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

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