I’m reluctant to say “never,” but it’s safe to say you’re not going to see a gigantic setting book for Shadow of the Demon Lord any time soon. Why? Well, it’s Steve Kenson’s fault. Many years ago, at one of the Green Ronin summits, Steve and I were discussing settings and adventures and he planted the seed in my brain that settings were best revealed through adventures rather than through giant gazetteers that must be read, digested, and, effectively, mastered to use properly. He pointed to Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Temple of Elemental Evil, the Dragonlance adventures and other classic scenarios that zoomed in on an area and brought it to life. Sure, we had the Greyhawk box, but it was all presented in broad strokes (and with curious attention on trees). If we wanted more information about the world, the adventures provided the stuff we needed to understand the plot, environment, and characters. And that was enough.
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Shadow of the Demon Lord’s magic system has gone through some changes since design began, as it should. In a previous post, I discussed the direction I was taking and while much remains as it was then, I wanted to give you another look at the magic system.
All Magic Is the Same
Spells, enchanted objects, artifacts, and magical abilities tap into the same source of power: magic. What mortals and immortals consider magic is the lingering potential left behind when the universe sprang into existence. So when a priest, magician, or rogue casts a spell, the power they draw to produce the magical effect comes from the same source. A psychic’s ability to read thoughts, a miracle performed by holy man and woman, flames loosed from a pyromancer’s fingertips, a vile curse loosed by a hag, or the dark power used to turn corpses into mindless zombies all use the same energy.
The game uses the Power characteristic to describe a creature’s ability to call upon magical power and shape it into useful forms. All creatures have at least 0 Power. Player characters can grow their Power scores by choosing certain paths—magicians and priests increase Power and some rogues may increase their Power as well if they choose to dabble in magic. Expert paths and master paths can also increase Power.
Traditions package spells that share a common theme or effect. Fire spells, for example, create or manipulate fire. Technomancy spells create mechanical devices like bolt throwers, grenades, and flamethrowers. Alchemy spells create magical substances.
To learn a spell, you must first discover the tradition to which the spell belongs. Your paths instruct you when you discover a tradition and usually give you a choice between discovering a new tradition or learning a new spell from a tradition you have discovered. When you discover the tradition, you also learn the tradition’s minor spell, a spell with a rank of 0.
Your path tells you when you learn spells. When you learn a spell, you may choose any spell from any tradition you have discovered provided the spell’s rank is equal to or less than your Power score. So if you have 2 Power, you can learn spells of rank 2 or less from the traditions you have discovered.
For each spell you learn, you have a number of castings for that spell. The number of castings depends on your Power and the rank of the spell.
Unless the spell description says otherwise, you use your action to cast the spell. When you cast the spell, you expend 1 casting from the number of castings you have. If you don’t have any castings left, the spell has no effect and the action is wasted. In other words, you need at least 1 casting to cast your spells.
Resolving the spell’s effect is easy. Each spell is a set of instructions. Follow them and voila, you cast the spell. Here are some of my favorite spells from the game. I hope we get to include them all in the book or the Demon Lord’s Companion pdf, but we’ll see!
Boon of the Demon Lord
Demonology Utility 1
Gain 1d6 insanity. If you do not go mad, increase your Health by 4d6 and you make action rolls, attack rolls, and resistance rolls with a boon. At the end of each round until the spell ends, roll a d6. On a 6, the spell ends.
Technomancy Utility 2
Choose one pile of spare parts within your reach. If you concentrate on the spare parts for 1 minute, you construct a flamethrower from them. The flamethrower has 6 uses. When you expend the last use, the flamethrower crumbles into spare parts.
Any creature carrying the flamethrower may use its action to expend a use from it. Flames spread across a line-shaped area that is 1 yard wide and 10 yards long. Everything in the area takes 2d6 damage. A creature may make an Agility resistance roll. On a success, the creature takes no damage.
When a creature carrying the flamethrower takes damage from fire, it must roll a d6. On a 6, the device explodes, filling a sphere-shaped area with a 5-yard-radius with flames and then dissipates. Everything in the area takes 1d6 damage per unexpended use. A creature may make an Agility resistance roll. On a success, the creature takes half the damage.
