For many players, combat is the best part of the game. It is a chance to test his or her character’s capabilities against worthy foes, to take risks and, hopefully, gain great rewards. The tension combat creates—the risk of injury, unconsciousness, or even death—builds excitement at the table and shifts focus, if only for a few moments, from the story to dealing with immediate danger. As great as combat and other conflicts can be for the game, they also place the greatest demands on the game system. To ensure each player has a chance to contribute in a meaningful way throughout the combat, to ensure that the challenge is appropriate for the characters, and to make certain that the combat or conflict poses some risk, often considerable failure, requires a rigorous set of rules. And, as a result of those rules, combat becomes a game within the larger game.
I have lots to say about combat, too much for one post in fact. Rather than drown you with words, we’ll take a bird’s eye look at how combat works and the reasons for the approach Shadow of the Demon Lord takes. Specifically, we’re going to look at how the game system determines who goes first.
Combat (and any other scene that requires precise timekeeping) unfolds over a series of rounds. Each round lasts about 10 seconds, so there are 6 rounds per minute. During a round everyone present in the scene has an opportunity to do so something. A round has three parts: Fast Turns, Slow Turns, and the End of the Round. During a round, play proceeds through each part one at a time and with the players usually going first.
First up is the Fast Turn. Any player that wants to can take a fast turn. Players may take their turns in any order they wish. On a fast turn, a player can use one action. Upon resolving that action, the player’s turn is done for the round. Once all the players that want to take a fast turn and have done so, any creatures under the GMs control may take fast turns and use one action on their turns. Again, once a creature resolves its fast turn, it’s done for the round.
Slow Turns come next. Any player that did not take a fast turn may take a slow turn. Players resolve slow turns in any order they choose, though a player must resolve the entire turn before another player can act. On a slow turn, a player can use two actions. Once all the players have taken their turns, the GM has any of her remaining creatures take their turns, each creature using two actions, and in any order the GM chooses.
End of the Round
The game uses the End of the Round to mark the transition from one round to the next. The End of the Round is when the game resolves any ongoing effects, keep track of durations, and anything else that happens at this part of the round. For example, say a powerful spellcaster creates a cloud of poison gas. Any creature in the area of the poison gas would have to deal with the poison once the gas appears. However, since the gas lingers, any creature in the poison gas would have to deal with the poison again at the end of each round until the gas is dispersed.
Other events may also take place during the end of the round. A potion consumed takes effect at the end of the round. Incapacitated characters roll a d6 to see what happens to them at the end of the round. Some creatures may adjust their positions, make extra attacks, or blight enemies with their vile presence at this part of the round too.
Finally, a discrete end of the round phase reminds everyone that is tracking durations to mark off the round that has passed (for 1 minute durations, you can use a d6 to track the rounds, which is part of the reason I use 10 second rounds).
So, No Initiative Rolls?
That’s right. I tried out the game using several different initiative/turn order determination systems and they all felt bad. I find initiative to be boring. It’s a procedure everyone at the table has to undergo in order to play. It’s like having to eat your meat before you get to eat your pudding. It’s only necessary because the game says it is.
If determining initiative produces a continuous turn order for the combat—you are locked into the same point in the round for the duration of the scene, initiative only becomes important during the first round of the combat. The whole point to initiative is to determine if the PCs can chip away at their opponents before their opponents get to do the same to them. After the first round, the back and forth exchange of attacks renders the initiative result meaningless.
If the game requires initiative determination round-by-round, then the procedure just becomes more evident and intrusive into the flow and excitement of the battle. Plus, you have to track all those result each round.
I thought about individual initiative systems, wherein each combatant rolls and uses that result, but this just increases the complexity. Not only do you have to track those results, but you also have to introduce rules to let combatants change those results once they determine—by delaying for example. Also, most games that use individual initiative allow the GM to roll initiative for groups of like opponents, which, while easier, completely undermines the whole point of rolling individual initiative in the first place, which, presumably, is to determine each individual combatant’s turn order.
For all the reasons and others as well, I threw initiative out of the game. The game lets players go first. The players are free to discuss tactics and plans, and then act in whatever order they want. If they choose to take fast turns, and thus act before their opponents, then they can only do one thing. If they wait until after their opponents go, they get to do two things instead but risk taking a hit from their opponents.
