RPGs are a complex recipe, involving a lot of different aspects which require a range of skills. That’s why it’s always exciting when a designer who has been prolific in working on other games takes the helm of his own – we get a new window into their strengths, weaknesses, preferences and styles. Such is the case with Mr Robert J. Schwalb who has spent more than fifteen years working on a plethora of games from Warhammer to Numenera, not to mention three separate editions of D&D – and doing work so consistently good and interesting that it was worth notice even if, like me, you didn’t care about Dungeons and Dragons.
Yes, I’m one of those gaming snobs who finds no appeal in the Big Kahuna. I don’t even have any nostalgia for the old days, even though my introduction to roleplaying was losing Aleena to Bargle (spoilers) in the redbook Basic Edition by Frank Mentzer. And that’s important because there’s a lot of that book in Schwalb’s opus Shadow of the Demon Lord. So much so that Mentzer wrote the foreword.
So is Shadow a nostalgia piece or retroclone? Not really. Perhaps better to say that it identifies very clearly the things that were good about BECMI/Cyclopaedia – things like simplicity, streamlining and surprise – and replicates them in a modern, accessible, stylish game product, one that is accessible to all but unlike anything else, familiar to any D&D fan but matured from lessons learned by Shcwalb and gaming in general. The marriage between old and new isn’t perfect, but the tension is as interesting as it is problematic, and the shiny gems of genius outweigh the flaws.
So what is it?
It’s definitely an old-school fantasy RPG, in the sense that it assumes you live in a world of magic, elves, dwarves, fighters, thieves and clerics, and expects you to do a lot of killing of things, sometimes in dungeons. It’s also old school in that it doesn’t tell you anything about that world at the front of the book (apart from quick notes on tone) before we leap into chargen. And this is exactly what I mean about an uneasy marriage between old style and new sensibilities.
On the one hand, I’m hate reading endless waffling setting material, and doubly so if it is shoved on me at the start. I like learning the game through the mechanics; I think that’s how it should work. And I’m tired of too many games working to the formula of front loading the (ponderously explained) setting before I see the playing pieces. But the introduction here was too swift, too reminiscent of games where rules were the purpose, because of course you were in a D&D-like world because every game was another D&D clone. It makes it hard to actually understand what the game is about and where it takes place. Getting a grip on the face of this game is not easy. And the cover is no help; after reading the whole game I’m still not sure what monster is depicted on it (an ogre maybe?).
Getting a grip on the style, however, is helped by the example of play which gives us the usual Schwalbian grand guignol gorefest. If you didn’t want to see blood and faeces flying out of writhing, living intestines, you came to the wrong place.
Until we get to the gazetteer stuff at the end (and not even then), this is your basic fantasy world, except darker. World-destroying doom is consuming the land of Rul, and you are the only ones who can stop it, and the rest you have to work out for yourself in dribs and drabs. But those dribs reveal some lovely, extremely atypical stuff: elves are the terrifying child-stealing old-magic kind, and their changeling children are a playable race. So are the clockworks, mechanical objects given life by turning their cranks, and goblins, rejects from fairyland who prefer to live and work in squalor, and orcs who are tainted by dark magic, not just another race. Humans and dwarfs round out the list, and retain their usual roles of flexible and grumpy.
The inclusion of clockwork people, and goblin muckers and working pistols and rifles (and mages who use them) are all reminiscent of the Iron Kingdoms setting from Warmachine; while the clockwork people, artficers and changelings suggest Eberron, and the pistols, demons and encroaching corruption and insanity suggest Warhammer. And the truth is, there is a lot of references and keynotes in here, but Schwalb has the sense to steal wisely, well and often enough to create a patchwork that never feels derivative. You’ll also see references to major personalities like the Arch-Mage and the Dark Lady ala 13th Age, mechanics lifts from Pendragon and Warhammer and Dark Heresy and Call of Cthulhu, nods to Tolkein and Howard, and stuff from literally every single edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Every now and then there’s a choice that sticks out a bit in this, but overall the tone is maintained while at the same time showing us Schwalb’s greatest loves, a sample bag of his favourite things in every RPG he’s played.
Meanwhile, if I was trying to sum up the feel of the setting, I ended up being reminded of the 1985 film Return to Oz, in that sense of dark despair combined with the madly inexplicable, plus wind-up men. Return to Oz also has a late 70s-early 80s tight-angle horror feel to it like The Shining and Halloween and the Omen and that is definitely part of this setting. You don’t have to play the game for horror, but you certainly can.
