the Fortune Cards I have to tell my players “No” if I want the same degree of control. Perhaps its the inner “god wannabe” of my DM mind, I dunno.

    At any rate, I was definitely looking forward to this. Although I’m bummed about the discontinuation of the minis, I am glad that they are providing a lot of tokens in their products. Its far from ideal (to me), but it is certainly a good idea and one that makes me far more inclined to purchase some of their products (like the Monster Vaults).

  7. Marandahir says:

    Nice! Even cooler, it looks like there are some PC tokens included as well! They did that in the DM’s Kit, including Player’s Essentials tokens; I’m glad they decided to include tokens for Heroes of Shadow PCs in the equivalent box-set. I can see them doing this sort of thing with each new set – include a PC book and a relative box-set with tokens.

    Looks nice! I can’t wait until I get my hands on my copy!

  8. Loved the review, I am so glad that the despair deck works like it does. I ran out and pre ordered it on Amazon.

    Forgive me for plugging myself, but I put together some environment/exploration decks that you might like to take a look at. Sure you have to print them yourself and cut them, but this may give you a bit of a fix for more decks like the despair deck.


  9. Great write up, I am looking forward to getting this set in my hot little hands

  10. Jon Fuhrman says:

    Very cool. Hope this product is succesful for them. Sounds quality.

  11. more collectors cards???…really????….wasn’t magic the gathering bad enough???

  12. A bit off topic, but I don’t see the fuss over the Fortune Cards. Maybe in groups that are very efficient about using every possible resource they’re an issue, but the games I’ve been in (as both a player and a DM), they see little use. Players (myself included) forget to discard the less than optimal ones for those key moments, even to use them most of the time. Heck, my players in my campaign don’t remember to use action points. I even see this at my local Encounters games, full of optimizers, and they don’t use the cards either.

    For my players, I wonder if the Despair deck would end up just another cool toy that we don’t play with. I understand that you keep the card with your character sheet, but my group doesn’t play at a dinner table, so these cards would likely end up lost and forgotten, rather than serving their purpose. While I’d like to think I could do as Bartoneus and use them when my PCs head off into the Abyss, the more I think about how we play, the less I think this is a good purchase for me.

    To summarize, I think in the end, these neat little tools aren’t going to serve everyone particularly well, and aren’t really a selling point for me. My lack of interest in the Shadowfell in general means I’m unlikely to purchase this product. Sadly, nothing here is changing my mind. It’s a fine review, but the product just isn’t our cup of tea.

  13. Sounds like a ok product, the cards are better used as monster stats then what they did here. They should have just done a despair table in the book. Since essentials and Gamma world I think Hasbro has really lost their way in the RPG department. The newer modules are joke roleplay wise.. nothing more than page after page of encounters with the odd “Role Play moment” plugged in.
    They should of just kept the D&D miniatures game for that type of play.

  14. Thanks, this product looks great. Definitely going to get it after Heroes of Shadow.

    I love almost all of the design and rules decisions they’re making nowadays, except for one thing you mention. The way you describe the monster format seems off to me. I would love it if they grouped monsters together instead of putting them alphabetically, but “Deathless Watch,” “Ebony Guard,” and “Ghost Talon” don’t seem to mean anything to me. I’d want something like “Living Shadows,” “Undead,” and “Constructs” or something, because that way when I want a certain kind of monster but don’t know it’s name, I can look it up in its category. I hope I’m wrong and those categories turn out to be good descriptors, and regardless I am glad they are integrating flavor with format.

  15. Great review, Danny. I hope everyone enjoys the Despair Deck. I definitely enjoyed using it during playtesting.

  16. Wally Kovacs says:

    I could see some kind of Far Realms type adventure being a good excuse to expand the Madness side of the despair deck at least. The part I particularly like is it creates an incentive for players in the Shadowfell to push on, and have more encounters in a day. They want to hit the milestone to lose the drawback, and they want to keep going to both keep the boon and avoid getting another drawback for at least their first two fights. The very idea of not wanting to go to sleep seems like an interesting effect the Shadowfell has on the party.

    I’m also happy to see that they are going with something similar to a “player’s guide/campaign box set” approach even for stuff like the Shadowfell and hopefully Feywild.

