Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Savage Things (Part 2): The Heroic Teens of Stranger Things

This is the second post in a series of posts presenting the people and places portrayed in the Netflix Original Series Stranger Things. You can find more information about the series, characters, and places in Part One. This entry focuses on what I call "Team Nancy." These are the teenage characters who are central to the story and who are centered around their relationship to Nancy Wheeler. 

The Teens (Team Nancy)

Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) is Joyce Byers' oldest son and the brother of Will Byers. He has a quiet and introverted personality that has led him to be considered an outsider by his classmates at Hawkins High School. Jonathan is developing talent as a photographer and hopes to someday attend NYU to study cinematography and become a film maker. His character is similar in personality to John Bender in The Breakfast Club or Michael Fitzsimmons in Peggy Sue Got Married. Jonathan loves his family, but is worried that Will's disappearance has caused his mother to have another psychiatric episode.

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d8, Strength d6,
Vigor d6
Skills: Driving d4, Fighting d6, Investigation d6, Knowledge (Photography) d6, Notice d6, Shooting d4, Streetwise d4, Survival d4, Swimming d6, Tracking d4
Charisma: -2; Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 5;
: 0
Hindrances: Curious, Doubting Thomas, Outsider
Edges: Alertness, Brave
Gear: Car, Camera, .38 Pistol, Bear Trap, 5 Gallons of Gasoline, Lighter

Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) is a young woman caught between two social worlds. She is Mike Wheeler's older sister and used to have a very close relationship to her "D&D geek" brother, but that changed when she started dating Steve Harrington who hangs with a more popular crowd. Nancy's conflict extends to more than her family though. In her desire to "fit in" with Steve and his friends, Nancy has recently begun to rebel against her family and her own instincts. Her friend Barbara sees this conflict and tries to point it out to Nancy, but Nancy doesn't quite see how much Steve genuinely cares for Nancy. Nancy Wheeler's character is a combination of Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Andie (Molly Ringwald) in Pretty in Pink.

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d8, Spirit d6, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Driving d4, Fighting d4, Investigation d6, Knowledge (Chemistry) d6, Notice d6, Persuasion d6, Shooting d6, Stealth d4, Streetwise d6
Charisma: 2; Pace: 6; Parry: 4; Toughness: 4; Academics: 1
Hindrances: Loyal, Overprotective Parents, Small
Edges: Attractive, Brave, Test Taker

Steve Harrington (Joe Kerry) – Steve is Nancy’s boyfriend and is at a point in his life where he is going to have to choose what kind of man he will become. He comes from a relatively wealthy family and is one of the cooler kids in school. His character is a combination of Blane in Pretty in Pink and Stefen Djordjevic in All the Right Moves. His story arc through the first season of Stranger Things parallels that of Djordjevic in that he could be a good guy, and when push comes to shove comes back to being one, but he’s so caught up in being “cool” that his instincts lead him to initially make bad choices. In the end though, he will do whatever he can to keep Nancy safe.

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d4, Spirit d6, Strength d6, Vigor d8
Skills: Driving d6, Fighting d6, Intimidation d6, Investigation d4, Notice d4, Persuasion d4, Shooting d4, Streetwise d4, Swimming d6, Taunt d8
Charisma: 2; Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 6;
Hindrances: Arrogant, Party Animal, Stubborn
Edges: Attractive, Fast Healer, Nerves of Steel
Gear: $500
Barbara Holland (Shannon Purser) -- Barbara has been Nancy Wheeler's best friend since Elementary School. She doesn't quite understand what Nancy sees in Steve Harrington, but knows deep down that she and Nancy will always be friends. Barbara is an excellent student, but she is viewed as a bit of an outsider because of her lack of "fashion sense" and her focus on school work. Barbara knows what's important in life and it's succeeding in school so you can get out of Hawkins and being loyal to those who deserve your loyalty and Nancy Wheeler deserves her loyalty.

