I was fortunate enough to get my hands on an early copy of Heroes of the Feywild. I was excited about this book ever since it was announced, but was cautious about getting my hopes up after the recent material that's been released over the last year or so. Essentials provided some innovative class design, but much of it was underpowered and many builds were "pre-chosen." Then came Heroes of Shadow which fortunately did not interest me much, because the material was largely pretty poor. The Vampire and Binder were jokes, the Death domain and Necromancy and Nethermancy schools left me feeling unenthusiastic even if they were mechanically not terrible, which leaves the Blackguard and Executioner as the only solid builds (neither of which were of interest to me). I could go on about the rest of the content for HoS, but I digress. Point being, I feared HotF would suffer similarly, in which case it wouldn't be worth picking up. But then previews and spoilers started trickling in, and my interest was piqued. My hope increased. A couple of days after the spoiler thread was started (which meant that premier stores got their advance copies in) I called up a FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Shop) to see if they had it. They did, and I soon got to see for myself how great this book was!
Welcome to the Feywild
The introductory chapter gives a brief overview of how a player character will view the Feywild (whether they're a native to that plane or an outsider) and outlines some of the major locations in the land of Faerie. A map is also provided, and I must say I love the aesthetic of it even if I don't necessarily use it in my campaigns. It reminds me of a cross between a Middle Earth and Narnia map, and takes me back to that sense of wonder and curiosity that I get when reading those stories. The art is top-notch (my only gripe is the portrayal of hamadryads), with small pictures of stone art, runes, leaves, toadstools, and impish little creatures scattered throughout. Very evocative overall. Finally, many of the sidebars in this book are short stories known as Bard's Tales. These are meant to provide inspiration, and have a very "fairy tale" feel to them. The color scheme and plant borders also serve to enhance the fairy story aesthetic as you read or reference this book, without being too over-the-top or cheesy.
Races of the Fey
I think a good balance was struck here. Whereas HoS provided races with penalties that were obviously inferior to most of the existing races (aside from the Revenant, which already existed in Dragon), this book's races are all on-par balance-wise, if not slightly above the curve (in the case of the Pixie). Hamadryads are a bit of a stretch as a playable race seeing as Dryads are typically bound to a specific home tree, but they justify it by defining the bond as not spatially restricting the Dryad (even though most Dryads don't stray too far from their tree). Oddly enough, this race is technically an intermediate stage of an autumn nymph on the path to becoming a dryad. Fair enough I guess. They're always female, have Forest Walk, get a bonus to the most debilitating status effects (daze, dominate, and stun), and have a variety of minor benefits wrapped into the Oaken Vitality trait (don't need to sleep, conditional endurance buffs). Their racial power is similar to the Wilden in that the Hamadryad gets to choose between 2 different aspects.
Pixies are the controversial race because they're Tiny and have a fly speed. I'll say right now that I don't think they should have been made a playable race. The altitude limit, while necessary for game balance, strains suspension of disbelief. It will certainly provide a unique play experience though, and I'm sure a lot of people will really enjoy playing them. My personal feelings aside, the designers did do a really good job of walking a fine line here; at first glance, Pixies appear to be a top-tier race that joins the ranks of Elves, Dwarves, Humans, and Half-Elves without outright surpassing them. Admirable, given that their mechanics are so "out there."
Finally, the Satyr. Arguably the most "traditional" race in the book (aside from being restricted to male only), it has relatively conservative features. Still, the racial power looks like it can synergize really well with certain powers (it tacks a slide and CA onto an attack that hits), giving an otherwise average race a unique mechanic.
Not surprisingly, this is the most exciting chapter in the book. Four new subclasses are presented, and not only are none of them failures (I think the last time this happened was PHB2, unless you count DSCS), but three of them look downright awesome!
Barbarian (Berserker): This is the first class that explicitly covers 2 roles. It starts out as a martial defender (with an aura/punishment mechanic that is competitive with the Knight's) until you enter your Berserker Fury, at which point you become a primal striker. You can trigger Fury by using any primal attack power, or by using a minor action while bloodied. Your defender aura goes bye-bye for the rest of the encounter, some of your powers gain additional benefits (damage), and your MBAs gain extra striker damage. Note that the MBA buff occupies the niche that Howling Strike, the PHB2 Barbarian's bread and butter at-will, does, so you need not be "taxed" into choosing it. Existing Rage powers notably stack with Fury, although some Berserkers will undoubtedly pick up some of the new defender-oriented daily powers. At each level there's typically one primal striker power and one martial defender power to choose from. The martial powers look more appealing to me at first glance, but given that primal powers can be freely chosen from PHB2 and PP I don't see this as much of an issue. The class will definitely present some interesting tactical options and I for one can't wait to try it out! Even though I'm normally not too fond of strikers, I can see this being one of my favorite classes.
