Shadowdark RPG: An Interview with Kelsey Dionne

Old-school gaming. New-school mechanics. Danger. Speed. Simplicity. Shadowdark RPG, currently on kickstarter and with a free quickstart, distills fifty years of D&D design into two pages of core rules supported by 239 monsters, 85 spells , 97 magic items, and dozens of random roll tables. Kelsey Dionne was kind enough to talk to me about her RPG. Addendum: since the interview, Kelsey has posted Monday Monster #2 - Crabstrosity! and Monster Monday #1 - Brain Eaters!

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Charles Dunwoody (Charlie): Thanks for talking with me, Kelsey. What is the setting implied by the rules for Shadowdark RPG? In other words, what is the Shadowdark for those who don’t know.
Kelsey Dionne (Kelsey):
Thanks for talking to me, too, Charlie! Shadowdark RPG has a very lightly implied setting pulled from my actual game world. You see hints of it in my 5E adventures (things like deities and place names), but it's all very subtle, and meant to be easily turned generic. The main goal of the book was to leave setting very open so the Game Master can pick up and run with whatever setting they prefer.

Charlie: What I like about Shadowdark RPG is that D&D rules that take a lot of explanation get distilled into fast core rules. So old-school saving throws get replaced with ability score checks while modern rules like skills and feats are replaced with ability checks and class talents. Was this distillation of rules into fast core rules one of the driving factors behind your creation of Shadowdark RPG or did those fast core rules grow out of some other rule design you were working on?
Kelsey:
I think a lot of this design grew out of my dive into systems that seek to reduce complexity. Index Card RPG is a huge one, as well as more lightweight games like Knave. Both of those games in particular demonstrated that you could hit the same "feeling" on a rule without using the same execution. I also have been playing D&D for all my life, and I still remember the things that I found very hard to understand as a new player. Spell slots, saves vs. checks, spell levels not coordinating with character levels -- all things I think we've each grappled with as we learned the rules. Since Shadowdark RPG wasn't going to be a retro-clone, I knew I'd have the wiggle room to reshape some of those sticking points with new terminology and streamlining.

Charlie: A unique, defining rule of Shadowdark RPG is that PCs can’t see in the dark and that torches last for one hour of real time. How did you come up with this rule that fits the aesthetics of the Shadowdark so well?
Kelsey:
Ah, I have to give credit to the creators of D&D for the "can't see in the dark" element! That was a rule from Original D&D. However, the real-time torch timer came to me while I was chomping on corn-on-the cob one Wisconsin evening and thinking about the problem of time pressure. I used to be an English as a Second Language teacher, and one technique we used for getting students to answer quickly and not overthink their responses during verbal fluency practice was to set the exercise up like a game and use a real-life timer. It dawned on me that we could apply real-world time in the same way during D&D to discourage overthinking and encourage action, and lo and behold! That was when the idea of the torch timer was born.

Charlie: What kind of characters can players run in Shadowdark RPG?
Kelsey:
Players can run characters that fall into the four "pillar" camps: fighter, priest (cleric), thief, and wizard. There are so many permutations within these classes that make each character unique. That said, if people want to branch outside the four core classes, the official Shadowark RPG zine, Cursed Scroll, has three issues coming out alongside the book that each have a few new and thematic classes.

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Charlie: What kind of advice and support can GMs look forward to receiving in Shadowdark RPG?
Kelsey:
The Arcane Library community has a wonderful Discord Server where we talk about all sorts of gameplay and design elements for Shadowdark RPG (and other games, too). I'm really active in there, and we have such a fantastic group of people who are very fun and engaged. It's truly my favorite place on the internet! I'm also working up lots of new supporting material for Shadowdark RPG in the form of videos on my YouTube channel, blog posts on my website, and community spotlights. One of my favorite ways to support third-party Shadowdark publishers is to use the avenues I have to share out their work.

Charlie: What items are you offering through this kickstarter?
Kelsey:
In addition to the standard and premium version of the core rules, there are three themed zines (68 pages each), three mini-adventures, eight pre-made 1st-level character cards, and a GM screen. I wanted to give folks a complete package to just sit down and start playing!

Charlie: Do you have any future plans for Shadowdark RPG after this successful kickstarter wraps up that you can share?
Kelsey:
Absolutely! I'm excited to start writing more adventures and supporting material right away. There will definitely be more Cursed Scroll zines, and I have an idea for a megadungeon I've always wanted to write that would have a bit of an unusual presentation style. I think there's a fun way to make a megadungeon a bit modular, and really "ready to use" out of the box in ways I haven't seen before. I think I'll have to give it a try!

