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Saturday, 19 December 2015

Beneath a Dark Umbra

Robert J. Schwalb is best known as the designer of Green Ronin Publishing’s A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition and as one of the designers of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Now he has launched his own roleplaying game company—Schwalb Entertainment—and designed and funded his first release via Kickstarter. The result is Shadow of the Demon Lord, a roleplaying game of dark fantasy and horror set in the last days of a dying world. As the Demon Lord rattles at the last bars that keep him imprisoned in the Void, his influence continues to despoil land and mind alike. Under this seeping ‘Shadow’, demons stalk the ruins of the last great empire of mankind, men fall into the worship of dark cults, the undead have arisen to roam the land, and magic twists into forms strange and best unknown. The end of the world is only a catastrophe or more away, though there may yet be heroes whose actions may avert such disasters and thus stave off the coming of the Demon Lord.

This the set-up for Shadow of the Demon Lord, an RPG that feels like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the Dungeons & Dragons Ravenloft setting that is slipping towards Fantasy Flight Games’ Midnight setting by way of The Dying Earth and some steampunk elements and an unhealthy dose of Heavy Metal. It has a number of notable features. First, character generation is fast, taking no more than five minutes. Second, a character starts out simple, but as he progresses, a player has plenty of choices in what he becomes. Third, a campaign starts with characters at Zero Level and ends with characters at Tenth Level, a group of characters going up in Level at end of each adventure so that a campaign can be played in just eleven sessions or scenarios. Fourth and last, the ‘Shadow’ of the Demon Lord and its effect upon the world can be adjusted and set by the Game Master—it can be something hinted at in prophecies, a rumour threatening in the background, an imminent disaster, or a catastrophe such as a pandemic, famine, earthquakes, the dead living and walking, the Wild hunt abroad in the land, a sudden winter out of season, wild magic warping all and sundry… and more.

Character creation starts by selecting an Ancestry—the equivalent of Race in Shadow of the Demon Lord, noting down the stats for the Ancestry, and then rolling for the character’s Age, Build, Distinctive Appearance, Odd Habit, Background, Wealth and Equipment, and an Interesting Thing or possession. Lastly, each character has a randomly determined Profession—from the Academic, Common, Criminal, Martial, Religious, or Wilderness categories—that grants minor benefits. Over a hundred professions are listed, from a scholar of Architecture, Religion, or War, gambler, informant, or urchin, and drover, valet, or apothecary to slave, detective, or peasant conscript, exile, hermit, or rustler, and flagellant, inquisitor’s henchman, and temple ward. They are nothing more than the names of professions, but their presence shows the influence of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and its Careers upon Shadow of the Demon Lord.

Shadow of the Demon Lord gives six Ancestries. They include Humans and Dwarves, as well as Goblins and Orcs from traditional fantasy, but no Elves or Hobbits/Halflings—though Halflings do appear in the game’s background (and are detailed in the Demon Lord's Companion). Goblins are a filthy, grubby people of low character and malicious disposition who have been exiled from the realms of faerie, whilst Orcs are brutish, strong, and violent, having originally been transformed by dark magics from giant-blooded Jotun warriors into fearsomely murderous warriors. Two other Ancestries are unique to Shadow of the Demon Lord. These are the Changelings and Clockworks. The former are created by the Faerie to conceal the absence of children they steal and can change their hideous natural appearance and identity, whilst Clockworks are mechanical constructs that can range in size from tiny be-winged things up to centaur-sized behemoths into which souls stolen from the Underworld have been bound.

Our sample character is Rash the Goblin. He is whipcord thin, from his head to his fingers—particularly his fingers. He wears the clothing of an office peon, having been apprenticed as a law clerk. He was also been apprenticed to a cult, although which cult and which deity or entity it was devoted to, Rash could not tell you. He likes spiders, especially ones he can crack open and suck out the juices.

Rash
Ancestry Goblin 
Strength 8 Agility 12 Intellect 10 Will 9
Perception 11
Defense 12
Health 8
Healing Rate 2
Size 1/2 Speed 10 Power 0
Damage 0 Insanity 0 Corruption 0
Languages & Professions
Common Tongue, Elvish (literate in both); Academic – Law; Criminal – Cultist
Immune damage from disease; charmed, diseased
Iron Vulnerability (Impaired while in contact with iron.)
Shadowsight (Can see in areas obscured by shadows as if those areas were lit.)
Sneaky (Rolls to become hidden or move silently are an Agility challenge roll with 1 boon.)

Age: You are a young adult, 11 to 25 years old.
Build: You are wiry.
Distinctive Appearance: You have long, slender fingers.
Odd Habit: You eat a bit of flesh from any living thing you kill.
Background: You are an unrepentant criminal.
Wealth: Getting By. You earn enough to meet all your expenses.
Equipment: club, basic clothing, a backpack, a week of rations, a waterskin, a tinderbox, 1d3 torches, and a pouch containing 1d6 cp.
Interesting Things: A book written in an unknown language or a book containing things you never wanted to know.