Bard (Skald): This is meant to be a more martial style of Bard as opposed to the overtly magical PHB2 Bard, but the truth is nothing stops you from freely choosing powers from either source (or AP), giving you a wide spectrum to work with. O-Bards can even take a feat to replace Majestic Word with the Skald's Aura, allowing for multiple avenues for "hybridizing" the 2 subclasses. Speaking of the Skald's Aura, it's a new take on a leader's healing class feature. Instead of two (or later, three) uses of Majestic Word the Skald has an aura 5 that is always active. You or any ally in the aura can spend a minor action to heal, or they can allow an adjacent ally to heal. This is a subtle difference, but it means that a) whoever doesn't need their minor actions could do the healing, freeing up the Skald's minors, and b) healing need not be done on the Skald's turn. That last one has some pretty important tactical implications, and is certain to reduce the amount of lost turns from allies being KO'd. The Skald's at-wills all confer additional properties onto the aura as a minor action, which are triggered when the Skald hits with a MBA. Keep in mind that you're perfectly free to take O-Bard at-wills instead without gimping the build in the slightest (in fact, I think they're probably more powerful unless you're making a lot of OAs). The new dailies work similarly, giving the aura additional properties at the cost of a minor action. Encounter powers follow 3 basic patterns: 1) effects triggered when you hit with a basic attack, 2) minor action "enchantments" with a target of "1 weapon", and 3) immediate action effects triggered by various things (ally getting hit by an attack, enemy getting hit by attack, etc.). This opens up more nova capacity, as a Bard can fire off 2 minor action aura (or weapon) enhancements (including a dailies if desired), charge with a MBA, and then utilize an immediate action encounter power, all in round 1 of combat. Mixing and matching powers from O-Bards and Skalds will result in a lot of interesting builds, allowing for a wide spectrum of playstyles.
Druid (Protector): Druids have sorely needed more humanoid caster support for a while now, and this book delivers on that! Protectors get Nature's Growth, which is a minor action AoE encounter power that creates a zone of difficult terrain that lasts until the end of the encounter! Most controllers conspicuously lack a class feature that directly supports their role, but this is exactly that. The area scales by tier. The obvious applications of difficult terrain are preventing enemies from being able to shift and slowing enemies down (particularly useful if an enemy is slowed, dazed, or prone). Protectors also must choose a Druid Circle, which are the Circle of Renewal (Primal Guardian class feature plus allies in or adjacent to Nature's Growth heal more) and the Circle of Shelter (Primal Predator class feature, plus allies ignore the difficult terrain of Nature's Growth). They get a Primal Attunement feature which are very similar to cantrips, and finally they get Summon Natural Ally, which gives them fixed summoning daily powers that are based on their circle. As you level, you gain access to more powerful summons. Each time you use the power, you can pick any of the options in your "pool" of summons. The summons follow the pattern of other Druid summons, in that they cannot make OAs but they do get Instinctive Effects. The instinctive effects are pretty much standardized to "attack adjacent enemy if possible, or move adjacent to enemy," and there aren't any summons reminiscent of the Giant Toad that can instinctively attack from range (none that charge either). However, their attacks are more damaging than past summoning powers, each attack has some type of status effect tied to it (often mobility-denying), and some summons have encounter powers that are worth spending a standard action on if the summon can't attack instinctively. In other words, they're competitive. Protectors can also spend a feat to switch a use of SNA out for a standard daily attack power, and this feat also notably gives them Wild Shape (the only way to get both Wild Shape and Nature's Growth). Like the Berserker and Skald, mixing and matching previous powers is very easy. And speaking of the new powers, there's some good stuff, especially on the encounter power front. Some early Heroic encounter walls exist, and virtually all of the new encounter powers have effect lines (usually the damage is tied to a hit and the control happens in the effect, but sometimes a hit provides additional control as well). My personal favorite is Charm Beast, which is a level 7 encounter dominate that dazes on a miss, to boot.
Wizard (Witch): I'll say it right now that this subclass has me the least excited. While the Witch is certainly solid compared to other controller classes, it's slightly inferior (and blatantly so) to other Wizard builds, and given that Wizards can just freely poach the Witch powers anyways I find this to be bad design. A lot of the new powers are close attacks, and oddly enough some healing utilities are introduced. Unfortunately, Witches are not as durable as some of the other Wizard builds out there (Staff of Defense, Necromancers, Nethermancers), so I can see a lot of Witches becoming a liability if they choose a lot of these close burst/blast spells (unfortunately your 1st level encounter powers are auto-picked). It definitely feels like a Witch through power selection, but from a pure optimization standpoint I feel like in the vast majority of cases there's always going to be an existing Wizard spell that's better (there is a handful of gems in here though). Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising given how much support Wizards have gotten, but it definitely makes this the weak point of the book.
