Wednesday, February 1, 2017

"Pitchfork Sad" - A review of Shadow of the Demon Lord



Shadow of the Demon Lord! I remember vaguely seeing kickstarter announcements and then stumbled back across it this summer after it was out in print and decided to give it a look. And man, am I glad I did.

The brief pitch of why I enjoy Shadow of the Demon Lord is this... simple, familiar but distinct d20 rules, with interesting races (hereafter referred to as Ancestries, as SotDL does), flexible class options (called Paths by SotDL), compelling monsters, a deadly and dangerous world to explore and a very distinct feel that pervades the system and setting that makes it feel very distinct from D&D. The splatter-gore meets crazed whimsy and dark mystery of the gels much better than I was expecting, walking a fine line sometimes between silliness and horror, as evidenced by the goblin warlock art below...



Anyway, if a darker game that allows for some wackiness and lots of random tables for character creation is what you like stuffed into your roleplaying sausages, then read the full review below for a taste of what goes into the meat grinder. (I was going to go with "is your jam" but I figured sausage making was a much more apt metaphor for SotDL, being both a bit sillier/juvenile and also a bit more grisly.)

Also, new table of random Human Skin Tones below! Or click here to skip to that...


I'm going to put this review into four sections, Basic Mechanics, Player facing, GM facing and Adventures, with the fourth section having minor spoilers for the three published SotDL adventures I've run. While I'll try and concentrate on the core book for the player and GM facing sections, I will touch a bit on the ancestries from the Demon Lord's companion.

Basic Mechanics

Built on the d20 framework, the Shadow of the Demon Lord mechanics are simple, solid and easy to explain and introduce. Sure, there are some quirks, like four stats, Strength, Agility, Intellect and Will in place of the traditional six, but nothing that's difficult to grok, and it's still based on the roll a d20, add modifiers, aim for high numbers standard. There are two big differences between what you expect from a d20 game and SotDL mechanics and those are both well done.

Boons/Banes

Instead of a bunch of +2, or -4 modifiers, you get boons or banes to add to your d20 rolls. They're both d6 based and as you expect you add boons to your roll and subtract banes and they cancel each other out 1 for 1. For multiple dice rolled for boons or banes you take the highest result from the d6s to modifier your d20 roll. So for instance, you have 3 boons and two banes? That works out to just 1d6 that you would roll to add to your d20 roll with your ability modifier. Bam, easy peasy. Have two banes? roll 2d6 and subtract the higher result from your d20 roll. This keeps the math pretty flat and simple and means that one or two boons is good, but 6 boons isn't appreciatively better since you're just using the highest result. All challenge rolls outside of combat are 10, making it simple to remember and meaning that for GMs it's easy to know how difficult something should be by remembring that the base rule is, can someone without an particular aptitude succeed 50% of the time? If it should be easier, but still have a bit of a chance of failure, give a boon, if it should be more difficult throw in a bane or three. The skill system of professions works well, where if a challenge would be easier because of a PC's profession, like spelunker for a cave wall climbing challenge, then that player gets to roll a boon. If it should still be difficult despite that PC's profession, the GM can just toss on a couple banes like, you're a spelunker so it's doable, but the walls are dripping with water and you need to move quickly before the dire rats catch you, so let's say two banes (one of which would be cancelled by the boon from the spelunker profession, natch).

Fast Turn/Slow Turn

Here's my other favorite innovation, Fast Turns and Slow Turns. In SotDL PCs always go before their adversaries, so no needing to spend five minutes determining initiative order. What keeps things interesting is Fast Turns and Slow Turns. Basically a fast turn lets a creature do a single action, like move or attack, while a slow turn lets a creature use their full complement of actions. Rounds go like this: all PC fast turns, all NPC fast turns, then all PC slow turns and finally all NPC slow turns. So if the PC just needs to shoot a bow they know they can always go before all the NPCs, but PCs who need to move and attack run the risk that an NPC will get to go before them and comlicate things. For example, Gerky the Goblin and Durrel the Dwarf are fighting some sinister cultists. Gerky has a sling, he can take a fast turn before all the cultists to sling a rock at the face of one of the chanting cultists. Durrel, on the otherhand, has to decide, does he shoot his crossbow as a fast turn, or does he take the chance that no cultist have ranged attacks (and thus could take fast turns) and instead runs up to try and slam his club into one of the sinisterly robed opponents.

