Plenty Of Time To Die: A Shadowdark Review

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Blockbuster Kickstarters tend to be examples of the old adage of “An overnight success years in the making”. The recent Shadowdark one that raked in over a million USD is a perfect example. While The Arcane Library wasn’t as well known as some third party 5e creators, it was doing excellent work in the 5e space and racking up a fan base that reacted well to Shadowdark. It also likely hit at just the right time as D&D fans were looking for a new flavor of dungeon crawl. Creator Kelsey Dionne was kind enough to give me an advance copy of the full PDF and discussed the game at Gary Con where she was running full table demos for enthusiastic backers. How does the game recapture that dangerous feeling of classic dungeon crawls while still keeping popular elements of 5e? Let’s play to find out.

Shadowdark throws things back to a classic dungeon crawl experience with quick character creation, deadly encounters that players must weigh between fighting, avoiding or outright fleeing. Dionne has said that she wants to deliver those old school elements but not be stuck with legacy mechanics. Take the best stuff from those older sourcers but also elements from more modern designs. There are also a few things in the game that make it unique. The most well known one is the use of a real life timer. Torches last one hour in the dungeon and things get much more difficult in the dark. Time and light also seem like resources that can endanger characters beyond the claws of monsters and the spikes of traps. Staying out of the dark becomes something the DM can use to complicate encounters. Monsters go after whoever holds the light source first. Players have to find a place to stash the torch during a treacherous climb. That timer also puts pressure on the players to act rather than planning to plan.

Character creation wears its ancient influences on its bracers. Six traits, 3d6 for each all the way down with four classes to choose from. All of these classes fit on one or two pages for ease of reference and simplicity of choice. That randomness extends to a handful of charts where players can roll for a completely random character. The breeziness of the process makes it easy to ditch a set of rolls for a new character or not get too broken up should that character become a grue snack early on in the game. Randomness continues as characters grow with level ups coming off of a chart that contains the usual mix of class talents, ability improvements and such. Rolling a 12 means the player chooses, otherwise progression is left a little to chance. XP is handled by collecting treasure, allowing for players to grow without having to throw down in combat. As someone who prefers to design characters, this isn’t my usual cup of tea, but I’ve also come to enjoy playing characters as they lie too. Gaining a +1 to longsword attacks tells an emergent story based on what happened in the dungeon. It brings to mind those moments where a fighter pulls out their trusty weapon and says “We’ve been through a few things, haven’t we?” that fits this kind of story better.

There are also modern bits of design in Shadowdark. The most obvious lift is advantage and disadvantage but there are others that stand out from the general classic D&D base. Ancestry is another, both in using the modern terminology and being a broad feat-style bonus rather than a predetermined number of bonuses and penalties. These characters also are given smaller, wider bonuses as they level rather than cranking up the math to higher levels. Armor Class goes up, ability scores turn into d20 modifiers and casters only lose spells on a failed casting roll. Though the fights are brutal, death saves of a sort exist. Characters have 1d4 plus their CON modifier to either roll a 20 on their turn or get healed/stabilized. Enough of these elements exist that make this an excellent game for older D&D players to show new 5e fans how things were done in the “old days” without worrying about explaining THAC0 or why the wizards must carry around a dagger.

A few elements blend the old school and the modern together. Players gain XP for gaining treasure but they also gain it for spending treasure on raucous nights at the pub. The more players spend, the more XP they gain. There are charts of course, that offer other consequences of those blurry nights of carousing. Consequences that can tie in to later adventures. When that mysterious tattoo the wizard picked up during their last trip to town starts glowing in the dungeon, it’s a good way to weave a longer story into the game.

And if the rules included aren’t enough, Shadowdark provides options. Even something central like the torch timer has options as something the players can watch on the clock or something the DM tracks behind the screen. GMs can turn the dial towards hardcore with choices like death at zero hit points or making stabilization harder or they can lower the difficulty through more use of luck tokens or giving out XP for dead monsters. Though the four basic classes offer a lot of options more official ones, like the Pit Fighter and the Hell Knight, have been seen in upcoming Cursed Scroll supplements. Kickstarer backers also chose the ranger and the bard to be developed as stretch goals. The lightness of the classes means making one that feels like an old favorite very easy for homebrew and third party options.

Beyond official expansions, rules edits or third party community choices, Shadowdark captured one of 5e’s most underrated strengths: adaptability. With a minimum of prep time, I feel like I could run everything from King’s Festival to The Lost Vault of Tsathzar Rho tonight for a mix of players who’ve never played and ones that have been around since the 80s. Shadowdark cuts most of the fat of other versions of D&D, leaving a lean, mean dungeon crawling machine.

You don't have to take my word for it. This Shadowdark Quickstart contains everything you need to try out the game.
 
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Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland

Bill Zebub

“It’s probably Matt Mercer’s fault.”
Thing is, if the book has no soul, Im never going to read it again, nevermind actually play it.

Thats why with Pathfinder, a set of games I also find soulless, Ive found myself wanting to play Paizos adventures far more than their actual game. Their APs have always been consistently excellent in this regard.

