This one’s been on my wishlist since I saw the Kickstarter back in 2015, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to get in on the crowd funding campaign at the time. Luckily for me, my fabulous brother in law knew about my secret demonic grimdark roleplaying lust and grabbed this one for me as a gift.
The idea here is to take traditional fantasy roleplaying and ramp up the deadliness and darkness, while changing the rules as well so its not just another Open Game License supplement.
That goal was accomplished to varying degrees, succeeding in being unique in some ways but definitely falling short in others.
Mechanics And Influences
The spell system is fabulous, with 28 different traditions covering all your various spellcasting types. Each of those traditions has to be learned separately to provide more differentiation between characters, with traditions ranging from Battle to Protection to Rune to Life to Teleportation, and everything in between.
There is a very noticeable downside here though — I really wish they had gone all out to be a bit more original on the magic front, rather than just transferring over the D&D standards by slightly different names. For instance, there’s a spell that is obviously magic missile, a spell that’s obviously mage armor, a spell that’s obviously shield, and so on, just with new names rather than new mechanics.
I get why the main developer might have wanted to do that though, since he worked on 5th edition D&D directly and Shadow Of The Demon Lord was his ability to make that style of gaming darker (Wizards Of The Coast isn’t exactly known for adult or R rated material), but I’d still have preferred to see something different.
There are plenty of unique fantasy settings that don’t do all the basic D&D tropes, and it feels like this should have been one of them. Earthdawn, Changeling, Exalted, