Shadowdark: A How To Use Review

The Shadowdark represents anywhere filled with darkness, danger, and legend. Maybe a haunted ruined castle or an alligator filled sewer. If the PCs are risking life and limb with swords, spells, and torches then they’re facing the Shadowdark.

The Shadowdark represents anywhere filled with darkness, danger, and legend. Maybe a haunted ruined castle or an alligator filled sewer. If the PCs are risking life and limb with swords, spells, and torches then they’re facing the Shadowdark.


“The Shadowdark is like a sleeping bear. Only go near it if you have a 10-foot pole and are prepared to die.”

A Quick Start to Hexploring​

Shadowdark RPG, currently on kickstarter and with a free quickstart, brings dungeon crawling and hexploring with a unified d20 system and an old school feel. After our interview, Kelsey Dionne, the author, was kind enough to send me a review PDF so I could test it out from a GM’s point of view.

The quickstart covers character creation and the rules. What I want to do is use the full rules to prep a dungeon crawl and hexploration mini-adventure, maybe something that would take an hour to run.

For this review, I’ve created my own session zero. The campaign setting is an ancient rotting city called Rahgbat (settlement name generator page 133) on a bayou. The free settlement was once part of a fallen empire and beyond the supporting villages up to a day away is otherwise surrounded by wilds and ruins. The player characters all spend time in the Filthy Trident (tavern name generator page 236 and known for hostility towards spellcasters which Hobnob finds a hoot).

Meet Hugo, Hobnobrobbykob, and Gutboy​

Hugo Haleberry is a halfling thief who mostly lives gigging for frogs and picking pockets, Hobnobrobbykob is an apprentice wizard moonlighting as a bartender, Gutboy Barrelhouse is a dwarf priest of Gede and raised by elven moonshiners and smugglers, and Galira (character names page 38) is an elf fighter who spends her days as a gondola pilot. They all gripe about their jobs constantly and gamble and drink away their wages.

They are all in the Filthy Trident one stormy night when something happens (page 118)! Galira’s elf eyes spot a half-open bag with gold coins glinting outside. From that point, initiative will be rolled to see what the PCs do next.

The coins were dropped by Ravos, an elven gondola pilot and smuggler who owes both Gutboy and Galira money. How he came by six gold coins is a mystery. If the PCs go to grab the coins they see lizardfolk dragging away Ravos in his boat, and many more gold pieces clatter into the bottom as Ravos hits a kidnapper with a pouch and it rips open. Ravos grips a third pouch in his other hand. Galira’s gondola is not far away if the PCs decide the coins they’ve collected are not enough.

If the PCs chase the lizardfolk they will catch them if Galira is piloting or with a DC 12 Strength check otherwise. The lizardfolk only speak Reptilian and if the PCs do not only Ravos can translate. He sold the lizardfolk bad moonshine which started a zombie outbreak in the swamp but Ravos will never admit to that. He’ll say the lizardfolk hunt down elves to eat as they consider them a delicacy. If the PCs fight the lizardfolk they fight with a 1d6 bite attack. Any PC reduced to 0 HP dies and rises as a zombie in 1d4 rounds.

If the PCs leave Ravos to his fate or the lizardfolk get way, the PCs can go back into the Filthy Trident and play a betting game Wizards and Thieves (page 94) with their new found gold. Ravos will show up hours later as a zombie (page 265 with 1d4 bite attack and if attack reduces HP to 0, turns victim into a zombie in 1d4 rounds) and kicks off a zombie plague centered on the Filthy Trident. The lizardfolk infected him, although the PCs won’t know that.

Ravos has a filthy and stained map of the bayou with a lizardfolk village marked with the Elvish word for suckers. He has drawn an X through the village and has circled Gutboy’s home settlement as possible next marks. He also marked the Isle of the Blighted Skull with a note: Master, he has So Much Gold. Likely the place he got all the gold coins from.

Eventually, the PCs may decide to boat out to the lizardfolk or try to warn their elven adopted kin or go for more gold. Overland travel (page 90) through arduous terrain means the PCs can travel through one six-mile hex a day. The journey is unsafe but along a travelled route, calling for two random encounter rolls (page 112) and a possible swamp encounter (page 176). I roll to prep ahead of time and get 1d4 muddy hippos thrash and gore 1d6 hissing crocodiles. This battle will boil up around the PCs as they row by just above if triggered. Gutboy can guide them without a roll, otherwise make a DC 12 Int check to avoid getting lost.

The source of both the gold coins and the zombie outbreak is the Isle of the Blighted Skull (adventure site name page 123) but that requires details for another day.

Should You Get It?​

This short kick off of a campaign came together in just a couple of hours. If I was stuck for a name or idea there were plenty of random tables to help. The combination of crawling (urban in this case) and hex exploration worked together seamlessly and helped keep things moving. The GM is well supported when using Shadowdark RPG.

This RPG gets high marks for ease of use, decent font size, great art, and so much inspiration wrapped in easy to use and familiar rules but with some great updates. It is an RPG in a well-designed format that is meant to be played around a game table. Highly recommended.

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Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody


In her last email, Kelsey said, “Kickstarter is processing payments.This should take about two weeks, and I'll be able to send out PDFs to backers as soon as this completes”
Hey thanks. I just saw that my payment went through and got the email but may not have read it fully or just forgot.

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Reeks of Jedi
Last night, I ran two players through the Warlock of Firetop Mountain, using Shadowdark stats with the AFF version of the adventure. (I need to go back and check the original book -- I think they scaled up some of the encounters more than I expected, which was a problem.)

The system works great, although hit points are definitely low and small groups should definitely plan on running multiple characters or having hirelings or the DM should let players make higher level characters.

Oh, and when the torch runs out mid-fight, it's just as much fun as expected. Both players went "oh" and laughed ruefully. One character was playing the Pit Fighter from Cursed Scroll #2, which has a ton of ways of bouncing back up from near-death, but when it's one guy in the dark with two goblin torturers who can see in the darkness, there's only one way it'll end, even when he chugs a potion of invisibility they found earlier.

Another note: My 78 year old dad (who didn't play) asked me about this Kickstarter campaign. I'm not sure how the game found him, but it's clearly being mentioned all over.

EDIT: Yep, it's five orcs eating in the mess hall, not seven. Still a lot for a group to get through, but less so. Next time, I'll have people make level three characters and give them a potion of healing during character creation.

What's a good amount of active character? I usually run games with 5-6 players

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
What's a good amount of active character? I usually run games with 5-6 players
If I was running it, unchanged (like not raising character levels), I would say five to six players should be able to do everything up to the dragon encounter just fine. And if they are meticulous about clearing out rooms, there's a custom spell that weaponizes the breath weapon against the dragon that they can find early on. Likewise, the fight with the warlock has several ways to make it easier throughout the dungeon that, if the players pick up on one or more of them, can make life a lot easier for them.

The book is notorious for not signposting any of this stuff, or the numbered keys used to open the treasure at the end. I would probably go through and figure out ways to add a few more clues in -- I'll be doing this myself when I do a full rewrite of this for Shadowdark -- but it's all pretty easy changes.

I will still likely run this as a one or two person dungeon for days when other players can't play, and just bump the characters up to level 3 and give them each a potion of healing. (And can I say how much I like potions of healing scaling up in Shadowdark, rather than littering the world with potions that become near-useless to characters as they level up?)


I crit!
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