Monday, November 30, 2015

Review: Shadow of the Demon Lord

Correction: the game's magic system works differently than I thought it did.  Basically a spellcaster's Power stat determines the number of times they can cast each spell they know before needing to rest.

So I've been talking about this book with one of my gaming buddies, and decided that my PM's informative enough to share with the world.  As of right now I read all but two one chapter of this baby, so I feel that I can give a better overview of the game (or as far as someone who's never done actual play experience).

Overall this game is very much a dark fantasy with Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer Fantasy elements.  It's not as D&Desque as a retroclone, but elements appear here and there like some suspiciously similar spells.

Dice Resolution

In short, the resolution system is D20-based.  You roll a D20 for most tasks and add relevant modifiers.  In some cases it's versus an attribute of a character (like the Target Number to hit an opponent is their Defense).  Most non-opposed checks are a Challenge Roll, which is a D20 with modifiers, and the Target Number is always 10.

One of the big things in this game are Boons and Banes.  Instead of tracking a bunch of modifiers from spells/class features/etc, most effects grant you either of these.  Each Boon/Bane is a d6, which can add to your D20 number.  However, for multiple dice only the highest result is used (so rolling a 3, 5, and 1 for 3 boons would apply +5), and boons and banes cancel each other out on a 1-1 basis.

Overall I like this.  Most modifiers tend to come from your Attributes (which are like D&D ability scores), and from what I've read Boons and Banes are far more common.  It's easier to keep track of and to grasp than forgetting if muddy ground imposes a -2 or -4 penalty on graceful maneuvers and such.

Level System

Shadow of the Demon Lord only goes up to 10th level, and PCs start as level 0 characters.  PCs level up whenever the GM tells them to.  However, the suggested advancement rate is rather fast, with the group as a whole gaining 1 level per session.  The designer intended for the arc of beginning adventurers becoming great heroes and going against civilization-ending threats at the upper echelons.  Assuming a weekly game, the average SotDL game will take 2 1/2 months to complete.

Now, every level you gain something significant.

1: Choose a Novice Path

2: Additional Novice Path benefits
3: Choose an Expert Path
4: Gain the advanced benefits of your Ancestry (your "race" in D&D terms)
5: Additional Novice Path benefits
6: Additional Expert Path benefits
7: Choose a 2nd Expert Path or a Master Path
8: Final Novice Path benefits
9: Final 1st Expert Path benefits
10: Final Master Path benefits or 2nd Expert Path benefits equivalent to Level 6 choice

SotDL's Paths are its classes.  The Novice Paths are the typical Mage/Priest/Rogue/Warrior, but the Expert and Master Paths are the equivalent of 3rd Edition D&D's Prestige Classes.  They vary widely in tone, and there's a lot of them too.  16 Expert and 64 Master Paths to choose from!  They range from things like an Artificer who creates odd devices and trinkets, a classic wilderness Ranger, a druidic Woodwose who can take plant form, and such.

Best thing of all is that none of the Expert/Master Paths have prerequisites!  You can mix and match to your heart's content for all types of character ideas.  Of course, many Paths are more suited to certain combinations, but I like the idea.


Magic in Shadow of the Demon Lord leaves me with mixed feelings, although the good parts slightly outweigh my reservations.  For one, it's sort of like Vancian magic, in that you can only cast spells a certain number of times between rests before running out of juice.  Spells are grouped by tiers (0 to 5) instead of levels as a measurement of power, and your Power attribute (raised via levels in magical Paths) determines what tiers you have access to as well as how many times you can cast every spell you know of various ranks between rests.  For example, a Magician with a Power stat of 2 can cast every 0 rank spell they know 3 times, every 1st rank spell 2 times, and every 2nd rank spell 1 time.

Magic is split up into 30 Traditions representing facets of reality or concepts.  Fire, Nature, Destruction, Necromancy, etc, with 11 spells for each.  One must learn a Tradition in order to use spells, and you start out with the 0 tier spells.  New Traditions and spells can only be learned via leveling up in a magical Path or via discarding a Level 4 Ancestry trait, and you either have the choice of learning a Tradition (and gaining its 0 level spell) or learning one spell for each Tradition you know.

