Review: Players’ Option: Heroes of Shadow, Part One
The aggregated consciousness of the collective RPG blogosphere has already dispensed its fair share of opinions on Player’s Options: Heroes of Shadow, the latest book for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. Rather than attempt to summarize or respond those opinions, I’m going to go straight into my own review.
Heroes of Shadow is the first hardcover supplement to be released by Wizards of the Coast since they accidentally printed the Dark Sun Creature Catalog onto hardcovers. It introduces a new power source – the shadow power source – and discusses its place in the Dungeons & Dragons core universe. It then introduces new classes, builds, feats and powers that players can use to tap into it.
In effect, Heroes of Shadow is Player’s Handbook 4. I suspect that Wizards of the Coast just doesn’t call it that because numeric labeling could be off putting to potential new players, which is what the Essentials’ brand identity is all about. Personally, I’m waiting for Heroes of the Exoticized Orient, where I can tap into the bad-ass abilities of the Asian power source.
The first chapter opens with an introduction to the Shadowfell, and describes how various individuals can tap into its power. There’s a lot of shadow this and shadow that in every paragraph, and while I fully intend to make serious use of the flavor material provided here, I can’t help but think “In the dark shadows of the Shadowdark, emerges a grim and shadowy figure.”
There’s also an interesting bit about how to depict a bargain between a player character and The Raven Queen. It’s nothing Girlfriend DM hasn’t done before, albeit differently, but it is still interesting for DMs who haven’t considered how to create a formal and concrete relationship between a player character and a patron god, particularly a dark one with ties to the shadows.
The bulk of Heroes of Shadow is in the second chapter, which presents the new classes and class builds. Most of these make use of the Essentials style of class build, which means a stronger and more specific flavor to them, but your powers are locked down based on key decisions you make (in the case of the executioner, your selection of guild determines at-will powers) rather than being a free for all.
The Binder is a malicious class that deals in psychic and shadow damage, but most notably she gains unique summons at 9th and 25th level. They have their own stat blocks and are no slouch in the combat department. For example, compared to previous summons, the Shadow Lurk has beefier defenses, a speed of 8 and a 10 foot partial concealment aura, plus the power to make allies invisible as a minor action. Warlocks are Girlfriend DM’s fave, so we’ll definitely give this build a try.
I never really examined The Executioner when it was sampled in Dragon 391 and 394. An Assassin build that stacks flavor on top of its mechanics, the Executioner is fairly interesting. For example, when using a garrote he can prevent an enemy from speaking. He can also apply poisons on food, drink and objects to inflict penalties for one adventuring day (i.e. ‘before the next extended rest’). It definitely appeals to players who want a more malicious brand of rogue or assassin.
The Vampire class – no relation to the Dhampyr and Vampiric Bloodline feats from Dragon 371 –allows you to transform your chosen race into a ‘lethal creature of the night.’ Of course, as a DEX/CHA based Striker class, some races synergize better than others. A Vampire must manage her hit points and surges carefully. Allies can loan her surges to regain her bloodied value, and she can steal surges from enemies. She’ll need it cause she only gets TWO surges after every rest. No CON modifier bonus, just two.
The ‘dark paladin’ known as the Blackguard has the heavy armor and resilience of a defender, but his dark nature means he’s a striker: oriented towards destruction, not protection. Dark Menace functions as his damage bonus, which allows him to deal CHA modifier damage against enemies granting combat advantage. Like Avengers and Sorcerers, Blackguards are reliable strikers. I like Domination Blackguards more since the damage bonus scales with level growth.
These classes follow the Essential style of class build, which means that classes like the Vampire follow a relatively linear progression with few level-up decisions to be made. For those spoiled rotten by the amount of choices in pre-Essentials classes, they won’t get the kind of satisfaction out of leveling up that they would from more complex build patterns.
Still, if your party is made up mostly of players who like to play brooding and gritty characters, or you want a few less than heroic origins and motivations, these characters are for you. In the second and final installment of this review, I’ll be looking at the new races and the options presented for use by pre-existing classes.