Player Facing

Fair warning that this is my assessment, as someone who has only run and not played SotDL on how the player facing mechanics and setting work.

Character Creation is quick, easy and instantly memorable. Starting PCs are created as 0th level, so without a Path (or class) and so players can focus on making their Ancestry (race) as their important narrative decision and then once (or if, and I'll touch on that more in a bit) they survive they make a choice of Path and have a more recognizable fantasy RPG class. Fortunately for this approach, the Ancestries of Shadow of the Demon Lord are distinct and the various tables provided for character creation provide plenty of flavor. For instance, Humans are normally pretty bland jack of all trades in fantasy RPGs, but with six dice rolls you can end up with this Human for your PC...
Background: You saved your town from terrible monsters.
Personality: You look after yourself first and foremost. You’re not above double-crossing friends.
Age: You are an older adult, 56 to 75 years old.
Build: You are tall and thin.
Appearance: You are plain and uninteresting to look upon. People notice you, but your appearance fails to make an impression.
Religion: You belong to a heretical sect.
Then add in rolls for random Professions, which function as replacements for skills, and are organized in six categories, Common, Academic, Criminal, Martial, Wilderness and Religious, and you can add...
Profession: Tracker (Wilderness)
Profession: Agitator (Criminal)
Profession: Devotee. You are a strong believer and follower of your faith’s tenets. You can read and write one language you know. (Religious)
Finally, you roll for Wealth and an Interesting thing...
Wealth: Poor. You live in squalid conditions and you’re never sure where you’re going to get your next meal.
Interesting Thing: Unrequited love.
And that's 11 dice rolls for an interesting PC to portray. The Interesting Thing is often more tangible, like "a sad donkey" pulling a cart or a fake eyeball, so a slightly skewed and expanded take on 5e D&D's trinket table.

Creepy Clockworks! Mechanical bodies with souls stolen from the Underworld!

Players get six Ancestries to pick from in the core book, all of which range from good to excellent, plus two more in the Demon Lord's Companion that I found poor to middling...

Human  

While still falling well within the bland "Humans are good at everything" fantasy RPG trope, the personality, background and appearance tables help give most human PCs a bit more spark. They get to have an extra profession or language, though I might house-rule that to they get both, as otherwise most players are always going to go with the extra profession. One more interesting thing that I missed on my first few read throughs until I caught it in another review (which I of course cannot find now...) that the book description of humans includes this tidbit...
Many Variations: Humans comprise many different ethnic groups. Skin tones can range from almost black to albino white, or green, blue, orange, pink, or something else. Some humans have patterned skin, stripes, thick body hair, or no hair at all.
Coming before the character creation section, it seems like this would be easy to miss, especially as it does not come up in any of the random tables... so here's my solution, a new random table! Using 2d20, as SotDL has lots of d20 and 3d6 tables but none that use the double icosahedron.

(Click here for a printer friendly PDF of the chart)


