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Player's Option: Heroes of Shadow (4e)


The Shadowfell is a cold, grim place through which the spirits of the dead must pass on their way to... wherever. Dark, evil things live there, suffused with the power of shadow. Some mortals in the natural world learn how to tap into this source. Assassins. Necromancers. Hexblades. By all accounts, a ruthless lot. However, not all beings that draw strength from the Shadowfell are vile, blackhearted fiends. A few even dare to call themselves heroes, using the power of darkness to fight darkness. Are they evil? No. Deeply disturbed and hounded by their own dark demons? You bet.

Player's Options Heroes of Shadow focusses on characters that fight evil in ways that make others cringe. In addition to exploring the nature of the shadow power source, this book presents races, classes, feats, powers, and other options aimed at players hungry to play the archetypical antihero with a dark edge.

Product History

Heroes of Shadow (2011), by Mike Mearls with Eytan Bernstein, Claudio Pozas, Robert J. Schwalb, Matt Sernett, Chris Sims, and Rodney Thompson was the first Player's Option for D&D 4e. It was released in April 2011.

The Beginning of the End for 4e. Heroes of Shadow was initially announced in June 2010. At the time, it was listed as a 320-page digest-sized book, following the format of Essentials line (September-December 2010). It was also intended to link to the Essentials line. Wizards' Spring 2011 preview catalog said: "Player’s Option books are aimed at players who are ready to move beyond the Player Essentials books, Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms." Even early on, however, Wizards sent confusing messages over what the book was supposed to be: at the D&D Product Preview Seminar at Gen Con Indy 2010, Bill Slavicsek said that Heroes of Shadow was actually intended for "core" players, not Essentials fans. Much as with the release of Essentials itself, players would have to wait and see what Heroes of Shadows really was.

Meanwhile, other books from Wizards' 2011 schedule were disappearing. Two books, "Gazetteer: The Nentir Vale" and "Player's Handbook: Champions of the Heroic Tier", quietly disappeared in late 2010 with no announcement. Then on January 12, 2011, Bill Slavicsek announced more wide-spread damage. Three additional books had been cut from the schedule: February's "Class Compendium: Heroes of Sword and Spell", April's "Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium", and Summer's "Hero Builder’s Handbook". Slavicsek also revealed that Heroes of Shadow had been changed from a digest to a hardcover book, and pushed to April to accommodate that.

As a result of all this chaos, four months from December 2010 to March 2011 went by with no D&D fantasy roleplaying releases other than accessories like dungeon tiles, collectible Fortune Cards, and a new DM's screen. Heroes of Shadow finally appeared some five months after the last roleplaying books in the Essentials line. Though 2007-2008 had seen a similar hiatus in RPG production, this was the largest gap in D&D production during the middle of an edition's run since TSR's shutdown of 1997. Unfortunately, it was a sign of things to come. Wizards would only produce 8 roleplaying books for sale over the course of the entire year.

A Different Sort of Splatbook. The name Heroes of Shadow calls back to the two Players Essentials books that Wizards had released the previous year: Heroes of the Fallen Lands (2010) and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms (2010). However, those were general rulebooks, while Heroes of Shadow is something else: a splatbook. It focuses on the shadows — covering shadow magic, shadow classes, shadow races, shadow paragon paths, and shadow epic destinies. Obviously, this made it somewhat similarly to 4e's Power (2008-2010) books of even the later Player's Handbooks (2009-2010), which each introduced a new power source for D&D 4e. Despite the thematic similarity, Heroes of Shadow has a broader scope, going beyond class builds and new races to offer more details on shadow-y stuff.

Heroes of Shadow also differs from its 4e predecessors by dropping the phrase "power source" from its vocabulary. Though there's plenty of talk of the "power of shadow" or the "power of darkness", it no longer seems to be such a rigid, rules-specific thing. Wizards would move even further from its original concept of power sources in the two Player's Options books that followed: Heroes of the Feywild (2011) and Heroes of the Elemental Chaos (2012).

The Essentials Facts. The most vitriolic argument preceding the release of Heroes of Shadows was whether it was an Essentials book or not. Older 4e fans hoped for a return to the "core", while newer fans didn't want to see Essentials abandoned after just 10 releases. This question touched all of Wizards' 2011 D&D releases, but it was especially important to Heroes of Shadow, which was the first post-Essentials D&D release and which had been the topic of very mixed messages.