Liberating combat from variable turn orders accomplishes several things. It eliminates a procedure for play and thus the transition from story to combat is smooth. Allowing players to choose when they go encourages teamwork. The players can quickly discuss what they do and adopt tactics that complement each other’s actions. Finally, it focuses attention on what’s happening. Players tend to not “zone out” while waiting for their turn since they can act whenever they want.
To help you visualize how a fight works, here’s an example. Nat, Molly, and Chris play agents working for the Inquisition, a faction of the New God cult committed to rooting out slaves of the Demon Lord and destroying them. Their investigation draws them into a burned out church on the edge of town. Inside the church, their characters encounter a band of ghouls, accursed cannibalistic humans.
GM: What do you do?
<Fast Turns start>
Chris: I charge the @#$%ers!
Molly: Wait! Let me throw my fireball spell.
(Molly casts a fireball spell into the midst of the ghouls. She rolls 10d6 damage. Adding up the dice, the ghouls will take 35 damage. The ghouls get to roll Agility to halve the damage. Two fail and are incinerated.)
Molly: Now, go and clean up the mess.
Chris: I charge!
(Chris’s character moves up to his Speed and uses his extra action to attack a ghoul as the rules for charging specify. Since he charged, he has a complication for his roll. He gets a success on his roll and the ghoul takes 6 damage, which is enough to take it out).
GM: Nat? Want to do anything?
Nat: No. Not yet. There may be others in the shadows.
GM: OK. Well, you’re right. First up, Chris, a ghoul leaps at you and tries to rip you apart with its claws and teeth. (The GM rolls, but gets a failure.) You catch the monster on your shield. In the shadows, you see a couple more ghouls waiting to attack.
<Slow Turns start>
GM: Alright, Nat, back to you.
Nat: I shoot my pistol at one of the ghouls.
GM: They are partially obscured from you, so roll to attack with one complication.
Nat: OK. (He rolls and gets a failure.) Crap! I drop the pistol and I’ll use my remaining action move up next to Chris. I’ll draw my sword as I do so.
GM: OK. The remaining ghouls come out from the shadows and attack Chris. (Some rolls, some damage, and Chris’s damage total equals his Health. He falls prone, disabled.)
It’s the end of the round. Chris, you are disabled. Roll a d6 to see what happens to you…
The stories you and your friends tell in Shadow of the Demon Lord focus on characters that come together as a group. The stories explore the group’s triumphs and defeats, the mysteries the group solves, the foes vanquished, the secrets unearthed, and the horrors overcome. As a player, you create and control a member of the group, and your contributions help advance the story toward its conclusion.
The game uses level to describe a group’s overall power and capability. When you create a character, the Game Master will tell you the group’s starting level. The higher the level, the more powerful and more complex the character becomes. Since low-level characters are simpler to play, the game recommends that GMs set the group’s level at 0 (or no level) for players new to Shadow of the Demon Lord. More experienced groups may prefer to play at higher levels since they will have more tools in their toolboxes, access to potent magic, and greater durability.
Your group’s level increases whenever the Game Master decides. Usually, a level increase results from accomplishing a story goal such as finding the cure to the Pox, stealing the necromancer’s magic, stopping the cult from tearing a hole in reality, and so on. Each time the group’s level increases, everyone in the groups gains benefits for that level.
In the Beginning, you Choose an Ancestry
When you create a character, you build the identity of an imaginary person living in the world of the Demon Lord. The game asks you to make one big choice—ancestry—and then provides you with tools to help you refine that choice. Ancestry describes the people to which your character belongs. Example options include humans, the easiest and most versatile choice, the giant-blooded jotun (pronounced YO-tun), the mischievous goblin, and the clockwork, a people made from cogs, gears, and springs. Other options may be available in the core book and in supplements.
Your ancestry tells you the numbers that broadly define what your character can do: it sets your starting attribute scores, determines your Size and Speed, and provides you with one or more talents (exceptional abilities that either modify your character or let you do something no one else can do). To help customize your character, the creation chapter provides you with tools for adjusting some of these numbers, to determine your character’s additional skills, starting equipment, and offers story options to help you bring your character to life.
If the GM sets the starting level at 0, you are ready to play once you choose an ancestry, select your starting equipment, and record the information on your character sheet. A beginning character is quite simple. This is intentional. I want new players to have a chance to learn the core rules through game play. Simple characters let players engage the core rules and master them before the game asks them to learn exceptions to these rules.