Charlie: Where can readers go to find your work?
Kelsey:
The best place is on The Arcane Library! I post all my products, blog articles, and otherwise on that website. It's my catch-all internet home.

Charlie: Any final comments you’d like to share with the readers of EN World?
Kelsey:
I just want to sincerely thank anyone who jumps in on supporting Shadowdark RPG. The response has been something I never could have imagined, and it's so galvanizing to know folks are excited for the game. It's definitely set the course for my next stage of publishing. As long as gamers out there keep wanting Shadowdark RPG material, I'll happily keep making it! Thanks, Charlie! I appreciate the time you took with me!
 

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Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody


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dave2008

Legend
I haven't had this much with an RPG since...since...well, maybe when I6 first came out.

I still sometimes pop in on the OneD&D threads but I find that I am suddenly a lot less invested in all that drama. I'd rather play Shadowdark.
It is perhaps a little to simplified for my general tastes, but it is a great D&D game.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I haven't had this much with an RPG since...since...well, maybe when I6 first came out.

I still sometimes pop in on the OneD&D threads but I find that I am suddenly a lot less invested in all that drama. I'd rather play Shadowdark.
I too am less invested now in One D&D than I was before, and it honestly feels good to not be so emotionally invested in its development.

I doubt that I will play Shadowdark. There are other games that scratch this similar itch for me better and there are a few things about its design that don't tickle my fancy; however, I hope the best for Kelsey Dionne and the Shadowdark fanbase because it's always nice to see designers succeed following years of hard work.
 

Bill Zebub

“It’s probably Matt Mercer’s fault.”
It is perhaps a little to simplified for my general tastes, but it is a great D&D game.

Yeah that makes sense. The general tenor here seems to be that people want D&D to have more options and more rules, not fewer. I'm in the simplicity camp. Instead of fighting about it (pointlessly, because it's not like these debates influence WotC) I'm happy to have found a game that suits me just about perfectly.

But I'll still pop in now and then for a snarky eye-roll. It's my core competency.

Love ya all.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Yeah that makes sense. The general tenor here seems to be that people want D&D to have more options and more rules, not fewer. I'm in the simplicity camp. Instead of fighting about it (pointlessly, because it's not like these debates influence WotC) I'm happy to have found a game that suits me just about perfectly.

But I'll still pop in now and then for a snarky eye-roll. It's my core competency.

Love ya all.
I enjoy the simplicity. I don't like rolling for character abilities when leveling. IMHO, that overcomplicates things more than simply having a set progression. If the goal is to differentiate characters who are otherwise simple, however, I would have preferred something like ICRPG 1E where progression is loot-based. That helps randomize character progression diagetically.
 

Bill Zebub

“It’s probably Matt Mercer’s fault.”
I enjoy the simplicity. I don't like rolling for character abilities when leveling. IMHO, that overcomplicates things more than simply having a set progression. If the goal is to differentiate characters who are otherwise simple, however, I would have preferred something like ICRPG 1E where progression is loot-based. That helps randomize character progression diagetically.

I think the purpose of the randomized talents (and rolled abilities scores) is less about character variety and more just to de-emphasize optimization thinking. I've only played a little bit so I can't say how it feels at high levels, but so far I really like it. And I wouldn't have predicted that I would, because I really enjoy "builds" and optimization! But...well, this is cool. I'm loving it.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I think the purpose of the randomized talents (and rolled abilities scores) is less about character variety and more just to de-emphasize optimization thinking. I've only played a little bit so I can't say how it feels at high levels, but so far I really like it. And I wouldn't have predicted that I would, because I really enjoy "builds" and optimization! But...well, this is cool. I'm loving it.
Sure, but I think that the same is true when you use loot-based progression.
 

Bill Zebub

“It’s probably Matt Mercer’s fault.”
Sure, but I think that the same is true when you use loot-based progression.

Yes, that's true.

One of my theories about loot...specifically magic items...is that because they fall outside of the rules for character progression it feels sort of like 'cheating'. Not cheating in an underhanded sense, but in the sense of being more powerful than you are supposed to be, for your level. When you hit level X and get ability Y it's cool, but everybody else gets that thing, too. When you get a magic item, though, you are ahead of the curve.

Which is why I think that when the game rules codify magic item progression, or let you buy any item you want if you have enough gold, it kind of spoils that feeling. It's just like an ability in the class progression chart. At least that's my experience.

In other words...down with Ye Olde Magyck Shoppe!

But I'm also liking the random class progression. YMMV.
 

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