Even taking into account that I’m a little rusted with D&D 4th Edition (a topic I intent to elaborate on another post), Courts of the Shadow Fey quickly picked my interest due to its theme. I find that few adventures really bring up fey creatures as portrayed in my favorite legends – dark, mischievous and totally heartless. Tales of the Old Margreve managed to hit right on the spot and Courts is another fine example.
Visually speaking, Courts of the Shadow Fey has a beautiful and poetic layout with its light purple background and vine/rose motif. The choice of Stephanie Law for the cover art was also perfect. The inner art is B&W but unfortunately fails most of the time to evoke the cover’s feeric mood.
The adventure’s story start with the change of seasons at the Shadow Fey Courts, when the new ruler discovers that those nonsensical humans of the Free-City of Zobeck have broken an old contract by overthrowing their tyrannical and fey-aligned nobles some 80 years ago. By the pact’s terms, the City should now belong “rightfully” to the Shadow Courts. Through the scenario’s development, the fey begin literally to take over Zobeck and cover the city with strange and deadly laws.
To my surprise, Courts of the Shadow Fey is not bound to a specific chain of events. The entire adventure is actually a group of encounter and sub-scenarios, in an almost sandbox style, especially at the story’s end. The first part of the adventure is the only obligatory (and it also is the only in need of a more firm hook for the players character, who are after all paragon-level, not wandering no-ones).
The strange effects that the shadow fey provoke over Zobeck are probably one of the scenario’s most interesting parts and sometimes it’s a shame that they’re dropped just as small inspirations for the DMs. A good portion of the combat encounters have enemies with equally disturbing effects, most dealing with shadows, illusions and duplications. The growing weirdness as the mortal and fey realms come together makes for a terrific scenario.
I can’t stress enough how I’m impressed by the author’s dedication to keep a strong feeric atmosphere through the entire adventure, not just in terms of rules but also on narrative advices – a good example being the reception that the player characters receive at the entrance of the Courts in the Shadow Realm. But speaking of rules, we have even a new mechanic to reflect the party’s status inside the byzantine nobility of the fey (and also some material to help the DM, like a handy selection of random tables to reflect the ever changing members of the Courts).
Another nice touch of Courts of the Shadow Fey is that it provides optional statistics for its foes, reducing slightly their hit points total, while increasing the damage. Through the story’s advance there is also a fair number of examples and suggestions on the use of skills and rituals, all without forcing skill challenges for every single non-combat encounter (a trait that in my opinion tend to disrupt roleplay and that is annoying in many 4E adventures). The authors also show a good combination between theme and encounter design, especially when the party reaches the otherworldly domains of the Shadow Courts.
Courts of the Shadow Fey is not a traditional 4th Edition adventure. This is a complex scenario that will challenge even veteran groups in ways they never imagined. In fact, I never expected to see such social and intrigue heavy adventure for a game famous for its tactical combat rules. The guys at Wizards of the Coast could learn a thing or two about adventure design with this dark beauty.