Thanks to the 4th Edition D&D Webchat hosted by the brilliant minds behind At-Will, I've been able to rub shoulders with some very interesting folk in the online D&D community at large, including one of the co-authors of this box set, Matt Goetz, who convinced me (I didn't need much) to pick up the box and check it out. I apologize in advance for the verbose review, but I hope that after I am through I will have done the set justice.
First, the superficial stuff: like many WotC products recently, it comes with tokens. I am less than lukewarm about tokens; I just don't use them. But if you've seen other WotC tokens, they're more of the same: ≈1 mm thick cardstock, artwork recycled from this and previous products, you know the drill. What I'd prefer, just because I don't use tokens, is if they'd instead include some Dungeon Tiles that some of the encounters utilize; wouldn't even care if they were reprinted from other sets. But that's just me.
Then, the map: Large map of Gloomwrought on one side (useful, point a finger and say "you are here"), and a generic city-street-and-some-houses scene on the other side (less useful, but hey, they had to put something there, I'm not complaining).
Lastly among the incidentals, the Despair Deck. What can I say about the Despair Deck that has not already been said? Not much. Mechanically, you draw a card every time you take an extended rest and you are bound by what it says until you can shake it off, and these build up the longer you stay in the Shadowfell. Once you shake it off, you get a temporary boon from overcoming the effect. They're split into three categories: Apathy, Fear, and Madness, with examples like Craven, Frail, Clumsy, Reckless, Quarrelsome. It's a sort of neat idea to remind players that this realm is different from the real world, and that living people dwelling in the world of the dead has consequences; one can empathize, if only a tiny bit, with races like the Shadar-Kai, who have not really gotten terribly much character development in the published materials.
In to the meat! The encounter book, I am relieved to say, actually has some substance to it, and has battles and skill challenges for levels 7-23, although so much of the material in the Encounter book and the Campaign Guide is for low-to-mid Paragon levels that I'm just going to call this entire collection a Paragon-level setting guide. It's pretty easy to scale the 7-10 encounters up to Paragon levels, anyway. One of my favorite challenges in the Encounter book is "Scouring Undercity" which, as the name implies, involves going underneath the city of Gloomwrought. Undercity is described as a labyrinth of old buildings that have sometimes literally been sucked underground by cataclysmic events, but more often seem to have been "replaced" by newer buildings by the mysterious and ineffable Keepers. I'd like to imagine that there would be a fair amount of seepage from the Shadowdark into the Undercity, making it even more dangerous and strange than Gloomwrought above.
I'm also quite a fan of the "Rooftop Chase," which I can imagine could be run very tense and frightening, not unlike the hotel escape scene early on in the Xbox game "Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth." There are also very neat enemies in the Encounter book such as the Hearth Golem and the Oblivion Wraith. Unlike a lot of the prefab encounters published in various WotC materials, these encounters give life to certain areas of the realm, above and below, and are useful, even if one doesn't plan on running them as they are written, to give those areas described in the Campaign Guide more flavor.
Lastly, the largest book is the Campaign Guide, which is also the best part about this whole set. If I'd have bought this second hand and not had any of the other material except for the Campaign Guide, I would still feel like I'd have gotten my hands on a top quality product. Also for the most part the art in this book is exceptional. Oftentimes I don't have a lot of high hopes about art in an RPG product, but here with very few exceptions (13, 36, 93, 101, 106) I am genuinely impressed. The last book I bought that had this level of artwork overall was the Cthulhutech core book, which I still think is a really great example of a small company being able to pull of top quality work.
Chapter one gives us a rough overview of the Shadowfell at large, a much-needed expansion from the depressingly small amount of information contained in the Manual of the Planes, as well as explains some of the game mechanics introduced by this set (including the Despair Deck).
Chapter Two is dedicated to Gloomwrought and is formatted just like any other location guide (such as Hammerfast, Vor Rukoth, etc.) where it gives you a map of the city, divides the city into districts, and then gives you notable locations within those districts, as well as "hooks" to help the DM come up with ideas of what sort of game ideas can come out of each of these locations. And, unlike Vor Rukoth (another of my favorite D&D products), gives a lot more detail than is usual with location guides and really helps to set the flavor of the whole city. After finishing the chapter, Gloomwrought feels like a real, living place. Of course there are some aspects that require a bit of suspension of disbelief (like the Dust Quarter, to me, seems just a little bit hokey, but given the right treatment could be done well), but overall the sort of strange and alien mood the city as a whole receives is right in tone with what a location like this should have. There are also descriptions of "factions" at work in the city, that the DM could throw in to add a bit more "local flavor."
Chapter 3 moves out to the wider world of the Shadowfell, including what I think are really neat locations like the Oblivion Bog, the Dead Man's Cross (what a way to enter the Shadowfell), the Darkreach Mountains and, to me the coolest, Letherna. Letherna seems to be a sort of "pocket dimension" not unlike Ravenloft that is the personal domain of the Raven Queen, where high enough leveled adventurers could even potentially have an audience with her. A conversation with a god? Yes, please. This is so cool I can't even really describe it well. My only complaint is Vorkhesis, but that's probably just because I don't think he's cool enough and I'm jealous.
The last chapter, Chapter 4, introduces more more factions and mostly just serves as a new enemy list (gotta provide stats for all those tokens somewhere, right?). The list is mercifully diverse: you've got domestic terrorists (the Ghost Talon), murderous zealots (the Ebony Guard), Golems (man do I love golems), and, finally, the Keepers. The chapter is rounded out with some stat blocks for some heavy hitters in the city; nobles, the ruling prince, and their ilk.
Some final observations. Gloomwrought, as a whole, seems to be overwhelmingly influenced in its tone by the film Dark City, which is not at all a bad movie and if you haven't seen it, especially if you want to run a Gloomwrought adventure, check it out. The Keepers of Gloomwrought seem very influenced in appearance and function by the Strangers, and the city rearranges itself at the will of the Keepers, again just like the Strangers from Dark City. However, this is not any sort of complaint about riffing on other content, as I think that the influence serves its purpose well here. The fact that they are called "Keepers," and nobody knows what their true function really is (but it is also a crime to bother or attack them) was also reminiscent of the Keepers aboard the Citadel in Mass Effect, who also turned out to have a sinister purpose. These are very neat concepts which I think would make it very easy to write a compelling overarching story for a Shadowfell-based campaign to exist within, and the set as a whole seems to do the realm of the dead great justice. I am very pleased with this product, and easily ranks up there among my "top 4th ed products ever" list.
Although I must add that, like so many of WotC's other books, the binding is atrocious and the book is already showing signs of strain after having being opened and laid flat only about 10 times, in total. Be gentle with this one, friends, as it may suffer an untimely decay like so much else in the Shadowed Realm.