I first heard about this game at a trade show when a friend brought it up and, upon detecting my ignorance, followed up with an awesome explanation of why I couldn’t remain unscarred by Rob Schwalb’s Shadow of the Demon Lord. Shadow of the Demon Lord certainly walks in the shadow of both D&D and Warhammer Fantasy, but it is here that it thrives and adds its own twist to the paradigm that makes it feel fresh and crazy metal. It has apocalyptic elements, splatterpunk moments, high fantasy nods, and steampunk aesthetics galore, but the synthesis is smart and polished while being animated by a system that is both light and intricate with theme and detail.
One thing of note: This lab report rotates around a game that was exceedingly gory and grotesque. The characters, the story, the events, are probably not safe for work. As a result, some of the actual play description will become inexplicably vague at points. Trust me, you want it this way.
NOTE: The words appearing in italics are the anonymous opinions and ideas of folks that participated in the Lab rather than my own.
Before I launch into a description, let me say that the Shadow of the Demon Lord game is still unfolding. New content and scenarios are still being released and there is no sign of it stopping anytime soon.
There is a substantial yet digestible amount of setting material in the Shadow of the Demon Lord core book. It gives you cosmology with a great heap of weird gods spread out over multiple belief systems as well as general view of the game’s evocative map. After establishing all the important contextual stuff, we zoom in to the Northern Reach which is delivered in helpful detail. Exactly what you would expect and want.
Beyond this, however, are extremely fun rules for implementing the signs and effects of the looming doomsday when the Shadow of the Void – the Demon Lord itself – makes contact with our world and purges it from the manifest universe. Until that day, the world is cluttered with adventure hooks and interesting NPCs and serves as an optimal stomping ground for the player characters.
“The first thing that must be said regarding this setting is this: don’t expect lollipops and unicorns. The very existence of the great being known as the Demon Lord causes the deterioration of reality and ultimately results in the end of the worlds that it sets its eye(s?) upon. Campaigns for Shadow of the Demon Lord begins amidst the onset of this Apocalypse and the planet of Urth (that’s right, Urth) is ticking towards its doom. The grim and horrible darkness that the adventurers may face our terrible in natural. We encountered a demonic painting that spawned a hideous and gruesome demon child that exploded in a shower of viscera upon death. Needless to say, the goblin and the orc fled willingly before the brunt of the fighting began. Oh and did I mention that the orcs rose up against their human overlords recently, beheaded the emperor and turned the imperial capital into a city of bloodshed almost overnight?… because that just happened.”
“I frigging LOVE the setting. It’s dark and weird. Magic can be frightening and have HORRIBLE consequences. It’s a setting with scarcity, reminiscent of OSR games, but somehow without the obnoxious record-keeping. It had the best of REH’s Conan/Solomon Kane, with a ton of 80’s fantasy mixed in (Sword and the Sorceror, Beastmaster, Fire and Ice, Deathstalker, The Barbarians, Gor, Yor, Sorceress, etc). It licks the pleasure center of my brain with a scaly wet tongue.”
Character generation is fast and random. You choose a culture an Ancestry and the rest is rolled on a series of baroque tables that absolutely weep story hooks and character background material. There are six or so races that are detailed in the Core Book and the character’s initial career is some menial or disturbing task which constitutes the petty beginning from which your soon-to-be hero will arise. Once you reach first level after the intro scenario, you choose from four very familiar class archetypes that, in contrast with your starting career, creates a really fun creation process. Two tiers follow in which the character gets two additional paths added to the mix which really makes for a vast feast of character options.
For our particular game we ended up with:
- A clockwork warrior/former soldier with terrible taste in friends.
- A lecherous, gluttonous orc magician that specialized in manipulation and curse magic.
- A changeling sorcerer that dabbled in magic dark beyond its own reckoning.
- A goblin huckster with a penchant for the collection of spoons.
- A square-jawed human agent of righteousness in the employee of the new religions.
