Posted by: markfender | November 3, 2015

Shadow of the Demon Lord

Shadow of the Demon Lord is the new game from Robert Schwalb, a “love letter” to Warhammer Fantasy. But it goes far beyond that.

sotdl-coverBecause, Schwalb has secretly made a better D&D Next than D&D 5 (He’s even snuck in the best bits from D&D 4e…apparently without anyone even noticing).

As an instrumental person at Green Ronin and Wizards of the Coast, Schwalb has been involved in both Warhammer Fantasy RolePlaying books as well as work on D&D Next. So, he knows what he’s talking about. The setting for SoDL is pretty sparse, but it hits the highlights of WFRP. There’s a vaguely German medieval culture, an encroaching darkness in the Demon Lord, and all the things you expect from WFRP – like rat catchers, inquisitors, and witches. And, of course, systems for Corruption and Insanity (I’m not not as enthused about including both of those, as I tend to think that one of those should be a subsystem of the other – which one you choose to make the subsystem saying quite a bit about the philosophy of your game world).

But the system doesn’t resemble WFRP very much. It’s closer to D&D, with a d20 being rolled and adding an attribute bonus to overcome the difficulty. It’s even got the advantage/disadvantage system from D&D5, called banes/boons here. Each bane/boon is a d6 added/subtracted from the final result of the d20. These are the only modifiers present in the game and do a better job of the equivalent system from D&D 5 because the roll is less intrinsically swingy (since the total modifiers use only the highest d6 you rolled). Even the ‘bounded accuracy’ of D&D 5 is better represented here.

SoDL’s class structure is also unique. While the initial choices are fairly limited, with four basic classes, these branch out later into 16 Expert Paths. These then expand into 64 Master Paths, which further define the character and its unique schtick. Classes are fairly simple, giving a few stat bonuses, a few abilities, and access to particular spell lists, but the number of options allows you to make a pretty unique character with little work.

There’s a lot of spells in this game, with the spells organized into Traditions that provide approx. 10 spells per Tradition. The combinations of various Traditions (learned from the various Paths) create the cool and unique powers that these games tend to give you. But, here Schwalb has beat D&D 4e at its own game, because the spell lists are also secretly the Encounter/Daily powers. Sure, there’s the Fire Tradition that includes all the fireballs spellcasters expect to find, but the Song Tradition includes all your bardic powers, including bardic knowledge. Even barbarians get spells that allow them to rage out, giving them all the equivalent rage powers you can find in previous editions of D&D. And let’s not forget the “spell” that summons a crossbow turret – a WoW baby power for sure (Okay, it’s more of a “Diablo 3 baby” power, but there’s some Diablo buried in SoDL). But, by calling them all “spells,” Schwalb has snuck these powers by all the people that complained about mundanes getting access to powers. And he’s hid it even more by using the following chart:

SoDLcastings

Yeah, you’ve seen the equivalent chart in many editions of D&D. As your Power attribute (an attribute that only determines how many spells you know – another way that Schwalb has simplified the equivalent systems from D&D – the same information in D&D 3 would require this chart repeated for every prestige class with access to spells, for instance) increases, the chart tells you how many castings of your spells you get for each spell level. Pretty standard stuff that shouldn’t confuse anyone who’s ever punched a kobold. Except it’s actually simpler than that, because you get that many castings of each spell. Example: a character with Power 1 gets 1 casting of a level 1 spell, but that’s for each level 1 spell. So, a Power 1 character might have a few 0 spells that he’s going to get to cast twice per day each, along with one casting of any level 1 spells he knows…which is pretty much the equivalent of an encounter/daily system. But, because it uses the language (and charts) that D&D 3 players are used to, it kind of disguises that fact behind something they’d be more familiar with. So, they maybe won’t get all freaked out when the fighter dude whips out a “Come and Get It” equivalent spell.

Most reviews of this game talk about the unique initiative system. But there’s a subset of that system that’s actually more interesting to me – the triggered action. A triggered action is just a reaction, the kind you’ve seen in RPGs for years. You get one of them a round besides your regular complement of movement and attack actions. You state what action you’ll take and what the ‘trigger’ for that action is, and then it happens whenever that trigger occurs – pretty standard. However, Schwalb has expanded this by tying certain abilities and spells to the triggered action. There are abilities that let you use your triggered action to increase damage on attacks, or defensive spells that are actually cast as a triggered action. Even the monsters get in the game – the basilisk requires players to forfeit their triggered action to look away or they’ll be turned to stone. As more and more triggered action abilities open up to characters, it becomes a vital and unique part of the action economy…all with a type of action that’s become standard in RPGs over the years and usually isn’t all that interesting.

With economy of language and systems, SoDL provides more tactical depth than the equivalent game from a much larger company with a much larger budget. It does parallel development to what appears to be the common d20 legacy in our hobby, and pulls off a tighter, more nuanced package than Hasbro has managed. While it’s obviously pointed at a particular grimdark type of game, the base system is flexible enough to expand quite easily. I could see doing the equivalent of Ravenloft, Innistrad, or even Midnight in the system with very little work. A tiny bit more work could expand the game into any of your favorite fantasy settings (Hell, it wouldn’t even be that hard to rig up some Avatar or Korra Expert Classes to make a ‘bending game – although you’d probably want to excise the Insanity/Corruption mechanics). While it lives under a veneer of grimdark, the mechanical systems are simple, fun, and look like an actual evolution of gameplay from the d20 family.

 

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