Book Review: Courts of the Shadow Fey by Wolfgang Baur (Open Design)

Atmosphere is important in gaming. Those little hints, whether physical, verbal, or even musical can set the stage for a good gamemaster like nothing else in the world. But with only a few exceptions, it’s rare to find a book for a roleplaying game, whether a rulebook, setting, or supplement, that does the same thing.

Wolfgang Baur and the design crew from Open Design have done it again with Courts of the Shadow Fey. Billed as “A 4th Edition Adventure for Levels 12 to 15,” I think it should be used as a template for any book seeking to describe not just a setting but a campaign leading a party of powerful adventures into realms unknown. From the beautiful cover from Stephanie Law and the poetic quote from Lord Byron’s “So We’ll go No More A-Roving” on the first page inside, I was in the mood for some fey magic… And as with all trips into faerie realms, I did not come back the same as I entered.

Without a doubt, there’s always been something magical about the world of faerie. Baur and his kobold helpers managed to take the light and dark of the faerie courts and twist them to make a different statement. This is the Realm of Shadows, a place of halfways and no absolutes. The two courts of Winter and Summer make nobles in the mortal realms seem pale in comparison, seeking stability in their immortality in an unstable place. When you add in the fickle nature of mortals’ brief time upon the stage, there is much there to enrage the immortal courts… The Moonlit King of the Winter Court does not take kindly to agreements broken in some petty revolt for rule of the Free City of Zobeck. When the fey come to claim what the King believes is theirs, things start to go off the rails.

Of course, the party gets drawn right into the middle of it as the battle begins between the fey and the mortal realms…

The campaign is divided into four acts – each designed subtly to offer equal chances for diplomacy and combat, allowing the players themselves a chance to do what’s right or instead do something more self-serving. As Baur puts it in his sidebar “Elitism as Villainy,” nothing peeves off a group of high-level heroes more than being told they’re not good enough. But drawn into the maelstrom of court intrigue and the insanity of immortals, there are few easy choices and being riled up will only get them into deeper trouble.

It begins with an assassination attempt on the cusp of winter… and it’s up to the players to decide if they rush where others fear to tread or charge in to save a priest in trouble. As paragons, surely they’re up to the challenge, right? Each encounter in the book is described in detail, with suggested encounter levels based on the party strength, features of the area in which the combat will occur, maps, and easy-to-read stats for the critters and NPCs involved.

One scene leads to the next and there is plenty of crunch to keep PCs occupied as the fey plot behind the scenes. The hints and tips keep things moving whether the players are aware of what’s going on or not. As a player, I hate not seeing the big picture until it’s too late. But as a GM, that’s part of the challenge – keeping the world moving while you duck and weave, letting the players win or lose a battle as the war continues.

Study for The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by...

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What blew me away, like in Tales of the Old Margreve, is the depth of knowledge the GM is given. Not only do you have notes on the court intrigue, but you have notes on all the dark corners… And once you leave Zobeck to travel to the Shadow Realms, things get even more cloudy for the PCs. Nothing is quite black or white in the realms of the fey, but the PCs will wish things were more clearly defined the further they delve. [Insert evil laughter here.]

But back to my initial statement about atmosphere. Somehow, every page looks like a medieval monk detailed it with fading ink, as painted vines and leaves like creeping ivy skirt along each shadowy border. The artwork is used sparingly, but to good effect breaking up the detailed content of every scene.

I have only two complaints with this book. The first is the black text against the gray background of each page, especially with italics, made it difficult for my old eyes to read for long on screen. The black text and beige page backgrounds of Tales of the Old Margreve popped a bit more easily off the page for me than this book for some reason. The second is that some of the artwork blends better with the background than others, such as the crisp plate armor on page 42 vs. the black and white line drawing on page 62 which looks like a bad photocopy to me.

Those are quibbles however in the face of the content itself which has depth galore. Any GM worth his salt with an experienced gaming group and high-level characters should have a ton of fun figuring out what’s going on.

If you are looking for more than an adventure, but a whole world to explore, I definitely recommend you check out Courts of the Shadow Fey. Any time the faerie realm intersects with mere mortals, you be sure there will be interesting times. More great work by Wolfgang and the rest of the folks at Open Design!

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