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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.
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?