Shadow of the Demon Lord is Rob Schwalb's love letter to WFRP, which has then been streamlined, improved, and focussed through his recent experiences in developing WFRP2e and D&D5e. There is a level of unrestrained madness and glee in the RPG that has come across in his KS campaign and updates.
The book is 272 pages long, 16 pages longer than promised and seems very complete. This is a pleasant surprise as it seems all too often that "all in one book" fantasy RPGs often simply often drop chunks of content in an attempt to look like they fulfil their claims.
Before even looking at the content, there is a detailed 1 1/2 page contents page, a 4 page index, a monster by level chart, and a section on creating a customising monsters.
In terms of content, there is:
- 6 races - humans, dwarves, changelings, clockworks, goblins, and orcs
- 4 basic paths - magician, priest, rogue and warrior
- 16 expert paths - 4 grouped loosely into each of the scope of the 4 basic paths
- 64 master paths
- 30 schools of magic - each with 11 spells (and many non-combat related spells)
- 90 creatures
- setting - both an treatment of the wider setting and also a detailed region ready to run
- magic items - rather than lists of magic items, there is a series of tables to create a relatively unique items every time
Looking past the sheer weight of content that is fit into a svelte 272 pages, the book itself is gorgeous. The overall look is similar to WFRP2e, and as beautiful if not more so than that corebook. Art is consistently good (and often hilarious and/or disturbing). There is a grey parchment style background which makes the red headings pop out. There are layout and graphical elements from D&D5e. The Bestiary is reminiscent of D&D4e, with concise and easy to use stat blocks filled with a handful of flavourful choices. The character sheet looks amazingly open, yet comprehensive.
I really enjoyed how each basic and expert path had its own page devoted to it. That reminded me of WFRP2e more than D&D5e, and seemed to support the idea of player making character choices by way of discrete building blocks at the time the choice is presented, rather than the plan and build that D&D tends to favour.
And then there are the LOL moments, of which there are many (and many more no doubt on a full read through).
- You can die in character creation (its on the very first roll and its not a serious impediment).
- There are shrieking eels.
- Sample of play includes the line: "Screw this. I pull out my pistol and shoot the guts in the face."
- There a trinket table like in D&D 5e, which can produce a small but vicious dog and a reputation of being a badass.
- Witches get flying brooms.
- There is a "Hasten the Apocalypse" ability.
- There is a spell that makes the target shit themselves to death.
- Goblins have immature rude names like Pecker and Poop.
- So, so many random charts (all optional) but very well written.
Following the contents page, there is a one half page introduction by Frank Mentzer and a page introduction by Rob Schwalb. Both exhibit a lot of enthusiasm for what's to come but also more usefully really help set the tone of where the RPG comes from and what to expect.
The Introduction itself is only 4 pages long. It starts with a one third page description of the predicament that the world is in. This a dark and grim fantasy world where the Demon Lord has and the End Times have come. Its great for setting the tone.
Following that there is a page of introducing basic RPG concepts. Useful for newbies. However, it does finish with three concise beats of what to expect:
- moral ambiguity
- the end is near
- danger everywhere
After the first four pages, there are clearly the game's agenda.
Following that is a one page sample of play. Its a fun read with the PCs exploring a tomb and encountering a animated guardian of dung and guts. It does a great job of encapsulating what is going to happen to your PCs, probably over and over until they are dead, mad, evil or heroes.
The Introduction is often a chapter to skip in many RPGs, so I was impressed that in SotDL it managed to really drive home what the game is all about in only four pages.
This section predictably covers how to create a PC. The thing I note first though is that as starting PCs in SotDL don't have a path yet, just an ancestry and a profession, the chapter seems a lot less intimidating than it could be, whilst containing everything it needs for creating starting PCs.
There are 6 ancestries to choice from:
- Changelings - capable of changing shape.
- Clockworks - souls bound to mechanical bodies. They vary a lot in shape and purpose.
Each ancestry has starting stats, which can be modified slightly from that baseline. It also lists languages, professions and ancestry benefits. Each ancestry gets a further benefit at level 4.
Each ancestry also has 6 tables for random background items. These are optional, but they actually provide a lot of example detail in a concise form that is easier to digest than half a page of text. And some of the entries are pretty dramatic things which will inspire a lot of ideas for the player to consider.