Although it's encouraged to be broad early on than specialized, SotDL avoids the D&D problem of clerics switching out spells for every occasion and rich wizards using the gold to scribe dozens of spells into their spellbooks.  Funnily enough, the complete spell chapter is only around 30 pages in spite 330 spells: this is because most spell entries are very short, and most effects are fixed and not modified by one's Level or Power stat.

Also, I noticed a short supply of long-duration/permanent and save-or-lose spells.  Most spells are 1 hour duration at most, and the offensive spells tend to create horrible effects once the target reaches 0 Health (freeze beam solidifies and shatters, disintegration turns to dust, etc) in keeping with a Warhammer-esque bloody dark fantasy.

Still, magic is very versatile, and the Priest and Mage have the most customization due to the Traditions in comparison to the Warrior (who gets boons and bonuses for combat stuff) and the Rogue (who gets some nimble-based attacks and can learn magic as well via a choice of class features, albeit at a slower pace).  However, it's not as bad as D20 D&D, and since there are Expert and Master Paths dedicated to specific magic styles and traditions, making an effective gish isn't very hard.

Also, it has this spell:


The setting takes place in the lands of Rul and the Northern Reach.  Basically there are tears in reality known as the Void, the dominion of demons who leak out into the mortal realm and other worlds.  However, the Demon Lord is unable to fully breach such tears, so it works through agents and foul worshipers to wreak evil in the worlds.  The Demon Lord gains power via the consumption of souls, and seeks to envelop all of reality.

The setting chapter takes a big picture look, focusing more on broad regions and countries than individual cities and towns except for capitals and the like.  Problems and plots are explained more as broad strokes than local occurrences.  In short, the bullet point tropes are:

  • the Caecras Empire (the most powerful country in the world) is undergoing civil unrest, as the orc soldiers rebelled and now their leader sits on the throne.  Many provinces are now declaring independence for fear of an orcish invasion.
  • Faerie are a thing, including two of the PC races being such.  Elves, trolls, and even devils are fey (the last ones tasked with hunting down souls).  The more powerful ones tend to be amoral and capable of giving form to concepts (like wearing a child's laugh as a cape or some such).
  • the east has nine plutocratic city-states with their own themes: a mostly-empty city devastated by plague, a city which deals in slavery to feed its Colosseum entertainment industry, a city with freedom of religion which causes all manner of crackpots and wicked cults to operate openly, etc.
  • the two main religions are the Old Faith (druidism and pantheon of primal concepts as deities) and the Cult of the New God (fantasy Christianity with woman Jesus).  The New God's followers are everywhere, but they have a holy theocracy which has an Inquisition dedicated to hunting down evil spellcasters and servants of the Demon Lord and other foul things.
  • It's an early industrial setting, where there's still medieval tech but guns are becoming more common, and some of the more prosperous cities might have a clocktower or train.

Amusingly I've noticed that in spite of the PC races being well-suited to dark fantasy, and the elves are amoral fey, there are still halflings in the setting although not as a PC race.  They're much like typical fantasy halflings except they're related to humans and have a rather powerful "luck" ability which allows them or an ally a reroll if a die of any kind is a natural 1.  They're actually not reclusive at all and tend to be present in some human lands, which makes it all the odder that they're not a PC choice.


The final chapter comes with nearly 40 pages worth of stat blocks for monsters and NPCs, as well as simple templates to simulate Paths like a troll witch who uses curse magic.

There's a lot of both classic and original monsters to fight, and there's some generic "monster" or "undead" stat blocks to act as a framework for PC animal companions, summoned monsters, and for the GM who needs simple horde minions.

An interesting thing I've noticed is that in regards to damage/health scale, things don't seem too out of whack.  For comparison, a starting-level or low-level PC or monster may have around 13 to 25 Health.  It's very rare for an NPC or monster to have 100 or more health barring some "end-game" boss enemies.  Given the class features of Paths and some beneficial spells, I've seen damage bonuses to attacks and spells range from 1d6 to 4d6, with some of the more powerful spells doing something like 7d6+10 damage.  Base mundane weapon damage tends to range from 1d3 for light stuff like daggers to 2d6 for warhammers.

