Didn't Player's Option: Heroes of Shadow
come out ages ago? Why would I be sitting here at my keyboard typing about something you've already read about and possibly already own?
I'll give you three reasons:
- After a book's launch date hits, we (speaking as a disembodied voice on the Dungeons & Dragons website) tend to talk about it less. The preview hype has passed and the excerpts have been revealed.
- Early reviews of books when they come out can be early reviews. There's not always a chance to fully play through all the material and then take a second look back at the book in question.
- I decided to practice what I preach, so I have written this walkthrough after playing a lot of the material from Heroes of Shadow. May my local D&D crew forgive me for my ALTitis.
Besides, it's shadows. It's Halloween. It's time to open this book back up and shed some light on the Heroes of Shadow. Or gaze into the Abyss that is Heroes of Shadow. Or "insert clever play on words about Heroes of Shadow here." Let's do this, fellow adventurers.
The Raven Queen's Whisper
Hidden between fluffy narrative text that number crunchers or the impatient might overlook, you find something called the Raven Queen's whisper. What this is, in a nutshell, is that when your adventuring party is about to all die horribly, the god of death speaks to one of you and offers a deus ex machina escape or divine assistance for a price. The Raven Queen does this for, as written, totally selfish reasons. In return for help she demands you slay one of her enemies, revive a temple, or take out her trash/wash her dishes. (That last one sounds simple enough, but you really don't want to know what a death god puts in the recycle bin.)
As a side note, I should also mention that until you take out said trash bin, you take an automatic critical hit one time each combat. So the deal you make with death is really something to be honored . . . as if the co-signer on your loan on life being the god of death wasn't enough to motivate you to get to work on the Raven Queen's request.
You'll also see it implied that the Raven Queen can't do this too often since the other gods would "rise against her if she took a too active hand in the affairs of mortals." Considering the whole divine power source, I'd think meddling "in the affairs of mortals" would be the gods' main occupation. Maybe it really is like Clash of Titans and gods can interfere with each other only by using proxies. And only discreetly. Go figure. Anyway, you'll find all sorts of amazing implications in the Raven Queen's whisper.
For instance, if the Raven Queen can do this, that means that any god can. Bane offers to let you win the battle if you continue the war, or Pelor offers to feed the village if you stick around to bring in the crops come harvest time. Do gods wear badges to make sure people know which god is making the offer? Is it impossible for gods to lie or deceive mortals? I mean, if Bane (wearing a Moradin-themed Halloween costume) helps you, but suddenly you have to help Bane (or else), what are you to do? Although "What happens in Bane's temple stays in Bane's temple!" might be a good policy, a DM who is not above cosmically bribing the characters from beyond the Astral Sea can come up with a lot of story hooks and perilous plot hooks.
Finally, the existence of a mechanic such as the Raven Queen's Whisper means that it could be "faked" by a Dungeon Master for nefarious purposes. Most people we see on the street who have claimed to have heard the voice of God are assumed to be insane. A slaad tadpole or the beginning of madness could easily manifest as messages from any old deity. Not that I'm suggesting a DM mess with his or her players, but . . . oh wait. That's exactly what I'm doing. Let's move on.
Heroes of Shadow introduces the glory that is the executioner. Well, it's the assassin class, only it's less about shadow powers and more about stabbing and poisoning your enemies. The executioner is interesting because within the class you have to join one of two sinister assassins' guilds. The Red Scales, for instance, is a publicly known guild, while the League of Whispers requires you to kill anyone who finds out that you're a member of the League of Whispers. It's an important little blurb you might have missed while building your assassin, and as mentioned in my antihero article, you might want to introduce yourself as any character class besides assassin just to keep the topic from coming up. Keeping this a secret might be difficult because the League also specializes in exotic weapons, namely bolas and blowguns. The League also requires monthly meetings, but I think you can get out of those with a note from your cleric.
The point is that narrative fluff is linked to your assassin. Either you're in a super secret league of assassins or you're in a proud and respected league of assassins. This implies that assassins have ways of identifying one another from common murderers and gives all sorts of story hooks to a DM who is brave enough to pull in the Grandfather of Assassins. Don't laugh: Grandfather is the highest rank in the League of Whispers. Just remember to keep off his lawn, you darn kids, or he'll garrote you in your sleep.