This though is a character at Level Zero who is no more than a prior profession and some potential experience. At Level One, a character enters a Novice Path—Magician, Priest, Rogue, or Warrior—and gains its benefits as well as extra benefits at Level Two, Level Five, and Level Eight. At Level Three, a character enters an Expert Path and gains its benefits as well as extra benefits at Level Six and Level Nine. Lastly, at Level Seven, a character enters a Master Path and gains its benefits as well as extra benefits at Level Ten. The choice of Paths available widens from Novice to Expert to Master, giving a player more and more options. A player could even decide to select a second Expert Path instead of a Master Path at Level Seven, offering further choice and flexibility. So a character who selected Priest as his Novice Path could choose from Cleric, Druid, Oracle, or Paladin from the Paths of Faith as his Expert Path, but then he might become a Chaplain, Exorcist, Zealot when he selects his Master Path. Or alternatively, he could go off in a different Paths, the choice and flexibility already being there.

Rash
Ancestry Goblin Level 1
Novice Path: Magician
Strength 8 Agility 13 Intellect 11 Will 9
Perception 12
Defense 13
Health 10
Healing Rate 2
Size 1/2 Speed 10 Power 1
Damage 0 Insanity 0 Corruption 0
Languages & Professions
Common Tongue, Elvish (literate in both); Academic – Law, Occult; Criminal – Cultist
Immune damage from disease; charmed, diseased
Iron Vulnerability (Impaired while in contact with iron.)
Shadowsight (Can see in areas obscured by shadows as if those areas were lit.)
Sneaky (Rolls to become hidden or move silently are an Agility challenge roll with 1 boon.)
Magical Traditions & Spells
Sense Magic (Level 0)
Conjuration—Direct Conjuration (Level 0); Conjure Small Monster (Level 1)
Divination—Epiphany (Level 0); Foretell (Level 1)

Age: You are a young adult, 11 to 25 years old.
Build: You are wiry.
Distinctive Appearance: You have long, slender fingers.
Odd Habit: You eat a bit of flesh from any living thing you kill.
Background: You are an unrepentant criminal.
Wealth: Getting By. You earn enough to meet all your expenses.
Equipment: club, basic clothing, a backpack, a week of rations, a waterskin, a tinderbox, 1d3 torches, and a pouch containing 1d6 cp.
Interesting Things: A book written in an unknown language or a book containing things you never wanted to know.

In going from the sixteen Expert Paths to the sixty-four Master Paths, Shadow of the Demon Lord not offers choice, it also adds flavour. For example, both the Berserker Expert Path and the Oracle Expert Path grant fantastic abilities, but at the cost of going insane. So when Berserk, the Berserker gains health, inflicts extra damage, but is not as proficient a fighter and must attack each round—and when he leaves the state he is fatigued and may gain an Insanity point. Similarly, the Oracle accepts the divine into his body to gain their power and wisdom, gaining similar benefits, but once free of the possession, is also fatigued and may gain an Insanity point. Other Paths push the RPG into Steampunk territory—though not as much as some would like, the Artificer Expert Path enabling a character to build arms, armour, ammunition, and devices on the fly and even create servants and spll storage devices; the Spellbinder casts magic into his weapon for a greater hit chance and damage as well as learning spells; and the Engineer Master Path enables a player to build and then pilot an ‘eidolon’, a mechanical servant. Most of the Expert Paths and Master Paths are specialist paths, enabling a character to focus on a particular aspect of the game, for example, an Aeromancer casting Air spells or a Scout tracking, hiding, and observing, but other like the more generic Fighter Expert Path and Thief Expert Path provide Talents that a player can choose from.

All attributes—Strength, Agility, Intellect, and Will—range in value between one and twenty and along with their derived characteristics, start at a value of ten. Attributes with values above or below ten give modifiers to both derived characteristics. So for example, our sample character, Rash the Goblin has an Agility of 12, which gives him a modifier of +2 in ranged attacks and other Agility based activities as well as a Defence of 12. Conversely, his Strength of 8 gives him a -2 penalty on melee attack rolls and reduces his Health to 8. A character’s Ancestry can modify both attributes and characteristics as will the Paths he selects at future levels.