I admit that I have not crunched the numbers, but from a guesstimate I can see combat not taking a tortuously long time unless you have a lot of characters to control through the round or something.


Shadow of the Demon Lord is pretty cool and I'd be up for running or playing in it.  It does enough things different than other fantasy RPGs with D&Desque elements to get my interest, and the caster/noncaster divide doesn't seem too crazy.  I really like how the Path system opens up a lot of customization choices, as well as the Boon/Banes idea.  The fact that the "rules of the game/dice resolution" chapter is is the second one near the front of the book and not buried somewhere in the middle after character creation is another plus, one which I didn't realize so many RPGs did until this was brought to my attention.

While it's rather long (278 pages) it's short in comparison to other non-rules lite RPGs (Dragon Age and Numenera are about 400 pages each, Mouse Guard is 320, Vampire the Requiem 2E is 321).  It comes with a bestiary of dozens of foes, a setting overview, dozens of character customization choices, and 300+ spells in spite of that.  Where many other books which do the same would have 200+ more pages.

What I don't like is that the magic system still has some Vancian influence, and how you can't do minor things all day long like in many other RPGs or Pathfinder/4E/5E.  The options for mages are still greater than solely non-magic paths, although multi-classing/gishing in this game's easy so that takes a bit of the bite off.  I think that having halflings at all was a poor choice, and there's no free quick-start or SRD: the quick-start costs $6.66 and includes the first two chapters, enough to start at 0 level but misses out on the Paths and Magic, which I think are the major sellers for showing off the game.

In short, I'd recommend it.  I think it does enough things different to set it apart from other fantasy RPGs, and there's still cool choices for all types of character concepts for a dark fantasy feel and then some.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Black Friday Deals for OSR, Pathfinder, and table-top RPGs lasting all weekend

Although my wallet's already well-spent, OneBookShelf is having a Black Friday sale for various RPG books lasting all weekend.  I figured that compiling a list of the ones I found the most interesting would be a nice thing to share for you all.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, so I did a main link for both OSR and Pathfinder books which are on sale.  For specific entries, I decided to focus on books I already own and like, as well as the more notable ones which stand out to me.

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: A 1st Edition AD&D retroclone taking place in a setting heavily inspired by Robert E Howardesque stories.

Red Tide Campaign Setting & Sandbox Toolkit: A Kevin Crawford work, Red Tide is a setting inspired by Asian lands with a touch of other civilizations.  A creeping red mist taking over the land forced the last remnants of civilization to the Sunset Isles, inhabited by the vicious Shou.

Sunken City Omnibus: A series of Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures compiled in one book by Purple Sorcerer Games.

Midgard Campaign Setting: A rather nifty setting based on European folklore with some more mythical elements thrown in for good measure.  Several other Midgard sourcebooks are on sale as well.

Ponyfinder: A popular book which brought many Bronies into the fandom, Ponyfinder makes some clear homages to the Friendship is Magic franchise.  Several other Ponyfinder products are on sale as well.

Southlands Campaign Setting: With one of the writers of Al-Qadim as a contributor, Southlands is a setting is a blend of Ancient Egypt and Medieval Africa and Arabia.

Tales of the Old Margreve: A Midgard series of adventures for PCs levels 1 through 10.  They're all set in a primeval forest which seems to have a mind of its own.  Features focuses on fey and dark fairy tale-esque themes.

Ultimate Psionics: The definitive Pathfinder upgrade to the 3rd Edition rules, Dreamscarred Press compiles both updated and new material into one megabook.

Miscellaneous Books:

Numenera & the Strange: Numenera's core rulebook and many other Cypher System products are on sale.

The One Ring: Three setting sourcebooks are on sale.  Many fans say that the RPG feels the closest to Tolkien's work in terms of conventions and themes in comparison to the ones that came before.

Parsantium: City at the Crossroads: A system-neutral sourcebook detailing a fantasy counterpart Constantinople.  This book provided some major inspiration for my Arcana High campaign, and kickstarted my interest in the Byzantine Empire.

