Thursday, March 10, 2011

Heroes of Shadow previews

Heroes of Shadow, the first D&D book that will be released after the Essentials line, isn't easy to classify under 4E standards. We have grown accustomed to structured, predictable book series, but these seem to have come to an end, in favour of a more freeform style of publishing. Its content will consist in options for player characters, that much is for certain, but other than that, the book looks like a strange hybrid between a Player's Handbook 4, a Shadow Power book, and a Players Essentials: heroes of the Shadowy Places.

There are the new races and classes usually associated with a Player's Handbook, with a mixture of brand new stuff and subclasses for existing archetypes (similar to those in the Essentials player books). But the format and pagecount coincide with those of a Power book (a 160 page hardcover), and there are also new builds and powers. Also, the information is structured like in the Essentials style, with separate progression tables for each class, and a lot of flavor. Add to this that the builds featured in the book are corrupted (shadowy) versions of classes from all kinds of power sources, that there were rumors of DDI-exclusive material getting reprinted, and that we didn't even have clear estimations on the number of races and classes to be included, and the result is a very confusing product. That is, until we got to see a preview of its content table.

We can now tell that the book includes one new class and three subclasses, each with two builds and a paragon path. In addition, we get new builds and powers for cleric/warpriests, warlock/hexblades, and wizard/mages. On top of that, there are three races, ten paragon paths, four epic destinies, and a bunch of feats. Here is a detailed summary of what we know about them so far.

Reprinted material: Executioner and Revenant
Let us start with what is probably the most controversial issue related with the product: the Executioner assassin subclass and the Revenant race. The reason why these are problematic is that they were originally released on the digital magazines - as DDI-exclusive material. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if Wizards was just putting to print a random Dragon article - after all, there was the precedent of the Dragon Annual. But they went and made a point about how this specific class and that very race were awesome material that wouldn’t be available in book form, and how only subscribers to the digital service would benefit from them. What’s worse, the Executioner got published just a few months ago, yet there was no mention of its eventual reprint until the time came for it to get included in Character Builder. Oh, well. At least it is good material, but I would have preferred some clear communication on the matter from the beginning.

New class and subclasses: Blackguard, Warlock, Vampire
Anyway, on to the new stuff. The three subclasses introduced in the book actually look pretty cool. We get a corrupted Paladin in the Blackguard, which adds the shadow power source to this divine class, and changes its role to striker (since shadow characters are a bit morally handicapped to perform as defenders). The Blackguard rules seem to mirror those of the Cavalier build from Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, with a similar structure but turning Cavalier Virtues into Vices (the ones included in the book are Domination and Fury, and we should expect a few more on a DDI article in the following months. The marking features have been replaced by an extra damage mechanic, and they get ways to hurt themselves to improve their attacks. Finally, the smite attacks have been replaced by an encounter power that deals extra damage and ongoing damage on top of that. Overall, it looks like a very nice subclass, though I’m still not sold on the way it fits into the paladin archetype. It’s nice that they are thrown together to remark how they are anti-paladins, but letting blackguards get any power or feat from the good guys feels a bit wrong. Maybe after seeing the whole class it will make more sense.

The second subclass that tries out the ‘corrupted by shadow’ trick is the warlock, though in their case it’s not so much about getting corrupted as corrupting in a different way, as warlocks were pretty nasty to begin with. Anyway, the Binder Warlock switches the class role to controller (not a huge shift, as warlocks were among the most controlling of strikers) and adds the shadow power source on top of arcane. From what we have seen so far, they will keep many of the classic warlock features, including Shadow Walk, a revision of Prime Shot, and possibly their Pact Boon (though they get their own, separate pacts - Gloom and Star, in this case). Also, the power structure seems to follow the original at-will/encounter/daily pattern, meaning that Binders should be able to freely choose powers in all slots (with some likely restrictions for at-wills, following the warlock tradition). Since controller powers are supposed to be stronger than their equivalents from other roles, Binder attacks are getting a reduced effect for non-binder warlocks (as any other build-specific power), but the fact that players can pick and choose between subclasses is encouraging. The only point of concern is that some previewed character sheets included really lousy attacks, particularly in the daily slot, which brings to question just how efficient Binders will be at their role. I just hope these bad powers are an exception, or that they get fixed on the printed book.

The new full class is the part of the book we know the least about. The Vampire class is fully shadow powered, and includes two builds, or bloodlines: the Beguiler and the Stalker. From their names, one should incline towards control, charm and domination (classic vampire tropes, after all), and the other seems to favor stealth and subtlety. But other than that, we haven’t been told much. I expect the class role to be striker, though this is mere speculation. It does look like a very nice concept, and a bold approach to class design at a time where most niches were starting to get filled. If it works out well, we’ll probably get a lycanthrope class sooner than later, and maybe some other monster-inspired class. As a side note, this class was originally rumored to come out with the Ravenloft campaign setting, but they probably chose to move it around when the book (box?) was delayed.

