Today I’m going to take an in depth look at the roleplaying game Shadow of the Demon Lord by Robert Schwalb, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment LLC.
I read this book as part of the #RPGaMonth Challenge. The goal of this challenge is to get some use out of those roleplaying games/modules/splatbooks that you picked up but never actually sat down and read. Whether that means loading up the PDF reader or dusting off a book from your shelf of shame, it doesn’t matter.
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Why Shadow of the Demon Lord
My favourite roleplaying game of all time is Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I’ve always enjoyed the grim-dark setting in Warhammer to the high fantasy of most other popular fantasy roleplaying games. I like running games where the players start off as common folk just striving to survive the events going on around them. Where winning the day is a huge victory and winning the war just may be impossible. I’m also a fan of intrigue based games featuring corruption and the power behind the throne, with more city and social encounters than say dungeon crawls.
When Shadow of the Demon Lord came out in 2015 many people, including the designer, were claiming that it was a spiritual successor to the original first edition of Warhammer. It was a new grim-dark fantasy RPG. A post apocalyptic fantasy RPG where not only is the threat of the world ending a thing, but it’s something that has already started. People noted that it was like Warhammer where Chaos finally wins.
All of that drew me to Shadow of the Demon Lord and I picked it up shortly after it was released to the public (like many new games now a days, it was initially a Kickstarter). It wasn’t until this month that I finally got the rulebook off the shelf and read it, and I’ve got to say I’m impressed.
I own the hardcover version of Shadow of the Demon Lord. It looks like there is also a cheaper softcover version of the book out there. I don’t know if there are any other differences besides the cover. As far as I can tell I have the first printing of the book.
My copy Shadow of the Demon Lord is a beautiful book. Hardcover with solid stitch binding and rather thick glossy pages all in full colour. Beautiful artwork both on the cover and throughout. Okay maybe beautiful is the wrong word, we are talking dark fantasy here. Impressive full colour artwork throughout. Two column layout with font choices that are easy to read. Even the various tables and things like stat blocks are well put together with information very clearly presented.
The book clocks in at 272 pages including the intro by Frank Mentzer (of The D&D Red Box) and the very minimalist character sheet. These pages are broken down into 10 chapters and I’m going to take a look at each. Before the first chapter there is a brief intro that has all the stuff like what is an RPG and a great section on the tone of this particular game.
Chapter 1 Character Creation
Character Creation in Shadows of the Demon Lord starts with picking your Ancestry.
The ancestries included in the base game include Human, Changeling, Clockwork, Dwarf, Goblin and Orc. I was very pleased to see it wasn’t just your usual list. Changelings are the type from folk tales, where they would be swapped for a child stolen by the fey. As the name indicates they can change their shape and appearance. Clockworks are mechanical life forms that literally have to be wound up or they stop living. Each clockwork player has to pick where their key is on their character.
Picking an Ancestry sets your starting Attribute Scores of which there are only 4. Strength, Agility, Intellect, and Will. There is no random stat rolling here but you do get to make some choices as to which to increase as you select character creation options. Ancestry also sets a number of other derived stats like Perception, Defense, Heath, and Healing Rate. Size, speed, power, damage, and starting corruption and insanity levels are also set at this time.
Yep, corruption and insanity. I’m already feeling the Warhammer callbacks.
In addition to giving you a bunch of numbers to write down each Ancestry has a number of tables for determining things like your personality, religion, background, age, build, etc. Players are encouraged to either pick or roll from these charts as they build their characters.
Once a player has picked an Ancestry the move on to choose a Profession. Here I got a strong flashback to the Warhammer Career system. Though in this case these professions don’t determine your statistics but are more of an abstract concept. Professions are what Shadow of the Demon Lord uses in place of a skill system. Each character starts with two professions. These act as cues for how to play the character but can also give mechanical benefits when in game situations come up for which the profession’s skills, ability and training is applied. I really dig this rather modern approach to skills.
Characters are randomly assigned a lifestyle level which sets their starting wealth and gives them a small amount of starting equipment. Note that this isn’t a D&D game, your starting equipment in Shadows of the Demon Lord isn’t going to include a set of armour and a sword. More likely you are going to have a club or dagger, some clothes and if you are lucky some adventuring supplies like a backpack and torches.
