Guest Post by Jonathan Perrotto (www.TheModernDayPirates.com)
Just the Facts:
Age: 12 to Adult
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Release: May 17th, 2011
I'd feel remiss if I didn't open this review with an obvious and glaring flaw, if only because it was the first thing about this product that I noticed. As far as packaging goes the Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond boxed set can barely be considered a boxed set at all. Content-wise, it can hold its weight with recent releases, but as far as the box itself, I have a serious issue. As recently as the reissued Red Box, D&D boxes have been durable products, with separate tops and bottoms made with sturdy cardboard; perfect for repacking what's enclosed and more so for storing or transporting with ease. I've had boxed sets that have endured a decade or more of abuse. The Shadowfell boxed set falls woefully short of its predecessors, its contents packed in a weak cardboard sleeve—a single piece, with an inserted support the only means of keeping the box itself from being crushed. That being said, there's some worthwhile content inside the shoddy packaging.
The Shadowfell: Gloomrought and Beyond boxed set is what gamers have come to expect from 4th edition sets: Inside the box comes a campaign guide, with information on factions, monsters, landmarks and locations, and some tips on running a campaign in the Shadowfell. This is coupled with a book of encounters, detailing several interesting ways to challenge your gaming group. To populate the encounters, there are two sheets of the always useful die-cut monster tokens. Of course, there is a fold-out map with locations for the encounters to take place, and a map detailing the central city of Gloomwrought on the reverse. Last, there is a deck of thirty cards, the Despair Deck, used to reflect the in-game influence of the Shadowfell on the players.
A slew of monster tokens included in the set
The campaign guide, this boxed set's most noteworthy part, deserves the most attention. The first chapter goes into description of the Shadowfell itself, giving the reader a brief idea of the nature of the place, and a painfully brief suggestion as to how to evoke the emotions that adventuring in the Shadowfell is supposed to evoke. This is jarring, and made all the worse by the fact that the Shadowfell world is essentially a reworked Ravenloft (complete with its very own Domains of Dread). While the original Ravenloft publications focused entirely on evoking style – entire chapters focused on establishing mood, the art spoke of dread, the adventures were a lesson in keeping your group enthralled and terrified—in this book, such aspects are heavily downplayed. The Shadowfell boxed set just tells you to make your game creepy. Play spooky music. Dim the lights. I wish I were making this up. I understand that 4th edition has throttled back on the hand-holding for DM's and is intended to be more of a loose framework of rules, but if the focus is on establishing and maintaining a mood—a very difficult aspect of being a DM—more attention is needed.
The second chapter brings the focus on to the city of Gloomwrought itself. The city is central to the world, and there is quite a bit of detail to be had here. This is a somewhat different turn for the usually brief descriptions and vague backgrounds found in 4th edition source material, but it's for the better. Gloomwrought is presented in such a way that a capable DM (read: one who does more than play spooky music and turn down the lights) could easily run the city as a shadowy counterpart to such iconic D&D metropolis' as Sigil, or Baldur's Gate. Different districts of the city are given their due, and the factions that inhabit them are enumerated as well. The book eventually expands beyond the walls in the third chapter, and gives life to several different locales, though none are given the detail dedicated to Gloomwrought. The final chapter details the “Dark Threats” facing adventurers, providing an assorted cast of baddies that populate Gloomwrought. The few interesting characters are the Keepers (Gloomwrought's version of Planescapes' Dabus), the shadowy custodians of the city; Prince Rolan, the human—but seemingly immortal—ruler of Gloomwrought; and the Deathless Watch, the city's corrupt and self-serving constabulary. While the art throughout the book is done in the same style seen throughout 4th edition, it evokes little more than a bold, active, comic book feel, which does not mesh with the material presented.
The encounters book could be very useful. The encounters contained therein are standard fare, but can be utilized in any campaign with some minor tweaking. There are some monster combinations that can make for tough fights if run correctly, a few skill challenges that could be used very effectively, even outside of the Shadowfell. The challenge level too, is varied. The encounters range from level 7 to 23, so an ingenious DM could get a lot of use from this book. The included map does the job of providing a suitable arena for several of the fights. The inclusion of a full map side dedicated to Gloomwrought is questionable, as an insert in the book would have worked just as well while leaving more room for always-useful encounter maps.
The Despair Deck sets the mood
The Despair deck is an interesting concept. Intended to show the long-term effects of the Shadowfell on characters, it contains a slew of inconveniences that when overcome are turned to a benefit for a player. In the hands of a role-play heavy group this can be a lot of fun, while providing a challenge that can lead to new and different character interactions. In the hands of those more prone to the 'hack and slash now and role-play never' variety, it'll provide some inconvenient obstacles to overcome in combat while they remain in effect. It's an intriguing idea, but my initial impression is that overcoming the draining effects of the Shadowfell's nature should be it's own reward, and a party that have all overcome their individual cards could gain a significant advantage in encounters.
Overall, this is a decent addition to the 4th edition world. The background information, specifically on the city of Gloomwrought harkens back to older editions, when content was more “fluff” driven ( I do hate that term), and backgrounds rather elaborate. A book of stand-alone encounters can be of more use than a pre-written adventure for a specific level range, but I think The Shadowfell boxed set finds a very comfortable middle-ground between similar releases from older editions and most of 4th. It doesn't feel burdened by all the history, as some settings have in the past, and remains open-ended enough that an inventive DM can have a lot of fun running adventures with the information given here.
Disclaimer: MTV Geek received a complimentary review sample of this game