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Saturday, 17 April 2021

Dark Tales

Published in 2015, Shadow of the Demon Lord is roleplaying game which feels like a combination of 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. Published by Schwalb Entertainment, it combines fast character generation—taking no less than five minutes—and offers a player  plenty of choices in what his character becomes; models short campaigns which take a Player Character from Zero Level to 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; and as the titular Demon Lord rattles at the last bars that keep him imprisoned in the Void, his influence continues to despoil land and mind alike, the ‘Shadow’ of the Demon Lord and its effect upon the world can be adjusted and set by the Game Master. This 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.

Tales of the Demon Lord is a campaign for Shadows of the Demon Lord. It consists of eleven adventures set in the lands of the Northern Reach, the far-flung province of a dying empire, whose capital is Crossings, a city perched on shores of the island-strewn and fae-inhabited lake known as Dark Waters. The city is best known as a fishing port and for its Academy of Engineers established by the Empire long ago and the six faerie spires which have stood since long before the city was built. Originally founded by exiles, refugees, and bandits from the Empire, but since subsumed into its borders before being ignored as a distant province, the council rather than governor-led Crossings acknowledges Sixton as the capital of the province, but otherwise ignores it and decides what is best for the citizens of Crossings. However, as the 
Shadow of the Demon Lord looms over the Empire, Crossings is not immune to the impending doom, an ancient cult with a branch in the city, the Brotherhood of Shadows, scrambles to find a way to bore a hole into the Void that is home to the Demon Lord, and so release both him and hordes of demons intent on destroying the world. As the Player Characters undertake one task or mission after another, they will cross paths with not only these cultists, but also rival cultists who want to take control of the Brotherhood of Shadows and so claim the glory of successfully summoning their master and doom the world…

Tales of the Demon Lord provides several reasons why the Player Characters might be in Crossings according to their Profession—Academic, Common, Criminal, Martial, Religious, or Wilderness—and quickly lays out the basics of the plot and details Crossings and various NPCs. Some of the city is described in detail, including its government, various districts, and important NPCs. The description is accompanied by a decent map and is enough for the Game Master to run the Tales of the Demon Lord campaign or any other scenarios set within its walls, whilst still leaving plenty of room for the Game Master to add her own content. Very quickly though, Tales of the Demon Lord gets into the first part of its campaign.

The first of the eleven adventures in 
Tales of the Demon Lord is ‘Harvester of Sorrows’. A priest from Crossings’ poorest district, Grievings, has gone missing following a series of disappearances he was investigating himself, and the Player Characters are asked to find him. A little investigation will reveal that the priest was enquiring about a nearby dilapidated house, once home to an infamous demonologist, and after a run-in with a local gang, there the Player Characters will discover that someone else also has an interest in the house and accidentally released a dread creature that is preying on the inhabitants of the surrounding the district. This is a common aspect of the scenarios which will follow in Tales of the Demon Lord. ‘Harvester of Sorrows’ gets the campaign off to a grim start just as you would expect for Shadow of the Demon Lord, but is not too challenging.

‘Born to Die’ is the first of two scenarios for Novice-level characters. The gang encountered in ‘Harvester of Sorrows’ has kidnapped the daughter of a local merchant and is holding her for ransom, and her father engages the Player Characters to see to her safe return. However, the Player Characters are not the only ones looking for the daughter and will need to deal with at least one other faction to get to her. Mostly set on an island in Dark Waters lake, the first of several scenarios which will take the Player Characters out of Crossings, this is a hostage rescue scenario, which of course, will go wrong. The second scenario for Novice-level characters, ‘The Curious Case of the Errant Swine’, takes the Player Characters truly out of the city to the farm of Farmer Ham, who recently had one of his fine hogs stolen. He wants the thieves caught and his hogs returned, if possible. Signs point towards the nearby Sentinel Wood and investigation there will locate both the culprits and the reasons behind the abductions, but has horrid secrets of his own he wants kept hidden. This scenario has a nice mix of interaction, investigation, and exploration, in particular into a partially-flooded Elvish underground shrine.

‘Temple of Shadows’ sees the Player Characters back in the city as a vile plague sweeps through Purse, Crossings’ wealthiest district, its victims descending into gibbering madness before dying and rising as demon-possessed animated corpses! In this first scenario for Expert-level characters, the fact that house of Pentachus Katandramus, a wealthy aristocrat, has been destroyed in a recent explosion surely cannot be a coincidence and Inquisitor Randolfus and his henchmen, but have not returned. When the Player Characters get past the cordon and descend into the house, they discover another factional feud, this time for control of the vile temple under the remains of the house and what might be hidden there. ‘Temple of Shadows’ is followed by ‘The Moon Spire’, which will take the Player Characters away from Crossings again, this time to the hamlet of Carbuncle, infamous for the physical oddities and infirmities of its inhabitants, and the strange Moon Spire, an elvish tower which appears at the full moon. This is a strange exploration of an even stranger building, the Player Characters needing to find portal after portal to work their way up the tower without being kicked out. Again, this is another search for a relic which needs to be denied to the enemy, but one which will require the Game Master to track carefully where the Player Characters are as there is a high chance of their being separated.