Ptolus: Monte Cook's City by the Spire: A city-focused setting which has a huge influx of adventurers, Ptolus is Monte Cook's magnum opus and rare for the fact that the setting and system integrate together.  It fits 3.5 like a glove, and there's little in the way of messy attempts to cram a square peg in a round hole.  Ptolus also features the eponymous Spire and many underground dungeons which see so many delvers entering the city.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Casual Update: Games, posts, and writing, oh my!

Hello folks.  November has been more or less an inactive blogging time for me.  But after some personal encouragement from +ErikTenkar and an invigoration of new ideas, I decided to do a more casual post than what is standard for the blog.

The Search for New Games

After 2 to 3 months of GMing Pathfinder, various factors contributed to a burnout.  I'm still game for participating as a player, but when it comes to actually running the game I don't think I can continue for the near future.  Also, as I'm getting more into writing projects as a self-publisher I wish to expand my horizons beyond just D&D-derived systems and D20 ones.  I once played a bit of Shadowrun, and did a Vampire game for a little over a month, and played a single session of Savage Worlds, so I'm happy about that.

As of now I'm thinking of participating as a player in a few unfamiliar RPG games once a week ideally.  If it turns out I really like them we can do further sessions.

I recently tried to join a Dungeon Crawl Classics one-shot, but things conspired to prevent myself dedicating to a full game.  As of this posting I'm prepping to run a one-shot for 13th Age.

As of now I've been thinking that limiting my choices to a "Top 5 Wanted RPGs" is best for now, partly because there's so many choices and partly because some of them might not be as good for one-shots.

1.) Dungeon World
2.) Eclipse Phase
3.) FATE
4.) Numenera
5.) Shadow of the Demon Lord

Two other games which caught my eye lately are Dragon Age RPG and Shadow of the Demon Lord.

Dragon Age recently got a complete compilation, now that Inquisition is out.  Personally it seems fun, but in comparison to already-existing RPGs I don't know what it can give me that others can't aside from some series staples like qunari PCs and joining the Grey Wardens.  I sort of feel that character creation is a bit restrictive in that one's background shapes the skills or ability choices you can get.  For example, the otherwise-diverse Apostate Mage background doesn't take into account local languages in case you want to play a Rivaini seer, in that you only begin play with the Trade Tongue but not Rivaini which you would get as a Rivaini Merchant.  Still, I heard good things about the Stunt system, and I have one player in my regular group who really likes it, so I shouldn't have as much trouble rounding up interested parties.

Shadow of the Demon Lord's premise is that it's set in the last days of a fantasy world which is overrun by an incursion of unholy horrors.  I'm still in the process of reading it, but it has some Warhammer Fantasy inspiration in its grittiness (I don't do Warhammer, this is what I hear).  The game is level-based from 1 to 10, with Paths serving the role of classes.  You start off with one of four typical fantasy Paths (warrior, rogue, priest, mage), but at later levels you can choose Expert and Master Paths which are more specialized versions of the core four, such as artificer, paladin, gunslinger, and the like.  I like this idea on the surface so far, in that it allows for a degree of customization.

As for races, you have humans, dwarves, and orcs, but you also have goblins (who are refugees from faerie), changelings, and clockwork (who are akin to intelligent golems).  I particularly like the clockwork in that they don't necessarily have to be human-shaped.

Magic School Hexcrawl

So one of the side projects I'm working on currently is a sandbox setting idea for Swords & Wizardry and other compatible OSR games.  After writing plenty of blog posts on the subject, I figure it's time I devote my energies to making my ideas into a usable sourcebook.  I'm calling it Larius Firetongue's School of Sorcery.

The premise is that the PCs are students at a magic academy in a sparsely populated pseudo-British Europe region which is a nexus for all matter of strange phenomena.  Basically LFSoS will be divided into two major sections: a new rules/advice part for all-spellcaster parties, and a hexcrawl setting detailing the school itself and surrounding environs.

The school would serve as a sort of home base, and there are various challenges to do and characters to interact with to increase one's arcane lore and power.  Sneaking into the library's forbidden section or taking an Initiation Delve to join an order of the school's elite mages are some proposed possibilities, while fellow staff and students the PCs befriend might be willing to teach them new spells and/or accompany them on adventures as hirelings of sorts.