Me? I snuck my assassin into our game under the guise of "dire big game hunter." There's something logical about a guy with exotic weapons, exotic poisons, the ability to collect bodies as trophies (shadow coffin class feature), and a winning smile that just screams "I travel the land with adventurers to meet interesting beasts and find a place for their heads on my wall." Again, it might just be me.
Two final fun notes about the executioner:
First, you're immune to your own poisons and all of them have decidedly out of combat utility. So if you've ever wanted to reenact that scene from The Princess Bride and ask the villain which goblet contains the iocaine powder, now's your chance.
Second, the level 8 class feature Flawless Disguise is one of the best disguise powers around, since it masks your clothing as well as your face/race/sex and so on. With your ability to use ki focuses, you can use anything as a weapon, meaning the possibilities are endless. Want to look like the hobgoblin leader from the last room who has come to report in to the boss? Go for it. Want to look like the wizard to confuse the hell out of the archlich who's searching for his rival? Go crazy. Your disguise? Flawless.
Next up is the blackguard. Although alignment has been a bit streamlined here in 4th Edition, it's interesting to see it spun back around and cranked to 11 with the fallen paladins. The obvious downside is that blackguards wear their character flaws on their sleeve and that cliché of "I'm only playing my alignment" has been shifted over to "I'm only playing my vice." The vice of fury is particularly terrifying because basically it says you're impatient and get very angry and very violent rather quickly. That describes the play style of a lot of people I've played with, but the fury blackguard really has to go that extra mile. Expect social skill challenges to end with a lot of NPCs with broken noses and very little mercy for minor characters who insult your party.
Speaking of little mercy, the domination blackguard (mine wielded a whip -- don't ask why) is definitely interesting in the motivation department. Basically, this vice says not to tolerate anyone who doesn't surrender to you, meaning again, those social encounters are going to end in tears. I'm oversimplifying obviously, but a lot of text involves how brutal and intolerant blackguards are expected to be. It also doesn't help that you have to be unaligned or evil to be into domination. Honestly, though, it fits the narrative spin of the blackguard. Evil might be cool, but you're going to have a hard time making friends.
Something of particular note is what blackguards get at 4th level: servant of vice.
Imagine, if you will, that you call on the darkness in your own heart and it appears as "something." The description is vague, and, based on my character, the DM chose to materialize as the big brother who I didn't know I had who used to beat me up. When I ran a game, I just had it appear as a demonic magic 8-ball, but I'm also a jerk. Narrative leeway aside, the conjuration has the amazing ability that lets you ask it any question and roll to get an answer. Any question. Although obvious ones such as "Where is the bad guy hiding?" and "What is in the next room?" will dawn upon everyone, we ended up getting creative and epic with questions like "Will I ever find true love?" and "How will I die?" The answer to the last one was "painfully but not alone" which wasn't comforting to anyone listening. Throw in the ability to boost your "answer any question" roll by sacrificing daily item powers too, and it means if you really want to know something, it's possible. If the DM is cool with it. For a daily that lets you ask a handful of unlimited questions and for plot and character development, you just can't beat servant of vice. The winning question of the evening? "What was the name of the barmaid back at the tavern, and does she like flowers?" Good times.
The biggest ruckus Heroes of Shadow seems to have caused involves the fact that it introduces the vampire character class. Honestly, I think this is a great idea, because it's an example of a character class that was inflicted upon a character rather than being chosen or attuned to a magical/primal/divine influence. In other words, you can make characters that are peasant girls, fallen priests that survived (relatively speaking) a vampire attack, and unwitting farmers who don't want to hurt their families so they find the only work they can: adventuring. With the ability to use holy symbols and ki focuses, you can be pretty much unarmed and your appearance is really up to you, rather than being determined by weapon or obvious implement at hand. (Ignore the awesome picture of the vampire with the sword. I can only assume that's his ki focus.)
This is also the first class that gives you a disadvantage in that you burn to a crisp in the sun. I wanted to make a Twilight glitter joke here, but since you stop burning in the sun at level 16, apparently glitter vampires exist only in late paragon and epic. Who knew?
