Friday, January 1, 2016

Tommy's Take on Shadow of the Demon Lord

Earlier in the year, I called Shadow of the Demon Lord "the RPG I was most looking forward to". When it was released, I gushed about it. This weekend, I actually got a chance to run it, for my son and one of my longtime players. So this is my actual play review of Shadow of the Demon Lord by Schwalb Entertainment. I ran the Survival of the Fittest and Apple of Her Eye adventures, so some spoilers for those may be included.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Shadow of the Demon Lord was a very successful Kickstarter endeavoring to bring a new dark fantasy RPG to the market. When I say "dark", I mean "grimy and gory splatterpunk horror". Shadow of the Demon Lord (available in print for $50 or in PDF for $20, with heaps of adventures that were unlocked in the Kickstarter now available (including a full campaign book called Tales of the Demon Lord).

The core mechanic is a d20 roll, in which you add your attribute modifier (equal to your attribute -10). If you are operating at an advantage, you get a Boon, which is a d6 you add to the roll. If you are at a disadvantage, you have a Bane, which is a d6 that is subtracted from the roll. Boons and Banes cancel each other out (so if you have two Boons and one Bane, you only roll one Boon and apply it). Damage exclusively uses d6s, meaning that d20s and d6s are the only dice you need for the game, though d6s may be rolled as d3s. Given how flat damage is, rolling extra dice is HUGE, as we discovered when one of the players got their hands on a crossbow (which does 2d6 damage instead of 1d6).

Characters have four main attributes: Agility, Strength, Intelligence and Will, which are not rolled or selected, but which are assigned by your Ancestry (race in most fantasy RPGs) and advanced as you level up and take new Paths. The four main Attributes help determine your Perception, Defense and Health, which also dictates your Healing Rate. That said, there are oodles of random charts to roll on when creating characters, which we used to great effect.

My son created a human character named Kaosu Kaminari who had a bizarre stench and followed The Old Faith (kind of a pagan mishmash). Despite only being 18, he had a past life of being an outlaw and an initiate of The Old Faith, though lately he had taken up the study of literature.

My other player rolled up a Faun named Alistair Goodwine (you can call him Scarecrow) (from the Demon Lord's Companion) who only showed small hints of his Faun heritage, who had been raised by the old witch Acra the Gray.

To help them out, I rolled up an NPC to tag along, a poor - but immaculately groomed - dwarf named Helmut the First, who had sold his soul for great wealth but was betrayed, and was now paranoid that everyone else was after his few remaining coins. Oh, and he had a human baby...for some reason.

Shadow of the Demon Lord starts your characters at level 0, and after you (presumably) survive your first adventure, you use your background and your experiences in the adventure to determine your Novice Path, which are the very familiar Warrior, Rogue, Priest and Magician. To show you just how 0 level you are, a Dwarf can't, by default, wield a sword due to the Strength requirement, leaving Helmut settling for his club even after they stumbled across a sword.

Initiative has a very loose system: There are Fast Turns, Slow Turns and End of Turn. Each combatant can either take one action in a Fast Turn, or move and action in a Slow Turn, but the PCs always go first, followed by monsters. Now, I wasn't a fan of this on reading. In play, it proved almost necessary as the characters first fight was against a giant spider with defense of 14 (average ability modifier was 0, meaning the characters had to roll 14 or better to hit) and the 1d6 damage meant they were fighting for their lives. In fact, Scarecrow actually went down hard (dying is a biiiit more forgiving: You roll a d6 each round you are at 0 HP. On 2-5, nothing happens. On a 1 you are dying, on a 6, you heal one damage and can fight again. If you start dying, repeat the process, with a 6 leaving you unconscious or a 1 leaving you dead). The characters may have been screwed but we surrounded the spider to gain a Boon on attack rolls.

Shadow of the Demon Lord has a mechanic similar to Inspiration from 5e called Fortune, which allows you to a) succeed on a d20 roll, b) grant 2 boons to someone else's d20 roll or c) turn the roll of a d6 into a 6. This can be HUGE, in part because that d6 roll can apply to damage rolls, which can be a game changer in some fights.

 Professions, not the same as Paths, are very loose as well, and act as one part background descriptor and one part freebie bonus in certain situations. For instance, our adventure left us stranded after our caravan had been attacked, and the actual adventure is basically a hexcrawl, rolling Perception with two Banes, unless you have a Wilderness profession, which canceled one Bane. My son's character and my NPC both had one, so we let my son take point, with me and the other player offering helpful advice. Essentially, the rule of thumb for Professions is either a) if they have the Profession, they succeed or b) they gain a Boon. I'm not mad at that.

