Five Things I Love About Shadow Of The Demon Lord

I’m not sure why I like dark fantasy the way I do. Maybe it’s because I fell hard for the World of Darkness in the 90s and just can’t shake it. Maybe I wanted to step away from my Tolkien loving dad but still have something to talk about in our shared nerd heritage. Maybe I just like brooding while crouched on a gargoyle surveying my dark kingdom. One of my favorite systems for dark fantasy...

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I’m not sure why I like dark fantasy the way I do. Maybe it’s because I fell hard for the World of Darkness in the 90s and just can’t shake it. Maybe I wanted to step away from my Tolkien loving dad but still have something to talk about in our shared nerd heritage. Maybe I just like brooding while crouched on a gargoyle surveying my dark kingdom.

One of my favorite systems for dark fantasy is Shadow of the Demon Lord. Designed by Robert Schwalb, this game takes the best elements of Dungeons & Dragons style fantasy and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay world building and stitches them together as a powerful, unholy beast. The Bundle of Holding currently has two bundles of the game available for grave dirt cheap. If those prices don’t sway you, or if you come upon this article after the deal is done, here are five reasons to check out this dark chocolate masterpiece.

Boons & Banes​

Shadow of the Demon Lord strips d20 mechanics down to the wiring and then builds it back up with new ideas. Rather than oodles of modifiers or different difficulty numbers, the GM adjusts the base difficulty of an action with boons and banes. Boons provide a d6 that adds to a roll while banes are a d6 that subtracts. If both are applied to a roll, they cancel each other out. If a multiple of one kind are assigned to a roll, the highest dice is kept for a max swing of six points. In play, these feel like a slightly more granular version of advantage and disadvantage. Easy to judge on the fly to adjust a difficulty but not forcing a GM to seek out modifiers from several places in the book.

Multiclassing Done Right​

The major systemic inspiration from Warhammer Fantasy Role Play are the three classes that each character picks up over the course of the campaign. By breaking the progression into Novice, Expert and Master classes, players aren’t locked into a direction for their character from the start. The Novice classes start out as a basic fighter/thief/cleric/magic-user split, but everything from there goes into some flavorful spaces. Players can play things straight to build on previous classes, like proceeding from a Warrior through a Berserker to a Death Dealer for that greataxe smash combination, or do something stranger like start as a Priest, become an Assassin, and end up as a Gunslinger. These classes feel balanced in play and avoid a lot of the complexity and traps of multiclassing in other games.

Elegant Initiative​

Going first in a fight is important. A lot of traditional games get bogged down in who goes when and how many actions a character can take. This game keeps it simple, but still throws in a tactical choice. Players always go before the bad guys (one of the few bright spots in this dark world) but they must choose either a fast action or a slow action. Fast actions are a single action, while slow actions are an action plus a move. This means every combat round has four phases: PCs taking fast actions, then GM characters taking a fast action, then players taking a slow action, then GM characters taking a slow action. Characters can act within whichever order they prefer in each phase. It’s an easy decision most of the time, but those moments when a player or GM has to consider whether or not moving is worth going slow offers hard choices often enough to give these decisions weight.

Goldilocks Campaigns​

Shadow of the Demon Lord is built to run for ten sessions with a level up at the end of each one, 11 if the group is interested in a funnel-style level 0 beginning. While most people long for RPG campaigns that last for decades, ten sessions isn’t a bad length for a game where adult logistics come into play. For those who want to stretch out the game, 2 sessions per level seems like a compromise between speedy levelling and more in depth story. A 3 session per level campaign is around the pace for a typical 5e game and gives players a chance to hunger for new toys rather than get them every session.

Build Your Own Edition​

Most of the game rules are digital PDFs. That keeps the costs down, but Schwalb has also offered many game elements in small, cheap PDFs that cost a few dollars here or there. Want more in depth rules for battle scars? Or individual background tables for each heritage? GMs can build their own edition suited to their table. It’s also very easy to pick up and run an adventure. Schwalb has recruited several well-loved game designers (including me) to write short adventures that slot into a night of evil fun.
 

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Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland

Davies

Legend
Alas, I suspect that last one has created as many problems for the line as it opens doors. I've run into people who are absolutely insistent that they won't buy the PDFs because they think they're going to be collected into a single volume eventually. Arguments that they hadn't been after years were of no avail.
 





I've run a campaign and currently play in one, and I am kind of done with system. The one unique selling point that I can run a campaign in ten sessions, can easily be accomodated with any other level-based system. Though I admit, they get multi-classing right. For the rest, I find that D&D simply runs smoother for me.
 



andrewlichey

Explorer
I was lucky enough to play two games of SotDL run by Robert Schwalb at GaryCon a few years ago. Lots of fun, and I liked the system a lot. Very easy to pick up, but didn't feel limited.
 

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