One of my favorite developments in Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition was formalizing concepts from other editions and settings into the Shadowfell and the Feywild. The concept of these “funhouse mirror” versions of the prime material plane added several adventuring options. The Shadowfell made for a more interesting transitive plane between the living and the undead than the much more difficult-to-navigate Negative Energy plane.
The Shadowfell remains part of the D&D 5e cosmology, but most of the emphasis has been placed on the Domains of Dread, spending most of the word count on the plane to describe what was once the pocket dimension of Ravenloft. While Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft details some imaginative locations to adventure, the paradigm of Darklords and the Mists that act as their prisons moves the narrative away from some of the storytelling elements that dominated the 4e version of the plane, such as the cities of Evernight and Gloomwrought.
That brings us to today’s review. The Book of Ebon Tides is a campaign setting book from Kobold Press, detailing the Plane of Shadows as it exists for the Midgard Campaign setting, but is also portable to other settings.
I participated in the crowdfunding for the Book of Ebon Tides, and I did not receive a review copy. I have not had the opportunity to use the setting although my players have used some of the options from this book in my home campaign.
The Book of Ebon Tides
Design Wolfgang Baur, Celeste Conowitch
Additional Design Richard Green, Sarah Madsen, Kelly Pawlik, Brian Suskind
Development And Editing Scott Gable Proofreading Jeff Quick
Cover Artist Marcel Mercado
Interior Artists George Johnstone, Mike Pape, David Auden Nash, William O’brien, Roberto Pitturru, Addison Rankin, Kiki Moch Rizki, Florian Stitz, Bryan Syme, Egil Thompson, Alexander Yakovlev
Cartography Jon Pintar, Samantha Senn, Dean Spencer
Graphic Design Marc Radle Layout Marc Radle
Additional Layout Amber Seger
Art Director Marc Radle
Editorial Director Thomas M. Reid
Director Of Operations T. Alexander Stangroom
Sales Manager Kym Weiler
Community Manager Victoria Rogers
Publisher Wolfgang Baur
Layout and Format
This review is based both on the PDF and physical copy of the product. The book is 256 pages long, including the following:
- Credits and Product Identity (2 pages)
- Table of Contents (2 pages)
- Two-page map of the lands detailed in the book (2 pages)
- Monsters by Challenge Rating native to the setting (14 pages)
- Shadowfell Battlemaps (6 pages)
Like most Kobold Press books, there is a border that consists of artwork from the book repeated on the pages. Purple, gold, and tan are the predominant colors in this work. All the artwork is full color, and while the theme is the Plane of Shadows, the book remains colorful, balancing warm lighting against the shadows created by that lighting. The book has a two-column layout, containing sidebars with excerpts from the titular Book of Ebon Tides. There are also numerous tables and stat blocks in the traditional 5e SRD style.
The book itself feels nice and solid, with glossy pages. It’s worth noting that the maps of the lands detailed in the book and the battle maps are not pull-out sections of the book but printed on regular pages. The book itself looks wonderful, but I’m an easy mark for lots of purple.
The book is divided into the following sections:
- Overview and History
- Umbral People and Heroes
- Heroes From the Shadows
- Magic in the Shadow Realm
- The Nature of Shadow
- Fey Courts and Servitors
- Realms Beyond the Courts
- Umbral Pantheon
- Monsters and NPCs
- Magic Items and Trickery
- Life in the Shadow Realm
- Shadow Realm Encounters
- Shadow Realm Creatures by Terrain
There are about 15 pages of setting information, which then launches into player options, before transitioning into more detailed setting information. This moves into details on the gods worshipped in the Plane of Shadow, monster and NPC stat blocks, and a miscellany of setting details that can be used in campaigns in the Plane of Shadows, such as magical effects and random encounters.
Like the Shadowfell in D&D’s official cosmology, the Plane of Shadows is, in part, a shadow of the Prime Material Plane. But unlike the Shadowfell, where we have some geography that is more specifically mirrored in some sources (for example, Evernight in the Shadowfell is the direct analog of Neverwinter in the Forgotten Realms), the Plane of Shadows is more nebulous in this regard. If you cross over, there is likely a city near where a city would be located on the material plane, but it’s less likely a direct mirror of the geography of the city back home.
Locations that aren’t anchored in the Plane of Shadows start to drift around the plane, on the Ebon Tides. The locations detailed in the book primarily focus on those areas where the inhabitants have taken pains to make regions more stable. In addition to locking down the locations of cities and fortresses, establishing roads is important to the inhabitants as well.
