Kickstopper: Shadow of the Demon Lord

Rob Schwalb, for those of you who don’t read the credits pages on your RPG rulebooks, is a game designer with a pretty decent CV. His first especially notable work was as a Green Ronin staffer, in which capacity he wrote a bunch of well-received material for WFRP 2nd Edition and designed the Song of Ice and Fire RPG. He then ended up working at Wizards of the Coast during the 4th Edition D&D years, the culmination of his work there being his job as part of the design team under Mike Mearls for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.

Schwalb exited Wizards of the Coast after turning in his last work on 5th Edition and, having made some contributions to Mahna Mahna, decided he wanted to follow Monte Cook’s lead and start his own publishing company. Schwalb Entertainment’s big debut was to be Shadow of the Demon Lord, a Schwalb-penned tabletop RPG with an unfettered grimdark aesthetic, and naturally Schwalb turned to Kickstarter to fund it.

 

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

The original Shadow of the Demon Lord Kickstarter aimed for $30,000 and raised $140,122. Ample stretch goals were unlocked, permitting Schwalb to greenlight not just the core rulebook but an extensive Demon Lord product line, which has been the subject of subsequent Kickstarters to fund future waves of products and, recently, a diversification into boardgames.

Sensibly, Schwalb didn’t actually promise Kickstarter backers hard copies of the stretch goals, just PDFs – which meant that the printing and shipping costs for the Kickstarter were carefully controlled. In my experience, this led to me receiving a small tidal wave of PDFs which I am sure would be very useful if I ever chose to ran the game, but represent too much material to wade through as it presently stands. In addition, many of these stretch goals were written by other hands, many of whom steered hard into the gleefully grimdark tone of the core game to the point where those who have read them have offered, at best, mixed opinions; some like the support line, others think it slips into poop-obsessed edgelordery and needless shock tactics too often.

What Level I Backed At

DISCIPLE

You will get:
• The Starter Guide pdf
• Shadow of the Demon Lord pdf
• Tales of the Demon Lord pdf
• Shadow of the Demon Lord in print (which includes a $10 credit toward shipping)
• Your name in Shadow of the Demon Lord, listed by contributor level
• The pdfs of everything unlocked in the stretch goals
• A special 4-page adventure pdf for backers of this level and higher
• The pdf of the Disciple of the Demon Lord expert path (an exclusive player character option for backers of this level and above)!

Delivering the Goods

Delivery was estimate for December 2015, and I got my book in January 2016 – and would have got it in the previous month were it not for UPS screwups clearly outside of Schwalb’s control. This is pretty damn impressive for a first-time Kickstarter project, particularly in the gaming arena.

Reviewing the Swag

Shadow of the Demon Lord

So, what is the game itself like? Rather than being a wholly generic fantasy RPG, Shadow of the Demon Lord goes for an apocalyptic tone: the assumption is that, regardless of whether you are using the provided setting (an Empire in the process of collapse after the Emperor was strangled and the throne claimed by the king of the orcs) or one of your own invention, the gameworld has fallen under the titular Shadow: the Demon Lord who lurks in the void between worlds has begun to exert a baleful influence there, and the end times are at hand.

The system itself draws on ideas from both of Schwalb’s old stomping grounds. From Dungeons & Dragons it embraces a level-based character progression system – player characters start out comparatively weak (at level 0 here) and as the game progresses become more potent as they gain levels, so far so usual. The core book gives rules for progressing to level 10, and notes that whilst future supplements may give rules for character progression beyond this, the general sort of adventures you go on won’t change that much beyond level 10, whereas over the course of the 0-10 progression the types of adventure you go on will change as the group becomes more powerful and able to tackle greater challenges and harbour grander ambitions. (In particular, the book suggests that early adventures should tend to be reactive, with the group encountering a problem and trying to resolve it – or at least survive it – whereas later adventures should have them acting more proactively to make their mark on the world.)

On the WFRP side of the equation, the convention of characters progressing through a series of increasingly more specialised and powerful careers as they advance is brought into play in the form of Novice, Expert, and Master paths. This sets up a clever game mechanic in which characters start out comparatively simple and, as they acquire these paths, end up with a high degree of customisation available – but which simultaneously doesn’t end up being extremely complex to track. Characters start out at level 0 without picking a path at all, simply choosing an ancestry which reflects the type of creature they are – choices range from classic fantasy options like humans and dwarves, via character options which still fit the classic fantasy archetype but aren’t very common as playable types like goblins (which in this cosmology are creatures of Faerie exiled by the Fey Queen, and live scuzzy little lives in the margins of society) through to more original creations like Clockworks (artificial people who must be regularly wound up via their key, otherwise they go inert).

When you are level 0, most of your capabilities come from your ancestry; a day job is rolled up for you, but it’s primarily for flavour and a small advantage here or there. At level 1, you pick your novice path (one of a set of four – thief, warrior, magician, and cleric – reminiscent of the classic core four classes of old-school Dungeons & Dragons) and get the baseline abilities from that; at level 3, you get to pick an expert path and get the baseline abilities of that, and at level 7 you pick a master path (or a second expert path). At other levels, higher abilities of your ancestry or various paths come into play, but you only derive new capabilities from one of the four at any particular level, so the process of levelling up remains comparatively easy and smooth even once your character has the maximum number of moving parts.