Up next we have a bunch more tables. These determine your character’s “Interesting Thing.” Every character in Shadow of the Demon Lord starts with one interesting thing. The chapter finishes up with a bunch of roleplaying tips. Questions you can ask yourself about your character and a system for determining personality traits both positive and negative. Interestingly there’s a few paragraphs about what to do next. Learning to play the game, forming a group and what to expect with level advancement.
Chapter 2 Playing The Game
Shadow of the Demon Lord is a D20 based system. Very similar to many other fantasy D20 games. Now it’s not exactly a “D20” game and doesn’t use the D&D D20 rules, however it does use a D20 for most rolls. The only other dice you need are D6s which are mostly used for rolling damage.
The basic system is roll a D20, add your stat modifiers, apply other modifiers and see if you beat the target. Shadows of the Demon Lord diverts from other D20 games in a few ways here. Stat modifiers are extremely simple to calculate. You just subtract 10 from your stat. So if your Strength is 14 you get +4. If it’s 8 you get -2. The other big change is the difficulty number you are trying to hit. For an unopposed task (called Challenge Rolls), you need a 10. That’s it. No Easy, Medium, Hard, Extreme difficulties. Just 10. Now when there is opposition your tagert number is based on one of the opponent’s stats. So Defense for melee combat, Will for resisting spells or Intellect for social situations.
Then we get to boons and banes. Probably my favourite part of this system. This is something that seems to be taking from the 3rd edition of Warhammer. Instead of using a bunch of modifiers, like +1 for high ground and -3 for concealment, all of that crunch is abstracted into boons and banes. Have some kind of advantage on a roll, like your profession applies, you get a boon. Is there something hindering your efforts? You get a bane. The two cancel each other out on a one by one basis. In the end, for each boon you have you roll an extra D6 with your D20 roll and add it. For each bane you subtract these D6 rolls from your total.
Besides explaining the dice mechanics this chapter takes a look at all of the attributes and characteristics and what they are used for. Of particular interest for me were the insanity and corruption mechanics. These are a bit more in depth than the original Warhammer ones. Basically Insanity points are earned when the characters witness frightening and horrific things and when affected by some spells and abilities. Points add up and when your Insanity points hit your Will you go mad. Getting a random madness and reducing your insanity total by a random amount. Corruption is gained when the players do horrible things and it’s worth noting here that this game does not expect the characters to be virtuous heroes. This is dark fantasy not high fantasy. It’s about surviving and doing what you have to do.
The rest of this chapter is filled with all kinds of crunch. Things like speed, reach, jumping, falling, damage, healing, conditions, the environment, etc. It’s worth noting that there’s a great section on roleplaying in here that talks about how to make decisions for your characters. I really liked seeing sections like this added in with all the mechanics. It reminds you that the game is about telling a story and not just about counting yards and rolling dice. There is even an optional rule included for creating character bonds, which you usually only see in story games such as the Powered By the Apocalypse games.
Chapter 2 also has the rules for Combat. Shadows of the Demon Lord uses a unique timing system I have not seen before. Combat is broken down into Fast Turns followed by Slow Turns. During each turn all the players can act and then all the adversaries can act. During a Fast Turn, in general, characters can move or do something like attack, if they want to do both they need to wait until the slow turn phase. There are also triggered actions. In addition to acting either in the fast turn or slow turn each combatant can do one triggered action.
Other than this somewhat different timing system you will find everything you expect to find in a traditional combat system. Moving, positioning, preparing spells, casting spells, melee and ranged combat, cover, concealment, situational modifiers, etc.
Chapter 3 Novice Paths
Now I think is a good time to point out something I find rather fascinating about Shadows of the Demon Lord. It has a very different way for characters to advance, one tied closely to the theme of the game. You start off the game at level 0, as a somewhat generic commoner who has a couple of professions but that’s about it. After your first adventure you level up. That’s right. No XP system here, just finish your first adventure and become level 1.
Once you are level 1 you use the experience you had at level 0 and what you did during that adventure to pick a Novice Path. Here you find what other fantasy game systems would call your Class. That’s what this chapter is all about. It doesn’t stop there though. You have two adventures while in your Novice path, advancing to level 2 and then level 3 after each. When you hit level 3 you pick an Expert Path. Again using what happened during those adventures to drive your choice. Where there aren’t many Novice Paths (more about that in a minute) there are a ton of Expert Paths. This branching career path continues as the game goes on. At level 7 you pick your Master Path. That’s where the core book stops but it is hinted that there is more beyond level 10, perhaps even another branching path system.