Because of the importance of these roads, and the danger of the wilder regions of the Plane of Shadows, the paths are protected by various Road Wardens. Because of the sympathetic structure of the Plane of Shadows to the material plane, those on the material plane that can access the Shadow Roads can travel across distances much more quickly by traversing most of the distance in the shifting Plane of Shadow.
As presented, the Plane of Shadow in this book is less dark and grey gloom and more of a colorful balance between subdued light and shadows. The darkest and gloomiest parts of the plane still exist, but it’s the lurking periphery, waiting to catch those that wander away from the cities or stray off the Shadow Roads. Non-native creatures risk Shadow Corruption when they spend time on the plane. This is tracked much like exhaustion, with each level bringing a new hindrance. For example, you start with disadvantage on all social interactions with people not native to the plane, progress through penalties when you are in bright light, and settle on taking radiant damage in sunlight and becoming a shadow thrall who doesn’t want to leave the plane.
I like that the Shadow Corruption rules are more targeted than exhaustion, and leave the player character in better shape than exhaustion does. The penalties reinforce the theme of Shadow Corruption, although the shadow thrall stage feels a little messy, as it causes some rolls to fail automatically and gives the PC the charmed condition against certain creatures above a certain intelligence threshold. This could have been streamlined to assess disadvantage on a wider range of checks.
Unlike the Domains of Dread, the Plane of Shadows has a very “Unseelie Court” feel to it. Many of the courts detailed in the book are the domains of various powerful fey, including many of the Archfey introduced in Kobold Press’ monster books. These include courts of Archfey like Reynard the Fox Lord, the Mistress of Midnight Teeth, the Queen of Night and Magic, the Witch Queen, and the Moonlit King. These domains not only have their own quirky NPCs in various positions of power, but most of them also have their own laws and rules that reflect the personalities of their rulers.
The archfey aren’t the only rulers that have their own domains. The Shadow Goblins have their own trade city, and the Bearfolk have their groves, which they founded long ago, to keep the prime material plane safe from incursions from the Plane of Shadows. Oshragora is a city of vampires that has not been anchored against the Ebon Tides, and parts of the city manifest on the edges of other domains from time to time. The Shadow Fey are elves who have been infused with the essence of the plane by their dealings with The Queen of Night and Magic, and the Sable Elves are remnants of a fallen society of elven glory. The Twilight Empire is the shadow analog of the Empire of the Ghouls, a region ruled by the darakhul, who supplement their diet of humanoids with flesh-bearing trees imported from Evermaw, the afterlife of the undead.
Not unlike the Shadowfell, the Plane of Shadows is a plane of transit for the souls of the dead. In this setting, it is manifested by the presence of the River Styx and the River Lethe running through the plane. Some creatures make a living by either fishing for souls, or extracting lost memories from the rivers’ waters, as memories are a hot commodity for the Shadow Fey, who suffer from muted emotions due to the changes the plane has wrought on them.
Gods of Shadow
While many of the gods detailed in this source have already appeared in other Midgard setting books, almost all of them have more information provided about them, in context to how they relate to the Plane of Shadows. Hecate’s exploits in the Midgard setting are expanded, as many consider her the creator of the Plane of Shadows. Her worship is widespread in a variety of domains.
The Black Goat of the Woods, an entity borrowed from the Lovecraft Mythos, is given some Midgard-specific backstory elements. This blurs the line on whether this is the same entity, or a deity native to Midgard that was corrupted by the influence of something beyond the Void.
One of the things I have consistently appreciated about how gods are presented in Kobold Press’ books is that the entries include a “What X Demands” section. This explains what members of the faithful consider important. As someone that doesn’t need to be talked into playing a cleric, I love anything that is going to help me get into character, and I honestly wish more cleric-facing material was this clear. It might convince a few more people that it’s actually fun to take on the cleric role from time to time.
Player Facing Material and Rules
There are many new player-facing options in this book. These include new races and subraces, subclasses, backgrounds, feats, and spells. The new ancestry options include:
- Shadowborn (Bearfolk born in the Plane of Shadow)
- Bearfolk Heritage (Bearfolk that succumbed to ghoul fever)
- Shadow Goblin Heritage (Shadow Goblins that succumbed to ghoul fever)
- Shadow Fey (Elves bound to the Plane of Shadows)
- Lunar Elf (Shadow Fey born with a connection to the moon)
- Sable Elf (Fallen elves that have retreated to the Plane of Shadows)
- Shadow Goblin (Goblins that are partially camouflaged in shadow and can taunt)
- Umbral Human
- Changeling (Human children kidnapped and raised in the Plane of Shadows)
- The Gifted (Humans “gifted” with abilities from Shadow Fey)
- Quickstep (Basically Quicklings)
- Clever Tusk (Tiny squirrel folk)
- Tree Protector (Small squirrel folk)
- Spiritfarer Erina (Erina brought to the Plane of Shadow to serve the Shadow Fey)
- Stygian Shade (Shades that have lost even more of their past lives)
- Sublime Ravenfolk (Ravenfolk drawn to a psychic song of the cosmos)
- Unbound Satarre (Satarre that travel the planes and can sense portals)
- Wyrd Gnome (Gnomes born with a natural ability for Divination)
While some of these ancestries were already presented with subraces in other sources, some exist as completely new implementations, because the core ancestry from which they diverged wasn’t designed with a subrace. The entries all include assigned ability score bonuses tied to race, but there is a sidebar mentioning that players should work with their GM to rearrange bonuses to better suit their character concept.