Speaking of things from the 70s, chargen can be done entirely through random dice rolls, which is lovely to see, especially when it doesn’t result in unbalanced characters like it always has in D&D. Races (or ancestries as they are called) have a starting suite of attributes, and the rest are then fairly and equally assigned depending on rolls. As you might expect from the man who gave us the d1000 Chaos Mutation Tables, chargen also has random tables for age, build, personality, background, professions (which take the role of overarching skills) and 120 different strange items. All of this provides the kind of characters only random chargen can create, and an extremely flexible and fun class and level system helps keep you bouncing around life’s curveballs into paths nobody could have designed.
Lest talk of classes and levels turn you off, let me say this may be the best class/level system ever designed, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, because you don’t have a class at level 0, which allows your character to actually have a prologue experience before selecting a life role. Fantasy gaming has always suffered from a lack of prologue, perhaps because nobody wants to spend ten years in Hobbiton with Gandalf visiting occasionally or twenty years tied to the Wheel of Pain like Conan. But in gaming it’s often hard to know who you want to be until the first adventure sets the scene and tone for the campaign, so a prologue makes a lot of sense. And it’s not like picking your first class locks you in to a restrictive bind: yes you have it for the rest of the game but the low-level class choices are extremely general – Magician, Priest, Warrior or Rogue – and provide very general abilities. You want to be a book-reading wizard, or be a druid-priest not a cleric-priest, wait until you get to level 3 to pick your Expert Class and hone your concept down – or switch to book-reading wizard from warrior or rogue or cleric. At level 7 you can choose to narrow your focus again, or choose another Expert class, while all the time still gaining benefits from your first choice, your first instinct and general approach towards the world.
From four Novice classes we go to sixteen Expert to sixty four(!) Master, which is wonderfully enormous especially when you know you can pick any of them. Want to suddenly become a Chronomancer at level 7 after six levels of warrior stuff? That’s fine. You won’t however, be as good a Chronomancer as someone who spent their life preparing for it but you’ll have a better grounding in hurting people. It’s a system that is streamlined, simple and maintains total flexibility while completely balancing the specialist and the generalist better than anything has before. Scuttlebutt is Schwalb and his crew spent three years playtesting this, and it shows. This has the laser-like attention to balance that D&D 4E has, without the sacrifice of flavour and variation.
It’s also wonderful that everyone can learn magic. That plays into the dabblers of old school, pre-D&D fantasy, and by grouping them into 30(!) different traditions, each waiting to be unlocked through exploration and discovery, it provides a sense of a world infused with magic and mystery, without throwing a billion magic items at you like D&D. Indeed, as written, players will own at most three magic items in their lives, and maybe one powerful, story-changing relic, which still won’t have huge in-game power – but enough to swing things importantly in your favour.
It is a system where small changes matter, which is great at hammering home the knife-edge horror of the setting. Using a single d20, yes, makes it very “swingy” with the uniform distribution, but it helps that almost everything centres around the middle range. Stats range from around 8 to 14, they are also your target number, or, when you subtract ten, what you add to the die roll. Bonuses and penalties come in the form of boons and banes. For each boon, you roll an extra d6 and add the highest of those d6s, subtract for banes. So you’ll never get more than a +6 or -6 but more banes and boons shift the likelihood towards a big bonus. Yes, you could just make it +2/+4/+6 but the possibility of a single boost giving a massive +6 adds gambling excitement AND the randomness of that works to cancel out the randomness of the D20 roll, which is some elegant stuff.
If you’re not hitting someone else’s stat, you’re just trying to break ten which as I said makes every point matter, and that makes levelling up a huge deal, as it should be, especially when there are only ten of them. And for once, this is a levelling system that understands what levels do: they’re not just fun rewards for characters, they cause dramatic shift in the game’s tone. And as such, it has the best experience system ever, which is that characters level when that dramatic shift is appropriate, and not before. That usually means after achieving a significant story goal or ending an important adventure, which means you can use levels to structure your entire campaign in a rigid way (eleven adventures will do it) instead of a haphazard, guess-work way where you may or may not need filler. Campaigns are soon to be released to make direct application of this system.
With so many class and level powers, they take up the majority of the book. Combat and rules adjudication are sweetly simple; the rules are just complicated enough to have fun with them and have fun breaking them. What’s left is world description, GM advice and possibly the biggest bestiary in a corebook ever.