2d20 Human Skin Tone
2-4 Your skin is patterned like a jaguar or perhaps in arcane or mystical sigils. Roll two more times to determine the primary and secondary tones, ignoring any results of 2-7.
5-7 Your skin is striped like a tiger or perhaps with more geometrical and regular stripes. Roll two more times to determine the primary and secondary tones, ignoring any results of 2-7.
8-10 Your skin is a shade of blue or indigo. Is it a light, milky, almost white blue like ice or sky blue, or dark like midnight blue?
11-13 Your skin is a shade of green. Is it a light olive green, a deep forest green or a bright neon green like a poisonous reptile or amphibian?
14-16 Your skin is a shade of yellow or orange. Is it a mild buttery yellow, a dark rusty orange or brilliant like the sun?
17-19 Your skin is a shade of white. Are you an albino or just pale? White like campfire smoke, a seashell or like bone?
20-22 Your skin is a shade of brown. Is it light like beige or desert sand? Or deep and rich like chestnut or chocolate?
23-25 Your skin is a shade of pink. Is it bright like carnation or brilliant like a flamingo's feathers or muted like champagne?
26-28 Your skin is a shade of red. Is it light coral, brilliant like crimson or dark like carmine?
29-31 Your skin is a shade of gray or black. Is it light like silver or iron or deep and dark like charcoal or licorice?
32-34 Your skin is a shade of violet or purple. Is it mellow like mauve or lavender, dark and muted like an eggplant or vivid like heliotrope?
35-37 You have thick body hair which covers much of your skin. Roll again to determine your skin tone, ignoring any results of 35-40.
38-40 You are naturally hairless, or at least nearly so. Roll again to determine your skin tone, ignoring any results of 35-40.

Changeling

Created by faeries, the SotDL changelings get all the shapeshifting you'd expect, but also have a nasty Iron Vulnerabilty that is nice to see, as well as a random quirk that helps set them apart from those they'd try to impersonate like "You find meat repulsive" or "Forms you adopt have no hair or fingernails".

Clockwork

My favorite take on a fantasy mechanical race yet, clockworks are created by putting souls from the Underworld into mechanical bodies, so they get all the fun of being dead and maybe remembering past lives or not. But they have real souls instead of having that programmed automaton thing that sometimes vexes clockwork style races. Plus their shape and form vary wildly depending on their random purpose and form, as evidenced by the two clockwork in the image above.

Dwarf

Male and female dwarves both having facial hair? Fanatical hatreds that help to drive them? A tendency towards greed? All that's missing is a little more stuff about ale and it would have hit all my favorite things about dwarves checklist... But really, all you need is this bit from their introduction...
The Beard’s the Thing: Dwarfs have thick, stout bodies, limbs corded with muscle, and bellies bulging from their fondness for alcohol and food. All dwarfs, male and female, wear elaborate facial hair, braiding it in their clan designs, decorating it with silver or gold rings, or greasing it up into unusual shapes. Other dwarfs have fanciful mustaches or thick muttonchops that hang past their waists.

Goblin

By the book, the Elves and Faeries mostly fled the world, so Goblins are faerie that were exiled from the lands of the faerie and take the place of D&D Elves as "PC race that is probably good at magic". Which is pretty fucking awesome because putting goblins in the place of elves sidesteps a lot of problems with elves (living for 6-7 centuries, innate magic talent, being boring and/or evil when you think about it) and puts gross silliness in their place. Being faerie, they also get the Iron Vulnerability of Changelings, but where Changelings had odd quirks, Goblins get (gross) weird habits like... "You save all your secretions in small bottles and give them as gifts to people you like." Which, when you think about it, could be annoying for other players at the table but probably more fun than another boring Elven mystical archer.

Orc

SotDL wisely skips right over Half-Orcs and goes straight to Orcs; created from Jotun (half-giant, basically) prisoners by morally questionable Empire and used as a slave army for centuries, Orcs finally broke their chains and claimed their freedom. Plenty there to build a brutal and blood thirsty warrior, but also for a player to play an Orc struggling against that trope.

Given how much I like the six base ancestries, it's a bit of a shame that the two ancestries in the Demon Lord's Companion, the Faun and the Halfling, fall short. The problem with both is they feel a bit bland, for the Faun their animal features and flightiness just don't make them stand out when compared to the two other fae-touched options of Changeling and Goblin, plus they don't have Iron Vulnerability which seems like a bizarre oversight. For the Halfling, they just fall into the bog-standard lucky hobbit RPG trope and don't push it far enough to cross over into greatness the way the Dwarf ancestry does. There are a couple of dark touches here and there amongst the backgrounds and personalities, like "Something is wrong with you. You dream about hurting people, cutting them up and making them scream. You worry that you may one day act out on these fantasies." but on the whole the ancestry just feels boring and a bit underdone.