There is a lot of flavour here. Changeling's don't just change shape but steal identities. Clockworks, like Droids in Star Wars, differ in shape depending on their purpose. They also become "objects" when incapacitated. Dwarves hate another race and hold grudges. Goblins are impaired by iron. Orcs are horribly scarred and scary.
Next come professions. Each PC starts with two generally. As SotDL doesn't have a skill system, Professions act more as descriptors. If your PC does something in your profession, then you may succeed automatically or gain a boon. What I like is that Professions are everyday jobs and are distinct from the adventuring nature of Paths. They provide colour without cluttering the PC sheet or forcing a player to divert character resources to have a more rounded PC.
Following Professions, you roll for Wealth and that determines your starting equipment. There is then a "Trinkets" style table of interesting things your PC starts with. You roll once. However, the table isn't limited to items. It includes all kinds of background things like reputation, debts, relationships and mysteries.
The section wraps up with half page sections on creating a personality, what you as a player need to do for the first adventure, coming up with a group concept, and summarising how characters will develop ad noting the big decision points to come at levels 1, 3 and 7.
PLAYING THE GAME
The next section is where you get to the rules of the game. I can see that the upcoming Victims of the Demon Lord, being a PDF you can print off for your players, will consist of this chapter and the Character Creation one.
At 22 pages it is the biggest chapter so far. But it literally covers everything outside of character options, spells, magic items and monsters. Overall, this chapter is reminiscent of D&D5e being both clear and concise.
- rolling dice
The first up is Rolling Dice. The base system is roll a d20 and add your bonus. Attributes grant a bonus or minus depending on whether they are above or below 10. So a STR of 13 grants a +3. Why even have the number as well? That is because the attribute score is the difficulty you need to hit if attacking the person. So your Agility of 13 is also your AC, for example.
Outside of combat rolls, the difficulty is set at 10. This makes the system very simple to use as the player will always know what to roll against. But what if something is harder? Well, this is where boons and banes come in. Outside of attributes, there is normally no set modifiers. Instead, you grant either banes or boons. These are represented by d6s and you aggregate them giving you a number of d6s that are all boons or all banes. For example, if you have 3 banes and 1 boon, you will roll 2d6 of banes. You don't add these boon/bane dice together. You simply take the highest. This means that you will only ever be adding two dice together, but getting more boons or banes increases the likely result.
I personally love this approach. It feels like the best of all worlds. Its a lot like FFG's SW game where the GM can more freely award modifiers without needing to be too precise and reference or remember tables of modifiers. However, the design didn't stop there and along with the take only the highest the set difficulty number, it should be an incredibly easy system to use.
Next is a detailed description of each attribute and its use. Each attribute (Strength, Agility, Intellect and Will) has a derived attribute. Your Health is your Str, you Defence your Agility etc.
Madness is a simple subsystem which sees a PC take insanity points up to your Will and then getting an insanity. These are all temporary, though seriously impairing. Once the madness is passed, you reduce your insanity score. There is no permanent or truly debilitating insanities like in WFRP and Call of Cthulhu. It just looks like plain and dark fun.
Corruption works in a similar way though it isn't tied to any attribute and is more permanent. If a PC becomes corrupt they get penalties to socialise with others, gain marks of corruption, and eventually your soul gets trapped in Hell if you are incapacitated.
Next up comes sections on movement, damage, healing, vision, social interaction etc. Nothing notable in here, except being nice and concise.
There is an simple D&D5e "inspiration" mechanic. Interestingly, rather than being able to give it to other players, you can spend it for better benefits it you help another player.
Last up is combat. It is reminiscent of WEFRP2e and D&D5e. The most notable thing is that there is no initiative. Instead, players always go before monsters (though PCs may not be able to act due to surprise) and there are two turns in each round - fast and slow. Fast turns allow PCs to more or take a single action. Slow turns allow PCs to more and take a single action. It may look strange to begin with but it actually seems to have a good effect. The tension of initiative is retained throughout combat as players need to decide whether to sacrifice speed for doing less things every turn. It also allows ranged or reach weapons to hit first, as they don't require movement, which is nice. And it does so much faster than rolling dice every round.