As for the hexcrawl environs, there might be times when the PCs need to head out into the wilderness or the underground to gather some rare material.  Perhaps a dungeon's said to hold a mirror portal from a long-dead empire, or the current month's the season when a rare species of flower used for summoning spells grows in the Moonshade Forest.  Expanding on the Arcane Lore idea from an earlier post, hunting for treasure will still be a feature of this adventure, but it will be more specialized towards things of interest to spellcasting PCs.

For setting scope, I got some advice that keeping most things within one to two days' travel is a good idea.  Even accounting for a 3 miles per hour, 8 hours of travel can put this at 24 to 48 miles assuming a straight line, 72 miles at the farthest reaches.  Even within this radius you can still have enough room to populate the area with villages, dungeons, and other landmarks.  This can keep things more localized as well as allowing the PCs to return to school in a reasonable time frame as opposed to traversing the breadth of a small country just to get to a city or dungeon.

Beyond the above I also plan on incorporating some new spells and rules variants for a party composed entirely of spellcasters.  I don't want to be limiting and say Magic-Users only, in that Clerics and Druids also practice magic and might be of value to a school environment, but without the more common warrior and thief classes there will be some weakness in such a party composition barring multi-classing.

These are the ideas I have so far which I feel are presentable to readers at this point in time.  The book's still in its first draft stages, although If there's enough interest I might devote further posts to my hexcrawl idea once I get more workable stuff.

Only Kevin Crawford could've made the trip to China

Some time ago, Kevin Crawford published a new class for Scarlet Heroes and B/X compatible retro-clones in his Sandbox magazine, the Blademaster.  It was rather uncharacteristic for him and for the ruleset, in that it took clear inspirations from the maneuver system of Tome of Battle, a 3rd Edition sourcebook controversial for its time in using a pseudo-Vancian system for martial moves and techniques (several of which were clearly supernatural in origin).  Even many D20 fans didn't like it, believing it to be broken and overpowered.  The truth is that this is a common misconception, at least not in comparison to the options already present in the corebooks, but that's another discussion for another time.

In regards to the OSR, ToB's maneuver system isn't exactly what I would imagine being in line with many of its aesthetics, considering that its fanbase tends to want different things out of a D&D game than what old-school retroclones do.  For one, ToB's fanbase tends to prize class balance as a virtue and have a preference for higher-powered playstyles in comparison to the down-in-the-muck lethality of many retroclone adventures.

Still, Crawford managed to do a good job with the Blademaster, and if I had to pick an author to present a potentially unpopular idea to the usual demographic, he'd be my first choice.  Honestly, I feel that if an OSR author with little name recognition or did not have a stellar track record tried the same thing, he probably wouldn't have gotten many grabbers.

Who Would You Pick to...?

So, if you had to implement a choice in the table-top fandom which has a chance to be unpopular, which game designer/personality would you view as the best option for wooing over the other side?  Let's assume you're publishing a third-party sourcebook for the opposing demographic, and can choose said designer as the main writer.

Just to start off with some examples, who would you pick to...

1.) implement an alternate spellcasting system to Vancian magic for Gygaxian purists?

2.) create a "dark superheroes" Vampire game for World of Darkness "crapsack world" fans?

3.) write an old-school style "DM empowerment" rules variant for 3.X/Pathfinder fans?

4.) to write a setting with anime art and aesthetics for OSR gamers?

As for my choices...well, I'd like to hear yours first, and I don't know whether or not my own would influence your decision, so highlight the below to get the answers.


1.) Frank Mentzer.  His close work association with Gary Gygax and ability to revise rules on the Dungeons & Dragons line resulted in many popular and iconic pieces, and worked on The Book of Marvelous Magic.

2.) Steve Kenson.  In addition to working on material for Mutants & Masterminds, he also did some writing for Aberrant back in the day.

3.) Bill Webb of Frog God Games.  He and his team have enough experience in OSR and Pathfinder rulesets to translate well between the nuances.

4.) Again, Kevin Crawford, hope that's not "cheating."  Exemplars and Eidolons does a good job of replicating some of the higher-powered moves as seen in some of the shows, and his Red Tide setting does a good job of combining both Western and Eastern setting tropes together.