Hole of Glory
Teleportation Utility 1
You may use your extra action on your turn to cast the spell. Choose two cubes of space, each 1-yard on a side. One of which must be within your reach and the other must be within medium range of you. A 1-foot-wide hole opens in the center each spot and can have any orientation you choose. The holes remain open for 1 minute and connect to each other such that you may reach into one hole and emerges from the other side. You can also attack creatures within 1 yard of the other side of the hole.
The hole severs whatever is in it when the spell ends with effects determined by the GM.
Enchantment Attack 2
Choose one creature that can see you, hear you, and is within medium range of you. Make an Intellect attack roll against the target’s Willpower score. You have a bane for your roll if the target has 20 Health or more. You make the roll with a bane if you or anyone with you attacked the target at any time within the last 24 hours. On a success, target becomes dazed for 1 minute. If you rolled a 20 on the die, the target is instead stunned for 1 minute. You have a boon for attack rolls made to socially interact with a target dazed or stunned by this spell. If the target takes damage, the affliction granted by this spell ends.
Time Attack 1
You may use your extra action on your turn to cast this spell. Choose one creature you can see within short range of you. Make an Intellect attack roll against the target’s Intellect score. On a success, the target no longer exists until the end of the next round. When the target reappears, it does so in the space it last occupied or in the nearest open space to it.
If you rolled a 20 on the die, you regain the casting of this spell.
Shadow Utility 1
You may use your extra action on your turn to cast this spell. Wisps of darkness gather to form into a solid blade in the palm your hand. The blade remains for 1 minute or until the blade leaves your hand. When the effect ends, the blade evaporates into a cloud of smoke that disperses almost at once.
The blade functions as an off-hand weapon with the finesse property that deals 2d6 damage. The weapon deals 1d6 extra damage when you get a success on an attack roll against a target obscured by shadows or darkness.
Transformation Utility 3
You assume the form of an object of your Size or smaller for as long as you concentrate, up to 8 hours. You make all decisions about what you look like while in this form. Until the effect ends, you cannot talk and you may only use your action to concentrate on this spell. You perceive using your normal senses however. You are physically indistinguishable from the object whose form you have assumed. The spell immediately ends if you take any damage.
Part Bone from Flesh
Forbidden Attack 3
Choose one living creature within medium range of you. If the target has a skeleton, make an Intellect attack roll against the target’s Strength score. On a success, the target takes 4d6 damage from the twisting and wrenching of its bones. If you rolled a 20 on the die, the target takes 2d6 extra damage.
If the damage incapacitates the target, it dies. The creature’s bones animate to become a skeleton that tears free from the flesh and attacks the nearest creature to it each round until it is destroyed.
Arcana Attack 5
When a creature within short range of you gets a success on an attack roll using a weapon against you, you may use your extra action to cast this spell. The triggering creature’s success becomes a failure and its weapon is destroyed. In addition, the creature must make a Strength resistance roll. On a failure, it takes 10d6 damage, flies 2d6 yards in a straight line away from you, and falls prone.
Battle Attack 3
Choose any number of creatures within a radius of up to one-half your Speed. Each target must make an Agility resistance roll with one bane. On a failure, the creature takes 4d6 + 3 damage.
After, you teleport to an open space any where within a number of yards of you equal to one-half your Speed.
Spiritualism Attack 2
Choose one living creature within short range of you. Make a Willpower attack roll against the target’s Willpower score. On a success, a malevolent spirit appears in the air around the target and then plunges into it where it remains for 1 minute. Until the effect ends, the target’s Health is reduced by 2d6 and it becomes impaired and slowed. If you rolled a 20 on the die, the target reduces its Health by 3d6 instead.
Each creature within short range of the target, other than you, that sees the malevolent spirit appear must make a Willpower resistance roll. On a failure, the creature becomes frightened until the end of the next round.
One of the most exciting things about Shadow of the Demon Lord is how characters evolve. The path system lets you develop your character in response to what happens in the story. With no requirements to meet and no restrictions on what paths you can choose, the game system liberates you to play whatever the heck you want to play.
Creating a starting character involves making one really big choice: Ancestry. Your ancestry describes the people from which you character comes. Will you be a human or a dwarf, a devil-spawned cambion, or a person made from clockwork? Once you make this choice, you record the mechanics from the ancestry: starting attributes, characteristics, as well as any talents you might have.
After you make your decision, you can flesh out details about your character. Details include your professions (tracker, burglar, soldier), background events, personality details, religious beliefs, physical appearance, and so on. All these things can be determined randomly, chosen, or invented. They don’t have any mechanical weight and are there to help you visualize how the person you play fits into the world.