The basic mechanic in Shadow of the Demon Lord is simple and straightforward, whether you are making the equivalent of a saving throw, a skill check, or an attack roll. Roll a twenty-sided die and add any Attribute bonuses or penalties, and if the result is ten or more, then you succeed. The target may not always be ten—it can go up or down, a target’s Defence typically being higher than ten. In addition a character can also have Boons or Banes—each a six-sided die—that he can add to, or subtract from, the roll. These may come from a Path, for example, the Warrior Path grants a Boon with any attack with a weapon; from a Profession, such as Academic — Law when searching a lawyer’s dusty offices for a clue; and from certain situations (as the example below shows). Banes and Boons cancel each other out prior to rolling, but when rolling multiples of either type, only the highest number rolled counts. The Game Master can also decide that if a character has a relevant profession then he automatically succeeds at an action.

For example, Rash has got into a fight with some Mushroom Men. Whilst his fellow party members rush forward to attack, Rash loads up his sling, swings it in the air, takes aim, and lets fly. His player states that he is going to make a Called Shot. This is made with a single Bane. So Rash rolls the twenty-sided die and adds +3 because this is an Agility based attack, but rolls a six-sided die from the total. He rolls 17 on the twenty-sided die and adds the Agility bonus to get a result of 20. From this he subtracts the result of the Bane die, 5, to get a total of 15. The result of the Bane die is bad, but not bad enough for Rash to miss. Rash’s player suggests that the sling stone has struck the tentacle of one of the Mushroom Men, forcing it to use it with a Bane if it wants to attack again.

Although a character does not begin play with any, during the game, whenever a character pulls off a remarkable stunt, or when a player has a great idea or makes the game more fun to play, the Game Master can award him Fortune. When spent, this little bit of luck can turn any failed dice roll into a success, but it can also be spent to grant two Boons any other player when he rolls or to turn the roll of any six-sided die—made by any player—into a result of a six. These rules are simple enough, but the capacity to spend Fortune on other players for an extra benefit nicely encourages more social play.

The only notable feature in combat in Shadow of the Demon Lord is the use of Fast Turns and Slow Turns. When a character uses a Fast Action, he can only choose to attack, take an action, or move. When he uses a Slow Action, he can move and attack or move and take an action. Of course, Fast Actions take place before Slow Actions and unless they have been surprised, player characters act before any NPCs. So player characters take their Fast Actions, then the NPCs do, after which any other player characters take their Slow Actions followed by the NPCs. This is a surprisingly simple and unfussy way of handling both initiative, turn order, and actions in combat.

Magic in Shadow of the Demon Lord comes in thirty flavours or ‘Traditions’. They are associated either with the Intellect or Will Attributes—the Battle, Necromancy, and Technomancy Traditions are associated with Intellect, whilst the Chaos, Song, and Water Traditions are associated with Will. Some Traditions—Curse, Forbidden, and Necromancy Traditions are Dark Magic and spells learned from these Traditions corrupt the practitioner. Most spells require speaking aloud, an implement, and a free Casting. A caster’s Power determines the number of spells he can cast per spell rank. Thus a caster with Power of 0 can cast a Rank 0 spell or cantrip once between rests, but at Power 1, he has two castings of Rank 0 spells and one casting of Rank 1 spells between rests. Each Tradition comes with eleven spells, ranging from Rank 0 up to Rank 5, though the game suggests that Ranks 6 and above are possible*.

*Given that the chapter for the Game Master, ‘Running the Game’, states that future supplements will allow characters to rise above Tenth level, then spell Ranks 6 and above seem all the more likely.

Whether from casting spells, going berserk, being exposed to shocks and horrors, a character can go insane. Resisting against this requires a roll against a character’s Will, but each time a character gains Insanity points he is frightened and cannot act for a few rounds. After this, he has two choices. The first is to take a Quirk such as Addiction, Narcolepsy, or Unhinged Acceptance and so negate the gained Insanity point, but the second is let his Insanity points build up equal to his Will attribute, go mad, and potentially suffer death, be stricken, suffer a panic attack, or self-mutilate, but actually lose Insanity points. In addition, should a character commit one or more vile deeds, he will acquire Corruption points that poison his soul, making him more difficult to get on with, twisting him physically, and blighting his fate (or die rolls). He might even gain a ‘Mark of Darkness’, perhaps a sixth finger on each hand, a wound that oozes black and never heals, or you weep blood. It is possible to atone for such iniquitous actions, but this is far from easy. 

Shadow of the Demon Lord is set on the world of Urth on the continent of Rûl, a land in which magic is real, terrible monsters abound, the gods are far away, and the discovery of black powder, clockwork, and steam power promises an imminent industrial revolution. The latter though is stalled, the Empire of Caecras having fallen into disarray after Orc King rose up at the head of a slave rebellion and strangled the Emperor before taking the Alabaster Throne for himself. The primary setting for the game is the backwater province of Northern Reach, the last region conquered by the Empire and once home to the Lands of Summer, the last great realm of the faerie folk. Roughly divided equally between civilised and wilderland areas, its governor lacks the funds to maintain law and order, there are tensions between the followers of the Cult of the New God and the Old Faith, whilst from her hidden kingdom of Alfheim, the Faerie Queen watches the doings of the younger races. 