Remember that superstition that vampires can't enter a building unless they're invited in? Maybe you became an adventurer because a work contract is like an extended travel pass for someone who can't travel as freely as he or she would like. Sure, immortality is great, but without a job that gives you a narrative imperative if not outright permission to invade homes and see strange and beautiful places, immortality could get old fast. Adventuring is very much the career path for those wishing to break the boredom of immortality.
There's a pretty high bar, though, with the vampire class and, oddly enough, it comes down to roleplaying. This will hit your average Team Lestat twofold:
- Do people know you're a vampire? At first glance, you'd think this would be impossible, but with a high Charisma and a paragon path that focuses on giving you bonuses to pass as human (which stacks with the vryloka racial bonus to pass as human), appearing to be a human is not out of the question. What, you saw me turn into a bat? It's my magic item called cloak of the bat. Walking on walls? Please. My shoes are wallwalkers. You saw me drinking blood? All I did was steal the "unseen energy of life itself" (quote from blood drinker power, page 53). And that's the catch. Even if you keep your "I am a vampire" powers on the down low, all your basic attacks don't inherently say you're a vampire unless you want the fluff to say so. Whether you bite your opponents in combat or simply drain away their life force invisibly is completely a choice left to you, the player. (Quick aside: My vampire was Lord Queensbury, the aristocrat boxer, always looking for his next challenger. After a couple of encounters, I broke the news to the party that I was a vampire, meaning that I'd bought myself enough time to avoid being another turn-undead-based pile of dust before the party. Whether you're open about your vampiricism is really up to you.)
- The Blood Is Life class feature says two things. (1) If you have more healing surges at the end of a fight than when you started, you heal up to 100%. The healing will always be starting from your bloodied value, since you auto-heal up to that all the time anyway. (2) "If an ally gives you a healing surge, you can heal up to your bloodied value." Which means back up to 100%. There's the hurdle I was talking about. I've seen players show up to an RPGA game and at the end of the fight say, "Who wants to let me drink their blood? Come on, guys, it's my class feature. I'm supposed to be given healing surges." It turns into the D&D equivalent of the guy begging for goldPLZ outside of Stormwind. That's the catch. You're supposed to get healing surges if you need them, but you need to roleplay well enough to convince someone that not only is a vampire alright to have in the party, but also it's okay to feed them your life essence. That can be . . . difficult.
That's why I recommend the social route as opposed to the monstrous creature of the night cliché. The suave vampire pictured in Heroes of Shadow with his blood goblet looks classy, but if you ask my druid to bleed into that to-go cup, you're getting a savage rend to the face. Of course, you can fall back on the "invisible life force" route, but some feel this is the coward's way. I'm torn because the ability to feed healing surges to the vampire is exactly the same as how one feeds healing surges to an artificer so he can create more healing infusions. To date no one has called an artificer a life-draining vampire, but I suppose if your character sheet says "life-draining vampire" on it, that kind of thing is going to happen from time to time.
Cleric options in Heroes of Shadow help establish something I've said all along: necromancy and divine magic can easily work hand in hand. Sure, a divine resurrection prayer doesn't bring a zombie back to life, but restoring life to a dead husk of a human being could indeed be a finer art than clerics make it look. Here we get a smattering of divine powers that animate the dead (and enslave them), as well as powers that divinely drain life from your foes by touching them. When an enemy dies, a warpriest of death can use its dying screams to use healing word as an immediate action. Heroes of Shadow is all about the slippery slope, but it is interesting how easily the line between "preventing death" and "reanimation" can be lost. It's an aspect of the undead condition we don't see very often: divine character classes obviously hate creatures that return from the dead but have no qualms about bringing back their fellow adventurers. I've talked about necromancy and the mancy of the nether before, but since it's presented in full in Heroes of Shadow, I feel the need to throw in something you might have overlooked.
For more on my thoughts about necromancers, check out the D&D Outsider article about antiheroes. You will be glad you did. In a nutshell, even normal wizards summon devils and demons, rather than the unicorns and puppies that necromancer fluff implies the other schools of magic summon whenever they get the chance. Also, don't overlook the new social cantrip called spook. Screw trying to be intimidating. Just say "BOO," use this power, and crack up as the guard runs away. It's the little things in a necromancer's unlife, really.
