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My approach to creating adventures for Shadow of the Demon Lord comes from realizations I had while working on and running other games. I like big, chunky adventures just like everyone else, but I realized I rarely ran them all the way through till the end. Sometimes, the players take unexpected directions, requiring me to develop the story in new ways, leaving behind pages of otherwise great content. Other times, the game just falls apart when real life bullied its way into our fun. Rather than pretend life works differently, I stripped down adventures to their essential elements. Here are some broad strokes to show you how I did it.
I don’t plan to release many, if any, print adventures. The digital medium is cheaper on you and on me. Adventures will have a landscape, three-column format so I can fit more on the page. I don’t anticipate adventures running more than 5 pages in length so you can read them quickly and run right away.
Most adventures have the following structure.
Objective: The adventure presents to you what has to happen for the group needs to do to complete the story.
The Situation: The adventure summarizes what’s going on.
The Scenes: The adventure lays out the scenes, characters, and events tied directly to the adventure in concise chunks for easy digestion.
Most, if not all, adventures can be played in a single session that lasts two to four hours. This makes them excellent options for convention games and one-shots, yes, but it makes them great for home games too. Why? I find when I start an adventure and stop before we complete it, saving the rest for the next session, I wind up missing or gaining people, forcing everyone to bend the story to accommodate the new or lost characters. As well, you lose valuable time recapping what happened last time, forget essential events, or misremember them. Groups can get through a page of adventure material in an hour. Hence, the short page counts map well to single-session play.
You won’t find excess in Shadow of the Demon Lord adventures. The adventures tell you what you need to know and nothing more. Descriptions are similarly sparse. It’s your job, as the GM, to strike the right mood for your group. If you want to paint the walls with blood, go for it. The adventure lays out the basics and leaves the rest for you to present in whatever way you want.
Here’s an example of a “room” description (not edited yet, but it’s a taste):
The beastmen encamped here intend to take Thorpe by force and sacrifice of people to their dark god. The beastmen captured Franz, one of the treasure hunters, not long after he escaped the bloody bones and have kept him a prisoner here. They’ve been cutting on him for a day so far and are eating him alive. He has been too brutalized to be of any assistance to the characters.
In addition to the fomor hunting Delia (see “Survivor”), 4 fomor and 2 gnolls make up the band. They are lax about security and may be easily surprised. None knows about the Shrine and nor do they have interest in it.
They have a few weeks of rations, a barrel of sour wine, an old sword, a longbow, quiver of 30 arrows, and a sack filled with 15 ss, 76 cp, and silverware and other valuables worth about 3 ss, all looted from nearby farms.
Ripe for Expansion
Since adventures are barebones in design, you can easily add to them for a longer play experience. Just add more scenes, more challenges, introduce complications, or whatever you want to thicken the story. Similarly, since you create the connective tissue linking one adventure to the next, it’s easy to clip them all together to form a saga (aka campaign).
Tomorrow I launch the Kickstarter campaign for my new apocalyptic horror-fantasy roleplaying game, Shadow of the Demon Lord. As you are likely to hear a lot from me over the next 30 days, I’m going to keep this post brief.
I’m using Kickstarter to crowd-source the funds I need to shepherd the game through production. By production, I mean editing, layout, art acquisition, and, of course, printing. The good news is that the writing is done. I just have to pare down the excess to fit a 128-page full-color softcover book. If we fund, the game will be in your hands by the end of the year. To go with the game, I’m also offering a ~20 page PDF that includes five adventures, each playable in a single session, and 36 page or so PDF starting guide that extracts the character creation section to help you and your friends make starting characters quickly.
Exceeding the Goal
I’m offering two ways to make the project bigger and better. First, I’m using Achievements. You’ll find on the Kickstarter page a list of possible achievements that unlock goodies. Each achievement attained gets crossed off the list. At ten, twenty, and thirty achievements attained, the project gets better—a free 4-page adventure for all backers, 32-pages of content added to the rulebook, and a surprise.
Second, I have a bunch of sexy stretch goals that get revealed once we fund. A stretch goal, in case you don’t know, is a level of funding above and beyond the goal. About a third of the stretch goals involve upgrading the rulebook, usually increments of 32 pages and turning the softback into a hardback book—an expensive leap, but well worth it. The rest of the stretch goals involve additional adventures by some of the finest designers in the business and, eventually, additional supplements. I have 2-4 page adventures line up from Ken Hite, Steve Winter, Skip Williams, Rich Baker, Jason Bulmahn, Monte Cook, Chris Pramas, Steve Townshend, TS Luikart, Stan!, Bruce Cordell, Steve Kenson, Shane Hensley, Miranda Horner, Scott Fitzgerald Gray, David Noonan, Cam Banks, Chris Sims, Matt Forbeck, and Ed Greenwood! I’m also offering fiction from Erin Evans, Erik Scott de Bie, Richard Lee Byers, and Elizabeth Bear. And if we do extremely well, higher stretch goals unlock additional print books that include a bestiary, big book of magic, world expansions, and a backer level that lets you get everything in print.