The advice for the Game Master is decently done, with an optional rule pleasingly adding a degree of player agency to the game via Opportunities and Setbacks. These make successes and failures more interesting. Essentially a player gives up a Boon to gain an Opportunity if the roll is successful.  The exact nature of Opportunity should be agreed on beforehand by the player and Game Master and grant the player an extra effect. Likewise, a Bane can be given up to gain a Setback if the roll is successful, the Setback being a previously agreed upon negative effect. Essentially, Opportunities are the narrative equivalent of answering “Yes and...” in narrative storytelling, whereas Setbacks are the equivalent of “Yes, but…”. As well as basic advice, Shadow of the Demon Lord also covers possible styles of horror, setting up and running both campaigns and scenarios, the types of adventures at different levels, and so on as well as more mechanical advice.

Descriptions of the game suggest that the apocalyptic tone in Shadow of the Demon Lord is a dial that the Game Master can adjust, so that if he prefers not to impose disaster or catastrophe upon the players just yet, he can tone it down for a less perilous game and then perhaps build back up to it. Well it is in that the Game Master can decide how much influence he wants the Demon Lord to have over the game and can then randomly—or choose—from the table of twenty effects. These include Infectious madness, an invasive Bloom of plant life, a Black Sun, the Fall of Civilisation, Demonic Incursion, Corrupted Organisation, and so on. The greater the influence that the Game Master wants, the more times he rolls or selects. What they are not is ‘templates’, the term used in the descriptions of the game. They are not models or preset formats that the Game Master can work from. Which is disappointing because if they were, it would have meant that Shadow of the Demon Lord was more sophisticated in its design. This is not to say that the given effects are not interesting or useful—they are, but are tools in themselves.

The bestiary in Shadow of the Demon Lord includes descriptions of some ninety creatures plus variants and then another fourteen Characters. Thus for the Ogre also includes stats and descriptions of the Ettin and Horned Ogre as well as the Ogre, and the Fomor, the Warg, and the Minotaur under the Beastman heading. Some entries are deliberately generic, such as the write-ups for Tiny, Small, Medium, Large, and Huge Monsters all under the Monster heading. the same is done for the Animal and Demon headings. In either case, both can be easily modified by the Game Master using the guidelines for customising creatures. Characters can be modified using Templates. The bestiary is a good mix of entries from classic myth, folklore, and fantasy, such as the Barghest, the Gorgon, the Jack-O’-Lantern, and the Redcap. Others are of course new to Shadow of the Demon Lord, such as the Bloody Bones that flense skin of their victims to replace theirs lost due to curse; Dread Mothers, winged humanoid things that strike with their prehensile tongues to incapacitate their victims and then inject eggs carried in their distended bellies; and Harvesters, ancient creatures that as Organ Filches haunt cities in search of replacement body parts or a Tear Thieves, inflict great pain so that victims cry, their harvested tears being concocted into an elixir that grants the ability to feel emotions again. There is a gruesomeness to these creatures that feels fresh and fiendish.

The one major element that Shadow of the Demon Lord is missing is a scenario or adventure. Whilst this is disappointing, the publisher has funded several scenarios as part of the game’s Kickstarter campaign, several of them designed for beginning characters. In addition, Tales of the Demon Lord, a full, eleven-part campaign, has also been funded via the Kickstarter campaign and is available.

Shadow of the Demon Lord bears some resemblance to Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game in its Zero to Level One character funnel, but without the need for multiple characters per player. In tone, it also feels like another Retroclone, that of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying such that many of the adventures published for that game could be adapted to be run with Shadow of the Demon Lord. Its core influence though, is Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, tempered it has to be said by Dungeons & Dragons in its slicker play style and its profusion of magic and magical traditions.It is essentially an American RPG with European sensibilities, again typified by Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying and the ‘U’ and ‘UK’ series of modules published for Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition.

Ultimately, if there is a single weakness to Shadow of the Demon Lord, it is in the handling of its titular antagonist. This could have been stronger and better structured as the idea that the use of template suggests and thus been more helpful to Game Masters of any experience. If there is a second weakness to Shadow of the Demon Lord, it is in the slightly underwritten background which lacks the depth of its chief inspiration, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. (As a corollary to this, the setting’s technological aspects—clockwork, steam and steampunk, and gunpowder—also feel underwritten.) Yet this makes the games rules much easier to port over to a setting of the Game Master’s own devising and if the setting itself is not one of ‘Perilous Adventure’, the rules themselves (along with many of the monsters) all support a game of ‘Perilous Adventure’. The rules to Shadow of the Demon Lord are pleasingly simple and perfect for running an atmospherically grim and dark fantasy game of horror—the impending doom will just have to wait a little longer for better support.