The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond is a box set/supplement for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. That title is way too long to type, so let’s just go with “Shadowfell” from here on out. Shadowfell is a 128-page, full-color, softcover supplement with monster tokens and some other goodies, and retails for $30. It is tagged as being “for use with” the D&D Essentials line, but is a standard size RPG product.
The Basics/What’s In The “Box”
Shadowfell is a campaign guide for D&D4E (and the title of the main book is “Campaign Guide”) – I’d normally say something like this was a campaign “setting,” but the Shadowfell seems more like a place that your campaign visits during the Paragon tier than it does a place where your campaign lives. In the D&D universe, the Shadowfell is the plane where the dead go first and get sorted before (hopefully) going on to their appropriate final destination. It is mostly ruled by the Raven Queen, the deity who is tasked with that sorting, although she apparently isn’t as in control as she used to be. The Shadowfell has been plumbed for material before, including in several official D&D 4E adventures (this includes the Domains of Dread, which are located in the Shadowfell, but are pretty distinct and not touched on at all in this product). The plane is, generally, dark and full of despair – what you might expect from a death-focused plane in a product with a tagline of “Not afraid of death are you?” plastered across the back. The Shadowfell is highly connected to other planes, including whatever world the PCs happen to come from, so it isn’t difficult to have them pop in for a visit.
Most of the material in Shadowfell is set in the city of Gloomwrought (it’s about 70/30 on the Gloomwrought/Beyond content mix), a location that mixes the political backstabbing and mercantile bustle of a leaning-towards-evil, planar-connected large urban area with the gloom of death priests, dust, and darkness. Even the more festive parts have more of a “bleed just to know you’re alive” feel to them. It’s sort of like Planescape’s Sigil, except the sense of wonder and mystery is replaced with a sense of futility, desperation and, well, gloom (Gloomwrought even has its own twisted versions of the Dabus, known as Keepers). Gloomwrought’s most remarkable feature is its malleability – different portions of the city can expand, contract, or vanish depending on how they are being used. A popular shop or shrine might expand, while a disused building might collapse into the ground, never to be seen again (except, perhaps, by adventurers willing to brave the mish-mash of lost buildings in the Undercity).
Although Shadowfell is presented in box set format, it’s a pretty flimsy box, and I think you’re more likely to put the main book on your shelf and stick the other materials elsewhere. The main component is the 128-page Campaign Guide describing the city of Gloomwrought and some other locations of note in the Shadowfell (the contents of the book will be discussed in more detail below). There’s also a 32-page Encounter Book (also discussed more below), that’s more “nice magazine” than “book” in its construction. There’s a double-sided fold-out map – one side is an urban encounter location, and the other is a “map” of Gloomwrought. Since there’s really little gained from having such a large image of the city, I would have preferred to see this reduced to a full-page or double-page image in the book, with the backside of the fold-out used for another encounter map. There are also two pages of tokens, which are primarily NPCs from some of the Gloomwrought factions and the encounters presented in the Encounter Book.
Finally, there is a 30-card Despair Deck that is used to represent the mental effects of the plane on the characters. Basically, every time you take an extended rest, you discard any Despair cards you have, and then draw a new one (there are some other specific encounters that can hand out Despair cards). The cards come in three flavors (Apathy, Fear, and Madness) and hand out some sort of penalty to the character. When the character achieves a milestone, he or she has about a 50/50 chance of overcoming the despair, and the card gets flipped around to provide a benefit (these overcome Despair cards are also lost when you take an extended rest).
The aesthetic aspects of Shadowfell were fine, but uninspiring. Like other D&D 4E books, the layout doesn’t get in the way, but also doesn’t convey much flavor. There’s a half-page artwork every few pages, and they’re nice enough (and, because this is D&D, the artwork mostly specifically ties in with nearby text, instead of being re-use of previously commissioned or only vaguely related art). There were several editing errors in the body text (incorrect spelling, missing word, text not matching map, etc.) – not a lot, but I tend to hold D&D (and its relative wealth) to a high editorial standard. The writing was like the layout – it wasn’t bad and didn’t get in the way, but it wasn’t anything exciting.
