The Shadowfell is a place between worlds, it is a dark mirror of the material plane where everything within is tinged with death, decay and morally gray tones. The inhabitants of the Shadowfell are all tainted or crooked in some regard, it is a place where death seems insignificant and the city walls themselves even seem to keep a watchful eye.
The Shadowfell boxed set is to serve as a campaign setting across most levels of play, a recurring locale, or perhaps one the players must escape from or break into. No matter how you look at it, if you’re in the market to run something dark, bleak or oppressive this is probably a great way to get started. Even if you’re not going the doom and gloom route, this boxed set has more juicy hooks than a butchers freezer. The despair deck alone may be reason enough for some to snag this one up, but before we go any further let’s explore what all is inside.
A full color, matte finished paperback with a nicely reinforced spine. Physically the book is wonderful and is great for table display as I didn’t find it trying to close onto itself when opened up and layed down (this is also straight out of the box, not a well-worn book). It’s a full 127 pages of lore, locales, NPC’s, terrain, a sizable bestiary and more back story than you can shake a withered tree branch at.
The artwork within is extremely evocative of the setting and overall tone of the world and I think it’s the perfect punctuation mark to round out the book as a whole. The chapters are divvied up logically and the whole book is very easy to read, almost too easy – in a good way. There’s also some pages with handout materials for scanning/copying to give to your players.
The Despair Deck:
The Despair deck is a specialized deck of 30 cards used by the GM to further enhance the evocative, dark nature of the Shadowfell. It consists of 3 types of effects – Madness, Apathy, and Fear. Players draw from the deck when instructed to by the DM which are usually hinged on story elements and/or situation appropriate ones. (ex: Stepping foot inside a tomb, nightmares, witnessing a massacre, etc.)
The effects are also drawn at different times such as after an extended rest or at DM discretion and include both mechanical and roleplaying effects a PC must adhere to. The effects are mostly detrimental, thought there are a few wild cards thrown in. After a character has overcome an effect (via saving throw after an extended rest) they are granted a boon which reflects their newly bolstered spirits, but failing a save against a despair effect may warrant additional draws from the deck, resulting in cumulative effects.
It bears mentioning as well that the despair deck’s uses stretch far beyond this boxed setting and into virtually any place where there are dark thematic elements – I’m currently using it for use in my Ravenloft campaign with some house rules and loving it, as are my players.
Full color glossy small booklet containing ready to use encounters for your shadowy adventures, including one that sets the stage for characters to cross into the plane from the material (or other) world they are currently in. Each also has some back story to it as well, they aren’t just stat blocks and combat prompts. It’s really nice to see that every nook and cranny within the set is splashed with lore and flavor.
Two pages of matte finish cardboard, double-sided monster / NPC tokens. Each token has a normal and a “bloodied” side that is tinged red for easy identification. Beyond that there’s really not much to write home about, they are circular pieces of cardboard with pictures of monsters on them and not much else. They are easy to store, sort and carry but can become troublesome during actual play as they tend to scoot around a lot on the map.
One large fold out double-sided map depicting an overland view of the city of Gloomwrought, and on the reverse side a street view with several buildings as well as areas a few homes with detailed innards via a floor plan style view. The city map is rather generic and can be used repeatedly to represent goings ons within the city walls, though I could definitely see that getting stale shortly. The overland map is a good indicator of where your players are and where they might want to go, it’s very detailed and may even give you a few ideas for encounter locales as well.
Production Quality and Value
Overall the production value is fairly high being a Wizards produt and all, although I’m not a fan of tokens personally they are an economic solution for players who’d rather use something more representative than coins and bottlecaps.
The book materials are nicely finished and feel sturdy for paperbacks, though the map is sure to wear out with repeated use unless laminated or otherwise preserved. The despair deck will probably need some card sleeves as they seem to be about a notch below the quality of common CCG stock.
The Shadowfell boxed set is really not just for those who want to use it as a campaign setting, I touched on this a bit above but would really like to elaborate a bit more. These materials are perfect for anyone running a game steeped in horror or other dark elements, it doesn’t have to be ‘The Shadowfell’ by any means. As far as I’m concerned this is the spiritual successor to Ravenloft in the 4e world and could actually be used for games outside of D&D without much legwork as a majority of the campaign book is pure lore and back story. The little bits of crunch (NPC’s, monsters, terrain powers, magic items) that litter the book don’t get in the way of or make the narrative elements seem tied to any rule set either, and for most are probably easily converted to whatever system they play in so long as it’s a fantasy setting.
A Closing Elegy
Perhaps my current campaign and personal preference for horror and other ‘dark’ elements in entertainment make me biased here, but I can honestly recommend this product to most any GM who’d like to float some gloom into their current campaign or start one anew. The Shadowfell does a great job of setting itself far apart from being a generic “this is spooky” setting where everyone is naive, sad or otherwise predictable. The characters, story and themes are rich with intrigue and filled with an overwhelming amount of possibilities for your game. The despair deck really puts the icing on the cake here by providing an optional and dynamic way to add some flair and randomness to your game. All in all, if this seems like something you’d find fun or useful for your gaming endeavors, are a fan of old school horror settings like Ravenloft or are just a fan of dark themes -you’d be silly not to pick it up.
It currently retails for $39.99 but you can find it on amazon for $27.
Note: The writer recieved a complimentary copy of this product for reviwing purposes.