A few weeks ago, I received a pdf review copy of Shadowsfall from the publisher. I’ve taken the time to digest it and expose my gaming group to the content building up to writing the review.
First Impressions and Design
Shadowsfall is a 34 page document, with 27 pages of content and the rest taken up with covers, legal notices, etc., written by Dale McCoy. My initial impression of the book was very favorable – the cover art is very appropriate (I particularly like the kobold – a variant introduced in the book). The content is broken down into bookmarked sections covering all the things a player might be interested in for play on the shadow plane – races, classes, animals, strongholds, feats, equipment, deities, magic, magic items, and altered items.
The inclusion of the Strongholds section in the middle of the book seemed a little odd to me, that it broke up the mechanical, player-side content in the way it did – but it’s certainly not enough to distract from the usefulness of the book – and serves as a good reminder that this is not just a supplement to Pathfinder, but has elements of setting ingrained in it as well.
Overall, the layout and the art are effective and visually interesting. Most of the art is black and white illustration, with two internal color images. The art was all well chosen and well placed to make effective use of space, and to illustrate something in the text – not just to put art on the page.
The Introduction and How to Use This Book sections set up reader expectation well, establish the nature of the book as a player’s guide with setting content, and set a good tone for the shadow plane as the author envisions it.
The information on races provides notes on the core races (and some of the expanded selection of races) that live in the shadow plane, also providing a new racial trait for each. The traits all seem comfortably to follow the expected curve for traits and are interesting. Some are particularly notable for how they link that race to the changes wrought by their shadow existence but others seem less setting-driven and more because they needed a trait for each included race (I’m looking at you, Elf). I found it interesting that they chose to go down the path of “good drow” in this book – something which is dangerously close to cliché at this point – but I can’t really fault them too much, it is a character type which remains popular with players so, opening the door isn’t really all bad.
The book also introduces two new races, the Umbral Kobold and the Wanderer. The Umbral Kobold is interesting beyond the shadow realm. As a much more balanced and interesting kobold variant than the standard kobold in Pathfinder, this was a real treat. I think I would offer this kobold up as a playable race in any game I ran from here on out in place of the normal kobold. The Umbral Kobold has just enough information to make it a shadow plane race but still works beyond the setting, which is always a bonus in a supplement. And while the Umbral Kobold addresses the weakness of kobolds, the Wanderer seems to wander slightly in another direction. The Wanderer is representative of a celestial being who has chosen to live their life among mortals. They provide an interesting alternative option to the Aasimar for a player who wants to have a touch of celestial might or feeling to their character. The Wanderer is a little less powerful than the Aasimar as well (though not by much) which may provide an alternative a GM feels more comfortable with as well. Wanderers have evocative descriptive text and racial traits, which set them apart nicely and provide a race which will appeal to many players – especially a player who wants to experience a very long-term perspective to their character. That said, they suffer even more from the clash of rules and description in their traits because they are immortal, and carry all the memories of their past lives as celestials, but have no traits related to their previous knowledges, skills, or experiences beyond starting the game speaking celestial. I’ve always found this type of interaction frustrating as a player and I suspect I am not alone.
The section on classes offers new options for many classes, starting with a discussion of how each class fits into the setting and moving to new archetypes for the magus and fighter, as well as a new cavalier order, new sorcerer bloodline notes, a new school for wizards, new witch hexes, and new evolutions that summoners can use for their eidolons. More than anything, what I found myself wishing for in this section was a sidebar for GMs – despite this being a player book, several of the new options presented seemed tailor made for NPCs and could be used to craft some interesting encounters. A small – For the GM sidebar here would have seemed to fit very well and been a useful addition.
The actual abilities in the section are flavorful, some more expansive than others in how much they change or add to a character’s options, but they all seemed well thought-through. I cannot really say if they were playtested though as no mention of playtesters is made in the credits as far as I can tell. Obviously, I have not tried out all of the options in the book but they seem to remain within a good comfort zone for content to add to an existing pathfinder game.
Animals and Strongholds
While these two sections offer a few mechanics, they are primarily setting information – the animals are all designed to fit the dark theme and do so well – especially with the alternate familiars (I’d love a opossum familiar…). The Strongholds outline some locations of note in the Shadow plane for players to use as adventuring sites, bases of operations, or origin stories. The setting information focuses on a sliver of the Shadow plane called, The Southern Peninsula and provides, in a few pages, enough information to draw players into this world. More than anything, it would seem to me that the goal of this setting information (in a player’s guide) would be to inspire players and give them places they want to visit. In this regard, the chapter succeeds though, as someone who rarely draws upon “established” setting information, I found the fact that this was the largest section of the book to be somewhat surprising. And as I previously mentioned, it does break up the flow of character mechanics information in a strange way.
Two pages of feats follow the Strongholds section. These feats are introduced with some flavor text to contextualize the offerings. Here again is a decent selection of character options that seem to have well-thought out rules matter, make use of the teamwork feat idea, and are a good mix of shadow plane related and general. Some of the feats do seem a little overpowered – primarily because of a lack of appropriate prerequisites. The Shadow Style tree of Style Feats gives me pause as a GM. I’d look long and hard at these before allowing them into a campaign. The high level requirements of the feats do mitigate their amazing effectiveness somewhat but they still have the potential to be problematic.
Two pages of equipment offer some new items tied to the stories and setting of the shadow plane and provide new options for weapons, alchemical items, drugs, and even vehicles. The Reaper land vehicle is a classic sword-and-sorcery style vehicle that just seems like a fun addition to any campaign world.
The section on the religions of the shadow plane offers new deities specific to the setting, a new philosophy, two new subdomains (one based on Kytons, which I’m actually excited to try out), and a new oracle mystery. The new mystery is based around the idea of Joy and is one that seems like it would adapt well to any setting, making it a valuable character option for Shadowsfall but also beyond.
Magic, Magic Items, & Altered Items
Six spells, six magic items, and an assortment of items with altered options round out the offerings of the book. The spells range from variations on existing spells such as a Greater Disrupt Undead spell to completely original offerings. If anything, I would say the spells are too safe in their power level and may be tough sells for players to take over other options. The new spells are clever and flavorful though will increases their interest level.
The magic items are also clever and well integrated into the tone of the book. That said, this section is cramped and doesn’t leave much room for flavor text so it might have been nice to cut an item to allow the author to really amp up the remaining offerings. This is a minor nitpick though as each item has everything you need to bring it to the table. I can’t wait to put a Kyton Slavery Whip in a treasure hoard and see what they players make of it.
The section on altered items is a nice add on to the book. I was surprised by this, though I shouldn’t have been, because of the planar nature of the setting material. More than the specific items though, this section shines for offering up a cool idea and giving it some mechanics and examples. This is something more books could do and when done well it is rewarding.
Overall, I like the book. This is my second product from JBE (I purchased the Guide to the River Kingdoms when running a Kingmaker game) and I’m happy with the quality of the books, the quality of the content, and the options presented that I feel I can safely add to my games without too much oversight or worry. I could recommend this product to players and GMs, whether running a Shadow Plane themed game or not, and that more than anything means a lot to me.
[5 of 5 Stars!]