Adventures give me ulcers. It’s complicated, you see. Part of me feels like a published adventure is to a roleplaying game as gasoline (or an electric charge!) is to a car. The adventure is fuel for your game. It gets you started and it keeps you going. But for all the good adventures do, they also seem to go out of their way to be difficult to use, usually because they are too long and require too much preparation. For Shadow of the Demon Lord, I wanted to eliminate these barriers and offer adventures that are simple to run and give the GM tools to tell a great story.
My gaming groups meet every other week. Given how busy we all are, people usually miss one session in four, sometimes one session in two. When running a long adventure, one that takes a few sessions to finish, odds are that someone who was present the last time will miss the game. We accept these absences because what other choice do we have? But it’s a frustrating problem since it strains the suspension of disbelief and forces changes to the story in order to accommodate the absence.
Aside from the characters that rotate in and out of the story, there’s also the problem of sustaining the narrative. A two-week gap between sessions makes it harder for the players to remember their objectives and what has happened so far. Names of important NPCs, situations, and places fade, even if the players are meticulous about taking notes.
To combat these problems, the game’s stories are all playable in a single session. I expect a session to last from three to five hours. You can stretch the stories so they run longer by inserting extra challenges, allowing more time for roleplaying, investigation, exploration, and so on, or you might compress the stories by carving out or collapsing scenes if you have less time to play.
Keeping the stories short and focused reduces the amount of time you have to spend preparing for the game. There are few things worse in gaming than having an adventure on hand and not having had the time to read it in advance. Stories in Demon Lord are as long as they need to be and no longer. I have found it takes about an hour of play to get through a page of story. Since the typical session lasts three to five hours, the page count on these stories is about three to five pages. That’s it. You can read a story in the few minutes before people arrive and you’re ready to go.
Just the Facts
To keep the page count down, Demon Lord eschews clutter. You will not find exhaustive story backgrounds, needless exposition, detailed characters, lists of adventure hooks, guidance about what come next, read-aloud text, or any of the usual suspects that bloat adventures. The story provides you with a skeleton and leaves it to you and your players to put flesh on it during play. Too often, adventures are written to entertain the Game Master. In Demon Lord, the stories provide you, the GM, with the tools you need to entertain the game’s players.
Adventures in Demon Lord are called stories. Each story presents its objective to the GM in the opening paragraph so it’s clear what the story is about and what the PCs need to do in order to complete it. Character advancement depends on completing these objectives. Whenever the group achieves a story goal, they increase their level by one. It doesn’t matter how the group accomplishes its goal. They might use roleplaying, stealth, brute force, magic, or a combination of all four or something else entirely.
Here’s an example: Retrieve the Bones of Saint Absalom from the Seekers of the Void before they complete their unholy ritual to call forth Absalom’s soul from the Underworld.
The PCs might achieve their objective by butchering all the cultists and taking the bones by brute force, by disguising themselves as cultists and infiltrating the organization, by pitting a rival cult against them, or by sneaking into their headquarters and stealing the bones out from under their noses, and so on. Getting the bones away from the cultists before the ritual is complete is all that matters.
The core game provides rules for eleven levels of play—from level 0 to level 10. If you play one story each session and the characters achieve their goal at the end of each story, it should be possible to play a complete a campaign in as few as eleven sessions. A short campaign offers numerous advantages. You could play just once a month and get almost a year’s worth of fun. Or, if you play more frequently, you could play several campaigns in a year. Multiple campaigns in a year lets players create and play a variety of characters, thus letting them explore more of the game than they otherwise might in longer campaigns. As well, short campaigns encourage groups to rotate Game Masters. Being on the hook to run a campaign that lasts 3 to 6 months is a far smaller investment than an open-ended campaign that typically sputters out after a few weeks and the obvious end-point encourages people who might not normally run games to give it a try.
The approach to adventure-design for Demon Lord is a pragmatic one. Rather than delude myself and proceed with a design that expects people to devote hours to game preparation and get together once or even twice a week, I embraced the reality about how much time we actually have, which is not much. Keeping stories short and self-contained eases pressure on the GM and creates a sense of accomplishment in the players. If each game session ends with the story’s climax, it’s ok if you miss next week. You’ll start a new story with everyone else the next time you play. And if you have loads of time, the stories make excellent frameworks for you to use in constructing more elaborate and involved stories that take as many game sessions as you want to complete. Ultimately, how you play Shadow of the Demon Lord is up to you. But it’s my goal to make sure you can play in whatever manner you choose.