Stories for beginning characters tend to focus on how and why a group forms. Often, the player characters react to a common threat and have to find a way to deal with that threat. Furthermore, the starting story gives PCs a chance to figure out what they want to become later. A character that spends much of the first story fighting in hand-to-hand combat may go on to become a warrior, while another character that discovers an incantation and successfully reads it to produce the magical effect may be inspired to become a magician.
When the GM increases your group level, the rules may tell you choose a path based on your level. A path describes a way your character develops his or her abilities. You choose a novice path when your group reaches level 1, an expert path at level 3, and a master path at level 7. The path you choose makes improvements to your character’s capabilities, sometimes by granting talents, letting the character learn spells, or a combination of both. Here’s the advancement table so you can see how this works. Note that once you make a choice for ancestry or a path, you continue to gain benefits from that choice as the group level increases.
0Choose an ancestry and record its traits on your character sheet.
1Choose a novice path and gain the level 1 benefits from the path.
2Gain the level 2 benefits from your novice path.
3Choose an expert path and gain the level 3 benefits from the path.
4Gain the level 4 benefits from your ancestry.
5Gain the level 5 benefits from your novice path.
6Gain the level 6 benefits from your expert path.
7You may choose a second expert path and gain the level 3 benefits from that path or you may choose a master path and gain the level 7 benefits from that path.
8Gain the level 8 benefits from your novice path.
9Gain the level 9 benefits from your expert path.
10Gain the level 6 benefits from your second expert path or the level 10 benefits from your master path.
Novice paths establish, in broad strokes, what a character trains to do. The novice paths highlight the big archetypes of fantasy. Magician, rogue, warrior, and disciple are the novice paths I plan to include in the core game.
A warrior is best at fighting with weapons, whether those weapons are fists, pistols, swords, or crossbows. To reflect combat training, all warriors have an asset for rolls to attack with weapons. (If you remember, from a previous post, whenever you have an asset, you roll a d6 and add it to your roll of a d20.)
The magician is best at casting spells. You might gain your spellcasting ability from studying under a witch or wizard, having a magical heritage, bargaining with a dark power, or from some other source as you decide. As a magician, you learn several spells, some of which you can cast over and over again.
Novice paths gradually introduce the more complex systems into the game. Magician plugs into the game’s magic system, which I’ll explain in another post, while warriors can rely on their greater accuracy or forgo that accuracy to perform stunts and maneuvers in combat such as shoving their enemies, knocking them to the ground, or pinning them in place with a successful roll. The options gained from the novice paths build on the core rules the players learned in the first story and shows how the rules bend to accommodate the various exceptions that serve to individuate the characters in the story.
When the group reaches level 3, you choose your character’s expert path. The expert paths show how characters fit into the story, may describe characters’ personal goals and objectives, and demonstrates ways characters might use their novice training. The benefits you gain from your expert path may complement those benefits gained from your novice path or let you develop your character in a completely different way. Expert paths do not have requirements. You can choose any path you like provided the choice reflects what has happened in your character’s story so far. Some example expert paths include assassin, psychic, ranger, and spellbinder.
You may choose a second expert path or a master path for your character when the group reaches level 7. Master paths focus characters’ training in narrow areas. So if you want to be the best at casting Fire spells, choose the pyromancer path. Or, if you want to be the best at fighting with pistols and rifles, choose the gunslinger path. Other example paths include the knight, martial artist, telepath, and wizard. As with all paths, the game expects you to make your choice based on what your character has experienced and accomplished in the story.
Putting the Paths Together
The path structure provides a great deal of flexibility in character development. You derive all benefits from the paths you choose, but you can choose any paths you like. And, if you make an unusual choice, you aren’t penalized for doing so, since previous choices continue to develop your character. Let’s take a look at three players and the decisions they make each time they choose a path.
Mindy has played roleplaying games before and she knows she wants to play a tough, badass warrior. She chooses jotun for her ancestry since jotun are big and strong. She spends the first story protecting her friends using a sword she finds. So when it comes time to choose her novice path, she selects warrior. As a warrior, she discovers an enchanted great sword that secretly craves blood. The weapon whispers to her while she sleeps, awakening the bloodlust within her. When she reaches level 3, she decides the berserker expert path best describes how her character has been developing. Throughout her time as a berserker, she finds herself in the thick of battle, slaughtering everyone that dares stand in her way. Mindy is having a great time with this character, so when she gets to pick a master path, she chooses death dealer, a master of fighting with two-handed weapons. When the game ends, Mindy’s character is a jotun warrior-berserker-death dealer.