How You Can Help
The best way you can help is to back the campaign. Choose whatever funding level you can and make a pledge. Every little bit helps. Remember, you’re not on the hook for anything unless the campaign funds. Once the campaign is over, assuming it funds, you can choose your rewards and any add-ons you might want—dice, stack of printed character sheets, extra books, and so on.
In addition to backing the campaign, I need your help to spread the word. Raising awareness about the product creates additional backers and additional voices to create even more backers.
To entice you a bit more, here are some profile pics you can use in case you’re too shy to spread the word.
Last, I want to say thanks. Since making the announcement at Geek Media Expo in October, I have had the pleasure of running games at stores and conventions all over the place. I’ve been interviewed and been a guest on podcasts. I’ve gained so many new friends from all over the world who have shown nothing but support and excitement for this project. Thank you all. Thanks for reading and thanks for playing. We’re close to getting this book out the door and into your hands. Let’s make it happen.
The Kickstarter campaign launches soon (March 12th!), so I’d like to show you how easy it is to make a character for Shadow of the Demon Lord. We’ll make a starting character, an individual that does not yet belong to a group and thus has no level. Let’s get started.
First, let’s grab the character sheet.
The character sheet concentrates all your numbers in the middle so you’re always looking in the same place when you need to make a roll or when the GM makes a roll against your character. You can use the outer circles to make notes about what your character owns, talents gained, spells learned, and other bits. You can put this information wherever you want.
I start by determining my character’s professions. Professions were named “skills” in earlier drafts of the game, but I changed the name since these bits are descriptive rather than mechanical. They tell you something about your character. I could choose my starting professions or make them up. I like rolling dice, so let’s do that. First, I roll a d6 and find the result on the profession background table. I’ll do this twice. I rolled a 3 and a 5, giving me a common background and wilderness background.
For the common professions, I roll a d20 and find the result on the Common Professions table. A 17 tells me I can be a painter, poet, sculptor, or writer. The “*” next to this entry means my character knows how to read and write one language I know. I think I’ll choose writer.
For my wilderness profession, a 3 gives me charcoal burner or woodcutter. Interesting. I’m going to drop my writer profession and take whittler instead (it’s like a sculptor). I’ll take charcoal burner as my other profession. I note the results on my character sheet and now I’m ready to choose my Ancestry.
Your ancestry tells you about your people and from where you came. I like playing humans, generally, so I’ll choose the Human ancestry. Looking at the entry, I find out some information about humans in the world followed by a short table to help me come up with a story for my human character. I’m going to roll. I get a 4. I like the idea of the militia and note this on my sheet.
The Human entry also tells me my character’s starting numbers, skills, and talents. I just need to record this information on my sheet in the spaces provided. I can increase one attribute by 1 point by decreasing another attribute. I think I’ll boost Strength by 1 and drop Willpower by 1. After all, my character saw some action and I think he was probably scarred by his experiences. For my Natural Talent, I’m going to increase Intellect by 1. Once I record all the numbers, I can fill in the modifiers for the attributes by simply subtracting 10 from my scores.
A starting character gets a weapon, some gear, and a choice of one special item. I’m going to take a staff and, for my special item, a healer’s kit. I record all this on my character sheet.
I also get a random interesting thing. First, I roll a d6 to find the table and then roll a d20 to determine the thing. I rolled a 6 and a 19. The 6 indicates Table 6 and the 19 gives me the result of “a demanding spouse.” I’ll put this on my sheet as well.
Building your Story
My character is almost ready to play. The final part of the character creation chapter presents guidance and tables to help bring the character to life.
Name: I call my character Hugh. I always liked Hugh the Hand from the Deathgate Cycle.
Age: I roll 3d6 and consult the Age table. I rolled a 9, so it seems Hugh is all grown up.
Appearance: I roll 3d6 and consult the Appearance table. I rolled an 11. That tells me Hugh is average looking.
Build: Again, I roll 3d6 and consult the Build table. A 7 tells me Hugh is a bit skinny.
Background Element: This entry tells me what makes my character exceptional (or not). First, I roll a d6 to see if I had a setback or a windfall. A 2 gives me a setback. I roll a d20 to see what form the setback takes. A 16 tells me I witnessed a crime.
Personality: There’s lots of information about how to build a personality, but I just want to jump in and play. I can roll 3d6 to determine my personality randomly. A 4 tells me that my character is something of a misanthrope. That fits given his career choice of charcoal burner. It’s not the most social of occupations. And the demanding spouse might sharpen my character’s disdain for others.