The rest of the combat chapter is as expected at something like 6 pages. There is a list of special manoeuvres and most work with making an attack roll against a select attribute (Disarm - Str/Agi and Distract - Int) and often taking 1 or 2 banes.
Next up is the first of the Path chapters. This is where SotDL really starts to sing. In SotDL, each PC chooses 1 of 4 Basic Paths at level 1, 1 of 16 Expert Paths at level 3, and 1 of 64 Master Paths (or another of the 16 Expert Paths) at level 7.
The Paths are reminiscent of WFRP's careers but they are less like real life professions (which come under Professions) and are more adventuring roles like in D&D. This makes them easier to use IMO as you don't need to try and explain things in quite the same way as in WFRP or balance real life considerations with the fun of adventure.
However, it also improves on the D&D approach as rather than the plan and build approach in D&D, there is more of an immediate mix and match approach, which lets the player only turn their mind to what Path to take when the decision arises. This should also allow players to advance their PCs more organically based on what happens in the adventure. The focus is more on the now than the what's next.
There are 4 novice paths - Magicians, Priests, Rogues, and Warriors. These are the four iconic D&D classes. They provide benefits at levels 1, 2, 5, and 8, meaning that they will be the most influential Path of all forming the backbone of the PC mechanically.
Each level you get improvements, you get increases to attributes, health, languages, professions, magic and talents. Each novice path, like each expert path, gets a single page with a nice portrait and an additional random table to determine your training.
The chapter also has a small section on group concept and yet another table to help randomly determine the glue that keeps the PCs together. I really like how each path chapter has an additional consideration for the players that is relevant at that point of the PCs career.
First level magicians will start with four choices of traditions or spells, as well as a cantrip. If they choose traditions, they also get a level 0 spell in that tradition. They can cast 2 rank 0 and 1 rank 1 spells a day.
Next up is the Expert Paths. There are 16 and each gets a page devoted to it. They grant benefits at levels 3, 6 and 9. If you take a second expert path in place of a master path, you get the level 3 and 6 benefits at levels 7 and 10.
Rather than a training chart, you get a random story development chart, as the PCs are starting to come into their own.
Rather than a discussion on group concept, there is a discussion on character objectives, as the PCs are becoming more proactive.
The 16 expert paths. These are grouped into 4 groups which are loosely related to each of the 4 novice paths. They are:
- Faith: Cleric, Druid, Oracle, Paladin
- Power: Artificer, Sorcerer, Witch, Wizard
- Trickery: Assassin, Scout, Thief, Warlock
- War: Berserker, Fighter, Ranger, Spell Binder
Spells are simply gained by level depending on the benefits. So you will get access to more and better spells if you take a novice and expert path which uses magic, but you can easily just take one or the other for a mixed character.
The last of the three Path chapters. Master paths are highly specialised paths compared to what has come before. They feel like prestige classes or epic destinies of D&D. Its the kind of thing you can add to the end of your PC's name such as "Edric the Death Dealer".
There are 64 master paths in the book, and they don't take a whole page like novice and expert paths. They are broadly split between paths of skill and those of magic. They grant benefits at levels 7 and 10. You can take a second expert path instead of a master path.
There is a single story development chart instead of one for each master path.
Rather than a discussion on character objectives, there is a discussion on the final quest, as the PCs are nearing the end of their stories.
Next chapter is equipment. This is pretty standard and is just over 10 pages long. The WFRP2e and D&D5e influences are strong with weapons having quality tags to distinguish them beyond damage.
Armour increases Defence much like in D&D5e, with light armour adding to Agility and heavy armour replacing it altogether but requiring a decent Strength.
There is discussion on encumbrance, living costs, currency, and other subjects.
The chapter wraps up with costs for spells and a small list of potions.
Outside of Paths, this is the next big chapter clocking in at just under 40 pages. There are a few pages of introduction before it leaps into spells; lots and lots of spells.
The spells are broken into traditions of which there are thirty. In each tradition there are 11 spells. Two rank 0 spells, three rank 1 spells, two rank 2 spells, two rank 3 spells, one rank 4 spell, and one rank 5 spell.
In addition to usual concepts, there are some more unusual such as Technology that allows the PC to summon technological weapons, machines and fix them. There are a number of dark traditions that do some pretty aweful stuff and cost corruption to learn and even more to learn more spells for.