The last step is to record your starting equipment. Everyone starts with the same things, a basic weapon, a miscellaneous item, and a random interesting thing—a reputation for being a bad ass, a tiny metal ball that floats a few inches above any surface where it is placed, or a tiny mechanical owl.
With your character created, you’re ready to play your first adventure. This story typically focuses on how your group comes together and lays the groundwork for how your character will develop. While playing, you should think about the actions your character takes, the choices you make, and how you contributed to the story’s outcome.
Group and Level
The first adventure behind you, your character should belong to a group of characters. Your group has a level that starts at one and increases by one each time you complete another adventure. At key levels, you and the other members of the group choose paths. Your path choice tells you the things your character knows how to do and delivers talents, magic, and other benefits for each level of your group.
Level What happens
1 Choose a novice path and gain the level 1 benefits.
2 Gain the level 2 benefits from your novice path.
3 Choose an expert path and gain the level 3 benefits from that path.
4 Gain the level 4 benefits from your ancestry.
5 Gain the level 5 benefits from your novice path.
6 Gain the level 6 benefits from your expert path.
7 Choose a master path and gain the level 7 benefits from that path.
8 Gain the level 8 benefits from your novice path.
9 Gain the level 9 benefits from your expert path.
10 Gain the level 10 benefits from your master path.
The game includes four novice paths: magician, priest, rogue, and warrior. You can choose any path you want, usually in response to what happened during your first adventure. If you fought a lot, you might become a warrior. If you used trickery or spent much of your time sneaking around, you might choose rogue. Finding an incantation and casting it could lead you to become a magician or priest.
Of all the path choices, your novice path gives you the most benefits. The higher number of benefits protects you from making suboptimal choices later on, thus freeing you to choose the paths that fit your character’s story. As a warrior, you will always be great at fighting, even if you choose other paths that have nothing to do with fighting. Similarly, as a priest, you will always be good at helping others, lending support through the prayers you whisper.
Adventures for novice characters tend to be reactive. Something happens to you group and you must find ways to deal with the problem the event causes. Psychotic bandits could be butchering families on the fringes of the town, a bloody bone released from an ancient elfin vault steals a farmer’s hogs for their hides, or a group of misguided followers of the Horned God kidnap a friend of the group and make ready to sacrifice that friend to a twisted black tree in the center of the woods are all good examples of the kinds of things novice characters might do.
At level 3, everyone in the group chooses an expert path. Your choice indicates the area in which your character pursues expertise. Do you want to be an assassin, wizard, shaman, berserker, or a thief? The choice may complement your novice path choice, developing your existing capabilities or take your character in an entirely new direction. Since your novice path acts as your foundation, taking something different does not hamper your capabilities and may open up interesting avenues for you to explore in future adventures.
As with your choice of novice path, your expert path tends to reflect what has happened in the story so far. If you began as a warrior, let’s say, and you stole a tome filled with Forbidden spells and you even go so far to cast spells from that tome, you might choose wizard for your expert path to show how those experience altered your journey. Similarly, a rogue who spends much of her time skulking in the shadows and taking out enemies from hidden positions would likely choose assassin.
Expert adventures take characters into deadlier environments. Characters might explore the countless doorways of a weird tower that appears in the Blasted Heath when the moon is full, venture into the Desolation, battling through hordes of zombies, to reach one of the fabled black pyramids that stab up from the swirling sands. Expert characters offer players more options, greater power, and increased durability to help them withstand the trials they must endure.
When the group reaches level 7, everyone can either choose a master path or a second expert path. Master paths zoom in one thing your character does very well, while a second expert path diversifies your capabilities. Examples of master paths include death dealer, dreadnaught, executioner, conqueror, curse-speaker, pyromancer, and more.
Again, you can choose any path you want, which frees you evolve your character based on the story. A warrior who became a wizard could choose to become an inquisitor after having a brush with dark magic, or become a mage knight, weaving magic with fighting ability. The thief who became an assassin could become a shadowbinder and supplement the assassination techniques with magic or become a gunslinger and become a badass with ballistic weapons.
Master path adventures are the most challenge and take characters into terrifying places. The group might descend into the depths of Hell to recover a powerful relic or rescue a damned soul, or they may confront a powerful demon that wears a mortal disguise and hastens the end of all things at the Fortress of Oblivion.