Besides being a very cool system, where your character grows and evolves based on the adventures you have, this path system also really constrains your campaign arc. The book suggests that each adventure could be completed in one sitting, so that means you can play a full campaign of Shadows of the Demon Lord in only eleven sittings. Of course you could take longer, but that’s the default assumption. The only other game I can remember being so tightly tied to it’s theme was Mouse Guard and I dig it.
One other cool thing to be found in this chapter is a section about forming a group identity. Something to tie your characters together. I like that this is an actual mechanic, even if it’s an optional rule.
The Novice Paths in this book are Magician, Priest, Rogue, and Warrior. Yep the basic four. If this doesn’t seem like enough variation just wait until you get to the Expert Paths. Each path is going to improve a couple of your attributes and characteristics, it’s going to give you a new profession and then some path specific abilities. For example the Magician is going to get some spells, the Rogue is going to get a backstab style ability and the Warrior is going to get a way to heal in battle. These abilities pretty much match the fantasy stereotypes that have been in many games of the past and I’m sure many games in the future.
The last thing of note is that each of these paths don’t only give you something when you first pick them. You get something more at later levels. Actually you also get things from your ancestry that you picked when you created your character. Each level after level 1 you are going to get something, either from one of your paths or from your ancestry.
Chapter 4 Expert Paths
As already mentioned you get an Expert Path when the group hits level 3. If you were bummed by how few Novice Paths there were, don’t worry Schwalb is about to make up for it here. There are sixteen Expert Paths to choose from. Four for each of the Novice Paths, though it’s worth noting you don’t actually have to follow the path. You could be a Notice Priest but then choose Fighter as your Expert Path.
In addition to choosing an Expert Path you also set an objective for your character when you hit level 3. Again I think it’s great to see story based elements like this baked right into the mechanics of the game. Similarly each Expert Path has a Story Development table you can roll or choose an item from to determine exactly how your character got into the path they chose.
Expert Paths are mechanically the same as Novice Paths. They increase attributes and characteristics. They often give a new language or profession and give each character new abilities unique to that profession. Some of the cooler abilities include the Artificer who gets a bag of bits they can use to make any item they may find they need while adventuring or the spellbinder who can invest power into a spellbound weapon so they can summon it to hand with a triggered action and have it cause more damage.
For the Fighter fans I think it’s worth noting that it’s here that your fighter gets to do all the neat things like powerful attacks, shield bashes, two weapon fighting or swift shooting.
Again most of the actual abilities fit what we’ve seen in the genre for years, but there is also some pretty cool unique stuff to be found. Most of these paths are going to play out like similarly named classes in other fantasy RPGs.
Chapter 5 Master Paths
Similar to the objective you choose when you get your Expert Path, unlocking a Master Path also leads to a story development. This time it’s choosing a final quest for your character. What’s the ultimate thing they want to accomplish in the world?
If you thought there were a lot of Expert Paths, you haven’t seen anything yet. There are a whopping, sixty-four different Master Paths to choose from. Like the last two paths these give you yet more ability and characteristic increases, professions and new unique powers or talent. Here we find the Astromancer who glows with light when they cast their spells as well as doing more damage with celestial magic or the Runesmith who can imbue weapons, armour and items with magical sigils to enhance their abilities.
Most of all I’m just impressed by the sheer variety of choices here and variety of the abilities each provides. I find it very interesting that character creation doesn’t really stop in this game until you are near the end of your character’s career.
Chapter 6 Equipment
Shadows of the Demon Lord uses a base ten currency system (thank you!) with most transactions happening in silver. Under silver you have copper and under that you have bits. There’s also gold above silver. though it’s noted that it’s extremely rare to find in use. Another Warhammer flashback for me.
Not a lot to say about this chapter, it’s pretty much what you would expect. You will find price lists and rules for all kinds of equipment including weapons and armour. It’s worth noting that martial weapons like swords are rare and expensive and armour is even more so. The game uses an abstract system for living expenses that comes up during downtime, which is something I like to see in a game.