Contents (Campaign Guide and Encounter Book)
The Shadowfell (~10 pages) – The intro chapter touches on how to get to the Shadowfell, the Despair Deck, and general background material.
City of Midnight(~55 pages) – The longest chapter of the campaign guide covers Gloomwrought – the malleable nature of the city, its factions, and a detail look at the city’s six districts, including a variety of specific locations in each one.
Beyond the Walls (~35 pages) – The “Beyond” of “Gloomwrought and Beyond” covers five specific locations/areas in the Shadowfell – the Oblivion Bog, Thyrin Gol (an underground city inhabited by a tribe of shadar-kai and some Doomguard visiting from Planescape), Dead Man’s Cross and the House of Black Lanterns (a mystical crossroads that the souls of the dead pass through and that’s recommended as a “so you just showed up in the Shadowfell” location; plus a teleporting inn), the Darkreach Mountains (a ruined death giant fortress and some other points of interest), and Letherna (the realm of the Raven Queen, where souls are judged and sent on to other planes). With a variety of temples and trials, Letherna is the most developed of these locations and, to me at least, the most interesting.
Dark Threats (~35 pages) – The final chapter of Shadowfell is a collection of NPC organizations/foes, plus a few monsters, for the characters to encounter. The entries are universally based on Gloomwrought, and include the Deathless Watch (the corrupt town guard), the Ebony Guard (Raven Queen zealots), the Ghost Talon (shadar-kai terrorists), Gloomwrought-specific golems, the Keepers, Midnight’s Own (a lower-level gang whose plan is to engage in enough mayhem that some powerful adventuring party decides to show up and clean up the city), the Tenebrous Cabal, and assorted “power players” in the city. Almost all of entries are in the Paragon tier.
Encounter Book – The encounter book provides encounters that tie in with various plot hooks presented in the Campaign Guide. The encounters are spread out to tie into both Gloomwrought and most of the “beyond” locations described in the Guide. The encounters, like the NPCs/monsters in the Guide, are aimed at Paragon tier characters. The encounters include both combat and noncombat aspects, and include navigating the Oblivion Bog, arena combat, a fight against undead in a zone that pulses necrotic damage, a multi-stage investigation into a theft, a rooftop chase, searching for a relic in the Undercity, a fight in a collapsing tower, a “boss battle” in the magically enhanced throne room of a ruined death giant fortress, part of the trials required to seek the wisdom of the Raven Queen, and a half-dozen other combats.
Judgment Calls and Verdict
Shadowfell is an interesting product, one that you can probably use in two ways – a “clean up Gloomwrought” campaign for Paragon tier characters, or just for the characters to pop into, touch on one or two interesting things, and then be on their way. It’s not suitable for a starting location for Heroic tier characters, and I’m not sure how much of the material in the Campaign Guide would be easily portable to a random campaign (although the Widow of the Walk would, I think). The addition of tokens, the Despair Deck, and another 32 pages of encounters makes the price point reasonable – I’ll always take more sheets of tokens, the Despair Deck is a unique touch, and the encounter book does contain material that you could easily port into a non-Shadowfell campaign. The focus on the Paragon tier could make it a handy pickup for a DM who is specifically looking for more challenges in that level range.
As noted above, the Shadowfell has been touched on in prior D&D 4E products (including in Dragon magazine). Unfortunately, in order to avoid repeating, Shadowfell excludes some information that you’d want to have if you were making characters from the Shadowfell – including rules for the shadar-kai race or for being a shadow humanoid, one of which would apply to basically every single character native to this plane. Even though the general feel of the book is that the PCs will be visiting the Shadowfell, rather than being from the Shadowfell, this was a bit of an absence for me. Additionally, the appearance of a variety of Shadowfell native monsters in prior Monster Manual or Monster Vault products means that there aren’t all that many monster foes for the PCs described in the book. In short, if you want to really delve into the Shadowfell, you’ll need other supplements to provide the crunch to fill in the fluff provided in Shadowfell. All of this is a plus if you already own all of these other products (no paying for content you already own), and an obvious minus if you don’t.