The rest of the player facing character creation stuff is great. Professions take the place of skills and provide boons for challenge rolls. They're chosen during character creation by rolling on random tables and while they can be a bit grab bag, they're mostly evocative, or at least I think so. I guess I find it easier to imagine the skills that come with the Common profession "Drover or herder" or the Wilderness profession "Prospector" than trying to figure out what the fuck the "nature" skill covers. The random wealth tables keep starting equipment easy to figure out as PCs are stuck spending coin on a huge equipment list and mostly don't have coin to spend. As I mentioned above in my random human PC example, the Interesting Thing each PC gets feels like a fairly well done and expanded take on the D&D 5e trinket table.

Starting at 0th level/Paths

Here's another big departure from other fantasy d20 games, all PCs start at 0th level, with just their Ancestry and Professions to shape them. Then when PCs survive a starting adventure and reach level 1 they choose a Novice path, which takes the place that a class would in other games. But, unlike other games where choosing a class locks most PCs into a fairly confined trajectory, taking all (or almost) all their levels in that class, the paths are built for character growth and change. There are four basic novice paths, Magician, Priest, Rogue and Warrior, which are pretty self explanatory for anyone who's played fantasy RPGs, and those paths give you powers/benefits up through 8th level... but you choose an expert path at 3rd level where there are more specialized options like Assassin, Paladin and Witch. Then again at 7th level you choose an even more focused Master Path like Abjurer, Dervish or Templar. But there aren't any prerequisites, so your Dwarf PC could start as a Warrior, then move to Paladin at 3rd level and then something crazy like Pyromancer at 7th. Sure, it might not be optimal, but it would be interesting. Plus, in addition to the starting ability you got from your Ancestry at 0th level, you get another at 4th (though spell-casters, or anyone really, could sack that to get an extra spell known). And if that wasn't enough flexibility, you can choose a second Expert path in place of your Master Path and/or a Second Novice path in place of your Expert Path. So your character advancement looks like this.


Level Choice Benefit from
0              Ancestry Ancestry
1 Novice Path     Novice Path
2 --- Novice Path
3 Expert Path Expert Path
4 --- Ancestry
5 --- Novice Path
6 --- Expert Path
7 Master Path Master Path
8 --- Novice Path
9 --- Expert Path
10 --- Master Path

While I haven't had a chance to see much of the Path system in play yet, having run three of my five games for 0th level characters, there's plenty of choice and flexibility. Plus, from what I've read, there are some really interesting and evocative Paths, like the Oracle Expert path which handles the religious prophet/avatar channeling divine power better than anything else I've seen.
Very little chance I'll ever get to play a SotDL PC, but if I do, Oracle would be incredibly tempting...

Magic

Magic is a mixed bag, the traditions are varied and interesting. I love that there are Dark traditions that cause PCs to gain corruption as their souls are tainted. The spells per day mechanic isn't explained in the book and requires a few readings though, and some of the traditions seem arbitrarily dumped into whether they use Intellect or Will (the two magic using stats). Plus, the system doesn't support the traditional Vancian Wizard collecting spells for a spell book very well. On the whole though, I think the richness and ingenuity of the individual spells and traditions out weighs the downsides.

Other Player Facing Stuff

I wish there was a page or two of concise player advice, but I might just be spoiled from the 13th Age player advice page. For players coming from other Fantasy d20 games, combat is incredibly dangerous and deadly, at least at 0th and 1st level. When a healing potion maybe heals 2-3 HPs and a small animal, like a dog, can do 1d6+1 damage, that's a big adjustment from the near super-hero toughness of 1st level D&D 5e or 13th Age PCs.
As much as I love the random tables for PC creation, we did struggle my first few games having random PCs personalities and backgrounds that made party cohesion a bit challenging, so I think it behooves the GM and the players to discuss what they want from the party. I also didn't do a great job at providing motivation for my players for the first few adventures I ran, so when the going got tough there wasn't more inducement for PCs to stick it out and take real risks. Still, I think fun was had, or at least enough fun that my players haven't yet revolted as I'm using Shadow of the Demon Lord more and more. Though if my players have other thoughts on the game, they should comment and let me know.