Jay has also played roleplaying games before, but has no idea what he wants to play. He likes the goblin, though, so he chooses it for his ancestry. During the first story, he finds a pistol and has fun sneaking around and shooting people in the back, as goblins tend to do. Jay chooses rogue for his novice path since he’s been relying on his skills and tricks to make his way through the first story. During his time as a rogue, Jay’s character steals a heavy book filled with magical writing. He decides his character studies this tome so he can learn a few spells. When he chooses his expert path, he selects mage to reflect all the time he’s spent learning magic. Although he’s happy casting spells, he still enjoys shooting people, so when the group reaches level 7, he picks gunslinger so he can improve his aim with his favorite weapon. When the game ends, Jay’s character is a goblin rogue-mage-gunslinger.
Heather joins the group, having never played a roleplaying game before. She selects human for her ancestry, as it’s the most familiar option. During the first story, Heather’s character finds an incantation inscribed on a piece of pottery. She reads the incantation and saves her friends’ lives. She had fun casting the spell and wants to do more with magic. She chooses magician for her novice path. Armed with a bevy of spells, she has fun solving problems with her magic and occasionally blasting her foes to bits, but she’s worried about being cornered in a fight. In the story, Heather’s character takes time to practice fighting with Mindy’s character. When Heather is ready to choose her expert path, she becomes a champion—a path that enhances her fighting ability. She still gains spells from her magician path and now has some fighting ability and toughness as well. She finds she mixes the two a great deal during the game so when she’s ready to choose her master path, she decides to choose a second expert path—spellbinder—instead of a master path. A spellbinder can imbue spells into her weapons. When the game ends, Heather’s character is a human magician-champion-spellbinder.
As you can see, the game offers a considerable amount of flexibility in how characters develop. You might start as a warrior and build your fighting skills as you play or you might dabble in trickery, pledge your sword to the New God, sell your soul to a devil, or do something else. The ability to pick and choose lets you evolve your character with the story in whatever way you feel is appropriate. As well, since lower path choices continue to benefit you as the group’s level increases, you can choose any path you like that makes sense without the risk of making your character ineffective.
OK. That’s enough for this week. Next week, I’ll talk about combat.
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.
Accessibility has been Shadow of the Demon Lord’s design goal from the start and for good reason. Over the last twenty years or so, I have watched the amount of free time available to my gaming groups shrink and shrink. Life has a way of intruding on our distractions—responsibilities of family and career rightly take precedence and when presented with a choice for how we spend time from the entertainment budget, we generally gravitate toward those distractions that demand the least from us. Gone are the days when we can spend hours and hours studying rulebooks, plotting complex campaigns, or plan out the various ways our characters will develop over time. Some of you may have the luxury of copious free time, but the people I know and with whom I game with have left those idle hours far behind. And as roleplaying games become more work, making greater and greater demands on our time to gain system mastery enough to even create a character let alone play, many gamers, once dedicated, have left the hobby behind or engage it vicariously by just reading the books rather than getting together with their friends.
To make Shadow of the Demon Lord more accessible, I adopted a strategy in the design that relied on familiarity and simplicity. The combination of these things would allow players of varying experience levels and interest to engage the game with equal proficiency and be free to focus on portraying their characters, engage the story, and, above all, have a good time.
So let’s start with familiarity. Shadow of the Demon Lord embraces tradition in that there’s a Game Master who manages the story, interprets outcomes, and decides when to use the rules to determine what happens. Everyone else at the table is a player and they each have at least one character under their control.
Most people who are passingly familiar with roleplaying games expect at least one funny-shaped die. The 20-sided die has permeated geek culture to the point that I think most people know rolling a 20 is a good thing. So Shadow of the Demon Lord uses a d20 for task resolution. When you want to know if your attack with a sword hits the demon, or if you can kick down the door, or climb the wall, or send the troll sprawling with your shockwave spell, or escape the blast of a fires from heaven spell, roll a d20. The widespread use of the d20 is a familiar element and it’s what most players expect to roll when they play fantasy RPGs.
The game also uses 6-sided dice. While the game would be simpler just using a 20-sided die, having a second die adds a bit of texture to the play experience and, most important, makes other aspects of the game simpler as you’ll see below.
Shadow of the Demon Lord uses a set of four attributes to describe a character’s most basic capabilities. The attributes are Strength, Agility, Intellect, and Willpower. The names pretty much tell you what they do. Each attribute has a score, which is a number ranging from 1 to 25, and a modifier, which is the score minus 10, ranging from –9 to +15. A typical human has a score of 10 (+0 modifier) for each attribute.