If the system resembles 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons with influence from WFRP, the aesthetic and setting look more to WFRP and secondarily to D&D for inspiration. The artwork is amazingly gruesome, with any particular page looking like a really badass extreme metal album cover, and the game includes all sorts of eldritch little twists and turns you can throw in. For instance, unlike D&D there is no alignment system; whilst player characters are generally assumed, at least for the purposes of the core book, to be trying vainly to work against the plans of the Demon Lord to utterly unravel the world, it doesn’t demand that they keep their hands clean doing so. At the same time, there is a Corruption mechanic, whereby performing particularly heinous acts or using especially dark magics can leave an indelible mark on your character; for instance, once your Corruption gets high enough, if you end up especially badly injured at some point you could end up having your soul snatched away to Hell by devils. (This need not be the end; sufficient detail on Hell, its cosmic role of purging corruption, and notes on adventuring into other realms of reality are provided.)

The referee is also given ample tools to help create a foreboding and sinister atmosphere – for instance, the titular Shadow of the Demon Lord is actually an optional (but too cool to pass up) game feature where the referee is encouraged to choose, randomly roll, or make up for themselves some apocalyptic omen (like the Sun turning black or all the crops failing or whatever) to act as a sign of the ending of the world at the hands of the Demon Lord. You can keep it in place or have it change as the campaign progresses as you see fit (actually shifting it altogether is probably a task for higher-level characters), and the suggestions provided in the book each provide a different and interesting set of potential effects of the particular manifestation.

Godless

This was a bit of a surprise for me – a printed supplement in addition to the stretch goals announced on the main Kickstarter page – but it’s a truly pleasant one. Schwalb describes it as an “irreverent and vulgar” addition to the game, and it’s certainly that; specifically, it’s an alternate postapocalyptic Earth setting for Shadow, offering a look at what happens if the Demon Lord’s attention falls on our own world. The answer is “it’s Mad Max mashed up with Shadowrun-esque intrusions of fantasy tropes”.

For the most part this is a simple rules patch, leaving the referee to develop how the apocalypse pans out and what the world is like now in the wake of all this magic and mayhem arising. The basic book’s various Ancestries all have their equivalents here (the clockwork people replaced with transhumanists who decided that uploading their mind to machinery was the best way to respond to the apocalypse), and the gleefully evil black metal atmosphere of the core game shifts over a little into a gleefully evil crust punk take on the whole Fallout thing. A brief supplement, but an excellent one.

Shadow of the Demon Lord Screen

A decent screen – great art, landscape-orientation panels, useful information on the inside. It’s hard to screw this sort of thing up, and Schwalb certainly doesn’t bungle this time, remembering to incorporate a honking huge inverted pentagram in the artwork for maximum badass evil.

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints

Eh… I guess I’m fine with my name being in here, but at the same time as I’ll outline below, whilst it’s a competently designed and delivered product, I’m not so sure that I’m outright proud of being involved in its funding.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

Lower. On balance, it would have been more sensible of me to have backed at a level where I only got the core PDF and then decided whether I really wanted a hard copy after reading the main book.

The thing is, whilst Shadow is certainly a competently-designed game with some interesting system features, I’ve found myself with no particular desire to dig deeper into the various stretch goal PDF I’ve been sent or run or play a campaign in the intervening years since I received and read the book.

I think the basic problem I have with Demon Lord is that it slightly falls between two stools. In terms of the setting and overall atmosphere, it’s pretty clearly Rob Schwalb’s love letter to WFRP – he says as much in his introduction, in fact – except we now have a perfectly cromulent currently-in-print edition of WFRP to enjoy, and one American designer working largely on his own isn’t going to quite be able to recapture the same lightning in a bottle as a bunch of British game designers working in the 1980s managed with their setting design. The setting of Demon Lord doesn’t quite seem to manage to have the punk rock satirical edge that the early Warhammer setting had, and regularly feels more like an exercise in grimdark for grimdark’s sake with a less appealing sense of humour during the moments of comic relief.

On the other hand, the strong influences from 5th Edition D&D (and some aspects of 4th Edition D&D which 5th Edition adopted, like the “you get a new feature every level” thing) makes it feel like on the system side of things that the game is at least influenced by the version of 5th Edition D&D that Schwalb would have produced if he’d been the project lead and got to implement all of his ideas for the system without anyone else overruling him, much like Monte Cook’s system for Numenera feels like it might have been a direction 5E could have taken had Cook been put in charge and told not to worry too much about any form of grognard backlash.

Now, there’s some ideas in there which could translate interestingly into 5E – like the distinction between fast and slow actions in combat, which is used to simplify initiative greatly – and whilst 5E might not be the perfect D&D, especially if you embraced a lot of the innovations of 4E and resent the way that they were either cancelled, or permitted to remain only if heavily disguised so as not to offend the old school crowd. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t say that Shadow of the Demon Lord is a sufficiently better D&D than 5E D&D is to make it worth sacrificing the greater ease of finding players, more widespread support, or ease of adapting materials from past editions that 5E itself offers.

Most particularly, when I fancy a D&D-like game, I have ample options and 5E is a reasonable solution; when I fancy WFRP, anything short of WFRP itself will feel disappointing. I almost never feel like I want a slightly awkward compromise between the two. Rumour has it that Schwalb Entertainment is planning a spinoff game which shaves off the specific Demon Lord setting and provides a more generic fantasy take on the system; that might help, but again doesn’t quite persuade me that it’d be worth embracing that over D&D.

As it stands, Shadow of the Demon Lord is one of those games where on the one hand I can tell it’s perfectly adequately designed, but at the same time also feels like it’ll never make it to the front of my “I want to play this next” queue. As such, going for the hard copy was overkill.

Would Back Again?

This is very much a “depends on the project” thing. Clearly I won’t bother backing for further Demon Lord material – they’ve run multiple Kickstarters connected to Shadow of the Demon Lord since and I haven’t backed. At the same time, if they ended up doing something entirely different which caught my eye I’d feel reasonably confident backing, based on Schwalb’s competent completion of this Kickstarter.

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