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d8, Spirit d6, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Climbing d4, Driving d6, Investigation d4, Knowledge (Biology) d6, Knowledge (Chemistry) d6, Knowledge (History) d6, Notice d6, Stealth d4, Survival d4, Swimming d4
Charisma: -2; Pace: 6; Parry: 2; Toughness: 5; Academics: 2
Hindrances: Bad Eyes (Minor), Bad Luck, Outsider
Edges: Alertness, Be a Zebra, Test Taker
Gear: Car

New Buffy the Vampire Slayer Boardgame Coming from Jasco Games and Lynnvander Productions

Lynnvander Studios, a game design studio founded in 2005 by Thomas Grofton, has recently announced that they will be producing a number of licensed board games with significant cache in the geek community in partnership with Jasco Games. One of the first games to be released will be a new Whedonverse inspired game entitled Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the Board Game.

When designing adventure games inspired by heroic fiction or tropes, designers tend to choose between one of two models. The first model, and that chosen by games like Heroquest and the majority of role playing games, is to have one player take responsibility for being the Game Master/Storyteller who controls the actions of all of the villains, adversaries, and non-central characters in the narrative. The second model is to create a cooperative game where all of the players take the role of characters central to the narrative. In a cooperative game, the players work together to overcome the game itself. While there has been a recent increase in the number of cooperative games available, these kinds of games existed earlier in the hobby with one of my favorites being Games Workshop's classic Warhammer Quest board game. Either form of game play can be rewarding, but one of the advantages of cooperative game designs is that they allow for more natural implementation of solitaire game play.

The Buffy game being designed by Lynnvander studios is a fully cooperative game for 1 to 6 players that should be able to be played in about 40 to 60 minutes. The designers have decided to have the players take the roles of Buffy and her friends as they defend the town of Sunnydale from an onslaught of vampires and demons, even as the players must also work to prevent a big bad’s plot and open the Hellmouth.

By the description of the game, it seems that the Lynnvander productions design will be closer in mechanics to Fantasy Flight Games' challenging Lord of the Rings card game than to classic Warhammer Quest. Both of those games are excellent, but each presents a different gaming experience. This is all speculation on my part based on the descriptions presented, but either way I am excited to see what a new Buffy game brings.

The game should be available from Jasco this October, just in time for Halloween.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Savage Things (Part 1): Savage Worlds Adventures in the World of Stranger Things

Stranger Things is a Netflix Original Series that was released on the streaming network on July 15, 2016. The show focuses on mysterious events which occur in the fictional city of Hawkins, Indiana in 1983 that are related to experiments at the Hawkins National Laboratory. The Laboratory receives its funding through the U.S. Department of Energy and is run by Dr. Martin Brenner who uses the Laboratory to engage in experiments similar to those of the CIA's Stargate Project.

Many have described the series as a love-song to the 80s due not only to the fact that the show takes place in 1983, but also due to the number of references to 80s pop culture the show contains and the number of homages to 80s pop culture which served to influence the show. These influences include the horror of Stephen King, Sam Raimi, and John Carpenter, alternative music from the early 80s, Dungeons & Dragons, and the films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. For example, the music during the opening credit sequence references score composed by John Carpenter and the opening shot of Episode 8 is a direct reference to the Imperial Base on Endor in Return of the Jedi.  A complete list of Easter Eggs and influences is beyond the scope of this blog post, but much has been written about the show at The Hollywood Reporter and elsewhere.

Given the supernatural elements of the show, and the fact that it falls into the Spielberg tradition of Tween/Teen Adventures, Stranger Things makes for the perfect setting for a role playing game campaign. To this end, I've put together some basic background material and statistics for important Player Characters/Non-Player Characters for you to use at your own gaming tables. The statistics in this initial blog post are for the Savage Worlds Roleplaying game using the core rulebook and the East Texas University setting book. The Savage Worlds system is particularly good at emulating the kinds of "kids using luck to survive dangerous situations" stories within the Tweenventure genre and the East Texas University setting of Pinebox, TX provides a nice analog for Hawkins, IN.  Future updates will include statistics for BubbleGumshoe, Hero Kids, and other popular role playing games.

Hawkins, Indiana (Population 4,936) – Hawkins, Indiana is a fictional city created as a setting for tales in the Stranger Things-verse. The show uses the city of Jackson, Georgia as a proxy for Hawkins and thus all estimations of population and city services are done using real world data for Jackson. 

