I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, June 03, 2022

Shadow of the Demon Lord - actual play review

I've been talking about Shadow of the Demon Lord for a while now. I was very impressed the first time I read it. But I wanted to get some actual experience with the system before writing a review. Well, now I've ran an entire campaign (Tales of the Demon Lord, which I'll review next, adding some notes about how the system worked in practice) - a bit more than a dozen sessions, going all the way from level zero to ten.

Also, the book is almost 300 pages, so I'll focus in the most important bits to keep this interesting.

Shadow of the Demon Lord is a proud "grimdark" game. It's edgy, gory, funny, in a twisted sort of way. It is both homage and satire to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (or WFRP, which is a bit satirical by itself) and other gritty games. It aims for dark fantasy, and it succeeds. If you're not amused by spells such as "hateful defecation", you might roll your eyes a bit, but you can mostly play without the gory parts if you want to.

The system has an amazing amount of supplements - new ancestries, adventures, spells, alternate rules, etc. So, if you like it, endless expansions are available. Unfortunately, no SRD.

The writer, Robert J. Schwalb, is a famous game designer who wrote several great RPGs and participated in the development of 5e.

The looks
The book looks good but not great. I like the cover and most of the art - it is of good quality and fits the mood. However, the layout is a bit boring and reminiscent of D&D 4e, and the gray background is something I really dislike (looks dull on the screen, but decent in print). This is old as a "watermarked PDF", which I dislike, but the revised version I have form DTRPG seems to have no watermarks.

BTW, the book has extensive errata incorporated in the last digital (and POD) version, but not in the ones you can buy in amazon, for example.

The system
The book uses a traditional d20 system, with four main attributes and some derived ones. It simplifies attribute modifiers (i.e., Strength 13 means you roll with +3), difficulties (the difficulty for challenges is always 10, or the target's defense or attribute for attacks, etc.) and bonuses/penalties (which are mostly reduced to "boons" and "banes", each adding or subtracting 1d6 and canceling each other out; if you roll multiple d6, only the highest number applies).

For example, a strength challenge roll with three boons and one bane means you roll 1d20, add your strength modifier (say, +3), and add the highest of 2d6. If the result is 10 or more, you succeed.

This works very well in practice (and is very sound mathematically) but becomes cumbersome when you are counting multiple boons and banes. Most of the time "+7 with three boons" could be safely replaced by "+12" with no significant loss.

Chapter 1: Character Creation
The mechanics of character creation are awesome. Using a few random tables, you can quickly create an interesting character. The randomness generates some imbalances (i.e., some will be wealthy, handsome, with servants, guards and horses, while others will be destitute, disfigured and a little insane), which is easy to fix if you want to.

Starting characters do not have much room for customization, which I really like - these are level 0, very simple, with no special powers. They only pick ancestries: human, changeling, clockwork, dwarf, goblin or orc. Dwarfs, humans and orcs are more or less what you'd expected, which is a bit disappointing IMO, but overall they manage to make ancestries interesting.

Characters get professions instead of skills; having the relevant profession gives you a boon. I like this; it is similar to what I have used in Dark Fantasy Basic.

Chapter 2: Playing the Game
This chapter describe most of the system (see above). 

It has simple, good rules for Insanity and Corruption. While I like this, turns out insanity is quite easy to cure by clerics, and corruption generates a conundrum: it forces PCs to abstain from murder and theft or they quickly become demons (which die more often than non-corrupted humans and cannot be resuscitated). Does this mean thieves and murderers are rare and easy to identify in this setting? Or that Pcs are always the heroes even in a morally gray world? It is not easy to reconcile IMO, and in practice it forces the DM to make moral judgment on the PCs too often. Fortunately, Chapter 9: Running the Game offers some solutions (only truly evil acts cause corruption, while killing someone that "someone who probably deserves to die" is okay).

Combat is fast, gritty and deadly. Initiative rules are clever (PCs go first unless they take a "slow turn"), attacking is straightforward, and taking damage equal to your health gives you a 1-in-6 change of dying per turn. Other than that, it is more or less similar to D&D (especially 5e). There are rules for mounted combat, disarming, shoving, social conflicts, cover, etc.

Chapters 3-5: Paths
SotDL uses "paths" instead of classes. You pick one at level 1 (magician, priest, rogue or warrior), another one on level 3 (expert paths - there are 16 options), and a final one at level 7 (master path - 64 options!). There are 10 levels in total. each level gives you something from one of your paths or ancestries; sometimes, you also have to make choices within paths (choose a spell, weapon or profession, for example).

This system is one of the best parts of SotDL in my opinion. You have basically endless combinations, while keeping decisions more or less simple until level 7 - when you have a better grasp of the game. Not all features are equally interesting - many will just give you some boons or extra damage - but overall they are very good.

PCs go from zero to demi-gods at amazing speed (IIRC you are supposed to get one level per adventure, so you might play an entire campaign in about 10 sessions or a bit more). I'm okay with that, but my players felt it happens too fast. If I were to run a new campaign I might start at level 1 and go a bit slowly from then on.