GM Facing

The GM facing bits of Shadow of the Demon Lord are good but not great. The mechanics are solid and easy to run on the fly, there's some decent GM advice that's tailored to the game and covers how to use the horror and gore of the game, as well as advice on how to make sure you're not going past the player's limits. The creatures are well done, stat blocks are succinct and there's a nice mix of classical and new creatures to throw at players.

One thing I found a little disappointing was the setting. The pitch of an empire on the brink, a northern land that was never fully conquered, a Demon Lord menacing the world, that's all great. But then we get a ton of very generic place names (Barrows, Haunted Forest, Dark Forest, Black Hills). But what I really want is a couple sample groups or NPCs or a couple of sample adventure sites that are fleshed out... fortunately some of that is handled well by the many excellent adventures that have already been put out for SotDL.

Overall, I really like the system, and if push came to shove, I could figure out a way to love the setting a little more or at least use it to run an ongoing campaign... But since I re-read Vornheim late in December, I couldn't resist using the SotDL system and mashing the setting with Vornheim, to run a game where Vorn was the Demon Lord menacing Urth who managed to claim it. I've already run one session as my pick-up play as you can campaign and I'll be running another on Friday, so expect more on that game soon.


Adventures

Spoilers for the Shadow of the Demon Lord Adventures "The Witching Wood", "The Apple of Her Eye" and "Survival of the Fittest" follow... But first some common notes and reactions that cut across all three...

  • The adventures are concise. The Witching Wood is 4 pages, The Apple of Her Eye 7 and Survival of the Fittest is 8 pages. Witching Wood is shorter because it doesn't include any creature stats, assuming that you'll pull out the core book for that.
  • They're well organized. The first two pages introduce the adventure, the adventure background and facts you'll need to reference as a GM are all in the early section. There aren't many side-bars, so when they're used they stick out and contain useful information or hints.
  • They're not linear, players can decide how their PCs want to handle the challenges, or avoid them (as I found out).
  • They all have suggestions for how the adventure wraps up, without assuming that players take any particular strategy. 
Honestly, my biggest complaint about the adventures is that they all have a colored background, which makes it a little bit of a pain to print out my pdfs to run off a paper copy that I can notate.

Particular reviews are in the order I ran the adventures... Again... SPOILERS...

The Witching Wood

A sinister force lurks in the woods, one that has begun to prey on the innocent folk of Respite, a religious community on the edges of civilization. In this adventure, the player characters must come together to save their town against the horror lurking in the haunted forest that stands steeped in darkness and horror. Whether you're just getting started with Shadow of the Demon Lord or you are looking to launch a new campaign, The Witching Wood is one hell of a place to start!
Having watched and loved the VVITCH, this was obviously the first adventure I'd run for SotDL... I ran it for my Sunday group as I was trying to determine how/when to run my 5e Planescape hack and so I kinda just tossed my players into it. They rolled up largely random PCs, which meant that there wasn't a huge cohesion to the group and they also went with the "strangers travelling through Respite" option instead of natives, which in retrospect, did not work out that well for me. Running the adventure largely on the fly and running the system for the first time, I should have given them more hooks or motivation to want to deal with the witch but alas, I failed on that count. So when, as the adventure suggests, the terrified villagers turned on the herbalists of the village the players, who had been badly beaten up in their combat encounters with beastmen, decided that their PCs had enough of that jerk-ass village and left the village to be overrun by the Witch and her ferocious beastmen. Or as I summed up in a tweet at the time...


Anyway, it's still a good little adventure. It's got a half dozen notable and easy to run NPCs, a nice little chart of random encounters for the terrifying woods and an incredibly well done chronology that walks the GM through what happens in the four days that the adventure covers. I would definitely consider running it again for another group and giving the PCs more ties to the adventure, like...
  • Relationships with the Stargazer twins, who are the outsiders in the village.
  • Parent/family relations in Respite who they wouldn't want to see slaughtered by the witch.
  • Needing to see the witch killed to break a curse placed on them or a loved one.