Some of these ancestries carry with them some quirks that I’ve never fully warmed up to, when used in previous Midgard products. For example, Darakhul have appeared several times, and the list of species traits that need to be added to them to model ghouls of different species is unwieldy, and some species definitely pair more advantageously with the base traits of the Darakhul.
I really want to like Ratatosks, but there are a few messy elements entwined in the implementation. The core ancestry gets a -2 to strength, and even before 5e SRD design started to move away from assigned ability scores, errata eliminated the only racial traits that required an ability penalty years ago. While I can empathize with wanting a wider range of sizes for PCs than just small and medium, most of 5e design is predicated on supporting this paradigm. The tiny version of Ratatosk can only use light or finesse weapons, but the entry refers to being able to use weapons made for their size normally. But there aren’t any rules for tiny-sized weapons.
There are a lot of fun options that I think work better with the core rules of D&D 5e. I really love the idea of the Quickstep introducing a player character Quickling. They have a massive movement rate and can use their speed to go invisible for a number of rounds equal to their level, which I feel captures the main beats of Quicklings without adding in some other issues, like extra actions. Human Changelings just gain the ability to glamour their appearance, but I like the story elements introduced with playing an Unseelie changeling.
I enjoy Shadow Goblins as a sort of hybrid of typical goblin traits with some Kender elements. They do remind me that official D&D 5e products are moving away from some traits that I like that used to be in the toolbox for species. I know Sunlight Sensitivity can be a huge disadvantage to a character, but I also feel like making some kind of eye protection available for these characters preserves the story aspect without automatically making daylight surface adventuring a problem.
The subclasses introduced include the following:
- Shadow Gnawer
- College of Shadow
- Keeper Domain
- Shadow Domain
- Circle of Shadow
- Way of the Prophet
- Umbral Binder
- Light Weaver Origin
- Mother of Sorrows Patron
- Shadow Arcane Tradition
I am a firm believer that a subclass needs to enforce its theme with the first couple of features, and hopefully also tell a consistent story. Most of these subclasses do a pretty good job of living up to this, and there are some really fun subclass stories being told. For example, a College of Shadows Bard uses darkness to tell scary stories, which just happens to manifest in combat useful abilities. The Light Weaver Sorcerer plays with moving back and forth between being light-shifted or dark-shifted. The Umbral Binder Rogue tackles the subclass issue that Rogues are stuck with (their second ability doesn’t come until 9th level) by giving them three different shadow effects to choose from after they take a rest.
The Keeper Domain Cleric has a little bit of a “story” issue, not because its abilities don’t help and support others, but the Channel Divinity move feels a lot more like a Warlord/Battlemaster move, rather than an ability that supports a community. The Shadow Gnawer probably has the biggest core loop issues. The story of the subclass is that Shadow Gnawers ingest dangerous shadow-stuff to protect others. But the subclass, at lower levels, gets defensive abilities and teleporting abilities that don’t involve absorbing or combatting shadow threats. The actual ingesting shadow mechanics don’t show up until higher levels.
Many of these subclasses lean on granting a player darkvision, or extending darkvision if they already have it. While I appreciate that these features still do something for someone that already has the ability, it’s my experience that darkvision when you don’t have darkvision is a much bigger deal than having darkvision 60 turn into darkvision 120.
Magic, Magic Items, and Magical Effects
It may not be surprising to find out that the Plane of Shadows is heavily steeped in magic so much so that optional rules are modifying a host of spells that draw on light, dark, shadows, and illusions. In theory, I like modified magic in campaigns that reinforce a theme, but in practice, I know it’s really easy to forget some of these effects in the moment, at the table.
There are over fifty new spells introduced in the book. Many of these spells have categories attached to them. These subcategories have been used in other Kobold Press products to interact with some feats or abilities, as well as to denote what kind of instructors a character would need to seek out to learn them. These include more spells of the Illumination school, which have already been introduced in other Midgard products, as well as the fey, elemental, shadow, liminal, and weather subcategories.