The plan has always been to include material for groups that reach level 10 and would continue playing. Stay tuned for more details about how this will work.
In the game, Conan the Barbarian would have started as a warrior, become a thief, and finally a conqueror. The system for character improvement lets you play whatever you want to play and let the story shape your character into a unique and interesting individual.
Since the game packages almost all character benefits inside paths, it’s easy to build a character to join a group at any level. Just choose your paths and note the benefits you gain from them for the level.
Finally, you can create new paths or exclude other ones without wrecking the game. If you don’t want clockwork people, don’t have them. No gods? No problem. Rip out the priest and associated paths and you’re good to go. The game plays just fine without them.
I’ve had a few questions about why the game pins the target number for action rolls and resistance rolls at 10. Here’s the thing. Shadow of the Demon Lord does not pretend that your characters are moving through an invisible lattice of numbers, nor does it posit that the game system is always running in the background. Instead, the game is one in which you and your friends tell stories about an ensemble cast of characters and the horrors they face, the conspiracies they uncover, the weird locations they explore, and the challenges they overcome through it all. The rules are there for when something would happen in the story and you’re not sure about the outcome.
This means if your character attempts to climb a wall that has plenty of handholds and he or she is not under pressure, he or she climbs the darn wall. Why? It’s a reasonable outcome and it keeps the story moving forward. Now if your character made the same attempt while being attacked by winged demons that poop blood and fire on you, the outcome is no longer so certain and a roll would be appropriate.
Action rolls assume that a typical person in the world has about an even chance for success or failure. The game nudges it up by 5% to make tasks a bit more favorable and also so you can look at the die when you roll it and know you succeed when you see two numbers on the die. Setting the target number at 10 is also easy for the GM to remember. A GM doesn’t have to remember a stack of different target numbers and recall what target numbers go to which task.
Obviously some tasks are harder than others and other tasks are easier. Enter boons and banes. Each positive circumstance gives you a boon. Each negative circumstance gives you a bane. Boons and banes cancel each other out. Boons might source from talents gained from your paths, assistance from another character, a tool, or a magical effect. Banes can come from afflictions such as being fatigued or poisoned or from environmental and situational factors. Since you don’t add boons or banes, you’re just looking for the highest number on the d6s. The most you’ll ever add or subtract from your roll is 6, so handing out extra boons puts a limit on inflating numbers and keeps the d20 roll important.
Here are a few example situations where action rolls could come into play.
A character attempts to walk across a tightrope
Since most people can’t pull this off, a GM would call for a roll to see if the character can move across the tightrope or make some progress moving across it. The surface’s narrowness warrants one bane. The bounciness of the rope warrants another. And let’s say the character carries a lot of gear, imposing a third bane. It’s possible, but unlikely.
Now, if the character has a profession related to the task, the GM might knock off one or two of the banes. And if that character wasn’t carrying a lot of gear and wasn’t under pressure, the character should probably cross the tightrope without having to make a roll. Why? Because the person knows how to walk across tightropes and is going to make it across unless there’s some environmental effect (wind) or circumstance (the tightrope is covered in mayonnaise) that would make the attempt difficult.
A character attempts to open a lock with a set of lock picks
Most people don’t know how to use lock picks, but a character making the attempt could be lucky. The GM might call for a roll. Assuming the character does not have a profession related to the task, the GM imposes a bane if the lock is ordinary or just rule the task impossible if the lock is superior. A character with a burglar profession or something similar would just succeed on the task—again, because the character knows how to pick locks—if he or she is not under pressure. The character may have to make an action roll to unlock a complex lock or simpler lock if the attempt is made in a tough circumstance.
A character attempts to kick in a door
A strong character ought to be able to kick in the door. Yes, yes, it’s funny the first time a strong character fails to knock open a door thanks to a crappy roll and a scrawny character comes in behind the first character and succeeds on the roll. But after a couple of times, it gets a bit weird. Rather than even dealing with that situation, the GM should rule that the strong character kicks down the blasted door and keep the story going. If the door is secured, then the GM could call for a Strength roll and impose one or more banes depending on how the door has been secured.
You roll dice when you don’t know what happens next. Common sense prevails in Shadow of the Demon Lord. If it makes sense that something should happen, then let it. If it doesn’t, don’t let. If it could happen, but you’re not sure, let the dice decide.