Hawkins PD – Hawkins law enforcement is overseen by the Chief of Police Jim Hopper manages the City Jail and a staff of 17. This staff includes 13 sworn police officers and 4 communications officers. The Hawkins City Jail has 16 beds for use in housing inmates and provides service 24-hours a day.

Hawkins Library – The Hawkins Library is the central library for the County and thus has a large selection of books and access to all major newspapers dating from 1910 are available on microfiche. In addition to its extensive collection of normal books, the Hawkins Library is also home to a private collection of books about mysterious incidents and the occult (this information is not included in the show, but was added due to The Monster using the Library as a nest in the Upside-Down). The library hours are as follows:

Monday – Thursday: 9:00 am – 8:00 pm
Friday: 9:00 am – 6:00 pm
Saturday: 10:00 am – 4:00 pm

Hawkins Middle School -- As one of the larger cities in the county, Hawkins Middle School (Home of the Tigers) serves as the home of the County School District's Middle and High Schools. These schools serve students from the neighboring cities. Hawkins Middle School has a population of 1,000 students in grades 7 and 8. It has an advanced science program for a school in the 1980s. This is as much due to the enthusiasm of Mr. Clarke as it is to grants and donations from Hawkins National Laboratory. The school district has an annual science competition and Will Byers' D&D group have won their grade level almost every year.

Hawkins High School -- Like the Middle School, Hawkins High School provides services for county residents who do not live in Hawkins proper. Unlike the Middle School, which only serves neighboring communities, the High School serves the entire County. This give Hawkins High School a population of 4,000 students. The High School receives support from the Hawkins National Laboratory and has a history of academic focus over athletics. The Football team typically has a .500 season and the same is true for the Baseball team. The school has a competitive Softball team and both men's a women's basketball have a history of success that exceed expectations from such a small county.

Hawkins National Laboratory -- The Hawkins National Laboratory was built in 1979 as part of a Department of Energy program seeking to research new forms of energy production. A good deal of the research at the Laboratory deals with the creation of more efficient solar energy cells. Given the variations in weather, Hawkins makes an ideal location for study of a solar panel that can operate productively in less sunny climates. Unknown to the public is that the majority of the Hawkins National Laboratory's funding comes from the CIA's Stargate Project. This project investigates whether humans are capable of manifesting psychic and psychokinetic powers. To advance their efforts they recruited Dr. Martin Brenner whose earlier research on the use of LSD and sensory deprivation at the University of Indiana led to early insights into psychic phenomenon. While the CIA initially selected the Stargate title for the project as a means of obfuscating the actual research going on, recent events at the Laboratory have led to the creation of a Portal between our dimension and a Shadow Dimension which parallels our own.

The Upside Down/Vale of Shadows – A dark reflection or echo of the material plane, a place of decay and death. It is a plane out of phase and filled with monsters. It is right next to you and you don’t even see it and it is governed by necrotic and shadow magic. The Upside-Down appears to be a dark and cold version of our world with necrotic growths and no living creatures other than The Monster and possibly its offspring.

There are only two ways to pass into the Upside-Down. The first is through the semi-permanent portal created by Elle/Eleven. This portal is on a lower level of Hawkins National Laboratory and has begun to warp the world around it. Inside the Laboratory these effects can be seen in necrotic outgrowths, a lower temperature, and constant light snowfall. In an area of around 2 miles in diameter around the Laboratory, the effects can be detected through instability in the electromagnetic field. When you are within the diameter, compasses no longer point North. They point to the Portal instead. The other means of passing into the Upside-Down is to use a temporary portal created by The Monster. These portals are created by The Monster as it enters and exits our world, but quickly close due to the amount of energy needed to produce them. They can last as long as 5 minutes. Of course, using them without The Monster noticing is no small feat.

The creators of the show have a 30 page bible dedicated to the Upside-Down, hinting at future adventures in upcoming seasons.

