Ring Side Report- RPG Review of Shadow of the Demon Lord

Product– Shadow of the Demon Lord

System– Shadow of the Demon Lord

Producer– Schwalb Entertainment

Price– $19.99 here http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/155572/Shadow-of-the-Demon-Lord

TL; DR– 13th Age, DnD 4e, and Warhammer in a blender! 92%


Basics-The world is in chaos, and the Demon Lord hasn’t even set foot into it yet.  Shadow of the Demon Lord is the first book by Schwalb Entertainment where characters face a world on the brink.  The empire is falling, and a transdimensional evil stirs.  As it casts its attention onto the world, its shadow falls on the world causing nature to go haywire, the dead to rise, or evil to open gates from other places.  Players fight to keep the world safe.  Will you be able to stop an unstoppable evil?

Mechanics or Crunch– This is its own system, so let’s break this down piece by piece.

Basics-This game plays like a modified d20 system with bits of DnD 4e and Fantasy Flight’s Warhammer Fantasy mixed in.  Almost all actions are resolved with d20 rolls.  Characters have several stats, and the modifier for all these stats is the base stat minus 10.  Whatever the result is the modifier to the d20 roll.  For 90% of the rolls in this game that are not attacks, the characters need a 10 result to succeed at their check; This is called a challenge roll.  That’s it-it’s simple and elegant.  Aside from the basics of a roll, sometimes outside circumstances modify challenge rolls.  These are boons and banes.  In these circumstances, six-sided dice are added (boons) or subtracted (banes) from the roll.  You only ever roll boons or banes as a boon cancels out a bane and vice versa.  These are given for attacking into darkness, having favorable positions, powers, good tools on a disable check, or other in-game effects.  If you have to roll several boon or bane dice, you only ever add or subtract the highest six-sided die total among all the boons/banes.  Again, it makes math simple and elegant.  As you can tell, this is not a math heavy game.  That’s not a bad comment as the game focuses that much more on the story and quick  action resolution.

Skills-This game doesn’t have skills per se- it has professions.  Professions feel like a love letter to the OSR movement.  During character creation, players get two professions.  This is what you did before you became an adventurer, and this will determine some of the activities you can do.  Navigate by starlight alone?  That would be impossible for a cobbler, but it would be an automatic success for a sailor or a desert nomad.  Discover what a potion does?  Possibly a roll with boons for a doctor, but almost impossible (several bane dice) for a grave digger.  Again, being able to use professions as skills is simple and effective.

Combat-Combat is as simple as d20 and 13th Age.  The game doesn’t have the movement-map requirements of Pathfinder, relying more on theater of the mind.  Initiative…just isn’t a thing in this game.  Turns are divided into fast and slow parts.  Players get to take fast turns, then the monsters.  Next, players get to take slow turns then the monsters.  Fast turns are when a creature takes one action such as moving or attacking.  Slow turns are moving, attacking, and possibly other actions all on the same turn.  This game wants players to go first, then monsters. It built this mindset into the system, and it works well.  On a creature’s turn, combat works almost like any other d20 system.  Melee attacks work using the basic d20 plus a creature’s strength stat minus 10 vs. a creature’s defense stat.  Creatures can take banes to this roll to push enemies, escape an engagement, or even knock enemies prone.  Damage for each weapon is determined by the type of weapon wielded, just like most other d20 based systems.  Creatures and players do not have high hit point totals in this game, so combat can be pretty deadly pretty quickly, reinforcing the gritty nature of this game.  In addition to fast and slow turns, you also have triggered actions; these function pretty much like reactions in DnD 5e and interrupt actions in Pathfinder.  They are actions you take off-turn that are the result of other creatures’ actions such as attack of opportunity or spell effects.  Again, quick and easy is the name of the game in this system.

Distance-This is a decidedly old school game with some modern twists.  The game can use maps, but mostly theater of the mind is its goal.  Distance between characters reflects that.  Distances have descriptors like reach (at hand), short ( five yards), medium (20 yards), long (100 yards), and extreme (500 yards).  On your turn as a move, you can move double your speed stat in yards.  On a slow turn, you can do that twice.  Some creatures move fast while some move slow, and it’s just that easy.