We might have seen revenants before in Dragon magazine, but they've gotten a bit of polish since then and got a little more developed in ways people like me can't help but exploit. I mean enjoy. Enjoy! The main premise behind a revenant is that it's someone who has died and been brought back to life for a greater purpose at the behest of a possibly unknown higher power. Maybe these folk are like the Crow, brought back to avenge their own murders. Maybe it really is just about a second chance. Like the deva who have lived forever, the revenants, as written, have very sketchy memories of their past. That's all well and good, but as stated in my deva article, you gloss over that the world's your oyster when it comes to roleplaying fun.
Being back from the dead just doesn't have the same kick to it if you didn't know who you were or what you did or how you died. Also know that since you're undead and brought back as you are . . . whatever class you are now may not have been what you were before. Think about taking multiclass feats not because you want to but because that's what you used to be. Lord knows -- if your thievery had been higher maybe that trap wouldn't have gone off in your face last time. Remember, whatever brought you back to life chose what you would be upon your return. It's not like there are revenant children running around waiting to find their calling, right? Maybe the greatest slayer of the undead has been brought back as a revenant cursed to wield the very necromancy she sought to purge.
An observation: Instead of introducing 20+ feats for each potential revenant past life, now you take one feat and choose a race. Simple, elegant. Nice economy of space. Flipside? Have you ever wanted to be a kobold brought back from the dead? A redeemed duergar who saw too much to slip into the Abyss? Now's your chance . . . and your chance to snag some of those obscure monster racial powers you might have never wanted. Though between you and me, if I was a goblin revenant, I might keep that fact to myself. Undeath is hard enough to navigate as-is.
Next up on the Heroes of Shadow countdown: shades! If you're a fan of the Forgotten Realms and the whole Netheril situation, you're probably already well aware of these guys. (Sorry, shadar-kai, you're no longer the shades we thought you were.) For the rest of us out of the loop, shades are humans who sold a bit of their soul through a ritual known as the Trial of Five Darknesses. Which, as per the text, is just as likely to kill you as it is to give you access to unparalleled shadow power. Think of it as the warlock paradox race. You've sold a bit of your soul out of greed, lust for power, or sheer desperation, which is always a great hook for a character. The problem is that a lot of people might not see that unparalleled shadow power I mentioned. It's there, but the shade race is not for everyone. What's the main issue here? Well, besides losing a healing surge just for being a shade, you also get automatic training in Stealth. That's great, right? Well, the loophole here is that if you decide to go assassin or rogue, the shade's preferred classes, you're going to lose out on your bonus skill, since those classes give it to you for free and as the classes with the fewest healing surges anyway, losing one is going to hurt more than most.
There's an upside here. Ever wanted to play a stealthy version of any other class? Not only does the shade unlock whole worlds of sneakiness to knights, paladins, warlords, and any other class not known for being stealthy sorts, but you'll excel at it. The racial power one with shadow lets you stay hidden while standing behind an ally, meaning that as you explore the dungeon you can be hidden the entire time as long as you don't lead the march. I'd be remiss to not also mention the twilight torch at-will utility power. This power lets a shade create a zone of dim light around him. Bright light becomes darker, darkness become brighter. It seems rather flighty for a utility until you realize it synergizes with a handful of shadowborn feats presented later in the book. If you're all about dancing in the dark, I suggest taking a look at it. Autoconcealment, a bonus to all saving throws, defenses, and the ability to ignore difficult terrain. Shades can unlock some interesting possibilities. Without thievery (no pun intended).
The vryloka are the first race that lets you pretend to be another race. It makes sense, because they're the remnants of a fallen empire (like the dragonborn and tieflings) that are pretty much half-vampires. Or daywalkers. It's actually an interesting callback to 1982's Monster Manual, which introduced the knobbish monster "pseudo-undead." It looked like undead, had some of their abilities, but couldn't be hurt by turn undead or other cleric powers, meaning you wasted a couple turns figuring this out while they were stabbing you (look it up, D&D lore fiends!).