Another theme in 
Tales of the Demon Lord, that of others uncovering things best left covered, continues with ‘Mines of Madness’. The third scenario for Expert-level characters, this has the Player Characters sent into the Black Hills west of Crossings, where the Dwarf, Gundren the Ironmonger, operates a mine. Ore shipments have stopped coming and he wants to know why. Arriving at the mine, the Player Characters discover that the miners are missing and must descend into the mine to find out what has happened. This scenario is incidental to the campaign, as is the next, but ‘Mines of Madness’ is a decent enough dungeon-bash. The fourth, and last scenario in the campaign for Expert-level characters is ‘In the Name of Love’, which takes place in the rapidly declining town of Verge. This is a more sophisticated piece, one-part sandbox, one-part character study, in which rumours of missing villagers and strangers seen about the place should drive the Player Characters to investigate. A combination of good roleplaying and investigation will reveal that not all is well in Verge as anger has awoken a demon-tree, strangers predate on victims’ tears, and brigands pick at the bones of the settlement in this bloody tragedy.

If the Player Characters have been working to prevent the coming of the Demon Lord and thus the end of the world, if only inadvertently at this point in the campaign, then they find themselves with a rival in ‘Shadows in the Mist’ in this first scenario for Master-level characters. When they return to Crossings, they hear reports of new-borns having gone missing, a new island appearing in the lake, and then a monster haunted fog rolls in and shrouds the city. The island and its inhabitants prove unwelcoming to visitors and when the Player Characters get to close to the culprit, they become the hunted. The steampunk elements of 
Shadow of the Demon Lord are played up in ‘Off the Rails’, as the provincial governor recruits the Player Characters to investigate a recent train crash and recover several iron titans, prototype mechanical soldiers which might replace the Empire’s Orc soldiery and which were aboard the train. As the Player Characters are investigating the crash site, they are drawn to a nearby village by the sound of an explosion. If they race to investigate, they discover the village under attack by Orc rebels in command of the iron titans—but the villagers have their own means of defence! The likelihood is that a big battle will ensure, either against the Orcs or villagers, not both, and then there is the matter of the remaining rebels to deal with…

The penultimate scenario in 
Tales of the Demon Lord is ‘Prince of Darkness which brings the summoning of the Demon Lord one step closer, but for the Player Characters, help comes from an unexpected quarter—a reformed demonologist who has escaped Hell! A demon has taken possession of the demonologist’s former stronghold and is tearing open a rift to the Void. With the demonologist’s aid, the Player Characters must enter his stronghold and find a way to defeat the demon or prevent it from opening the Void. The last scenario and campaign finale is ‘The End is Near’ in which the Brotherhood of Shadows moves openly to summon its master as rivals try to take control of the cult’s efforts. The scenario begins with an investigation into the death of Crossings’ mayor, the first of several possible murders in the city, and culminates in the Player Characters confronting several factions in an attempt to bring about the end of the world!

Tales of the Demon Lord is rounded out with ‘Appendix: New Creatures’, which presents several types of an insectoid species encountered in the mines in ‘Mines of Madness’. Physically, Tales of the Demon Lord is well presented, with decent artwork and some nice cartography. In terms of a campaign, Tales of the Demon Lord lives up the grim and bruising tone of Shadow of the Demon Lord, the Player Characters being constantly assailed by demons, cultists, and other vile threats. It feels compact, there being roughly two or four pages per scenario, each of which should provide two or three secessions’ worth of gaming.

Tales of the Demon Lord does not quite work as a campaign as written. Some effort is required by the Game Master to provide monster statistics and magical relics when found, but further, the Game Master will need to set up and provide continuing links between the scenarios, as none are provided. A patron is required for the Player Characters at the very least, but once the campaign gets under way, this should be less of an issue. It does add to the set-up requirements for the Game Master though. Similarly, the Game Master will be on her own when comes to the outcome—successful or failed—of any scenario, plus the outcome, if successful, of the campaign. The effects of failure though, is easier to determine. The lack of connective tissue between the scenarios means that not every scenario is specifically connected to the campaign’s story line as well, and whilst in places this means that the campaign is showcasing the ongoing, dying nature of the world around the Player Characters, it also means that sometimes it feels as if they are being shunted off scene whilst other things occur. However, the lack of connective tissue between the scenarios has an advantage too, providing some flexibility in terms of the order in which they can be played—though this would have to be within the confines of the Path the Player Characters are on (Novice, Expert, or Master)—as well as making them easy to extract from the book and either replaced, added to another campaign, or run as a one-shot. With some effort, a Game Master could also adapt the campaign to the roleplaying game of her choice, whether grim and perilous, or not.

Tales of the Demon Lord is as dark and twisted and as grim and perilous a campaign as you would want for Shadow of the Demon Lord. It is a solid, intentionally short campaign, which serves up a good mix of horror and insanity, but which will require more development and set-up than another campaign might not.

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