Chapter 6: Equipment
This chapter is brief and uninteresting. Encumbrance is handwaved - it uses slots, but a ring weights as much as your clothes, and containers are measured in volume rather than weight. Armor isn't even mentioned, which is absurd.

The book contains rules on availability and hireling, which is nice. Weapons and armor are also mostly uninteresting. Guns are powerful but rare and slow. Melee weapons are distinguished mostly by damage and price. I dislike 5e weapons, but it is more fun than this. Maybe a personal preference.

And there is this rule that I found clever but my players found annoying:
Replacing Equipment
The game assumes you keep your gear in good repair, patching holes in your clothing, keeping your metal weapons oiled and sharpened, replenishing your stores of food and water with materials you forage during your travels, and recovering your ammunition. No matter how fastidious you are about keeping up with your goods, old items wear out and must be replaced.
When you choose an expert path or master path, your old gear that is not magical in nature wears out and must be replaced.

Chapter 7: Magic
SotDL hits most targets here: magic is straightforward, often dark, and varied. It uses a system similar to spell slots, a decision I can barely understand. Why copy the weakest parts of D&D? Again, probably a matter of taste. But overall the system is very good and fits the "grimdark" theme perfectly.

Chapter 8: A Land in Shadow
25 pages describing the setting. It is mostly what you'd expect from a dark fantasy setting. A bit reminiscent of WFRP but more grounded and low-fantasy. Overall, good but nothing particularly noteworthy, except the Demon Lord. I'll quote, because this part is essential to understand the game:
Using the Shadow
The Shadow of the Demon Lord is an optional element that
can greatly enhance the mood of foreboding and terror in
your game. It might loom over the entire campaign or be an
unstable effect that changes once, twice, or many times. It
can be the main crisis in your stories or a distant threat that
lurks in the background. For example, a campaign might
begin at the time of the orc uprising, which some believe
was sparked when the Shadow fell upon Drudge, now king
of the orcs. From there the Shadow moves on to the Great
Druid, who watches over the hidden Well of Life, leading to
a global pandemic. Toward the end of the campaign, it falls
over a demon prince that the group imprisoned and looses
it into the world.
If you want to use the Shadow in your game, you can roll
a d20 and consult the Shadow of the Demon Lord table to
randomly determine its effect. Alternatively, you can choose
a suitable effect or come up with one of your own, using
these examples to guide your design.
Next, you need to think of a reason for why the
Shadow behaves as it does. Does it fall randomly or does
it have a cause? For example, the “restless dead” effect
could happen when a powerful necromancer comes
under the Demon Lord’s influence, or the Shadow might
have fallen over the Underworld. When possible, tie the
Shadow to the group in some way. Perhaps its influence
corrupts a patron, or the characters’ actions somehow
triggered the event.
In short... it is a world in the brink of destruction.

Chapter 9: Running the Game
A chapter on GM advice. Fairly usual stuff except, again, for the Demon Lord - which is the most interesting part.

The Shadow of the Demon Lord is an optional element that
can greatly enhance the mood of foreboding and terror in
your game. It might loom over the entire campaign or be an
unstable effect that changes once, twice, or many times. It
can be the main crisis in your stories or a distant threat that
lurks in the background.
This section describes how to create an apocalyptic campaign, with world-shattering events: terrible plagues, one our of ten people turning to demons, the sun turning black, worldwide insanity, and so on. If you're into this type of campaign, this part is invaluable.

There are not magic items, but multiple tables on how to create your own. Great in theory, but in practice I felt it produce useless items too often.

Chapter 10: Bestiary
A decent collection of creatures. The usual suspects, plus a few flavorful additions. The art is scarcer than I'd like - some of the new monsters really deserved a picture. I'd like to see more demons - SotDL presents templates such as "Medium Demon" and "Large Demon"  rather than specific creatures. Good enough for most fantasy games, but since this is "shadow of the demon lord", I feel they could add more options.

Other than that, this chapter is quite complete and has several rule son how to customize creatures.

In conclusion...
This book has enough awesome stuff that I'd recommend anyone interested in d20 systems and dark fantasy in general to give it a look. The level of crunch is almost ideal for me, and the system almost perfect - the only caveat being that too many things are reduced to banes or boons, without much variation. this book is not exactly OSR but has a similar vibe.

Will I play this gain? Or, in other words - would I play this again rather than playing D&D? This is difficult to answer. I'd be curious to play more and experiment with more paths, maybe even add more ancestries. The system is definitely on par with D&D 5e in terms of quality, but is simpler (well, the first 10 levels of D&D are not bad either). It is a bit cumbersome to run at high levels with all the boons and banes, although my players liked this.

I am certainly glad I've tried this. But using it again would depend on which campaign to run. If I were to create my own campaign, I'd use my own system; otherwise, I'd try to sue something close to the intended system. So, probably I won't be playing again soon (unless there is another good campaign after Tales of the Demon Lord), but I'll certainly keep reading and incorporating this stuff into my own games.

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