Of note is the encumbrance system as I haven’t seen anything else quite like it. You can carry a number of items equal to your strength score. Items stored in containers all count as one item. While there are a few things that count as two items and things like coins that take a lot to make up one item, that’s basically it. One thing is one point and carry a number of points equal to your strength. I dig it. It’s abstract but still puts in a mechanic so that you don’t have characters carrying a ridiculous amount of stuff.
One other thing I don’t think has been mentioned yet. The tech level of Shadows of the Demon Lord is a bit more advanced than your typical setting. As mentioned in the character creation section, clockwork beings are a playable archetype and are thus common. Steampower and black powder are also present, though new and still not quite common.
Chapter 7 Magic
I would say Shadows of the Demon Lord is an interesting mix of high and low magic. On one hand a crazy number of the paths characters can choose have some form of magic or another as abilities the players can gain. Spells and spell casting as well as fantastic monsters are common. As are fantastical magic effects in the environment. That’s all very high magic. The thing that makes it low magic is that magic items are not common.
With how common spellcasting is in this setting the magic chapter is pretty dense. There are thirty different magic traditions presented, each with it’s own spell lists. These are split into two groups, spells that use Intellect and spells that use Will. Now this is similar to the whole Wizard vs Cleric thing from other RPGs but note that there’s no rule against mixing spells from both groups for your character if you take the right paths.
The actual magic system I would call semi-Vancian. While you don’t have to memorize specific spells, you can cast any that you know, you can only cast each spell a set number of times per day based on your power level. This is per spell and not per spell level, so it’s less limiting than many other systems.
Chapter 8 A Land In Shadow
This is the fluff section of the rulebook.
Here we learn about the setting of Shadow of the Demon Lord. Schwalb does a great job setting up the expectations of the setting with a great overview of both the tone and background. The gods don’t care. There are hidden worlds, like the underworld and the realm of the fey. Magic is real and people know it. Mortals live multiple lives and there is a very real afterlife. Corruption leads to hell. Science and technology are a thing, there are guns, there is a rail system and clockworks need to be wound or they stop. The world is filled with terrible monsters, it’s not safe. There was once a great empire, it was just recently overthrown and the lands are in chaos because of it. And most importantly there is The Shadow of the Demon Lord. The Demon Lord is trapped in the abyss, but due to recent events cracks in reality allow the Demon Lord’s Shadow to stretch across the land bringing corruption and destruction.
A full default setting is given. Set on Urth in the lands or Rul. It’s all pretty typical fantasy setting with ancient empires that have fallen, new empires build upon those, multiple incursions into the land leading to a patchwork kingdom of different regions and states. The difference though is that Shadow of the Demon Lord takes it that next step. The current long standing empire has just fallen. The Demon Lord’s Shadow has touched the land. Demons really are invading, corruption is not only happening, regions and governors are already corrupted. Everything is coming to a head. The apocalypse is happening.
This chapter has everything you would expect. Overland maps, names of nations, population types, governing bodies, etc. Besides an overview of one continent the game also zooms in on one province of the old empire, The Northern Reach, an area far from the capital, on the frontier, ripe for adventure. You’ve got the people of the area, major cities, some of the power players, the gods that are worshiped, etc.
Chapter 9 Running the Game
Now we get to the best chapter of the book, by far.
Running the game is all about how to run a successful game of Shadows of the Demon Lord. The thing is, it’s not just a fantastic resource for how to run this game, it’s a great resource for how to run any game. This is one of the best “how to be a Games Master” sections of any rulebook I’ve read, ever.
It starts off talking about what the GM’s job is, with a very strong focus on being an advocate for the players. It clearly talks about how to differentiate between challenging the players and just being an adversarial bully. It goes over basics like the story being more important than the rules and how to decide what happens next after the player make a decision or after a die roll changes the course of the adventure. There’s advice on how to describe outcomes, time and pacing, creating adventures and plot development. It talks about different story structures and the three act structure. Basically all of the great GM advice I’ve read and learned over the years, all in one place.
Shadow of the Demon Lord is meant to be horror-fantasy so Schwalb even spends some time talking about styles of horror and how to bring horror to the game table. Something that is notoriously hard to do.
