Rose has gone grimdark,
Kanaya, Rainbow Drinker:
See? Derse is rising.
My very first DnD 3e character was a halfling ranger named Chester Kegtapper. kingtycoon played his brother, Sammy Kegtapper, & our backstory was sort of a twist on The Hobbit-- once when we were kids a wizard & a party of dwarves came to our well furnished hole looking for a burglar, & our father went off with him. He never came back, though one of the dwarves limped back on death's door to whisper "...ruby slipper..." before giving up the ghost. After many adventures, in a final climactic fight against our persistent anti-paladin enemy, Sammy died defending an unconscious Chester. A sad day! Well, Heroes of Shadow made me think-- huh. See, this right here...Sammy could come back as a revenant, or even as a vampire-- one of the new classes in here (though kingtycoon has a kneejerk hate for vampires). Oh & hey-- my "if I was a DnD character..." musings tend towards multi-class Warlock/Antipaladin, & lo & behold, Heroes of Shadow has an interesting blackguard kit for the paladin class. My point being, this book got me thinking, planted the seeds of character concepts, story hooks, world building ideas. That right there is the sign of a job well done. Now, my biggest criticism is-- & let me get it out of the way-- that it is a Fourth Edition sourcebook. That is to say, there are plenty of options & ideas here...but they are all for fighting stuff. This is Fourth Edition, this is my biggest problem with the whole thing. If I stop & look at this like a Warhammer rule book, it is great! Fourth Edition is a fun small-unit tactical game, with lots of cute ways of differentiating combat units! The problem of course is...I want a more robust roleplaying aspect. So-- yeah, take that as a given. Everything mechanical in this book concerns fighting stuff, & that is boring.
With that out of the way, I can say that I like this book a lot. First off-- treating the Shadowfell as Ravenloft seems to be the order of the day, & that is...right on. Perfect. I mean, the Negative Energy Plane is neat, & the Plane of Shadow is cool, but Ravenloft is a setting, is a place you can actually run a game. Classes wise, we've got the assassin-- lots of people have probably seen the playtest of this, & in my experience it works like a charm. I've already mentioned my fondness for blackguards; here they are divine strikers, rather than the divine defender that the cavalier & Player's Handbook paladin are. There is also a vampire class, which I think is the right way to go for sure. Savage Species style! This paves the way for werewolves & other transformational monsters, & I think that is a great way to go. Sometimes, yeah, it is pretty cool for the guy who got bit by the werewolf to turn into a lycanthrope. There is also a whole new Essentials style class for warlocks-- the Binder. I'm not the biggest fan of the way these classes are laid out-- with class abilities segmented by an initial choice, & separate from the level progression information, but that is just personal preference. There are other options here as well, for Shadowfell-themed Clerics, Warlocks & Wizards-- really well fleshed out paths, rather than just a few scattered powers. That accounts for the first hundred pages or so, but it is a solid chunk of crunch & fluff. There are another two pages of feats in the back, which are fine, but really the role of feats is increasingly diminishing.
Races-wise, it is a little hit or miss, if you ask me. There are revenants, which are solid. People like Radarless want to play undead-type guys. I get it; in my last Oubliette campaign martak played a ghoul, a living undead type guy. Heroes of Shadow is a book about playing gothy antiheroes, so why fool around? Revenants, sure. I'm less impressed by shades-- seems like it would make a better theme or series of feats than a race. I don't get it, conceptually, & mechanically it isn't interesting enough to justify itself. Last up are the vryloka, the "vampire-y" people. Again-- why fool around; this is the Heroes of Shadow, so if people want vampires, give them vampires, though as kromelizard points out, you could use the material in this book & the vampiric heritage feat from DnD Insider to play a vampire vampire vampire. Vrylokas have a "red witch" thing going on that I think adds an extra dimension to them; the red hair & gold armor helps chip out their own niche. You know what I would have liked to see? Vistani. I like the idea of the Vistani as gyspy folk who wantder the planes. I know DnD Insider had rules for the Vistani as a series of racial feats-- this would have been a good place to include them! Ravenloft, baby. There is some further information on "shadowing up" some of the other races, but it is fluff that I don't think needs to be there. If I want to play a dwarf with ties to the Shadowfell, I can make up my own story reason-- what I'd like is a selection of racial utility powers like the vryloka & shades have. That is what I'm looking for from official Wizards of the Coast material-- well balanced mechanics with enough fluff to situate them, that are officially supported. I like to see their worldbuilding, but I don't feel like this is the appropriate venue for it.