Four themes are presented, the best being the Fey Beast Tamer which is almost the Sentinel's animal companion without getting stuck playing a Sentinel. The Fey Beast Companion attacks are much less damaging than a Sentinel's (especially at low levels), but for an OA and damage sponge (not to mention the aura) they do their job just fine. The Sidhe Lord gets a Daily summoning power, though the Sidhe House Guard is pretty weak (HP= to your healing surge value?!?!). Still, it has an immediate interrupt that allows it to take a hit for you, so it's at least going to give you access to a surge in combat and absorb status effects. Tuathan is a theme that gets 2 options each time a choice is made, but is sadly limited to humans and half elves. There's a focus on heroic luck and animal transformation (unfortunately, the latter is only available as a utility swap instead of a starting feature). Finally, the Unseelie Agent is designed around a "Shadow Weapon," which is basically a free vanilla magic weapon that won't be as good as what most PCs will want. It's a pity, as this theme has some great story hook potential.
Each new subclass also has its own Paragon Path. Most are solid if not terribly spectacular, with the Deadly Berserker probably being the best of the bunch. The 3 Epic Destinies are Shiradi Champion, Wild Hunter, and Witch Queen (seeing as I've never played in Epic I can't really say whether or not they're any good).
The feats section has the usual mix of good, ok, and bad. Racial feats are apparently back, with the 3 new races in addition to elves, eladrin, gnomes, and wilden all getting new feat support. The long-awaited Totem Expertise is finally here (ignore partial cover/concealment), and chargers get more unnecessary support with Two-Handed Weapon Expertise. Two new familiar feats are pretty underwhelming, as are 2 of the 3 Fey feats. Fey Shift, however, is awesome as it gives you a 2 square teleport speed (obviously it's epic). The Barbarian feat is great (THP equal to surge value when you enter your Fury), while the Bard and Druid feats facilitate mixing and matching class features (O-Bards can get Skald's Aura, O-Druids can trade a daily for a use of SNA, and Protectors can trade a use of SNA for a daily, plus they get Wild Shape to boot). Multiclass feats are a mixed bag; the Witch M/C is nearly useless (you get Augury?!?!), Berserker and Protector are solid (1/day use of Fury and Nature's Growth, respectively), and the Skald is simply incredible (1/enc Skald's Aura, giving you a 1/enc heal!).
The gear section lists some semi-magical mundane items from the Feywild, some of which look pretty amusing for the price. Some new magic totems (including 1 that increases forced movement, and one that's essentially a "Vicious" totem), Wondrous Items (mostly "meh"), and Consumables (solid) are also presented. Finally, Fey Magic Gifts are a new alternative reward, though by and large they're more mundane utility based as opposed to being comparable to magic items. Still, some look fun for roleplaying purposes.
Build Your Story
The last chapter of the book is an interesting new take on creating a backstory. There are sections on Upbringing, Locations (Civilized Lands, Wilderness Locations, and Dark Lands), and Events. You go through several different options choose-your-own-adventure style, with ability checks largely determining how you fared in a given situation. Each scenario has a few associated skills, and you can choose your trained skills based on what you picked up through this story as opposed to what class skills you normally get (you're still limited by the number of trained skills your class has, though). You can use this chapter to generate an idea for a PC completely at random, or you can use the individual sections for inspiration. It's a little gimmicky, but an interesting backstory generator nonetheless. Most of the choices are open-ended enough to allow for creativity, but there's also enough detail to provide a cohesive backstory for players that aren't usually interested in coming up with something.
NOTE: I've written up a post on a test run of this process, as I create an Elven Protector Druid.
I highly recommend this book. Granted I might be biased because I really like the Feywild and how it was handled in 4e. Furthermore, Druids, Wizards, Bards, and Barbarians are some of my favorite classes anyways, and to see them all get support in the same book is pretty cool. Regardless of my personal tastes, there's simply a lot of really good design in this book. The Berserker looks like a blast, is flavorful, and appears to be solid as both a defender and a striker. First dual-role subclass was a success in my book! The Skald's Aura is a tactically interesting healing mechanic, and there's a lot of unique new powers that interact with it. The Protector provides much-needed caster Druid support, in addition to introducing an effective controller class feature. The Witch is admittedly a bit disappointing, but there's enough to poach that it's not a complete waste, and if nothing else there's a lot of flavorful if not optimal powers. Most of all I like the return to the classic AEDU design even if some Essentials style elements are incorporated (the Skald's emphasis on basic attacks, for example). Unlike recent class design in the post-essentials era, these classes are not straight-jacketed into features and powers. Existing powers work perfectly with the new builds, and older builds can take the new powers. The designers even went a step further by including the Skald and Druid feats that let you mix and match elements of the different builds. Overall there's a return to customizability exemplified by a high degree of compatibility between subclasses despite the fact that unique, new mechanics were introduced. I applaud that the designers were able to not only pull this off, but to keep everything balanced by pre-Essentials standards*.
*Essentials marked a huge design shift, and in general the developers were overly conservative when balancing the new stuff, resulting in a lot of underpowered builds and subclasses. It seems like the subclasses in this book have been brought back up to the appropriate power level, and I have a feeling that in-game play will support that.