World design takes us on the whistle-stop tour of Rul in a confusing way – alphabetically by geographical features first, then nations and city states – which leaves us just as confused as we began until you’ve consumed the whole thing. It doesn’t help that the backstory about the elves and the world history in general doesn’t appear until we get to the zoomed-in section about the default campaign starting area. The feel of this Northern Reach is a nice combination of a frontier far enough from the Empire capital to be self-governing, cut with an Empire-born religious Crusader class because even further north is where the evil comes from. Props for making the evil tropical, too – the land of Rul is in the southern hemisphere, amazingly for fantasy gaming.
Some of the world building is derivative or uninspiring but it’s usually saved with some wonderful flashes of vividness and invention. Yes, there are fantasy Vikings but they’re made more interesting by being conquered years ago and blasted with dark magic to make orks. Yes orks are a mindless warrior race, but only until yesterday (setting-wise) when for some reason the magic ran out and they rebelled and murdered the Emperor who enslaved them. There’s a bunch of mercantile city states that are a bit the Hanseatic League and a bit BarterTown but one of them was built for an enormous population that then suddenly died of plague so the city’s architecture is ten times what its population needs. And so on.
These flourishes, these sudden moments of not just invention and colour but also revelation are for me the best thing about the book. They’re everywhere, too, little notes in classes power descriptions and random tables that suddenly open up some part of the world you never though about, and there’s a score of them in the bestiary, like the entire race of dwarf-like beings who have transparent skulls or the fact that mirrors are mistrusted because one-eyed demonic slimes can leak through them. Remember when I said that one of the best things about the old redbook D&D was surprise? This is what I’m talking about: these moments where you can turn a page and find a new entry and suddenly everything is new again.
That said, there are times when this approach lurches from wonderful surprises to appearing haphazard and even slapdash. It’s funny that there are Shrieking Eels from Princess Bride and graboids from Tremors but it can pull you out of the game. It’s nice to reference D&D and warhammer but were the amphisbaena and the beastman really worth including? And then there’s the reen which are basically the robot squids from the Matrix invading from another RPG and throwing the tone off completely. Listen, people: Barrier Peaks was a stupid idea. It will always be a stupid idea.
There’s also the fact that some of these things should be more integrated into the game. Like the the fact that most of the farmers of the Empire are Halflings but you only find they exist when you’re 80% through the book. Or that we only find out that the one and only dragon in the land lives on Mount Fear when we get to that location’s description. Or that rifles and pistols are a thing but no mention of whether cannons or greek fire exists. Too much ‘Rule of Cool’? Or just some chinks in development that will get more follow through in the next edition?
Lack of follow-through also haunts the whole concept of the game. The eponymous demon shadow is more than just a mood component: we’re told that his scrabbling at the edges of reality is already casting a pall over everything, his cults and agents are everywhere, the End Times are near. The GM chapter provides twenty different ways you can choose how this doom will specifically incarnate, with the suggestion that the orcs throwing off their masters (causing the likely collapse of the Empire) is the one operating in the default setting. And while that is cool, there’s not a lot of development about how it matters, or how to stop it. The other ideas have brief rules suggestions but only one or two lines. The bestiary has demons and demonic powers, and there’s dark magic in the spell list, but no real development on how such things appear. Shadow, in other words, is there in tone and feel but not as much in fact, in setting, rules or narrative structure. Call of Cthulhu doesn’t just have the Old Ones coming back, it gives you a road map to how they can be at least temporarily held back. This may be alleviated in soon-to-come supplements or campaigns, but at the moment this feels unfinished.
It could be an artefact of the Kickstarter: a whole series of PDFs were unlocked through the campaign which might give more insight, and a companion is on the way. These problems, therefore, may be likely on their way to being fixed. And they’re far from fatal flaws, just niggles. This is definitely a four-star game as it stands, you just might have to spend a little bit more on a companion or a campaign to get a five-star game.
Luckily, these supplements are coming and in no small measure. This is going to be a massively supported game that is also to be converted to a post-apocalyptic and SF setting in the future. Given that we see in Shadow of the Demon Lord Schwalb’s trademark vivid imagination, command of style and elegant mastery of rules, this is great new for roleplayers whatever their genre preference. In other words, I’m not just excited to play this game, I can’t wait to see how it develops.