Five Things I Love About Shadow Of The Demon Lord

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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

Superchunk77

Adventurer
Best d20 fantasy RPG there is, period. You can plug/unplug so many little parts of this game to fit it to any setting you want.

Want lower magic? Strip out the traditions and paths you don't want to use.

Less grimdark? Remove dark magic traditions and ancestries/monsters of that nature.

Game still runs like a dream even when you strip out the aspects you don't like. The d20 plus boons/banes mechanic is robust, interactive, and super easy to remember too.
 

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Brodie

Explorer
I've run this game, as well as had the pleasure to get to be a player with Rob Schwalb as the GM once. I love the system from top to bottom and it's without a doubt the best Kickstarter I participated in (the Fate Core Kickstarter coming in at a close second).

I used the Tales of the Demon Lord campaign for my group. Thankfully, the way my group plays, it could take a few sessions to get through the higher level adventures so I was able to run it for a while. I wouldn't say the game is simple, but now that I'm running 5E, I miss some of the more streamlined things SotDL does.
 

DerKastellan

Explorer
We played SotDL for several levels, and the character build options seemed imbalanced and impractical, also counterintuitive for people with a d20 background. I have played many different kinds of RPGs, and I had great expectations for SotDL on its release, also had a Warhammer fan among the players, and we ditched it for 5e after several sessions/levels and didn't really look back.

Trying to remember how it was, the class system felt like building very narrow characters in spite of many choices that could do very little barely well. If I remember the class names wrong, it's been a few years... The fighter build needed to be min-maxed right away or would be worse than other classes at fighting (like it couldn't wear heavy armor unless going for one particular build). The rogue was OP. The cleric wasn't a good healer, the wizard or magician or what it was called could do it better - you were better off in general building a healing wizard. After a few sessions I tried to map out the magical options by class and these didn't feel like characters who could together comprise a broad set of problem-solving options. They seemed like two-trick ponies at best.

Also, some rules-as-written were ambiguous or poorly worded, I went and asked questions at the recommended channels. I never find it a good sign if people are recommending looking at the supposed intent of a rule for basic stuff, usually this is reserved for more complex rules interactions. And if the rules author intends something to be taken by its intent more than by its exact text, it would be good to write this explicitly - including the intent of a particular rules element - in the text. Given Schwalb's design chops and his involvement in 5e I was very surprised at this, actually.

Having had this experience, I had similar expectations with Numenera given the limited range of powers players get (and given how monotonous the Tides of Numenera video game was), but players were more pleased with what they had on average, nobody seemed to stick as OP or the opposite, and cyphers can keep the game fresh.

I've played Warhammer FRPG since in 2e and 4e and while I'm not a big fan, its character build system seems to fit better there than SotDL's does. (Just harping on this since SotDL claimed this as inspirations and got me interested because of its class system mostly.)

I also saw good in the game, maybe that's why I was so disappointed. I appreciate its relative simplicity, the fact that unlike other games it does not shy from providing a way to match challenges to the group (looking at DCC or Savage Worlds here where clearly all modules follow some guideline but they give us very little to work with as GMs), the atmospheric supplements, the pricing, and that it has for example a level 0. I would have preferred to stick with it had I not run into these stumbling blocks.

It's my belief that all of this is fixable and adjustable. The game might actually be a bit better if it had not had such a plethora of character options your campaign is unlikely to use from the outset. It certainly was an ambitious project. I will still check out Shadows of the Weird Wizard just in case.
 

Vaslov

Explorer
I play at a table with ~4 other GMs so we rotate our campaigns regularly. I had taken a break from DMing for a few years and most of the others stuck to 5e since it released. Someone brought up an old evil D&D campaign I ran years ago and we started discussing if I would run something similar again. Thing is, I had no interest in running a 5e game. We play on Friday nights which for me is after a very long work week and wanted something lighter on my brain to manage and prep for. After they nixed a few other lighter systems I wanted to try we compromised on SotDL.

After about 12 sessions under my belt I can confirm from a GM point of view it is an easier system to run. Building foes that are interesting doesn't take all that much effort once you dig into how to build an enemy. Pacing the leveling to the groups tastes is easy to do. Currently the group just finished up level 5 and is moving into level 6 with our next game. I am pushing myself to size the story and rate of leveling to something suggested in the book vs. our typical table approach of super slow leveling and hyper complex plots. So far no complaints.

It is good to keep reminding the group this is not 5e and put some of those expectations aside. For example, one character has an ability to kill a target on a hit, ignoring it's hit points under certain circumstances. This power from the core rule book came online at 3rd level. This is fine by me and the table at large for our game. YMMV. Expect some player character deaths as they will happen. The system is a bit more deadly than 5e.

Overall I would say the system does what it says on the tin. It runs like a lighter rules flavor of 5e. I would say my two favorite things of the system are the class building approach others have commented on and how initiative is managed. The initiative approach keeps everyone at the table stays much more focused on the game than I see with 5e.

While it's a recommend for me and met my goals for running a game the other GMs at the table have continued to run their games in 5e. For that reason I would argue it is more a flavor/preference thing when choosing between the two systems.
 

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
We played SotDL for several levels, and the character build options seemed imbalanced and impractical, also counterintuitive for people with a d20 background. I have played many different kinds of RPGs, and I had great expectations for SotDL on its release, also had a Warhammer fan among the players, and we ditched it for 5e after several sessions/levels and didn't really look back.

