A while back (quite a while back actually) I was given a complimentary PDF copy of Courts of the Shadow Fey for review purposes. The concept was interesting and I was looking for an excuse to get my group to give 4th ed. D&D a valid try. My goal was to give the mini-campaign a decent play test. Sadly, before my group could get familiar enough with 4th ed. so that I could jump them into the higher level adventure, the group imploded under the weight of overburdened schedules and various life tragedies. I held out hope of getting enough 4e interested players to give the adventure a solid play, but it just never happened.
That means this is going to be partially a read through review, and that’s a real shame because the moment I laid eyes on this thing it was screaming inside my head to be run!
Courts of the Shadow Fey is a 4th edition D&D module/mini-campaign written primarily by Wolfgang Baur. It is part of the Open Design project. It ranks in at 101 pages and is currently available in PDF and softcover B&W from Drive Thru RPG. The campaign starts at 12th level and goes up to 15th, going through a decent part of paragon tier.
The basics of the plot are that the party gets involved with a dispute between two courts of fey (faery, wild things, mythical beings), the Winter Court and the Summer Court. They are in a dispute with the free city of Zobeck over a treaty. Feeling the city broke an ancient treaty, the Fey reclaim ownership of the city, introduing all sorts of odd and restrictive laws to control the people. The PCs are faced with the challenge of ending the faery rule there and returning normality to the realm.
Ok, those are the by the book basics, now let me tell you what the module is really about. First off, make no bones about it, this is a mini-campaign fully fleshed out and packed full of content. This is also not a straight dungeon run, kill and loot, or return with the McGuffin artifact to save the world. This is something much much more. Playing Courts of the Shadow Fey is like playing through Shakespeare’s take on the darkest of Grimm’s faery tales. It is a module full of political intrigue, unique setting elements, and excellent Game Master support. The one thing I was most curious about upon getting to book was how well a 4th edition campaign would take on the often nebulous and eccentric realm of faery. I wondered if a 4th edition game could really handle it well and stay true to 4th edition’s play style. Magically, it did just that. There is a lot of information and extra content to help portray the often madcap world of faery, but there was also a close attention to the mechanical detail and crunch. This is a book that players will find interesting in both their opportunities for characterization and roleplaying as well as challenging and fun mechanically. That means that there is a lot of content in the book, which can be a bit daunting. Thankfully, the book’s excellent organization makes it easy to use at the table. Ok, enough with the basic overview, let’s get down into the nitty gritty.
One of the things that struck me most upon opening up the PDF of Courts of the Shadow Fey was the language. Baur shows a definite familiarity and love for the source material. The sections of the book dealing with non-mechanical elements are full of evocative and poetic language that draws you into a thought pattern perfect for portraying the wild and capricious nature of the fey.
Baur knows when to pull back though. While much of the descriptive and flavor text language feels like it comes from Ariel or Puck, none of this gets in the way of the using the book to run the campaign. When it comes to the actual mechanics and descriptions of how NPCs and enemies act and are played, the writing is clear, simple, and easy to grasp.
The writing strikes a nice balance between poetic and useful, without tipping too far into either area. The content of the campaign also goes out of its way to help a Game Master evoke the feeling of the fey realms, even if they aren’t familiar with faery and myth stories in any way. Parallels to D&D specific elements are made and then described. Charts of atmospheric fey elements or court gossip are included throughout the work. Names the fit the loose constraints of faery naming styles or myth are given alongside of more mundane names.
Another great element of the writing were the design tips. Wolfgang includes many asides that explain why elements are portrayed in the way they are. Sometimes he explains why having this element up front is good for pacing or what kinds of things you can do to help players work through the various mysteries surrounding them. Sometimes they are just good general advice that any game master can use.