New builds: Death Warpriests, Gloom Hexblades, Death and Shadow Mages
As for the new builds (which are a level below subclasses, for those confused by the Essentials character categories), they are shadow-themed options for cleric/warpriests, warlock/hexblades, and wizard/mages. Thankfully, this doesn’t mean that only Essentials characters can benefit from them, as they should include many new powers available to any character of their class.
Clerics get the Death Domain for the warpriest subclass, which will probably involve a ton of necrotic-based attacks, and powers with debilitating effect. This build should present a much reduced emphasis on healing, compared to other clerics, and there is even the possibility of changing the leader role or at least changing the Healing Word feature... though I wouldn’t count on it. Apart from the array of encounter powers included in every warpriest domain, there is a section with new powers that will likely have necrotic daily attacks and deathly utilities.
I don’t know much about the Gloom Pact for the Warlock Hexblade, other than it should make warlocks the class with the most absurdly high amount of builds in the game. I wonder why they chose to name it Gloom, when there is precedent of a Shadow pact for the classic Warlock, but it probably has to do with the strong drow theme of the original shadow pact, which has little to do with the Shadow power featured in this book. Anyway, there will also be a bunch of shadowy dailies and utilities for all warlocks.
Finally, Wizards will have two new mage schools focused on dark magic: necromancers and nethermancers. These seem to have a strong focus on summons, with an interesting twist: unlike with most summoning spells, the creatures brought by a necromancer or shadowmancer do not disappear at the end of an encounter. The trick, then, should be at managing to keep them alive. Another unprecedented change for a wizard build is how some of these powers will not be available at all for non-shadow wizards, which is unorthodox, but not a bad way to keep balance and preserve the uniqueness of the new ‘mancers. More worrying is the notion that these summons ,and as a result the new builds, might in fact be significantly underpowered. The previewed powers look quite unimpressive for a wizard, at the very least.

Races: Shade and Vryloka
Leaving aside the reprinted Revenant, the races featured in this book introduce an interesting mechanical concept: racial utility powers. That is, on top of the usual encounter racial, there is the possibility of using utility slots to gain more powers exclusive for your race. This looks like something that could easily be extended for existing races, and I wouldn’t mind finding that on a future book or magazine article.
The one race we have seen previewed so far is the Shade, and I must confess it looks a bit underwhelming. Not because of the much-commented fact that it is the first 4E race to have an actual drawback (unless you count small races), in that they get a -1 penalty to their amount of healing surges - I think this is a touch that adds flavor with a minimum impact on real character power. But even without it, the other features are nothing to call home about. Their racial allows them to use the stealth skill (on which they are always trained) with the slightest of cover or concealment, and can be used at-will... but has a prohibitive cost of a standard action, meaning that it should only be worthwhile to use outside of combat. The previewed utilities are cool, but not strong enough to justify playing the race in the first place. Since it is doubtful that the book will include any race-specific feats, the Shade’s future looks a little dark, unless they somehow got changed before going to print.
Less is known about the oddly-named Vryloka. Do not let the fancy name deceive you: this is a “human vampire” race. Although it may seem an odd choice, given that the book already has a vampire class and that this brings strange interactions such as characters with the vampire class, the vampire race, and maybe a vampire bloodline just for fun, it actually makes a lot of sense. The vampire is a strong stereotype with a lot of versatility, and it’s cool to be able to mix it with all races and classes in the game, so that you can make an elf vampire or a vampire wizard, if you want.

The rest
As could be expected, most of the paragon paths and epic destinies included in the book have a Shadow, Darkness or Gloom in their names, though they have managed not to make them too repetitive. I rather like the one path that has been previewed, the Shadowthief, which isn’t terribly powerful but introduces a new resource in a kind of shadow points that you gain by killing enemies that can be then used for various effects - a mechanic I always enjoyed.
The book also includes some generic feats for shadow characters, but I am surprised about the little space devoted to them - a mere 3 pages. This is way less than what we usually see on a player book (there are Dragon articles with more stuff, for that matter), but if they have the same general purpose and overall quality as the feats found in Essential books, we might still get a lot of mileage out of them.

Obviously, we haven’t still seen enough of the content to properly evaluate the product, but judging from the previews and the structure alone, we can tell that this is a very different book from anything that has preceded it. The old, predictable formulas, which I happened to enjoy a lot, seem to be gone, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I can see a lot of innovation and weird experiments going on in this book, and many great ideas. Barring some serious screwups in implementation (of which we have seen a few in the previews, unfortunately), this has the potential to be an awesome and enjoyable book, and I’m certainly going to give it a try. And whether this new approach works or not, we already know that there will be at least one more book following it: Heroes of the Feywild, scheduled for this November.


  1. One correction, and I hated this too: Dark Pact warlocks were, for some reason, not pacts with the Shadowfell, but rather with "The dark powers that rule the underdark."


  2. The Dark powers that darkly rule from their dark thrones, shrouded in the darkness of the Underdark (mostly in Dark Town, which exports darkstone and is inhabited by darkspawn).

  3. And let us not forget about the Dark Shadows of the Shadowdark...