  17. @Jace: Ummm what? The newer modules are far and away much more widely praised than the original H1-E3 series. I’ve played through (mostly) Reavers of Harkenwold and it is simply excellent. Providing both ample opportunities for roleplay and for player choice. I have not read it (as I am a player) but considering that our DM is not big into the RP aspects of the game and we are still doing a lot of RP in the adventure I’d say that says a lot. I have not read the other new modules but with the exception of the initial Dark Sun mod, they are all getting good reviews. By contrast, the original H1-E3 were really pretty terrible (no offense Greg). They were pretty linear, provided little in terms of story or motivation and despite being billed as being usuable for an entire campaign, had very little tying them together. Sure, you could make it work with a fair amount of effort, but that kind of goes against the theory of published mods. Now frankly, I think some of this was to be expected since 4ed really was a fairly big departure from previous editions and in my opinion, what works well for a prior edition doesn’t really work as well for 4th ed. So, I think the result was that the designers and writers went through some growing pains.

    As for the DDi offerings, in many respects it was much the same. Scales of War really didn’t take off until the paragon tier (though Siege of Bordrin’s Watch is excellent in my opinion). And outside of Scales of War, the adventures are largely bleh. There are a few gems in there, but even those are largely newer mods like Lord of the White Field, Cross City Race, and Dead by Dawn.

    Now, I will agree with you that Essentials certainly isn’t for everyone. In fact, I’m personally not a huge fan of Essentials — particularly as it applies to the martial classes. However, I do think Essentials was a response to many of the complaints that came from the community (“Whaddya mean my fighter forgets how to swing his sword a certain way until he sleeps again?”). As far as adventures go, their newest offerings like Stonefang, Slaying Stone, Reavers, etc. are far and away a major improvement over their initial efforts and they are definitely going in the right direction. Obviously this is my opinion, but its also the opinion of the community at large. Naturally, every player and group is different though.

  18. Looks like a quality “fantastic location”-style product. They keep upping the already great quality and basic style of books like Underdark, including ready-to-play encounters. Tokens are a great addition. And even the Despair deck might be cool – the Fortune cards only promoted more gamey-ness and even longer combats to already over-long combats in 4e, so I did not like those.

  19. JRedGiant says:

    I am leery of the idea of the despair deck. The Reckless card, for example, could REALLY hurt a build like an ardent or warden who is geared around using his second wind.

  20. Looks amazing, and am looking forward to getting a copy myself. I’ve been moving one of my campaigns toward a foray into the Shadowfell, and I can’t wait to see what “fun” I can get my heroes into!

  21. Despair cards are an exapandable random table of effects. Customising the rules of the game to suit the situation, whether the GM suggests it or not, can be considered an artistic/craft kind of approach:

    “We’re giving you a new kind of paint, I hope you like it”

    The fortune cards don’t really work in the same way, or at least were not designed to, instead they brought an element of gambling to the game, and were focused on being bonuses for players vs the challenges. In other words they encouraged you to spend money to “do better” in your game for intermittent rewards, a clever combination of bought upgrades in online games and a slot machine.

    For those who value rpgs for their non-commercial, ground-up creativity, this is like an uncomfortable invasion of las vegas mindset into their band/artist collective/rebel thing.

  22. Great review! I am really looking forward to this now!

    The despair deck looks cool and reminds me of some of the little Ravenloft props we’ve had over the years – like the cards you cut out in Ravenloft II to randomize element’s of the adventure plot, and the tarokka deck. Should be fun and not really the same as fortune cards (which I don’t have a problem with either, tbh)

    I agree with Gargs454 that the quality of recent WotC adventures is much better than the early H1-E3 series. We’re playing Slaying Stone at the moment and it’s excellent.


  23. Despair deck seems like it gives creedence to the accusations of the turning of D&D into a boardgame. (I love 4e fyi AND Essentials)

  24. Thanks for the solid writeup. It is a shame that it just sounds so uninteresting. I am glad to have all of the products I do, because outside of dungeon tiles I have seen little of interest in the past year. The products seem awfully muddled now.

  25. Thanks for the review, Danny! I’m glad the product appeals to you.

    To share a funny anecdote: when my own DM heard that I had worked on the Shadowfell set, he immediately wanted to use the Despair Deck in our Shadowfell-visiting game, but of course I couldn’t give it all to him . . . so he made his own! I can certainly attest to it adding a fun RP element to the game.

    (And obviously, one would hope the DM takes care not to hose over a PC whose build would be shattered by one of the effects. There’s no reason you can’t stack the deck or just *assign* Despair effects as appropriate to your game.)



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