Plenty Of Time To Die: A Shadowdark Review

This classic dungeon crawl experience raised over a million on Kickstarter

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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

JohnF

Adventurer
Ive been reading pretty much every RPG I could get my hands on over the last year as Ive been writing my own game and I cannot quite express in concise terms how completely demoralizing it is to find a game that people speak of highly only to read it for myself and find another damn 5E/OSR/PBTA clone/frankenstein.
One person's Frankenstein is another's brilliant synthesis.

I genuinely relate to your POV and have often felt the same, but when I first tried running Shadowdark during the KS, I was thrilled to discover that Kelsey's combination of bits and bobs absolutely sing. I went all in!

All of the game's elements blend well together to give me the RPG action that I want at a refreshingly brisk pace. The consideration that went into all of her design choices becomes apparent when you play your first session of Shadowdark.

I'd add that I also love how the game facilitates equal engagement for players. I could really go on and on about that! Yesterday, one of us 50-somethings had his 9 year-old son at the table for the first time, and it was Kelsey's rules - not my GMing - that gave the boy the PC-attention everyone deserves (but doesn't always get around experienced players).

Shadowdark is my D&D, now.
 

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Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
So, here's the thing, @Emberashh, and folks with a similar criticism:

Games can serve two main purposes, in my experience.

1) They can be for readers and focus on making that an enjoyable experience, perhaps with deep lore or clever writing or novel ideas. (See the late oWoD books from the late 1990s for the ur-examples of this.)

2) Or they can be for people using them in play and focus on creating a great experience at the table. Deep lore, clever writing and novel ideas are nice to have in this case, but inessential if the finished product works well for its intended use -- being a good play experience.

It's extremely weird to me to see people criticizing a game for merely being good at the table -- a bar that many games never actually clear. It's nice that you have a dragon's hoard of games and value novelty and new ideas above all things, but when a game "merely" offers a good play experience maybe that's what was intended.
 
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Emphasis mine.

So, if I misinterpreted that, what did you mean?

That being highly recommended tends to imply more than just being a clone or a Frankenstein that hits a niche.

As I said, its not like this makes it bad or something I wouldn't recommend. I just found it disappointing as it wasnt what Im looking for in reading as many RPGs as I can get my hands on.

So, here's the thing, @Emberashh, and folks with a similar criticism:

Games can serve two main purposes, in my experience.

1) They can be for readers and focus on making that an enjoyable experience, perhaps with deep lore or clever writing or novel ideas. (See the late oWoD books from the late 1990s for the ur-examples of this.)

2) Or they can be for people using them in play and focus on creating a great experience at the table. Deep lore, clever writing and novel ideas are nice to have in this case, but inessential if the finished product works well for its intended use -- being a good play experience.

It's extremely weird to me to see people criticizing a game for merely being good at the table -- a bar that many games never actually clear. It's nice that you have a dragon's hoard of games and value novelty and new ideas above all things, but when a game "merely" offers a good play experience maybe that's what was intended.

As said though, Im not criticizing the game for that, just relating that I found it disappointing for the reasons I listed, which are not what most people looking for a new RPG to play need concern themselves with.

Rather important though if you're looking to learn, and what Shadowdark has to provide in that route isn't anything to do with the game itself.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
That being highly recommended tends to imply more than just being a clone or a Frankenstein that hits a niche.

As I said, its not like this makes it bad or something I wouldn't recommend. I just found it disappointing as it wasnt what Im looking for in reading as many RPGs as I can get my hands on.
Thanks for clarifying. I apologize for the misunderstanding.

I do still think it's a bit of a weird take, though, because it sort of suggests novelty is driver of good as opposed to playability. Is that a fair assessment of your thoughts?
 

Thanks for clarifying. I apologize for the misunderstanding.

I do still think it's a bit of a weird take, though, because it sort of suggests novelty is driver of good as opposed to playability. Is that a fair assessment of your thoughts?

Im not passing judgment on whether or not its good. Or rather, I wasn't at the time.

Having reread it again, I can actually identify a big problem with it and its the same fundamental issue I have with the Pathfinder family; its soulless.

Its a rather sterile and empty rulebook for a game Ive already been playing, with systems far more evocative that actually make me want to play in and run them.

The game does have the inklings of interesting directions, but it never actually explores them nor develops a subsequent personality. As the meaning if the word soulless goes, it is both tedius and uninspiring.

If I can read the book cover to cover and never get excited about it thats not a really good thing. And not to mention that for a game thats clearly been informed by DCC among a great deal of others, not taking Mighty Deeds of all things into it is just, bizarre, nevermind all the other neat things DCC does.

And im sure you and others will disagree, but thats my assessment.
 

Divine2021

Adventurer
And im sure you and others will disagree, but thats my assessment.
Man, you do you, and you’re completely allowed to have your own assessment, it’s a free country. I just feel like I read a completely different book than you, because for the first time in my game playing career do I now want to play a DnD like instead of playing the original game. To each their own.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
Im not passing judgment on whether or not its good. Or rather, I wasn't at the time.

Having reread it again, I can actually identify a big problem with it and its the same fundamental issue I have with the Pathfinder family; its soulless.

Its a rather sterile and empty rulebook for a game Ive already been playing, with systems far more evocative that actually make me want to play in and run them.

The game does have the inklings of interesting directions, but it never actually explores them nor develops a subsequent personality. As the meaning if the word soulless goes, it is both tedius and uninspiring.

If I can read the book cover to cover and never get excited about it thats not a really good thing. And not to mention that for a game thats clearly been informed by DCC among a great deal of others, not taking Mighty Deeds of all things into it is just, bizarre, nevermind all the other neat things DCC does.

And im sure you and others will disagree, but thats my assessment.
You're entitled to you opinion, of course, but I think you are being intentionally overly critical.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
. . . for the first time in my game playing career do I now want to play a DnD like instead of playing the original game.
This is where I'm leaning. Pathfinder, D&D 4, D&D 5, ODD...same stuff, different day. But Shadowdark sparks something interesting. Is it only available through Kickstarter? DrivethruRPG makes promising suggestions, but then suggests other products for which I should be searching.
 

Andvari

Hero
Having reread it again, I can actually identify a big problem with it and its the same fundamental issue I have with the Pathfinder family; its soulless.

Its a rather sterile and empty rulebook for a game Ive already been playing, with systems far more evocative that actually make me want to play in and run them.
Can you clarify what you mean by soulless? Is it the language used? The rules themselves? The setting? A combination? Something else? Note that I haven't read Shadowdark as such and don't run it, but have watched Shadowdark video content/reviews.
 

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