So Heroes of Shadow is out and in my possession now. There's been some controversy about this book over at rpg.net, as well as reviews that basically say (and I am paraphrasing here) "great book, but horrible because it favors the Essentials approach over the classic 4E approach." Now having read the book, I shall do a short summary by bullet points:
- Great art. I love the vampire depictions within, and like how three otherwise similar shadowy beings (vrylokas, shade and revenant) are given distinctly different looks and each feel different. I am mildly surprised the dhampir didn't make it in....well, maybe not, since it did get printed in the Dragon Magazine Annual, but that race would have fit in nicely. My wife felt the blackguard illustrations looked too much like the Lich King, however. Probably the HUUUUGE shoulder pads and sword.
- The vampire class is very stark and works extremely well for creating an evocative character that looks, feels and acts like the classic D&D vampire. I weigh powers in 4E by how effective they are at evoking good visuals and RP opportunities, and how appropriate the mechanics are at mirroring what is happening....a bad power presents mechanics that don't mesh well with or support the visuals and intent of the power. This book, and the vampire class especially, are full of very well-thought-out visuals and mechanics.
- The Blackguard is neat looking but haven't messed with it much yet. The executioner assassin is proudly on display in print at last, and I love it; it feels more like an assassin to me than the original one on DDI.
- I love the Binder Warlocks. The Binder Star Pact is a really cool concept, and I really like how the new builds for warlock have added these great summoning options in; summoners are quite well supported now (unlike June of 2008 when their absence was noticeable!)
- Lots and lots of spell powers in this book, most of which are perfectly suited for use with other classes of the same type. Contrary to popular opinion the book frequently mentions "other classes from other sources," as being perfectly suited to the suite of powers in HoS, not just the Essentials Hero books. A lot of sky-falling panic has been going on in various forums and reviews regarding the Essentials format...it seems rather silly to me, reading this book now. The WotC marketing guys must think gamers are a bunch of fruitcakes.
- The new races are interesting. Revenants get into print for the first time, resurrected souls in servitude to the death gods (Raven Queen or whatever).
- Vrylokas are living vampires who sought to steal the power of vampirism and became cursed with blood thirst (think the Blood Countess; they don't really bear any resemblance to the Vrykolakas of Greek lore.)
- Shades are one I was very happy to see return, I had a great shade character (and many NPCs) back in my 1st and 2nd edition AD&D days....I like how they feel; the use of racial substitute utility powers for both the shade and vrylokas is a great way of enhancing a racial theme. Although the shades get a racial limitation on maximum surges (they lose one) this doesn't bother me; I'm too old school to be bothered by the idea of limits in D&D, unlike some others; I think its primarily there to discourage shades from automatically picking the vampire class and becoming uber-stealthed all-but-invisible monsters killing everything in sight without ever being seen. Just my personal suspicion, though.
- The new paragon paths and epic destinies look interesting and are tempting me to start up a shadowfell campaign when the boxed set comes out next month.
- Wizards get a bunch of new school-themed powers, presented as schools for mages from Essentials or as themed power sets for wizards from the PHB. Necromancy and nethermancy are both rather interesting, and I am happy to finally have these options in the game.
- Cause Light Wounds is back for clerics! Woot!
- There is one page on new equipment with four items. It seems a bit sparse to me. I suspect that magic items will now be in the appropriate DM's books (in this case, the forthcoming Shadowfell box set next month) so I don't expect this to be a big deal. That said, 4E (including Essentials) has been sticking magic items in to class books, so I am sure that not having magic items in a class book now seems odd. They did stick rules on what ki focus items are (vampires get them as implements) but it would have been very, very handy to stick a few in as examples, I feel.
- The classes are built using the Essentials format and style. This will drive your friends and enemies bonkers if they are really, really hung up on the pre- and post- Essentials style of 4th edition. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on how much you want to hear them rant about it.
- Because this book is written to serve as a sort of bridge between both formats for 4th edition (and be advised that I see Essentials as only adding options to 4E, and do not regard it as a new edition, revision, or even much more than a few handy expansions that happen to work coherently as game on their own) it's missing some key features that pre-Essentials books usually had, namely rituals and multiclassing feats. I would not really expect them to present hybrid rules for the new classes here, however; those rules, cool as they are in the PHB3 are pretty experimental and go against the grain of "optimized for ease of concept" class styles 4E offers, anyway. That said, there's really nothing stopping you from using the multiclass feats in the prior PHBs in conjunction with these classes....so you can make a vampire character who is multiclassed with one of the PHB classes....you just can't make, say, an avenger who can take a vampire multiclass feat. Which is fine with me; I think it would be...weird....to allow such an option, as it would fall in to that hazy "concept supported by mechanics" rule of thumb I use. Better to tell someone who wants that to take a vrylokas or shade as a race and be done with it, I say.
- No rituals is disappointing, though. I suspect that the WotC guys are busy working on a new approach to them, somewhere down the road....we shall see.
Overall, I'm going to give Heroes of Shadow a big thumbs up. Fun to read (well edited too) and filled with great concepts for a thematic campaign in the shadowfell, Ravenloft, or other dark and dreary setting where all the heroes weep tears of angst even as they drain the blood from their enemies.