Every spellcasting class in the 5e SRD gains new spells in this section, so on behalf of Rangers that have been shafted in many products that add new spells, thanks!
There are more than 80 new magic items included in this book. There are specific charts for generating magic items that include both 5e SRD items as well as Book of Ebon Tides items, for generating thematically appropriate treasure hoards. In addition to the categories of magic items we’re accustomed to in other products, this book introduces Illusion Seeds and Memory Philters.
Illusion Seeds conjure shadow-stuff to produce an effect that is effectively real but fades after a few hours as the shadow-stuff unravels. In the Plane of Shadows, however, Illusion Seeds don’t naturally fade the same way they do on the prime material plane. Memory Philters are technically used to experience certain types of captured memories, but they also provide various additional game effects. I like the concept of these, the idea that the effect that the player wants to trigger is a side effect of why the item was made. That is made a little more uncomfortable by the Philter of Lust. The only requirement for someone under the effects of the Philter is to “seek out a person whose affection you desire,” so it’s not as bad as it could be, but definitely in “tread carefully” territory.
Some of the included items are epic items tied to the history of the setting. These items include the actual Book of Ebon Tides, the Crown of Infinite Midnight, and Hecate’s Lantern. These are items that are less rewards for a player completing an adventure, and more an item that falls in the PC’s lap to tie them into a narrative.
In addition to more formalized rules elements like spells or magic items, there are magical phenomena native to the Plane, random fey items, and a list of tricks and pranks. These range from whimsically enchanted clothing, pets, foods, omens, mounts, and trinkets. Some of these probably could have been represented with common or uncommon magic items, but honestly, I like the whimsy for a lot of these effects, and I think not detailing how PCs can do these wondrous, weird, random things adds to their charm.
Inhabitants and Stat Blocks
There are about 25 or so stat blocks included in the book. While there are definitely some monstrous creatures, like the Birch Siren, Memory Thief, Molefolk, River Spirits, Rose Golems, and Wandering Ponds, there are also a lot of NPC stat blocks to represent people in the setting. I like NPC stat blocks, but I feel like it’s worth noting that these aren’t just “guard” or “wizard,” but often characters that have unique and quirky abilities.
Bearfolk Thunderstompers can imitate giant footsteps. Gnomish Distillers have multiple effects they can mix up in their backpack. There are members of different fey courts, like Oma Rattenfanger, a pixie who has bonded to the Shadow Plane, or the Radiant Lord, a fey so obsessed with the stars that he can burst into a radiant form. There are even Umbral Tailors that can stitch together souls when they detect psychic distress in a client.
Despite years and years of both oozes and mimics being in the game, I still love the Wandering Pond, an ooze that casts an illusion to make it look like a pleasant location, until someone gets too close. As a fan of giants, I like the River Giants that travel the Styx and the Lethe in their boats, using their nets to catch memories to sell, as well as the Styx Giants, River Giants that have encountered the waterways too often. I really enjoy the story elements surrounding Rose Golems. These constructs can put intruders to sleep so that their masters can take prisoners, and the golems themselves are considered artwork to show off at garden parties for the fey.
Radiant Energy The material in this book can present what feels like a dark reflection of the Domains of Delight in The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, and still just be just around the corner from a Domain of Dread from Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, or even down the shadowy path from locations we haven’t seen since D&D 4e like Evernight or Gloomwrought.
The setting material presents a creepy setting without making it too oppressive and instills some fey whimsy into the material with a bit of an edge. The lists of tricks and glamours, as well as the encounters, are all great elements to drop into an adventure. The hazards, portals, and details on the shadow roads are all solid mechanical support for the tone present in the book.
I understand the additional cost that comes from adding pull-out maps, but even the PDF download doesn’t include the battle maps that are included in the last few pages of the book. Some of the abilities of the subclasses presented are thematic, but also play with some very similar effects, like darkvision. Some of the species presented are ambitious in a way that the 5e SRD doesn’t support well.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
The great thing about an entire plane of existence is that it can theoretically be infinite. The material in this book can present what feels like a dark reflection of the Domains of Delight in The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, and still just be just around the corner from a Domain of Dread from Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, or even down the shadowy path from locations we haven’t seen since D&D 4e like Evernight or Gloomwrought. While much of this lore ties in well to the Midgard setting, it’s modular enough to lurk in the gloom just beyond everything else in the Shadowfell. I hope we see a campaign setting book for Silendora, the Midgard equivalent of the Feywild, so we can see what the more “Seelie” side of things looks like.
Do you have a favorite RPG product that details other planes of existence? Does it provide for short visits or long-term campaign play? We want to hear about your favorites in the comments below!