Even after Heroes of Shadows' release, reviewers couldn't decide the answer to the question, which shows how muddled its marketing message was. The book itself is clear in saying that it's for players who joined the game through the Essentials rulebooks like the Rules Compendium (2010) or the two earlier Heroes books. Heroes of Shadows' classes are also built like the Essentials characters. However, the new races and the rules for incorporating shadow magic into other classes were all be usable by any 4e player. Finally, Heroes of Shadow doesn't carry an Essentials logo, for what that was worth.

The Forgotten Heroes. Heroes of Shadow introduces a few classes who had been somewhat missing from D&D 4e.

The assassin went MIA starting in AD&D second edition (1989-2000), when it was sacrificed on the altar of angry mothers. It had returned in AD&D 3e (2000) as a prestige class, but wasn't in the core for 4e, appearing only in Dragon #379 (September 2009). Heroes of Shadow presented a new Essentials-style Executioner build that also made a 4e assassin widely available for the first time.

The blackguard is an alternate paladin that's sort of evil. The idea of an anti-paladin dates back to an article called "Good Got You Down? Try This for Evil" in Dragon #39 (July 1980). An even more expansive article called "A Plethora of Paladins" appeared in Dragon# 106 (February 1986) and offered paladin variants for all 9 alignments. However, anti-paladins had never before gotten official notice, and PHBR12: The Complete Paladin's Handbook (1994) even said "we discourage the use of anti-paladins". Now, Heroes of Shadow finally offered an official option.

Early marketing material for Heroes of Shadow also promised rules for hexblades and necromancers. Hexblades appear as a warlock variant, while necromancers appear through a new necromancy school of magic — though it wasn't what was expected by fans who imagined wizards with armies of undead).

Bring On the Monsters. The most controversial element of Heroes of Shadow was probably the introduction of the vampire as a new class. The designers made this unusual choice because it allowed them to "create a character that both captures the aspects of the iconic vampire, and feels like a vampire every round". It also permitted players to mix various races with the vampire class.

There was also a strong history of vampire classes in the D&D game, dating back to Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign. There David Fant ran a vampire named Sir Fang as one of the evil PCs of the campaign. As he turned followers, the vampires became a plague on the face of Blackmoor, requiring Arneson to introduce the first cleric to the campaign, Mike Carr's Bishop Carr.

More officially, undead character classes for D&D appeared in Ravenloft's Requiem: The Grim Harvest (1996). There was even a vampire class.

The Resurrected Races. Three races appear in Heroes of Shadow. None of them were particularly notable in the annals of D&D, but each had a bit of historical depth. The revenant had previously appeared in Dragon #376 (June 2009). The shade was a popular D&D monster that dated back to Monster Manual II (1983). The vryloka was a breed of living vampires based on some of the same ideas as the vrykolaka from "Hearts of Darkness" in Dragon #126 (October 1990).

Expanding the World Axis. For all of its focus on shadow, Heroes of Shadow just barely touches on the Shadowfell. For that, players would need to instead consult The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond (2011) the next month.

Future History. Wizards focused on shadow throughout early 2011. Besides Heroes of Shadow and The Shadowfell, they also dedicated season 5 of their Encounters program to the topic, with the adventure "Dark Legacy of Evard" (2011), by Richard Baker.

About the Creators. This was the last major 4e project for lead designer Mike Mearls. Afterward he'd work on the D&D 4e board games starting with Castle Ravenloft (2010) and then would take lead on D&D 5e.

About the Product Historian

The history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons - a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to

We (Wizards) recognize that some of the legacy content available on this website does not reflect the values of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise today. Some older content may reflect ethnic, racial, and gender prejudice that were commonplace in American society at that time. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. This content is presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. Dungeons & Dragons teaches that diversity is a strength, and we strive to make our D&D products as welcoming and inclusive as possible. This part of our work will never end.

 Customers Who Bought this Title also Purchased
Reviews (1)
Discussions (3)
Customer avatar
Dani J May 01, 2015 4:21 pm UTC
I really think.. they should fix specifics in gsl, so that gamers could have hope to bring the life back to 4e..
Customer avatar
Charles S April 29, 2015 1:40 am UTC
Uh, I don't know how anyone could have missed this, but I'll mention it anyways: the blackguard was in 3.5e. It was also in 3e. In both editions, it was in an obscure supplement called the Dungeon Masters Guide as a prestige class.
Customer avatar
Søren W April 29, 2015 1:22 am UTC
I own a Hardback copy of this book.
It makes for an interesting look into the grimmer side of the D&D-universe and talks about things most other material I've read through doesn't.

The rules it adds however, feel little Videogamey, putting a lot of effort into flare, despite the details in question not necessarily "ask" for such flare.
However, if one wants a Larger-then-Life Character, then it certainly does the job.
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