The Apple of Her Eye


Survival in the world under the shadow of the Demon Lord is difficult, not just for risk-taking adventurers and would-be heroes, but for ordinary folk faced daily with threats of starvation, illness, and madness. When small sacrifices can ensure the survival, even prosperity, of an entire community, aren’t they worth making? Some might think so, or at least tell themselves as much in the small hours of the night, when the distant cries of those sacrifices echo in their memories.
 The Apple of Her Eye is an adventure for novice characters in which they come across a prosperous village with a thriving apple orchard and a terrible secret. The group completes the adventure when they confront the wicked faerie responsible for the village’s plight.
A novice (as in Novice path, 1-3 level) adventure, and the second I ran for my Sunday RPG group after their PCs had fled Respite. This seemed like an easier fit at the time of the party vaguely wandering the countryside, but had the unfortunate effect of tossing the PCs into another "jerk ass village" as they called it. They did decide to save the sacrificial child, but then took him right to the Inn of villagers who attempted to ambush the party. They survived, though just barely, and then tried to flee town before the Dryad behind the sacrifice and prosperity showed up. I should have given the players stronger hints about wanting to use iron weapons against the Fey, but I did steer them to allying with the blacksmith who wanted revenge for his sacrificed sister, so they again, barely managed to survive. At one point the players discussed if they could steal another child to sacrifice or if that would make the villagers "pitchfork sad", as they put it and I immortalized in the tweet that opened this long ass post.

Again, I would love to run this adventure again, with more ties for the PCs to the plot. It's another well done little village with a manageable handful on interesting and motivated PCs and plenty of advice for game masters for when their players decide to not play it generic heroic and save the sacrificial child.

After I ran the Apple of Her Eye, I finished off that little SotDL mini-campaign by adapting The Twice-Robbed Tomb (heavy spoilers in that module description on Drivethru) to SotDL, since Thomas had run it as part of al-Qadim church. It was fun to adapt and run, but there are other reviews and I want to keep this post SotDL focused, suffice to say, adapting an old-school style module for SotDL was pretty easy. Since I wasn't sure if one of my players had read/played/ran the module, I spent a bunch of time tweaking the map and changing names that turned out to be unnecessary, so the actual conversion of stats and such took maybe an hour tops.

Survival of the Fittest

When vicious bandits waylay a caravan bound for an outpost on the edge of civilization, the player characters are the only survivors, trapped and lost in a hostile wilderness. If they would live to see another day, they must learn to work together and discover the people they might one day become. This adventure is designed for a group of starting characters and is especially suited to new players.
I ran this as a one-shot on Black Friday, after having planned to maybe run it for Extra-Life 2016. In retrospect, I should have run this as the first adventure, but I don't think I had purchased or read it when I started running SotDL in August. A fantastic little wilderness adventure hexcrawl, where the PCs have to survive several days journey in a woods filled with bandits and monsters. It's a great starting adventure, not only because it's written almost like a GM's introduction to SotDL, with sections covering creature statistics, characteristics and attributes, attack options and more, but because it also works with very little in the way of hooks. PCs just need to be with the caravan that's ambushed, from there survival becomes the motivating factor. It would be just about 5 pages instead of 8 if you took out all the rules introduction and stats, but it still has 9 keyed locations and a nice encounter chart of perils for the players to chance upon. Even though everything is brief and concise, it does a great job of show-casing the tenor and tone as well as the mechanics of Shadow of the Demon Lord. Honestly, I wish this had been included in the Core book as a sample/starting adventure as it's a fantastic little starting adventure. Probably my favorite intro adventure since Bolt Strike tower in 13th Age. But at $2 or $5ish as part of the Starter Bundle this is a must have SotDL adventure. I look forward to running it again, as my PCs only saw a little slice of the dark woods as they fled for their lives.

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