This makes me giddy… Mr. Schwalb, you’ve always been one of my favorite game designers and now this quite simply has gone to the next level.
Shadow of the Demon Lord is a gritty fantasy-horror mashup taking place in a world where the end times have not only been prophesied, they are here.
Cracking the cover (or clicking the show next page), one finds an extensive table of contents (that is beautifully clickable in the PDF). After this, a foreword from one Frank Mentzer of Red Box fame and then a preface from Mr. Schwalb. They both say a lot about the author and the creation process behind SotDL, but I will be frank-a Dropbear will usually skip past these. Not many tots there to grab.
It’s the Introduction that sets the mood and prepares one for what is to come. It’s a brief overview, and the only thing really lacking there is a basic introduction to the world beyond “it’s grim and evil is coming to gobble up your soul”. I might have liked to see a touch more about Urth there, and, in fact, I cheated just a bit and proceeded to skip over to Chapter 8 after reading the introduction in my eagerness.
But I will handle this in an more orderly fashion. The meat begins to get gouged out in the first chapter, where you are introduced to Character Creation. This game really shines here. The ancestries from the Core Rulebook are interesting, as they include variant takes on old standbys such as Humans, Dwarves, Goblins and Orcs, as well as new races such as creepy Changelings and the mechanical Clockworks.
In an interesting twist, your character begins without any level or path, though. Instead, your group progresses from their first introductory adventure as a team of common folk confronting their horrifying world to learn new professions and paths and grow as they survive. A character’s progression is paced out over selecting paths, that are similar to classes in Other Games. These paths are much more like a character’s profession from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying Game (either version, take yer pick) that D&D. From their very basic Novice paths, characters eventually progress through more complicated and talented Expert and Master paths.
Magic is an intrinsic force that permeates Urth, with many traditions that are described in Chapter 7. There are quite a number of spells in the book, described and grouped by their particular traditions. Although I have no actual play to back up my opinion, and I’m not prepared just yet to whiteboard it up, magic seems to be interesting in both flavor and mechanics, and more so since any character you create can learn magic, not just white-bearded Wizards.
The world of Urth is featured in Chapter 8, the very chapter that I skipped to upon opening the file. It begins with an overview of Urth, and proceeds with a description of the continent of Rûl, where the Demon Lord’s shadow has fallen. The Northern Reach, what might be a campaign focal point, are then detailed. Overall, I found this chapter a very satisfactory gazeteer, but will enjoy seeing more on the setting.
Running the Game, the ninth chapter of the book, presents advice for running the game (of course), hazards for the player characters to face off against, and rewards for those who survive their adventures with their lives and sanity intact. Overall, it’s one of the more satisfactory chapters of its nature in most recent FRPGs I have read through.
The final chapter of the book, Bestiary, presents a wide group of opponents for would-be adventurers to face. More artwork accompanying this section would have really set it apart from the rest of the pack of FRPGs, but then I suppose it would have added to the page count considerably.
The game rules themselves are slightly different than most d20-based FRPGs out there. Boons and Banes are what I am calling out here. These are additional d6s that might be rolled and added or subtracted from a total when circumstances make a roll easier or more difficult. Unlike most systems with a familiar 6-stat set, SotDL has only four: Strength, Agility, Intellect, and Will. And there are no long skill lists, anything your character wants to do can be governed by these attributes or one of the professions or path talents they might have learned.
Initiative in combat is handled in an unusual but interesting way. There are two types of turns, Slow and Fast. Combatants first choose which type of turn they want to take. A Slow turn allows them to move and take an action, but a Fast turn means they have to choose between either moving or acting. The order within each type of turn is separated between Fast and Slow, and the PCs who chose a Fast turn act first before opponents with a Fast turn and in whatever order they choose. Next are the PCs who opted to take a Slow turn, followed by the opponents that chose to do so.
I’d write more, but I’m tired of typing now. Claws ache, and no tots to soothe them. I will say this much in conclusion. Shadow of the Demon Lord is exactly the kind of game I’d love to run. It gets hearty approval and is my New Favorite. Now I just need to convince my fellow gamers to play it. We will see how difficult that will be.