In that vein (get it -- it's a vampire joke), the vryloka are pretty much vampiric nobles (and, yes, the race is also aristocratic) who oddly are against vampires. I think it's how minotaurs are supposed to resist the lure of Baphomet or how I'm supposed to resist the allure of cutting my own ear off Van Gogh style, even though I am an artist. Player characters must fight the NPC clichés. Also note the bloodbond utility—the first and only power out there that lets you change another player's race (with the Dungeon Master's permission). Basically, if an ally is dying, you can choose to bring him or her back and, if the players are cool with it, the character's race changes to vryloka. If that's not a surreal roleplaying opportunity (it's the only way to infect your friends politely), I don't know what is.
And on to the Awards Ceremony!
The award for paragon path excellence goes to . . . the dusk oracle.
The dusk oracle paragon path is one of a handful of flavorful options included toward the back of Heroes of Shadow, but it really is something greater than you think it is upon closer inspection. So what's the big deal besides the fact that any class can take this path? Is it the way you can augment at-will attacks to target any defense?
Is it the ability to call upon the wisdom of the dead to gain training in any skill?
Is it the ability to speak with any corpse you run across and ask it a single question that it must answer truthfully?
Heck, yes. Twice, even.
Sure, mechanically we're talking about having the Speak with Dead ritual as a free action, but look deeper. Practically speaking, being able to ask the dead body in the corner where the monster that ate it is hiding is one of those abilities that'll never get old. Yet this really is a stereotypical ability in grim heroes who walk the borders. Heck, both Hellboy and Jonah Hex have this power and neither of them really qualify as ritual casters at the table. Want to play a proud knight who can deal out justice by asking the fallen who slew them? Now's your chance. Are you a morally terrible rogue who'd rather interrogate the dead after they've slid off your blade? Go to town. A DM can really have a lot of fun if they plan for this ability, though, speaking honestly, a Dungeon Master who likes to decorate a dungeon with superfluous corpses might find it tiresome. But I digress.
The award for demonizing the Raven Queen goes to the Keepers of the Everflow!
Keeper of the Everflow is an epic destiny that points out something the Raven Queen's PR agent kind of wishes you never realized: the Raven Queen is not a good god. Sure, Orcus makes her seem like a saint, but don't forget that the Raven Queen was originally a sorceress that Nerull (ye Olde God of Death) tried to romance, and she spurned him, assassinated him, and took his power. When the god of death thinks that you'll make a good mistress, your moral character kind of has to be looked at more closely. (Then again, anyone who has seen the movie Legend knows it can go both ways.)
The Keepers of Everflow point out that the Raven Queen is stopping the Spirit Wheel (the natural order) from spinning, meaning she's picking and choosing who gets reincarnated. Sure, this is all rumor and lore, but you know what isn't? If you're a Keeper of the Everflow, the Raven Queen is sending her entire army to kill you right now. That kind of makes her look guilty, right? Oddly enough, if you want to run a game where Orcus might have a chance at getting some sympathy, this destiny is for you.
A healthy chunk of narrative awesome aside, the level 30 feature of the Keepers is possibly the best thing I've seen in ages. When you reduce an enemy to 0 hit points, you can choose to have them reincarnated as a level 1 natural creature with no memory of its past. Sure, it might not have much impact on your game, but there's something rich to a character who doesn't kill, but simply redeems. Classy.
The award for the mundane item on the last page of the book (and that you probably didn't notice) goes to the Raven's feather!
Raven's feather is the final item on my Heroes of Shadow greatest hits walkthrough. A simple piece of adventurer's equipment, the feather mystically links to a person's blood. The moment that person dies, the feather changes color from black to blood red. Used by thieves' and assassins' guilds to tell when an agent has failed or by a family to tell when not to expect lumberjack Steve to come back from EverDoom Forest, it's one of those items that has this flavorful touch that helps illustrate that any D&D campaign can have magic on a mundane level that's practical and easy to cash in on. Want to be certain that soldier doesn't kill your prisoner the moment he takes custody and is out of sight? Raven's feather. And hell, the book gives instructions on how to fake your own death using these things. Not bad for 25 gold.
And there you have it. I hope I've helped convince a few of you to take a deeper look at Heroes of Shadow. There's a lot going on and so much to expand on if you're a fan of that kind of thing. I know that I am.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to open up Heroes of the Feywild and find out if satyrs get a hoof item slot. Or just why my pixie assassin gets no respect. Until next time.
--Jared von Hindman