Negative Environmental Effects
Poisonous Atmosphere: anyone non-native caught in the Upside-Down must make a Stamina check once per day or suffer one level of Fatigue. This damage cannot cause the death of a Wildcard.
Cold: Unless wearing warm clothing, a person must make a Stamina check once per day or suffer one level of Fatigue. This damage cannot cause the death of a Wildcard.

Cast of Characters 

The Kids 

Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) – Will Byers' is close friends with Mike Wheeler, Dustin Henderson, and Lucas Sinclair. When the group is playing Dungeons & Dragons, Will tends to play the character Will the Wise and when given the choice between taking risks and playing it safe, he will often choose to cast Fireball instead of Protection spells. He is a good kid, but his current home life is very unstable. His mother Joyce is viewed as unstable by the town and Will is viewed as the easiest kid to bully at Hawkins Middle School.

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d4, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Driving d6, Notice d6, Stealth d6, Survival d6, Shooting d4
Charisma: -2; Pace: 6; Parry: 2; Toughness: 5; Academics: 0
Hindrances: Loyal, Outsider, Young Edges: Alertness, Be a Zebra, Luck

Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) – Mike Wheeler is 12 years old and is one of the "point of view" characters in Stranger Things. He is the Dungeon Master for the D&D gang and frequently runs 10 hour sessions on the weekends which end with a climactic battle against a powerful villain. In the first episode, his adventure includes a stressful encounter with Demogorgon. Little did he know that this adventure would shape the perceptions of his friends as they encountered The Monster from the Upside-Down. He is the son of Karen Wheeler and brother to Nancy Wheeler. He was once very close to his sister emotionally, but her recent relationship with Steve and his obsession with D&D have come in the way of their friendship. He is a good student with developing observational skills.

Attributes: Agility d4, Smarts d6, Spirit d6, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Driving d6, Investigation d6, Notice d6, Stealth d4, Streetwise d4, Tracking d4
Charisma: -2; Pace: 6; Parry: 2; Toughness: 5; Academics: 0
Hindrances: Outsider, Overprotective Parents, Young
Edges: Alertness, Brave, Multitasker
Gear: Binoculars, Walkie Talkie, Bicycle, Compass, RPG supplies
Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) is one of Mike Wheeler's oldest friends and a part of the D&D group. He is not native to Hawkins and likely moved here from California (he wears a T-Shirt advertising the Castroville Artichoke Festival).  While all the kids in the D&D group are smart, scientific, and tech savvy, Dustin truly excels in these areas. His permanent teeth have not come in yet due to cleidocranial dysplasia.While Mike is the group's Dungeon Master, and the "hub" around which the group is centered, Dustin is the group's "leader." When push comes to shove, it is Dustin who gets the other kids to reconcile and who is able to rally the troops when the going gets tough. He is skeptical of certain kinds of authority and tends to view the challenges the gang faces through the lens of Star Wars and D&D.

Attributes: Agility d4, Smarts d6, Spirit d6, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Driving d6, Investigation d4, Persuasion d6, Repair d6, Streetwise d6
Charisma: -2; Pace: 6; Parry: 2; Toughness: 5; Academics: 0
Hindrances: Outsider, Quirk, Young
Edges: Command, Connections (Mr. Clarke), Multitasker
Gear: Bicycle, Compass, Walkie Talkie, Head Set

Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) Lucas is Mike's oldest friend and a key member of the D&D crew. He is smart and adventurous, but he often lacks patience and is not quick to trust anyone. He distrusts Eleven/Elle and wants to take action as quickly as possible to rescue Will. He is a man of action and not waiting.

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d4, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Driving d8, Investigation d6, Notice d4, Shooting d6, Stealth d4
Charisma: -2; Pace: 8; Parry: 2; Toughness: 5; Academics: 0
Hindrances: Loyal, Outsider, Young
Edges: Alertness, Be a Zebra, Fleet-Footed
Gear: Binoculars (Typical 10×25 binoculars), Bicycle, Walkie Talkie, Compass, Wrist Rocket (d8 2/4/6). 
Eleven/Elle (Millie Bobby Brown) was kidnapped by Dr. Martin Brenner when she was born. Eleven's mother was one of Dr. Brenner's subjects in his experiments at the University of Indiana. While the show hints that she is the 11th child/subject Dr. Brenner has worked with, no other subjects are shown in the series. When Eleven runs away, she befriends a local diner owner named Benny and eventually encounters Mike Wheeler. Even though Eleven is quiet and largely clueless to the mundane world around her, she and Mike become very close friends. Eleven has abilities beyond her "experience" level and is an extremely powerful young woman. She hopes to find a way to rescue Will Byers and free herself from the influence of Dr. Brenner.

