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 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

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Doesn't sound like you can treat it like that though, since you level after every session.
That's the default way of leveling and building campaigns. But the system doesn't break if you slow it down. (At least from what I've read online.) I've seen suggestions to set progression so the number of sessions equal the character level. For example, it takes one session to progress to 1st level, two more sessions to progress to 2nd level, three more sessions to hit 3rd level, etc. Ultimately, it's arbitrary, and you can do as you please.


This game is a glorious creation. You can start in a mode that is easy to understand, even though at later levels the complexity of character-building can be exponential, at your leisure. Of course, some odds and ends need to be ironed out, as is expected. On the whole, the game removes the dependency of magic items for martial characters, and magic is capped at about 5th-level D&D spells. We felt, that the story elements took a center stage, and the rules elements faded to the background with this game.


Dirty, realism-hating munchkin powergamer
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.
Yea, I'll be honest, the one thing that really keeps me from using the system more is that I would love to have all the character creation options bundled into one big PDF that I could print and give to my players. Having a nice and easy random chargen system is great, but separating the options into 10 different PDFs makes that painful.


A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Sounds like fun. I would totally be in for a 10 or 11 session a player. As a DM, I'm cutting back on buying cool systems I never have time to run. I've avoided buying anything other medievalish fantasy settings. D&D scratches that itch, so I tend to go for systems that are very different.

While most people long for RPG campaigns that last for decades...

Not me. There are too many campaign ideas to try out. I like having a group of friends I can game with for decades, but not really interested in most of that happening in the same campaign or even setting. I really like the idea of a different level a session and have done it with my D&D campaigns.

I love the system. It's so easy to learn and explain. Most players are ready after 5 minutes or less of explaining the basics, there are tons of great adventures published and the shorter campaign length was designed with people like me in mind who do not have as much time as they used to.

WotC has said their surveys show the great majority of campaign wrap up before level 10. Of course, that doesn't stop them from making almost all of their published campaigns for levels 1-14 or so.

RPGs are a weird hobby that way. So much of what is published and what people talk online about is what players hope will happen in a campaign, rather than what is likely to happen.

Von Ether

While most people long for RPG campaigns that last for decades,

Very few games last like that and despite the evidence, players still hold out hope for that.

Even weirder, you have to switch gears every 5 levels or so anyway because the power level changes.

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