While the internet is abuzz with excitement over Wizards of the Coast’s open testing for the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons, we’ve still got a slate full of awesome stuff coming out for the current edition of the game.
The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond introduces an entire city set in my favorite corner of the multiverse: the realm of shadow. Shadowfell is a gloomy reflection of the natural world: a place of death and decay. Imagine a cross between Dracula’s Transylvania and Tim Burton’s Halloweentown, and you might be a little close. While it’s not necessarily an evil place – death is a part of life, after all – it’s probably not the place you want to be caught after sundown: restless spirits and undead draw their power from this realm, as do assassins and other dark beings. The Shadowfell is under the rule of the Raven Queen, the goddess of winter and death. (Incidentally, here’s what I always think of when I try to describe the Shadowfell.)
Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond is a comprehensive resource for those who would venture forth into the Raven Queen’s demesne. Gloomwrought is an enormous metropolis whose face is constantly shifting. Buildings rise and fall overnight, streets shift and, as you would guess, a pervasive sense of gloom and death hangs over the entire city like a low fog. It is D&D’s first capital of Gothic Horror, and if you’re reminded of the classic Ravenloft setting then it’s probably not coincidental. Much like Ravenloft, the Shadowrealm, and Gloomwrought, lurks around every corner: tumble through a portal, slip into a particularly dark patch of shade or even die under the right circumstances and you may very well find yourself among the dead men.
Gloomwrought is full of intrigue, with various shadowy powers and secretive organizations all working to achieve their goals. Between their spider’s webs of plot and perfidy the common people – common for Gloomwrought, that is – struggle to live their lives (or afterlives) in the ruins of a half-dead city. Gloomwrought might not be hell, but it’s probably pretty damn close. Maybe one of hell’s suburbs. Beelzebub’s bedroom community. The city is a claustrophobic rat’s nest, but fortunately, this supplement comes with an enormous fold-out map. You may lose your soul, but you’ll never lose your place in the city.
While Heroes of Shadow and a few other supplements have addressed adventures in the Shadowfell to some extent, a good third of Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond extends its focus to the world beyond the city’s walls. Mires, frozen mountains and haunted forests full of ruins are easily within the grasp of a bold adventurer. The especially brave – or foolhardy – can even venture forth to Letherna, the city of the Raven Queen. Good luck, though: Gloomwrought is a bastion of tolerance and liberal enlightenment compared to Letherna. The Queen’s Ebony Guard ruthlessly eliminates any possible threat to their divine mistress.
Like most of the other D&D campaign settings, Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond is full of keyed encounters. The aforementioned city map flips over to reveal several encounter maps, and the set comes with several perforated cardboard sheets of punch-out tokens. Also included is a stack of cards that can be used to enhance combat encounters in the Shadowfell. While I’ve never used the cards myself, I know people who do, and they’re a nice and simple way to build on the dark character of the setting.
The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond is a complete campaign setting, and you could easily run an entire game set here alone. However, my thinking is that running a Shadowfell-exclusive game would probably be a little oppressive and dark for most groups. The Shadowfell corrupts characters who are exposed to it for too long, and it’s probably for the best that this is so: Darkness can only be appreciated when contrasted by light. The setting will work best as an off-and-off-again destination, I think.
Some gamers may be planning on holding off on buying any more fourth edition D&D products, knowing that a new edition is just around the corner. While I can understand that, Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond is a fantastic product, and most of it is a description of the city and its immediate surroundings. There’s not much keeping a creative dungeon master from using this setting with any system. What little mechanical content there is could easily be kitbashed into suitable substitutions from whatever edition you prefer – past, present or future. Happy gaming…and I’ll see you on the other side.