Having recorded this information on my sheet, I’m ready to play! That’s it. It’s that simple. Here’s Hugh’s character sheet.
Things that Tear Your Face Off
I love monsters. There. I said it. And I’m not ashamed. I think monsters are the best parts of fantasy roleplaying games and I have books upon books filled with critters. Way back in the old days, whenever TSR pushed out a Monstrous Compendium Annual, I’d snatch it up, even if it meant forgoing food. Why? Monsters inspire me. I love the stories that spark, their weirdness, and the potential to surprise even the most cynical and jaded players at my gaming tables. So when it came time to build the creatures that the player characters might face in the world the Demon Lord is poised to devour, I saw it as an opportunity to create an array of creatures both familiar and unfamiliar, and that would give players a memorable experience, reveal something about the world, and inspire Game Masters to create stories around them.
When I revealed Shadow of the Demon Lord at Geek Media Expo in Nashville last October, I felt certain that the game was nearly done and that I would have scads of time to smooth the last bits while wrapped in the warm, fuzzy glow of post-design delight. I was, of course, optimistic and I am delighted to say that the keen eyes, insightful feedback, and experiences at tables from Asheville to Seattle, Fort Wayne to Birmingham have had their impact on the mechanical design and have helped me make a great game even better. Today, I want to talk just a bit about those changes to both show how the game has evolved and improved over the last few months.
Boons and Banes
The most recent change to Shadow of the Demon Lord came at Winter Fantasy and was suggested as a flavorful alternative to the clinical asset and complication names that were in place before. When I heard the new names, I made the change on the road back to Tennessee.
Action Rolls, Attack Rolls, and Resistance Rolls
For a long time, the game just used “roll” as the term for rolling to do something, rolling to attack something, and rolling to resist something. While sufficient in many cases, I discovered I needed more precise language to convey what was going on in the game. I could imagine situations when I would want a character to gain a boon for one type of roll and not another. I also figured out, pretty quick too, that roll was too broad a term for a game that involved multiple kinds of dice rolling. By breaking apart the “roll” term into action, attack, and resistance, I could bound the instances in which rolling a d20 occurred in play rolls and could also communicate to the reader the times when a boon or bane would apply to the d20. Now, the rolls work as follows:
Action rolls happen when the player describes an action and the GM is not certain of the outcome. The target number for these rolls is always 10.
Attack rolls happen when one creature choose a creature and attempts to harm that creature in some way. The target number for these rolls is always the score of the attribute or characteristic used to resist the attack.
Resistance rolls happen when a creature would attempt to avoid a harmful effect or reduce the severity of an effect. Incapacitated creatures always get failures for resistance rolls and the target number for these rolls is always 10.
Natural 20 and Natural 1
For several months, the game used the following rule: when you roll a 20 on an action, attack, or resistance roll, you have a boon for all rolls until the end of the next round. When you roll a 1 on these rolls, you have a bane for all rolls until the end of the next round. At Winter Fantasy, I was having dinner with my volunteer GMs who came up to run tables, my buddy Nat admitted to me that he felt the tech was hard to manage given the frequency in which they came up, at least when paired with the other sources of boons and banes. I saw his point and and tackled the fix on the way back.
The result? A roll of a 1 has no other outcome other than to be a crappy roll. A roll of a 20 on an attack roll with a weapon has an effect determined by the character’s novice path. For warriors, it adds 1d6 to the damage roll. For rogues, who are fragile, a 20 grants them one extra turn in the round. For priests, the target of the attack becomes impaired until the end of the next round (that’s a bane for all rolls). Finally, magicians get an effect based on the attack spell they cast—increased damage, longer duration, or a regain of the expended casting. Each tech helps make the character feel distinctive at the table and places the cool effect in the players’ hands.
Best of all, reserving special effects for PCs helps reign in some of the wonkiness that shows up when running large groups of foes.
Just Action and Movement
For a long time, I played around with two action types: complex and simple. A lot of this design inclination sourced from my work on other game systems. I discovered there was a great deal of static in parsing the differences between complex and simple at the table. Players wanted and needed a list of what action belonged on which list. It was too much and so I just blew up the simple action and now the game just uses actions.
Combat still follows the fast/slow, players-first structure as before, but now you have the following options on your turn.
Fast Turn. You can use an action or move up to your Speed.
Slow Turn. You can use an action and move up to your Speed.
You can do stuff that doesn’t count as an action—opening a door, drawing a weapon, and so on, but you are limited to one “non-action” on fast and two on slow. Easy-peasy.
There are more and subtler changes to the game you have seen if you have played so far, but everything serves to make the game faster, easier, and even more accessible.
We’re getting really close to the Kickstarter launch. I might as well tell you the date: March 12th. Mark your calendars and get ready. The Demon Lord, like Santa, is coming to town.
Here’s an excerpt.