Healing is funny. Even a Healing Potion only grants you your Healing Rate, which is a quarter of your Health, and that's all natural healing provides (and you can only get that once per day, unless you rest a full 24 hours instead of just 8). Think your D&D 5e guys are superheroes with healing factors? Have fun with Shadow of the Demon Lord, which will send you running for a hole to hide in until you have gotten a couple of day's rest. The best advice for fighting is: don't. The second best is: be heavily armored and attacking from range.

Anywho, we completed Survival of the Fittest and decided it was early enough to try another adventure, so Kaosu became a Magician (focusing on Fire and Time magic), Scarecrow became a Rogue (after training with some scouts) and Helmut became a Warrior (so he could use a dang sword).

The second adventure was a disaster, as Helmut died in the first combat (despite having nearly twice as much health as the others - low defense sucks), though Scarecrow touchingly agreed to take custody of the baby that he never explained. Unfortunately, that didn't last long, as Scarecrow and Kaosu enraged the local town by interrupting their sacrifice to an evil faerie, and after Kaosu got mobbed by angry townsfolk, the heroes were brutally murdered by Redcaps.

And that was the end of the game. My son wants to play again, and he decided he loves all the random charts you can roll on when making a character. I missed some rules, but that's because running it was a last minute decision when the regular game was cancelled due to weather.

As a GM, I think it would be great running with a bit more rules prep and/or a GM screen. Boons/Banes are incredibly flexible and a simple mechanic to implement, not unlike 5e's Advantage/Disadvantage. Early level play is absolutely brutal, and I don't know if it actually gets better with higher level play, but characters do get more options.

The setting is painted in very broad strokes, with enough information to get started but plenty of room to insert your own cities/NPCs/adventures without contradicting anything in the book, and I LOVE the Paths system so much. Everyone starting from the same 0 level, picking one of the four Novice Paths, then branching out to whatever Expert path they want, followed by Master path is great. You can go from Rogue to Druid to Gunslinger if you really want, just make an effort to work it out with the GM as to how your character accomplished it. There is no alignment system, but there is a Corruption mechanic, which can punish you for evil and dastardly things (including putting you at a disadvantage against monsters like the Barghest Hound).

One other thing worth mentioning is The Shadow of the Demon Lord. This is the effect that The Demon Lord's efforts to break through into the world has on the surrounding land. It is presented as a d20 table, and you can roll on it, or select an effect. This is a big, global effect that twists the land in some way, and it can either be a permanent effect in the campaign, or it can be something that the group can set out to stop (though it may be replaced with some other effect). In our game, I rolled randomly to determine The Shadow and it was a pandemic sweeping across the land, and disease could only be cured with magic. I don't know if it was just coincidence or what, but we then ran across multiple diseases in the opening adventure alone. Other effects include a twisted Wild Magic-type effect on magic, insanity could be spreading from person to person, the sun could turn black, all dead creatures could rise as zombies and so on.Very neat way to show the corrupting influence without having it all feel the same.

Six Points:

- Combat is dangerous and small bonuses - to hit and to damage - can be huge game changers. Very much a game of "play it safe and smart" at low levels (especially 0).

- The Paths are great, as they are so varied, and you are free to take whatever makes sense for your character's story, and not what you have meticulously built your character for.

- Corruption and the Weird Magic effect of The Shadow aside, magic feels too safe. Corruption can be avoided pretty easily as long as you don't use certain types of magic, and don't grossly abuse the magic you do have, and the Weird Magic effect may never appear. The setting just feels like magic should be more dangerous than what it is.

- The setting is more about "feel" than "detail", and I consider this to be a good thing. No lists of details or NPCs, just a broad overview that you can then do with as you will.

- The rules do straddle a weird line between "here's a rough guideline on how to do this, go nuts" (hint: it probably involves Banes or Boons) and "draw your line of sight from the appropriate vertices and here is the number of enemies your heroes should fight each level". Now, I lean towards the former, by far...and if you want to ditch some of the more detailed rules, there's not much to stop you, but it's a weird divide in places. Most importantly, the rules cover a lot of ground, then give you ample tools to fill in the rest of the blanks as needed. (Hint: it probably involves Banes or Boons.)

- The Ancestries are great, and cover less common ground (like Clockworks and Changelings), to putting twists on old standards (Humans are what you expect, mechanically, but read their descriptions very closely) Dwarves kind of standing out as being pretty much exactly what you're used to. And oooooh the random tables. I love just rolling up the various random tables and making all of it make sense. That's perfect for me and my mindset.

I was super thrilled with my experience running this. I'd love to run it again with a better handle on it now. It will not replace Savage Worlds or D&D 5e for me, but it does a great job of scratching the grimy and gritty fantasy itch, preventing me from needing to run out and buy me a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Edition, or hack and fold Savage Worlds or D&D to the point that it accomplishes the same thing. It's dark, it's dirty, it's terrible and it's glorious. Jump in, don't be self conscious and just roll with it. It's a good game that provides a lot of little tools to do what you need to out of the box, with a ton of adventure support to boot.