Your score represents your passive use of the attribute. The GM may judge a task’s success or failure by just looking at your score or you might use it as a defense such as when a creature casts charm on you or tries to tear your bones from your body with a part bone from flesh spell.
When you would actively use your attribute, such as when you swing a sword at a zombie, fire a pistol, climb a wall, discern an illusion isn’t real, or cling to your sanity in the face of some horrific monsters you roll a d20 and add your modifier to the number rolled. If you’re doing something directly to another creature—pushing, knocking down, using magic, you compare the total of your roll to the creature’s attribute score (or Armor Rating if you’re attacking with a weapon). If you’re doing anything else, you compare the total to 10. If the total equals or beats the target number, you succeed. Otherwise you fail.
This should be familiar and simple.
Assets and Complications
Rather than use a scaling set of numbers to model easier and harder tasks, the game uses assets and complications. For each different positive circumstance that could help you succeed, you have an asset. For each different negative circumstance that might prevent your success, you have a complication. Assets and complications cancel each other out. So if you have two assets and one complication, you’d have one asset. If you have six complications and two assets, you’d have four complications. If you have two assets and two complications, you would neither assets nor complications since they cancel out.
For each asset or complication, you roll a d6 with your d20. Of the numbers rolled for assets, you add the highest number rolled to the number you rolled on the d20. Conversely, of all the numbers rolled for complications, you subtract the highest number rolled from the number rolled on your d20.
For example, lets say Mindy is trying to climb a wall in a cave in a ledge. She uses a rope and grappling hook, so she has one asset. The Game Master also tells Mindy that there are plenty of handholds and footholds to make the climb easier, which gives her another asset. Mindy rolls Strength with two assets. She rolls a d20, and gets a 5. Her Strength is 12 (+2), which brings her total up to 7. Normally this would be a failure as the target number is always 10. However, she also has two assets. She rolls a d6 for each asset and gets a 5 and a 3. The 5 is the highest number, so she adds it to her total, giving her a 12. Mindy’s gets a success and her character climbs up the wall.
The function of assets and complications is to scoop up all the tiny bonuses and penalties one expects to gain from circumstances into an extra die roll. Multiple assets or complications have increased chances of rolling a 6, but since you’re only adding the highest, they control bonus and penalty inflation without having to introduce flag bonuses or penalties with different types. Best of all, assets allow characters to reach beyond their normal limits, when fighting powerful opponents, and complications never take away from the thrill of rolling a 20.
You might sense that there’s little point in having Mindy roll at all since she has two assets. After all, she starts with a +2 bonus and the asset should add 3 or 4 (on average) to her roll. This means she will fail if she rolls a 3 or less on the d20. Chances are, she’s going to get up to the ledge, so why bother rolling? Exactly. Assets and complications, combined with a fixed target number of 10, quickly communicate to the GM when to call for a roll and when to just grant a success. This keeps the game moving forward. Having a couple of assets for an activity serves to eliminate pointless rolls, whereas complications may indicate times when rolling might have an interesting outcome.
Whenever I run a game of D&D for new players, one of the big play challenges experienced is figuring which die is which. Even experienced gamers sometimes grab a d8 when they meant to grab a d10. To keep the game simpler, Shadow of the Demon Lord uses the d6 for all damage rolls. When you cast flame blast, creatures in the area take 3d6 damage. When you get a success for a roll to attack with your sword, the target takes 1d6 + 2 damage. When you fall 5 yards and land on the bottom of a pit, you take 2d6 damage. The game rarely has you roll more than six dice. For powerful spells, you roll a small number of dice and add them to a bigger number, such as 6d6 +20 or 3d6 + 10.
The approach I took for the core system design has many advantages. It is familiar to veterans who enjoy other fantasy games and eases the transition from one game system to Shadow of the Demon Lord. It also has the advantage of simplicity for new players. It just makes sense that when my character attempts to beat your character in an arm-wrestling contest, I roll Strength against your Strength. A constant target number of 10, for tasks other than attacks or attack-like activities, reduces calculations at the table since you’re just looking for 10 or higher. Ultimately, this simple and straightforward game system allows for rapid system mastery and permits a range of exceptions gained from character develop without slowing or otherwise taking anything away from the game play experience.