“Character generation was very cool. Randomized Ancestry, Profession, Quirks, Personality, Age, Build, Wealth, Appearance, and an Interesting Thing makes for an incredibly fun and weird character generation process. Everyone at the table had an awesome, playable, weird character with a lot of potential for weird roleplaying. This might be my favorite character creation process in a modern game.“
“The Character Creation System of Shadow of the Demon Lord allows the players to create class-less level 0 characters and features a quick, easy, and fun method for creating low-powered characters who are interesting and unique in their ways. The process allows the players to either select or randomly roll from many long lists of character traits, including the character’s height, her quirks, and, of course, their background. These traits are largely irrelevant mechanically, but when your goblin thief owns a collection of fifty unique spoons, there is always something to blame when that stealth roll doesn’t go as planned. The system really forces the players to recognize who their characters are and understand their characters in many ways, fleshing them out as the character progression progresses. It also makes the character unique in their traits, not their mechanics. The base character creation system basically gives the players minimal control over their characters’ mechanical benefits, which are largely dictated by their racial features, while maximizing their characters’ story, and, for that, I think it’s one of my favorites.”
The system for Shadow of the Demon Lord has excellent economy of theme and mechanics. The simplicity invokes the feel of many of the best OSR games but it does not shy away from fast, fluid mechanics informed by newer rule sets.
The required dice are a d20 and three d6s. With skills, you target a difficulty of 10 and with attacks you target the opponent’s defense. Oddly, this scales really well and has held up for me, personally, in a way that conveys improvement without taking it to some berserk anime magnitude. Characters advance through three tiers of play and monsters are presented with something akin to a challenge rating.
The magic system is fun with schools of spells with a few ultra-detailed, flavorful effects each. Some are forbidden and accrue corruption which is a whole fun set of rules as well. Stack on some mean-spirited insanity mechanics and it all sings like a devil choir.
In combat, a fast/slow initiated system is handled cinematically rather than as a succession of unimportant rolls.
“[The rules are] Awesome. Easy to understand: D20 and add or remove extra dice for advantage/disadvantage. Roll for damage. Run away! Character sheet was awesomely tiny and easy to understand. I personally don’t like weird artsy character sheets (13 Age, Numenera, etc), but this one worked better for me than most. The backgrounds and flavor text organically make sense within the rules, and are easy to invoke. Themagic system is great, flavorful (and punishing, if you decide to cast nasty spells).”
“Shadow of the Demon Lord features a simple d20 system that uses the addition of up to three six-sided dice to simulate the modifiers that may be involved in the roll, called banes and boons by the game, such as related professions, advanced equipment, clouded vision, unnaturally strong and putrid stench, etc. This simple system limits the dice needed for the game to one twenty-sided and three six-sided and is great for players that wish to avoid having to perform many different steps of simple math. The basic system is very enjoyable because it doesn’t clog the session and resolves itself quickly. All skills are set at a fixed difficulty and made more difficult with the addition of banes to the roll. This basic system is very enjoyable because it doesn’t clog the session and resolves itself quickly. The character advancement system employed by the game is probably the most interesting part of the game, aside from the horror that comes naturally with the setting. As the characters finish an adventure, the characters level up and at certain levels, gain the benefits of different paths. These paths range from the simple warriors and magicians to the powerful duelists and exorcists. This allows for crazy combinations asthe characters progress, such as a changeling who is a magician, an oracle, and a diplomat with abilities reflecting all three paths the character has entered. This gives the characters of the game an amazing amount of versatility in their advancement.”
It is hard for me to remain objective when evaluating this game as it hits like thirty-six of my forty pet RPG buttons. With that taken into account, I think Shadow of the Demon Lord is a rock solid contribution to the fantasy RPG arsenal. It handles some difficult adult material in a way that is simultaneously reckless and puerile yet completely inclusive and fun.
The rules are a vital system that vanish behind the speedy, blood-splattered narrative and the setting lets you rampage across a cursed and demon-befouled land that crumbles all the more beneath the PCs triumphant steps.
“This game was excellent. After a session of character creation, we just got down to it. The system is light and fast, combats were exciting, and the scenario was appropriately horrifying and creepy. Fun all around!”
“This RPG.LAB took us, the players, through one of the MANY published adventures for Shadow of the Demon Lord. The plot was extremely well entertaining, featuring a corrupt church official and his disdain with a new and bizarre group of ooze-worshipping cultists. The story was filled with unimaginably disgusting and vile events, some of which were the results of our party members. The end result was largely entertaining for everyone in the party and left us wondering a great deal of things, including when and how Gathik would be getting his spoon back from that greedy info-broker. Even though the length of this RPG.LAB was short compared to the others, it was, nonetheless, a great and enjoyable experience.”
George is the full-time assistant manager of Games & Stuff. He is a fan of way, way too many RPGs.