Attributes: Agility d4, Smarts d6, Spirit d10, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Faith d4, Notice d6, Psionics d12, Shooting d4, Survival d6, Tracking d4
Charisma: 0; Pace: 6; Parry: 2; Toughness: 5
Hindrances: All Thumbs, Clueless, Loyal
Edges: Arcane Background (Psionics), Brave, Danger Sense
Powers: Bolt, boost/lower trait, entangle, mind reading, telekinesis; Power Points: 10
Quirk: Loves Eggo Waffles.

To Be Continued...
Later in the week, there will be posts discussing the Teens, Parents, Supporting Cast, and Antagonists of Stranger Things.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Shadow of the Demon Lord is Frighteningly Good [The Review]

Over the past couple of months, and I apologize for the slow blog pace, I've written a couple of articles that have referred to Robert J Schwalb's new role playing game Shadow of the Demon Lord. In the first article, I discussed how it was ironic that Robert's parents were so afraid of D&D's satanic material that he was "forced" to play Warhammer Fantasy Role Play. This is essentially the same as being upset that your kid is listening to Def Leppard and pointing the kid to Venom as a replacement. As was discussed in the comments to that, the whole "satanic panic" phenomenon was overblown, but I still find it funny that Rob fled Glasya to the open arms of Slaanesh.

This journey into the darker artistic and game mechanic influences of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay are readily apparent in Shadow of the Demon Lord. The baseline setting of Rob's game is one of a world that is desperately in need of heroes, any heroes. When the world is about to be destroyed by a malevolent cosmic force, even blackguards, madmen, and murderers can be the world's saviors. The game is as grim and dark as any Games Workshop setting, but there is something that sets Shadow apart from other games in the GrimDark tradition. Where other games in this genre are nihilistic, where even the heroes are often corrupt and doomed to fail, Shadow's setting holds within it the glimmer of hope. It is just possible that these heroes, flawed as they may be, might save the world from the cosmic destroyer that has descended upon the world.

As grim as Shadow of the Demon Lord appears to be, it is at its core a heroic role playing game.

Let that sink in for a moment. This is a game where the spark of hope might bring light to the world. It is entirely possible that the heroes will fail, but it is also possible that they will succeed in saving it. Even if they don't end up making the world a better place.

It is this basic heroic theme, and game mechanics that support heroic play, that are why I think that Shadow of the Demon Lord is one of the best role playing games to come out in years and that it is one of the best introductory roleplaying games for young gamers ever to be published. In future posts, I hope to write about several campaign setting ideas I have for this rules set. Before that happens though, I'd like to discuss how Shadow of the Demon Lord's mechanics encourage a heroic style of play and how these mechanics set it apart from other role playing games on the market.

Attribute Scores are Low, but Meaningful

At first glance, the attributes that Shadow of the Demon Lord uses to describe player character capabilities appear to be identical to those of a typical d20 game and one might be forgiven for assuming that they represent scores from 3 (poor) to 18 (excellent). Such an assumption would be wrong. In Shadow of the Demon Lord, any attribute above 10 provides a modifier to die rolls equal to the attribute score -10. So a character with a Strength of 13 in Shadow of the Demon Lord has a +3 modifier, the equivalent modifier of a 16 in 3rd Edition D&D.  Beyond that, a character with a 13 Strength in Shadow of the Demon Lord can lift 250lbs with little effort and 500lbs if the character makes a successful "challenge roll." Player characters will rarely see attributes higher than 15 in the game, but since this provides a +5 modifier to any affiliated roll that is a significant bonus indeed.