Playing the Campaign
I’ve mentioned it already, but it bears repeating. This is not a standard dungeon run or kill it and take it’s stuff game. There is plenty of combat and chance for adventure, but that isn’t how the players are going to primarily progress. In fact, there is a lot of stuff that goes on in what would traditionally be considered downtime. The players will be engaged in the campaign for MONTHS and MONTHS of in-world time while they investigate, interact with the courts, gain status, go on epic quests to curry favor or retrieve information, etc. During this down time, it might not be a bad idea to adopt a disjointed way of telling the story. Instead of trying to keep things chronological, allowing the players to enact plans, talk to people, and interact with NPCs without worrying too much about when they actually do it in the game’s calendar might not be a bad idea. I.e. “Sometime before we leave to hunt down that mythical beast for the Sixes and Orwin, I see if I can do some dueling to up my status. I’m going to try to bribe Whitemist with some of that fine wine we got.” Letting things occur in a very freeform way during the quieter times can allow the players to really engage the rich and vibrant world. Printing the elements of the book that act as a cheat sheet for names wouldn’t hurt either. There is a lot here, but that means there is a lot your players are going to want to dig into in a very individual sense. Right up front, Baur describes the campaign as a bucket architecture which is like multiple sandboxes with things going on all the time. Certain scenes are contingent on other scenes, but there are limitless ways to interact with the scenes.
Combat – It’s gonna kick your players’ asses
The adventure will take your players through the beginnings of Paragon tier, and by that point the PCs can be pretty powerful. That won’t be a problem though. The combats are made to kick ass and progress the story. The encounters are carefully crafted to fit the scenarios and give the players a fitting challenge. They are also very malleable. Each encounter is tweaked to fit parties at different levels, adding in enemies and describing different tactics. So if you find that the PCs aren’t breaking a sweat, then you can grab the encounter for a level or two above the PCs level right from the same page. I’m used to tweaking combats in D&D to provide a better challenge for my players, but the work here was already done for the Game Master. I was also pleased to find one thing that I do for 4th edition already included. Wolfgang has included rules and tweaks for quicker combats right inside the stat blocks. Within parentheses in each stat block, one can find stats for less HP and heavier damage. This might be something common to other Open Design projects or it might be a standard meme in 4th edition (I kept my group together for about 4 sessions and didn’t get much more play time than that) , but wherever it came from it was greatly appreciated.
Options – They’re everywhere
One of the things that needs to be noted (and praised) is the fact that there are multiple options for every scenario. When the PCs come across an encounter, the writing outlines how to handle it in case they take it in different ways. Not every encounter that was statted as a combat had to be completed that way. There were diplomatic options, trickery options, and much more. There were even combat options for more diplomatic encounters, in case your players take the smash first and talk later approach.
Fun And Interesting Mechanics
Being a campaign about the fey realms, I would have been disappointed if there weren’t a few things to turn the PCs on their heads (literally). There are a lot of fun and interesting fey themed feats, spells, and magic that can be brought into play. Things like side effects of using rituals, oddities of combat scenarios that only happen in a world that obeys the laws of magic and not physics, and a fun and interesting status system that gives character development an extra boost. These fun and interesting fey themed mechanics are consistent throughout the campaign. Depending on how the PCs play it, they could leave with a lot of new and unique elements to their characters, as well as a few incredible titles.
Ease Of Use – It’s pretty easy, despite looking complex
While reading through the book it can seem very daunting to think about running so involved and intricate a campaign. The book is chock full of charts, lists, and other tidbits to help you run a great game. There are gossip charts, lists of names of the fey NPCs in the courts, a random table or overheard comments, etc. The Game Master won’t have to reach very far to get something they can use. Aside from the multitude of lists, the information is presented in a way that prevents a lot of page flipping during the intense action and combat moments.
Following the theme or the rest of the product, the art and design is evocative and right on target with the fey theme. The book is full of evocative visual elements, whether they are maps, art, borders, or interesting typography. There is very little about this book visually that isn’t striking. There is not a moment where the design doesn’t draw you in.
The saddest thing about reviewing this adventure was that it started at 12th level and my group imploded before I could get them familiar enough with 4th edition to jump them up and start in on it. This is an incredible book. I’m not a big 4th edition fan, but my initial read through made me want to give the system a try just to get to this campaign. If you are at all a fan of works like Sandman, Jonathon Norell and Mr. Strange, Stardust, anything by Charles DeLint or Jim Butcher and ever wanted to get the feeling of those works in an adventure, then this is definitely up your alley. Despite getting a comp PDF copy of the book, I’m going to be picking up the adventure in dead tree form and work on adapting it to a system my group is already familiar with. The 4e content is great and will give your 4e group a well thought out and interesting place to spend a few levels. Be warned though, if your group is stereotypically combat heavy this will likely change their play style and open them up to a lot of new ideas about gaming.