by Delos

Shadows of the Demon Lord (A Review)

The cover of the core book, or a gateway to a new, horrifying, and deadly world?

For the last half year or so I’ve been running various games of Shadows of the Demon Lord (SotDL or Shadows). I honestly don’t remember how I found it. The Kickstarter had been over for a while and I probably had some money to burn in my gaming budget. This game was primarily written by one Robert Schwalb who has been churning out supplements to this game on a very regular basis. If you click the picture to the left it will take you to his website. So…

What is it?

In my own words, this is a deadly, dark, and unforgiving RPG that will elevate it’s heroes to amazing heights… if they survive of course.

How deadly is it?

I’ve killed more PC’s in the six or so months I’ve been running this than I probably have for the last decade of gaming.

Holy smokes that’s got to be dozens!

Nah, I’m kind of a push over when it comes to PC deaths. This game is inherently deadly, but clever players can help themselves and not be slaved to the whims of fate.

So how does it play?

Over all I’d say it’s less rules crunchy than Pathfinder/D&D, but not by much. Every player needs 1d20 and a couple d6’s. Everything you need to run the game is in this one book (which is a huge selling point for me). Creating starter (read level zero) characters goes pretty fast. You choose an ancestry (race) and go through a couple random tables for some fluff stuff such as, background, personality, looks, etc. You’re always welcome to just choose what you want but my group has taken a liking to getting somewhat random characters. To me it gives that old school feel of rolling for stats and hoping for that STR 18/00 (ask your nerdy parents), but instead it’s more so for not mechanical things, so you won’t get screwed with a gimped character due to a bad role. The stats are laid out for you when you pick your race, but you can tweak them a bit. You start out as just some Joe Shmoe from the streets. No class, power, prestige. Nothing. Now I know that sounds really exciting, but bear with me here. My first, and still ongoing game, has gone from level 0 to level 8 now. All of the PC’s made it to level 5 or 6 (this is a level 10 max game) before our first death (see, I’m a softy). Watching the change from being a bunch of peasants that could barely take on a couple of thugs to this group that could do horrible and unspeakable things to their enemies epic heroics, it really showed growth, change, and felt more like a story.

Now mechanically it’s pretty simple. If there is a need for a role, the GM will tell you to roll one of your stats with a d20. If it’s against another creature, you roll against one of their stats, but if it’s just to see if you can pull off something (like climb a wall) you just need to hit a 10.

Well that seems like an easy number to hit.

Most times you’re rolling with a +1 to +3 on a d20.

Damn son, how can you hit your numbers even remotely consistently?

Banes and boons. For every good thing going for your roll you gain a boon, and you gain a bane for everything going against you. Climbing a wall with a rope attached? Gain a boon. It’s raining? Gain a bane. Banes and boons cancel each other out, so when it comes time to roll the dice, each bane/boon is a d6 you roll. Take the highest d6 and subtract/add it to your total. Each character also has professions. You use these as your skills. So say if one of your professions was a guard, when the GM asks you to roll Perception you could say, “Hey, I spent a lot of long nights on the wall looking for threats coming to the gate when I was a guard.” and if it’s appropriate to the situation the GM would grant you a boon.

Ok, so what happens when I gain enough experience to level?

There are no experience points. One of the design choices this game does is that campaigns need to be short. Like 10-15 sessions short. So instead of need X number of XP to level up, you simply level up as a group at the end of each chapter/story/whenever the GM tells you to.

Alright, so at level 1 how many classes can I choose from?

Four, and they are called paths.

That’s it?

Hey it’s better than you think. I know four doesn’t sound like a lot (and keep in mind that’s just the core book, I found a fifth in a supplement), but that’s just your first path. Your novice path. When you hit the expert tier there are 16 different paths to pick from. Then when you hit the master tier their are a ton to pick from (book is not in front of me and I’m lazy, but trust me, it’s a lot). Every time you level up, one of your paths give you something, so eventually you get to build an unique hero that isn’t the same as every other fighter/mage/geese juggler you’ve seen before. Also, you can mix and match all of the paths, there are no prerequisites for taking one or the other.

So what’s the setting like?

Well obviously you can just make your own if you want, but the default setting is grim (if I was going to put it in one word). The big bad kingdom that ruled everything is going to hell because it turns out it’s orc slave army wanted to not be slaves, and there was a disagreement on the matter (a lot of people died, including the king). People don’t go into the woods because there are faeries and elves out there (and they are as scary as the demons of hell). Monsters lurk outside the walls, but also within the hearts of all people. There is no alignment in this game, but if you do something horrible, you gain corruption (another stat). As your corruption grows, you start to show marks of darkness and damn your soul to hell. The people of the world are superstitious and slow to trust. It has a Warhammer feel to it, but it’s definitely not a clone with the serial numbers filed off. This feels like a fresh new world.

So what did it that sold you?

Honestly the design choices. It sounds like Robert ran into a lot of the same problems I did when running games. We’d get tired of the games before we’d ever finish them, because it took forever to get anywhere (XP wise usually). Fights were usually just wars of attrition and didn’t mean much in the end and even though the players were doing heroics, it didn’t feel heroic. Rob’s game is designed to not bog down the story due to mechanics, and help set the pace to get it done in a timely manner. Fights are deadly and players can’t just face tank their way through the world. They will die. The game has an old school feel, in terms of mechanics, while being very simple and straightforward. Character customization is huge due to the path combos you can made and the character power levels aren’t just vertical. The players gain a lot of new tricks and tactics as they level, with a bit of power gain as they go (mostly HP which is the one thing that continues to grow at every level).

Oh and the faeries are scary as hell. As they should be.

tl;dr Shadows of the Demon Lord feels like Warhammer, but is very much it’s own world. The mechanics are simple to learn and the ability to customize your hero is amazing. I’m having a blast running it.

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