Challenge Rolls Never Explode to High Values

One of the key mechanics to Shadow of the Demon Lord is the "Challenge Roll." Any time a Game Master believes that there is a "significant" possibility that the average person would fail at a task, the Game Master asks the player to make a successful challenge roll. For example, if a character wants to climb a wall the Game Master might ask the player to make a Strength or Agility Challenge Roll to see if the character was successful. All Challenge Rolls are made against a Difficulty of 10. That's right, every task has a base chance of success of 55% for a character with an attribute of 10. This default "ease" of success reflects the default heroism of the campaign and the fact that the player characters are something special. The roll against this value can be modified with bonuses and penalties or by boons and banes. Bonuses and penalties are directly added or subtracted from the roll and are typically determined by a character's attributes. On the rare occasion that there is a penalty, it is usually no more than -2 to a roll. The only times you usually see a penalty worse than -2 is due to a character's attribute score or because the penalty is affecting the Health score (Hit Points in other games). Circumstances don't tend to apply penalties to rolls, rather they tend to apply "banes." A bane is a variable roll which results in a negative number from -1 to -6 being applied to a roll (more on this in a moment).  The point here is that the base chance of success is 55% and rarely gets worse than 25% for non-combat actions.

Boons and Banes

In the discussion of Challenge Rolls, I briefly mentioned that the largest modifiers to success or failure are due to mechanics called "boons" and "banes." Quite simply, these are the bread and butter of the benefit/penalty effects of the game. Straight bonuses and penalties are typically the result of a character's attributes, but boons and banes are the product of circumstances. Is a wall slippery? Add one or two banes to the roll. What is a bane? A bane is a 1d6 roll that provides a penalty to a Challenge Roll from -1 to -6. This makes it sound as if a 2 bane penalty could be pretty severe, which would detract from my assertion that this is a heroic game, but it isn't as severe as it might seem at first glance. A 2 bane Challenge Roll rolls a d20 + Attribute Bonus against a Difficulty of 10 as normal, but applies a penalty of -1 to -6 based on the highest result of 2 six sided die. So for example, if a character was climbing a slippery wall and had a Strength of 13 that character would roll d20 + 3 as normal. To determine the effect that the banes have, the player would then roll 2d6. Let's say the player rolled a 2 and a 3. This would mean that the total penalty to the roll would be -3 and not -5 as one might imagine. The most a character will be penalized by banes in Shadow of the Demon Lord is -6. The inverse is true of boons. The highest benefit any number of boons can provide you is +6. This provides a nice range of possibilities, and a real possibility of failure, without every leaving the realm of "heroic."

Professions Matter, not Skills

In a move that runs against the trend of many modern role playing game systems, with the exception of "story games," player characters in Shadow of the Demon Lord do not have clearly delineated skills with a set bonus. What Shadow of the Demon Lord characters do have are "professions." Professions are broadly defined as "occupations, pursuits, and areas of knowledge" that can be used by players to justify gaining benefits (boons) on actions or the ability to succeed at a task automatically if it makes sense. Player characters start with two professions, even before they choose a character class, and how useful they are is limited by the imagination of the players and the restrictiveness of the Game Master. While I cannot see inside the mind of the game designer, the mechanic seems to be a combination of the Professions from Barbarians of Lemuria, Secondary Careers from Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and the Areas of Knowledge mechanic from the classic James Bond 007 role playing game by Victory Games.

The use of the profession mechanic gives Game Masters a dial they can use to determine how heroic they want their game to be. Let's say that a player has the "Soldier" profession. In a free-wheeling and highly heroic campaign, a Game Master could allow this profession to add a boon to the following actions: attacks when fighting in coordination with others, detecting ambushes, concealment in an outdoor setting, and a host of others. In a less heroic campaign, the Game Master could allow for only some of those uses or even none. The key to a good game is to be consistent and to encourage your players to use professions in an active manner. A key question which might help determine the utility of the profession might include "what kind of soldier was your character?"

