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.