Character generation and advancement- Character generation is a bit limiting compared to other systems like Pathfinder and Shadowrun, but on par with DnD5e or Fantasy Age.  Players choose a race and receive some preset stats.  Then, that character gets to modify their stats a little based on what their specific race provides them.  That feels limited, but it also makes all the creatures of one race in the world feel like their stats represent them, as opposed to the normal +2 all creatures of one type received in standard DnD/Pathfinder, where most human fighters have a 16+ strength compared to the majority of humanity with a 10 strength.  As part of creating your character, you also get to either choose or randomly roll a bunch of background information ranging from what you did before to your physical build.  Depending on your race, some of these backgrounds will increase various stats.  Much like Dungeon Crawl Classics, you start at level 0, and try to survive to level 1 through a short adventure.  If you do, you get to choose one of four basic classes called novice paths.  The paths are warrior, rogue, priest, and magician, and they function exactly as you’d expect, with these paths focusing on sheer damage and combat prowess, skills, divine magic, or arcane magic, respectively.  This choice will change how you level up over time.  Leveling in this game is determined on your class at some levels, your race at others, and then you are allowed choices to specialize further in an expert path at level 3 and a master path at level 7.  Expert and master paths function almost like paragon paths in DnD3.5/Pathfinder or class specialization in DnD 5e.  Depending on your style, this type of leveling will either infuriate you or be your favorite method.  Players get lots of options on what type of path to choose at each step, but once you are in your path, you don’t get as many options after that compared to, say, Pathfinder.  This game doesn’t have feats or other minor character choices, so character paths and magic spells are the majority of the choices a character makes.  However, what the novice, expert, and paragon paths offer that is not found in other games is the ability to really forge your own character.  You do get fewer options in a path, but the paths tend to allow any character at any time to really design their own character.  Want a warrior (novice path), druid (expert path), bard (master path)?  Done!  I’m not saying that character would be the most powerful or efficient character out there, but I am saying that that character might be the most fun to play.  And that kind of character design is amazing.

Magic-Magic is gained by learning traditions through path options. As a character grows in a class, he or she also gains traditions or spells and power.  A character’s power rating determines the number of spells and the level of spells a character can prepare each day.  Traditions can be thought of as almost sub-schools of magic with traditions ranging from curse to air and everything in between.  Each tradition has several different spells of different levels in it.  Magic itself follows a pattern similar to DnD 4e with spells divided into either attack or utility spells.  Attack spells have a character make an attack roll against the enemie’s defense or base stat, or the attack spell has the target make a stat challenge roll.  As an added bit of fun, some magic attacks also have an extra effect that occurs if you roll above a 20 on the attack.  These effects do extra damage, push the target further, or some other effect that shows that you are truly a master magician.  Much like the challenge roll systems and banes/boons, magic is extremely elegant and simple.  So unlike magic in a few other systems, magic is very approachable and easily mastered in a few moments.

Summary-Shadow of the Demon Lord presents a new RPG system.  It’s simple and easy to run and play.  The game is built to run efficiently and focus on the story.  One of the things trimmed out of the game is power gaming and too long between leveling.  That is done extremely well.  However as part of that clean up, the game loses many of the options present in other RPGs.  That is not a bad thing, but it’s something that you as a player and a GM must adjust your expectations for.  You will have a blast with the system, but you will run character from level 0 to level 10 in under a year instead of 20 years.  You will also have to get ready for some brutal gameplay and some limitations in character options.  If you and your group can adjust to these changes, you will have an absolute blast. 4.75/5

Theme or Fluff-This game runs like a combination of DnD, Lovecraft, Clive Barker, and Warhammer Fantasy.  Robert Schwalb is a sick, twisted man, and you will enjoy every minute of it.  The world of Shadow of the Demon Lord is already messed up before the Demon Lord casts his influence on it.  You have a world full of monsters, craziness, and feuds long before the horrors from out of time and space show up to the party.  The world is extremely well written, and built in such as way that expanding it will be easy while still giving you enough places to play and build on your own.  Well done!  HOWEVER, this is not a family-friendly game (unless you’re in the Manson family.)  The book itself has graphic depictions of violence and monsters.  Judge if this game would be appropriate for your group and yourself.  As someone with a steady diet of Lovecraft, King, and the entire Aliens vs. Predator franchises, I only wanted more.  5/5

Execution-RPGs generally come in two flavors when it comes to organization: world first or mechanics first.  This book goes mechanics first, but the mechanics are a bit disorganized.  You can get a good understanding of the game from these rules, but you will have to read things a few times.  Also, there are some slight organization problems.  Character races are introduced, then base mechanics, followed by novice paths and so on.  It breaks up the flow and makes you have to move around the book a few times in order to build a character.  It’s nothing game-ending, but it’s a minor problem.  However, the book does have a decent flow overall, a good layout, and reads well.  It doesn’t have many blocks of text that bore the reader.  This might not be the best organized book I’ve ever read, but it is at least better than average.  And, unlike some companies I could name, this book has an index!  The only thing this book doesn’t have that I feel it really should is an example adventure.  Shadow of the Demon Lord is its own system.  I love the system and world, but as a first time GM for the game, I would like to see how Schwalb would like me to run it from his book.  That omissions hurts the system a bit as I don’t have an example to base my own ideas off of.  As a kickstarter backer, I get an adventure, but I’d like that thrown into the book to really help all the new players to this system.  4/5

Summary-This is a great game that is full of absolute horror.  It’s got phenomenal, simple mechanics that allow players to focus on the story.  The story itself is an absolute disaster in the best way possible.  Every element of the world is well crafted and points to a world on the brink with the demon lord being the tipping point to drive things even further toward chaos.  My only complaints are a possible feeling of lack of character options as well as the organization of the book.  These complaints are minor as they don’t really hurt the game.  Once you know how to play, how a book is organized is only a trivial thing.  It’s a great game that I can’t wait to play more of.  It’s a love letter to all the things I treasure-simple game mechanics I enjoy and horror authors who keep me up late at night under the covers. 92%

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