The spells themselves are short in description but are often detailed in mechanics and flavour. There are not just combat spells, but a wide range of spells almost as broad as D&D's selection.
PCs who cast spells get a number of castings for every spell they know determined by Power. For exampl, a Power 1 PC can cast every rank 0 spell they know twice and every rank 1 spell they know once. This approach also helps deal with the fact that PCs don't rise quite as linearly as they do in D&D. They get these castings back after a nights rest. PCs don't get as many slots as D&D, though a dedicated caster gets close. However, low level spells seem to remain more relevant as the range is smaller than in D&D. It is reminisicent of WFRP in that way.
A LAND IN SHADOW
This chapter is the setting. It clocks in at 25 pages, with 10 page overview of a continent, a further 10 pages covering a region called the Northern Reaches, and the final 5 pages providing a flavourful but straightforward cosmology.
I won't go into much details about the setting as it bears further reading. What I have read seems solid, supporting the system well. It's a place rife with adventures, with enough space to play many sessions in, but not too wide too be sparsely detailed from a ground view.
I will note that though the setting has obviously been created with the rules in mind, the rules don't really tie themselves too specifically with the setting elements. You could use SotDL to run the Empire, Iron Kingdoms or Eberron with very little effort, and just ignore this setting chapter.
RUNNNG THE GAME
I normally flick through GM chapters, especially in more traditional RPGs. However, I liked what I saw here and I found myself stopping to read several sessions. There is a good mixture of advice, specific guidelines, and tools for the GM.
After the more usual GM advice, the chapter moves on to creating campaigns and adventures. There are a bunch of scenario structures detailed and then it breaks down what the campaign should look like at level 0, level 1-2, level 3-6, and level 7-10. This section takes the character focussed questions from previous chapters and uses them to help the GM guide the adventures.
There are then some nice D&D4e/5e style encounter creation rules, providing some clear guidelines as to what is likely to be challenging to PCs at different levels. This is accompanied by a revisit of combat from the GM's perspective.
The chapter finishes on some high points. The first is the Shadow of the Demon Lord. There is an overview of using the Demon Lord in the setting and the pending apocalypse it brings. There is also twenty session overlays (along with a random chart) that you can use like signs of the apocalypse. Mutations are there, wild magic surges, the dead rising etc. There is less advice on using these events than I would like, but I can see this tools appearing in other supplements to model other forms of apocalypses.
The last part of the chapter is on rewards. This includes level increases and treasure. Level advancement is simply a matter of finishing an "adventure". As such, you can do this as quickly as over 11 sessions or as long as you want. There is even a training option before levels or before the Paths are taken.
Instead of a list of magic items there are 6 or so tables. The first gives 20 different forms, and then you roll on a combination of the other 5 to determine what it can do. The result is a little less predictable than D&D and effectively produces many different magic items than a list using ten times the page count could manage. The section finishes on one-off relics and a handful of examples.
The final chapter is another hidden gem. The bestiary has around 90 monsters in it. It includes NPCs, animals, and a large selection of monsters.
The stat blocks are reminiscient of something between 4e and 5e with concise ready to use information all in one place, with a number of options that provide the GM with portray each monster in combat.
Though they are many standard fantasy critters in there, they seem scarier than their D&D versions. Dragons and demons are truly terrifying, even for level 10 PCs.
The chater finishes on a section of creating your own monsters. This includes templates using the four basic Paths. Want your ogre to be a seasoned warrior? Add a level or two of the warrior template. Your dragon knows magic? Add a level of mage template.
SotDL is everything it says in the tin and more. It takes some of the best RPG concepts out there and polishes them even further. It may not be truly innovative, but the combination of ideas produces an excellent overall result that fans of games like WFRP and D&D will find a lot to like about.
The most impressive thing about the game, other than the design, is the sheer amount of content in a 272 page rulebook. I feel I get as much as D&D packs in 3 books the same size. When you factor this in to this being the product of one writer, it's an amazing feat.
As icing in the cake, the book is gorgeous, macabre, yet fun in presentation and art consistently throughout.
With a lot of support lined up from the KS alone, from campaigns, setting supplements, postapocalyptic alternative settings, and a companion that adds another 20% more or so monsters, paths and magic, it will interesting to see Rob expand from this excellent foundation.