And from what Ive seen of the adventures 3PP content for Shadowdark, that will likely be the same case.

Maybe the problem is that I have no idea what you mean by "no soul". I just interpreted it to mean "I didn't get excited reading it". But maybe you mean something more specific?

Edit: Maybe it's that the phrase "no soul" makes it seem like there's something objectively missing. Whereas "not my cup of tea" acknowledges that we all have our own subjective preferences.
 
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I just interpreted it to mean "I didn't get excited reading it".

That is what I mean. I should be able to read a rule book and be inspired to play.

That is incidentally how the main RPGs Ive played extensively (5e, DCC, Ironsworn/Starforged) all captured my attention and lead me to run and play them.

The only general exception to that rule has been Pathfinder, which as alluded to, we played for an adventure path (a hack of Kingmaker 1e for 2e (this was before they released the official 2e version)).

Ultimately, Ive descibed Shadowdark as a big book of quick reference guides. QRGs are good, and Ive also noted more games need to focus on including them.

But QRGs don't immerse you into the games aesthetics, unless the aesthetics are intended to be that of a modern McDonalds; non-offensive and clean, but dreadfully boring.

Ironsworn meanwhile is a good example to point to as something that bridges the gap between what Shadowdark is and what it could be. Ironsworn doesn't fail to immerse you despite having the same overall QRG feel.

Kevin Crawfords whole body of work is another example (that I only haven't played much as Im the sole person in my group interested in it).

And fwiw, 4e DND also has this quality at least on the DM side of things. I haven't actually sat down and read the Players side, so Ill reserve judgement there.
 

Bill Zebub

“It’s probably Matt Mercer’s fault.”
That is what I mean. I should be able to read a rule book and be inspired to play.

Agreed!

But QRGs don't immerse you into the games aesthetics, unless the aesthetics are intended to be that of a modern McDonalds; non-offensive and clean, but dreadfully boring.

This is where I will quibble. Change the "you" to "me" and we're good. This is your experience (and it's a perfectly valid one!) but it's not universal.

Because when I read Shadowdark (the original Quickstart) I almost jumped out of my chair and shouted "Eureka!" It immediately immersed me into the aesthetics, and I was excited to play. The one-page character classes, with one-sentence ability descriptions, fire up my imagination and I start thinking of all the interesting situations these lightweight rules might apply.

Whereas when I've read DCC...and many other games...I see pages and pages of rules, with multi-paragraph descriptions of exactly how abilities work, and 17 different effects one spell can have, and it just feels like a big straightjacket. Or a weighted blanket designed by engineers who typed in the wrong value for gravity.

Not that either of us is right or wrong. Just that different people get inspired by different things.
 


This is where I will quibble. Change the "you" to "me" and we're good. This is your experience (and it's a perfectly valid one!) but it's not universal.

Well yes, im elaborating on my opinion of the game and why I think that way.

I have never understood why people consistently see me calling a particular game soulless and get a brain worm thinking Im making objective statements just because I don't speak passively about my opinions.

The one-page character classes, with one-sentence ability descriptions, fire up my imagination and I start thinking of all the interesting situations these lightweight rules might apply.

When I read them, I just wonder aloud why Im doing so when Ive already read all of this several times over in dozens of other rule books.

Shadowdark isn't the first game to be a very concise take on OSE/BX, and Im not in any need of a marginally better presentation of the exact same rules Im already familiar with.

Whereas when I've read DCC...and many other games...I see pages and pages of rules, with multi-paragraph descriptions of exactly how abilities work, and 17 different effects one spell can have, and it just feels like a big straightjacket. Or a weighted blanket designed by engineers who typed in the wrong value for gravity.

Sure, if what you're after in a game is to just do all the creative work yourself. As said previously, Shadowdark is designed expecting you to fill in all the flavor, but it never considers if someone can (and will) be filling in all the rules.

I could run Shadowdark right now and I don't even need the book. You might call that a good thing, but in the context of me being able to do that only because Im already familiar with dozens of other games that are mechanically identical, it most certainly isn't, because why spend 30 odd dollars on a book that, in more ways than one, offers me nothing of value?

SD Is fine if you're a 5e-only person who wants to dip into OSR for a change. Its accessible and all that. But if you've already been around the block in that scene, the most SD can offer you is a novel torch rule and a 1-2 ideas for homebrew rules.

Thats not a $30 value, and its fair to make it clear to people what they're getting depending on where they are in the hobby. Thats why I don't mind saying it can be good for some, but in the scheme of things it isn't that special a book, which is the same thing I say about Pathfinder, and why I think, like Paizos AP Books, Shadowdark will probably be a good source to mine for adventure material.

But as a game system? There's nothing there that I don't already have a dozen times over in my library.
 




Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Folks on the Shadowdark Facebook group say they've run Isle of Dread, Keep on the Borderlands and Palace of the Silver Princess. I haven't run any, myself.
That's pretty cool. Well, I could run B2 with a collection of dog toys and half a carrot at this point, but generally it's good to see that it adapts well to classic modules. That opens up a lot of sweet gaming space.
 


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