Trying to remember how it was, the class system felt like building very narrow characters in spite of many choices that could do very little barely well. If I remember the class names wrong, it's been a few years... The fighter build needed to be min-maxed right away or would be worse than other classes at fighting (like it couldn't wear heavy armor unless going for one particular build). The rogue was OP. The cleric wasn't a good healer, the wizard or magician or what it was called could do it better - you were better off in general building a healing wizard. After a few sessions I tried to map out the magical options by class and these didn't feel like characters who could together comprise a broad set of problem-solving options. They seemed like two-trick ponies at best.

Also, some rules-as-written were ambiguous or poorly worded, I went and asked questions at the recommended channels. I never find it a good sign if people are recommending looking at the supposed intent of a rule for basic stuff, usually this is reserved for more complex rules interactions. And if the rules author intends something to be taken by its intent more than by its exact text, it would be good to write this explicitly - including the intent of a particular rules element - in the text. Given Schwalb's design chops and his involvement in 5e I was very surprised at this, actually.

Having had this experience, I had similar expectations with Numenera given the limited range of powers players get (and given how monotonous the Tides of Numenera video game was), but players were more pleased with what they had on average, nobody seemed to stick as OP or the opposite, and cyphers can keep the game fresh.

I've played Warhammer FRPG since in 2e and 4e and while I'm not a big fan, its character build system seems to fit better there than SotDL's does. (Just harping on this since SotDL claimed this as inspirations and got me interested because of its class system mostly.)

I also saw good in the game, maybe that's why I was so disappointed. I appreciate its relative simplicity, the fact that unlike other games it does not shy from providing a way to match challenges to the group (looking at DCC or Savage Worlds here where clearly all modules follow some guideline but they give us very little to work with as GMs), the atmospheric supplements, the pricing, and that it has for example a level 0. I would have preferred to stick with it had I not run into these stumbling blocks.

It's my belief that all of this is fixable and adjustable. The game might actually be a bit better if it had not had such a plethora of character options your campaign is unlikely to use from the outset. It certainly was an ambitious project. I will still check out Shadows of the Weird Wizard just in case.
Appreciate the more insightful post into the game. Versus the "its great" or "it sucks"kinda post. :)

Edit: Same applies to Vaslov's post above mine.
 

mykediemart

Explorer
An interesting system but one I think isn't for me due to the 10/11 campaign limit built into it.
Its it the power level or just the shortness of the campaign? My solution was to just slow down the leveling, it like using milestone.

Some of the adventures I have used in 5e and they worked fine as well.
 


GreyLord

Legend
There are rules in supplements about expanding your campaign past 10/11 levels.
Which supplements are those? After this article I'm interested in looking into the game system, but would also like to have the option to go past 10/11 from the get go if I want/choose to eventually.
 


Aldarc

Legend
Which supplements are those? After this article I'm interested in looking into the game system, but would also like to have the option to go past 10/11 from the get go if I want/choose to eventually.
Forbidden Rules

Forbidden Rules provides a comprehensive set of variant and optional rules for use with Shadow of the Demon Lord role playing game, letting you reshape the game in a variety of different ways. Whether you’re looking for a points-based casting system or basic rules to kick off games beyond level 10, this supplement has it. Inside this book, you’ll find:

  • Dice rules that range from cooperative tasks to consistent damage, bell curve rolls, and variants in which players make all the rolls.
  • More marks of darkness and rules for using fortune points.
  • Damage reducing armor rules
  • Wounds to replace damage
  • Modified dying and death rules
  • Variant healing methods
  • Social combat rules
  • Variant combat options, such as initiative or guidelines for running abstract combats
  • New ways to use actions in combat plus details on how to handle chases
  • Optional rules for customizing ancestries
  • A skill variant to replace professions
  • A new adept novice path
  • A system of power points to replace castings!
  • Plus much, much more!
Using the options in this book helps you tailor your Shadow of the Demon Lord role playing game experience in a variety of new and interesting ways, but even if you don’t alter the underlying system, certain options are perfect expansions for the main game. Do you have the courage to read these Forbidden Pages?

Buy Forbidden Rules from Schwalb Entertainment in PDF, Print or from DriveThruRPG!
 

Retreater

Legend
Something about the races/ancestries just didn't grab me. Like playing clockworks, goblins, trolls, or whatever. That is where it lost the connection to the WHFRPG feeling to me. I had bought the hardcover rulebook and never really gave it a second thought after that.
 

mykediemart

Explorer
Something about the races/ancestries just didn't grab me. Like playing clockworks, goblins, trolls, or whatever. That is where it lost the connection to the WHFRPG feeling to me. I had bought the hardcover rulebook and never really gave it a second thought after that.
Of course you know you can just leave them out. I prefer to leave out clockworks all the time.
I used it for a warhammer game, made a few tweeks worked well.
 


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.
I Actually did precisely this - it works really well.
 

Great game - one of the few campaigns I've actually finished. incredibly flexible for adaption to any campaign world. I switched my Pathfinder Iobaria/Tales of the Old Margreve mash-up campaign over from PF1 to SotDL and it was brilliant. The system has the right level of crunch and flavour without ever bogging down, even at 'high' levels. Now my go-to system for any F20-style setting.
 

I didn't care for the system, but the core concept of the setting is very good, exceptional for the fantasy genre. I've ripped it off for more than one campaign.
 




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