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

DarkCrisis

Reeks of Jedi
On one hand, the name is tad a silly IMO.

On the other, everything else looks amazing. Will back ASAP.

Question: How compatible is it with old Basic D&D, AD&D or modern D&D? Like to run modules/adventures...
 
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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.

One of the most notable things for me in returning to basic dnd via OSE was how much more impactful--and fun--loot and other randomness are in changing characters over leveling. This included things like the goblins in Winter's Daughter giving characters mushrooms that changed their skin to purple or...gave them a +2 in cha. And it includes cursed items, or items with both bonuses and penalties.
 


On one hand, the name is tad a silly IMO.

On the other, everything else looks amazing. Will back ASAP.

Question: How compatible is it with old Basic D&D, AD&D or modern D&D? Like to run modules/adventures...

The official D&D name for the underground world was the Underdark. Shadowdark is close enough to feel familiar to me.

The match is close to BX. So very compatible with D&D, slightly underpowered for AD&D but ability scores do have a decent bonus in Shadowdark, and modern D&D needs to have attack bonuses and hit points cut in half after around 6th level or so. OSR should also work great and I'd imagine Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG adventures would also be a great fit.
 

Aldarc

Legend
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!
To be clear, I am not proposing here with diagetic item-based progression that "the game rules codify magic item progression or let you buy an item you want if you have enough gold." For the sort of game experience I am talking about, it amounts to "if you want to progress, then you have to find magic items in the dungeon." You progress by earning it the hard way and putting your characters into the dangerous situations where magic items can be found and surviving to get those items out of the dungeon. These magic items can even be randomized or customized to the dungeon.
 

DarkCrisis

Reeks of Jedi
The official D&D name for the underground world was the Underdark. Shadowdark is close enough to feel familiar to me.

The match is close to BX. So very compatible with D&D, slightly underpowered for AD&D but ability scores do have a decent bonus in Shadowdark, and modern D&D needs to have attack bonuses and hit points cut in half after around 6th level or so. OSR should also work great and I'd imagine Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG adventures would also be a great fit.
Yeah I know, but Underdark is under the ground is dark, so yeah going underground is dark (and scary!). Shadowdark sounds like an comic book character made in the 90s. "Fear the shadows, ya evil scum! I am Shadowdark!" cocks oversized shotgun -Written and drawn by Rob Leifeld.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Yeah I know, but Underdark is under the ground is dark, so yeah going underground is dark (and scary!). Shadowdark sounds like an comic book character made in the 90s. "Fear the shadows, ya evil scum! I am Shadowdark!" cocks oversized shotgun -Written and drawn by Rob Leifeld.
I don't intend to ever use the word in game, except maybe ironically.

But I understand the challenge of finding a name that's evocative, understandable and trademarkable. "Shadowdark," despite being corny, communicates what the game is largely about much better than "The Chronicles of X'wersfsdfwe'Ef," which is how so many Kickstarted fantasy RPG books are named.
 




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