Classes are Like Careers

Robert J. Schwalb acknowledged the influence that Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay had on him and on the design of Shadow of the Demon Lord. While that influence abounds in the artistic style of the game, there is no place where the influence shows up more than in the game's use of character classes or "paths" as they are called in the game. There are four tiers of character in Shadow of the Demon Lord (Starting, Novice, Expert, and Master). Starting characters have experience in a prior profession, but have yet to choose any heroic paths. Once the characters complete their first adventure they are free to choose their first Novice path from the obligatory Magician, Priest, Rogue, and Warrior archetypes.

At each level, the character will either gain a path benefit or make a new path selection. Additional novice benefits are gained at 2nd, 5th, and 8th level. At 3rd level a character chooses an Expert path. These paths are more narrowly defined than Novice paths and include things like Artificer, Assassin, Berserker, and Paladin. The only prerequisite to choosing an Expert path is that it makes sense for your character. You can be a Warrior Artificer or Warrior Paladin. One of these paths may be more beneficial from a "min/max" perspective, but neither is forbidden. Unlike in Warhammer where you can only leave a career after completing all the advances and are limited to exit careers (unless you pay an experience point penalty), in Shadow of the Demon Lord you are free to choose any combination you like. This also applies at 7th Level when a character chooses a Master path. These paths are more powerful than those prior, and even more narrow. The Master level is also where you find the Bard option in this game.

The Highest Difficulty in Combat is 25

Given how flexible and "recommendation" toned so much of the game is, I found it interesting that the rule for Defense (the game's version of AC) was rigid. The book states, "A creature's Defense cannot exceed 25, even if weapons, armor, and other effects would increase it beyond that number." What this does is set a "cap" on difficulties and highlights the fact that the characters are already amazingly capable. Between the 25 cap and the 10 baseline, you have variation of difficulty but one that fits within a reasonable range. A character with a +1 bonus from Strength and a boon might just be able to hit that Dragon in combat. Given that characters will rarely have an attribute above 15, this highlights the system's intended focus on maximizing boons in play.

Heroes Always Go First

Shadow of the Demon Lord has an interesting initiative system for combat. Players can choose to use "fast" actions or "slow" actions. If the player chooses to use a "fast" action, then his or her characters can either move or use an action/attack. If the player chooses the "slow" option, the character can move and act. The round is divided into the Fast component and the Slow component with player characters acting first in their respective phases. This allows players tactical options while minimizing the number of die rolls needed in the game. Opponents could technically go first in a round, but if they do their actions may be less efficient. The same goes for players. It's an elegant system that highlights the heroic underpinnings of the game.

System Can Be Used for Multiple Genres, But is Generic Not Universal

Shane Hensley is fond of describing his Savage Worlds role playing game with the phrase, "generic, not universal." What Shane means by this is that Savage Worlds can handle any genre you want, but that characters made for a Superhero game won't necessarily be convertible to a Fantasy setting. This is because the "range of probabilities" for both games are the same, but the effects that that range emulates are different. For example, in the core Savage Worlds rulebook a d12+3 Strength can lift a certain amount of weight, but in a Superhero setting that same score can lift more than in another setting. Similarly, the foundational mechanics of Shadow of the Demon Lord are elegant enough to emulate a wide variety of genres. You could use the mechanics, almost unchanged, to run a Superhero game, a Modern Espionage game, or a Martial Arts Chambara/Wuxia action fest. In each setting the characters would have similar statistics, but they would not be transferable because a 14 Strength in an Espionage game isn't the same as a 14 Strength in a Superhero game. Given the underlying base ranges of Difficulty (10 to 25), a Game Master should keep in mind what level of challenge these describe in the milieu being emulated. In a Superhero game, the Hulk holding up the mountain is a level 25 challenge which a Game Master might even limit to certain paths. In an Espionage game, that same level might be what it takes to lift a car off of a person trapped underneath it.

Final Thoughts

Shadow of the Demon Lord is a very well designed game. Whether you want to use it with its core setting, or hack it to fit your own preferences it can provide years of entertainment.

In the coming weeks I plan on posting several short conversions of the game to other genres...yes, more family friendly ones at that.

The list includes:
1) Shadow of the Avatar
2) Shadows over the Galactic Empire
3) Shadow of Professor Destruction
4) Big Shadow over Little China