This month I revealed what has been occupying my attention for the last 10 months at Nashville’s Geek Media Expo, a fun little show that celebrates all things geek. By now, you have seen the website and the awesome cover by Svetoslav Petrov, seen the various updates on here, Twitter, and Facebook. I am, however, certain you have some questions. This is the first installment of several updates about my new game, Shadow of the Demon Lord, and what you can expect from it.
Over my decade plus career, I have had the privilege of designing or developing over 200 products, from transmuting the fantastic novels of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire into a stand-alone RPG to working with and updating older games in my role as Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay developer and member of the design team for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. I have worked on several established game systems and in several established worlds, from the gloom of Midnight to the grittiness of the Glen Cook’s Black Company novels. Over all this time, I have been thinking about what I would do given the chance to spawn a roleplaying game from the birth canal of my imagination, both in terms of system design and story design. So when design needs for D&D began to wind down at the end of 2013 and with my contract with Wizards of the Coast expiring, I decided to take all those thoughts and put them on paper.
So What’s This All About?
One thing that seems largely common to fantasy campaigns is the apocalyptic event that marks the end of the campaign—the dark lord attacks with his armies, some fool opens the gate to Hell, a death world drifts too close to the planet after drifting out from some remote corner of space, the undead wizard seals the gates to the Underworld, and so on. These events almost always occur at the campaign’s end and the stories and adventures through which the players play lead to this epic conclusion. For me, this “epic conclusion” is the most interesting part. It’s the time and place when the story is most exciting. Shadow of the Demon Lord embraces the cataclysm and makes it the backdrop against which the characters’ lives unfold.
The core idea is that the world is one of many realities, each of which is separated by a yawning gulf of darkness called the Void. In the murky depths of this infinite expanse lurk entities of malevolent will, formless, inscrutable beings that have no physical form until called forth into a world, where they become demons. The greatest of these entities is the Demon Lord, a being of vast and incalculable power. The Demon Lord hungers. It craves destruction, to feast on mortal souls, to unravel creation. And over the march of eons, the Demon Lord has broken free from the Void to drag one of many realities screaming into its darkness. In the game, the Demon Lord has drawn near to the world and its shadow creeps across the landscape like ink spilled on a map.
The Demon Lord’s shadow instigates cataclysmic events as it spreads across the world. Wherever it falls, it foments discord and upheaval, altering the fundamental laws of reality through the individuals it corrupts. When the game starts, the shadow has fallen upon the Orc King, a former subject of the Empire who had been sworn to serve the Alabaster Throne through ancient and magical compacts set down in another age. The shadow has contaminated these peoples, turning them into savage killers, brutes without compassion and driven by their most basic impulses. As a result, they have risen up across the Empire they were bound to protect sparking upheaval and war everywhere. Travelers whisper the capital is in flames, the emperor dead, strangled by the Orc King who now sits upon the throne and gathers his armies to march against the imperial provinces that have declared their independence in the wake of this event.
While this is the assumed catalyst for the story’s start, the rules include other calamities that might befall the world from the Demon Lord’s fell influence. The shadow may fall upon the Dark Lady, the greatest of all the necromancers to have ever lived and, if so, she might be compelled to seal the gates to the Underworld. This act would upset the cycle of life-death-rebirth. Souls would be trapped in their corpses and rise up as undead. Or, the shadow could fall upon the Archmage and warp magic, causing all spells cast to have wild and unpredictable effects. Organizations, such the Inquisition, House of Healing, or Hierarchy of the Old Faith, could all come under the shadow, sparking terrible crusades, loosing virulent plagues to decimate populations, or a spark a series of natural disasters to topple the pillars of civilization. Where the shadow falls is entirely up to the Game Master and may change based on the actions of the players or developments in the story so that the PCs might face war, terrifying plagues, a zombie apocalypse, and the awakening of some titanic monstrosity all in the same campaign or as the basis of several different campaigns. Most important, the degree to which these global events intrude on the story is up to the gaming group. The orc uprising might be a distant threat, as the game suggests for the start, or it could be the setting in which the characters find themselves, trapped in the ruins of the imperial capital and struggling to escape the mobs of bloodthirsty orcs for safer lands beyond their control.
So that’s the idea behind Shadow of the Demon Lord and it’s one, I believe, that sets this game apart from other fantasy roleplaying games. I’ve mentioned plagues, wars, natural disasters, cosmic threats, and magical distortions. What other ways would you destroy your world?