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.