There are tips on how to handle travel and downtime and a full section on just GMing good combats. This includes excellent notes, like how to end combats effectively and how almost no combat should end with one side completely wiped out. There’s talk about the characters, coaching players through character creation, what to do if a character has to exit the game and how to introduce new characters mid game. All things that come up often but you rarely see addressed in a set of rules.
There’s a great section on how to actually include The Demon Lord’s Shadow and what it means for your game.
The chapter finishes off with the Game Master’s Toolbox which includes a bunch of mechanics for things not covered by the main rules. Insanity and corruption rules are fleshed out. We learn abou traps and other hazards and there’s a great discussion on rewards and magic, including the magic item and relic (artifact) rules.
I don’t think I can overstate just how good this chapter is. Even if I never run this game I feel I’ve gained something by reading this chapter of Shadow of the Demon Lord. Good work here Mr. Schwalb.
Chapter 10 Bestiary
The final chapter of Shadow of the Demon Lord is a 50+ page bestiary listing all kinds of creatures, monsters and common folk that your group might encounter. These are all presented with a statistic box that reminds me a lot of 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons and that’s a good thing. The entries are very clear and easy to read with all information needed listed right in the stat box.
What I found really good to see is that many of the entries were generic. As a Games Master I could use the same generic stat box for any number of creatures without having to actually change any of the mechanics or only tweaking them slightly. For example Animals are just broken down into Huge, Large, Medium, Small and Tiny.
The monsters themselves are a mix of traditional fantasy fare mixed with some rather horrific new things that fit this grim-fantasy world well. While there are a lot of them, it didn’t seem like there were many individual creatures for each character level. For example there are only fourteen creatures listed at the difficulty for a new party. This may be limiting if you plan on running multiple campaigns with just this book. After all how many people are sick of fighting goblins at level 1 already? Now I know for a fact there are quite a few supplements for this game out there and I’m sure many of them include more mobs to add to your game.
Besides just providing a list of baddies, this chapter also has full rules for customizing the creatures that are there. These are really solid rules written to the same quality as the last GM section. It’s also worth noting that there is a monster difficulty level system in this game. It’s based on an adventure day, so each day a party should face X points worth of monsters and each monster has a point value. So if the group are all Experts they should face 100 points of baddies in a day, with one Lizardman being worth 25 points and one Warg Beastman being worth 10.
If you can’t tell from the above, I’m impressed. Very impressed. This is one sold sounding system built on a rather cool setting.
By far the best part of the entire experience reading this book was chapter 9, Running the Game. I said it above but I need to say it again, this is one of the best, if not the best, how to run a game sections I’ve read in any RPG. 95% of what you will find in that chapter is going to be applicable to any game you run, not just this one. That chapter alone makes this book worth the price of entry.
There’s a lot of other stuff to like too. I really dig the character path system. I love the way your character evolves and grows as the game goes on. As you slowly learn the rules of the game your character evolves and new rules are added. At level 0 you don’t have to worry about spells or special abilities. You don’t have an objective yet, you discover one through play. Only as you play the game does more stuff get added. I’m reminded of the way video games slowly teach you the rules by adding new things and new complexity and I think it’s cool to see that in an RPG.
Having not played the game yet, I can’t comment fully on how they work but the mechanics sound solid. A good mix of modern sensibilities added to what’s still a very traditional game. I’m a big fan of the bane and boon system and the way professions replace long skill lists.
One of the things I was worried about going into this game is that it would be more than just a love letter to Warhammer, it would be a heartbreaker. I’m glad to see that this is not true. The Demon Lord is not just another Chaos God and while there may be Beastmen in the forest the setting and tone of this game, while similar, are quite distinct from my beloved Old World.
I do have one complaint. I personally feel every single RPG rulebook and boxed set should come with a sample adventure. Besides lowering the gateway for a new GM by giving them something to run, a good sample adventure shows me how the designer of the game expects their game to be played. You get to see how the tone is set and used. What kinds of challenges are expected. How often dice should be used. How to set up and run different types of encounters. To me they are a window into the designers mind and how they expect the game to be played. And I’ve found that most games are better when run and played how the designer intended them to be played. Sadly Shadows of the Demon Lord lacks anything like this.
Overall I dig it, I enjoyed reading it and damn do I ever want to run it now.
Do you own Shadow of the Demon Lord? Have you played it? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below.