It's a shame that some of the best work in 4th edition came in its last year of life. The three books titled Players Option: Heroes of something something are good examples of taking the framework established in the Player's Handbook series and bending them to accommodate more diverse concepts and options. I didn't deal with them much in the previous campaign but some of their material has begun to show up in my current game and I thought I would take a look at each one.
The Shadow book came out in April of 2011 and focuses on the darker side of the character spectrum:
- Class-wise we get the Executioner Assassin which looks a lot like an AD&D assassin - death attack, lots of poison usage and general sneakiness. This one is classed as a Martial and Shadow Striker, demonstrating some diversity in powers.
- Blackguard Paladin is present to cover all of those players who just can't play the good guy but want all the nifty powers - call it a fallen paladin, an anti-paladin, whichever - it's the "evil" paladin option. This one is a Divine Striker, though most of its powers include the Shadow keyword. It follows the Essentials paladin format of choosing (in this case) between two "vices" to guide power selection.
- Then we get the interesting (and somewhat controversial in 4E circles) class of Vampire, a Shadow Striker. This one is somewhat controversial because each level of the class has typically a single power choice at each level. There are some options when it comes to utility powers. This is pretty restrictive when compared to things like a wizard or a fighter but it does mean that the class stays very true to the concept. The only real downside is if your party had two players wanting to play the class - there will be a lot of overlap. That said, this is really just a more severe case of an existing problem as it could happen with any class. There are two "Bloodline" options at paragon and you can pick pretty much any Epic destiny so as the game advances this should be less of an issue.
- We also get the Binder Warlock, which is an Arcane Controller as opposed to the Striker role of the original Warlock, and it has a lot of movement (push/pull/slow) and zone effects in its powers. With two Pact options, the fluff & the mechanic that makes a Warlock a Warlock, there is some power diversity here but not a ton as there is really only one power choice per pact per level, so two Star Pact Binder Warlocks in the same party are going to have a ton of overlap. There are also some new powers for standard Warlocks and a new pact for Essentials Hexblades.
- There is a new domain for the Essentials Cleric, the Death Domain, and some new powers for standard clerics, all shadow/evil/darkside focused
- There are new wizard powers and two new schools for the Essentials Mage - Necromancy and Nethermancy.
The main complaint with some of these class options is the lack of choices at each level when it comes to powers. As I mentioned with the the vampire I think this kind of thing is overstated as I have only rarely seen two characters of the same class in one campaign, let alone the same build/pact/school/style, and even in that odd case you have race, theme, background, paragon path, and epic destiny to diversify. Compare this with AD&D fighters where they were pretty much the same other than weapon usage, which was largely determined by what magic items they had found in their adventuring careers - it's an order of magnitude of difference.
New races include:
- Revenant - basically it's the Crow: dead character comes back to life for some purpose, typically revenge. It's not my cup of tea but if you look at it like the Harrowed in Deadlands then it becomes more interesting. It's something that could happen to a character during a campaign, which also makes it more interesting than dwarf-sub-type-sixteen.
- Shade - this is fine for the Realms where Shades are a big player but I'm not sure it's super-useful anywhere else. You're a humanoid creature of shadow and have some abilities related to that. Again, not my thing but it could appeal to the die-hard sneaky type player.
- Vryloka - not a great name IMO but this is Vampire-as-race, as opposed to the Vampire-as-class option above. The fluff is basically humans descended from vampire-like ancestors but the mechanics fit a flat-out vampirish character too. They're flavorful and could fit in to any campaign if the DM is allowing that kind of thing.
Beyond this there are 10 Paragon Paths and 4 Epic Destinies plus some shadow-themed feats. There is also a lot of background material on how different races and classes might be drawn to the power of shadow and lots of ways to give PC's a hook into the themes of the book - darkness, death, undeath, and walking the line between good and evil.
This is also a book where the attempts to bring back some of the old school D&D flavor , which showed up in the Essentials players' books, flares right up too - Anti-Paladins and Assassins chief among them. However this does not constrain the book by any means, with Vampires and Revenants broadening the definition of what a character can be.
Some perspective: When this book was released there was a fair amount of controversy, so I went back and read some reviews from that time. Some stuff was too powerful! Some stuff was too weak! Sometimes it was the same stuff! It was an Essentials book in disguise (4.5!) - remember when that mattered? What a difference a year can make.
Specific experience - Lady Blacksteel has been playing a Vampire in my current campaign and she has thoroughly enjoyed it. She likes the image and the concept and she likes the powers. She's not into the mechanics of the game as much as some so it's not like she's going to go research optimized builds online - this means the lack of power options doesn't bother her. She played a wizard in the previous campaign and at times the number of options available was a little overwhelming to the less fanatical player so this is actually a feature and not a bug to her. Don't get me wrong, she likes to play and likes to do well in the game, but she's not all that interested in all the out-of-game overhead like leveling up and tracking food and that kind of thing. To her the game is all about what's happening right now and not really about what paragon path she could take in six months, and the Vampire is interesting enough in play to work well for her. The original design notes can be viewed here - reading them after writing this just confirms what I had been thinking.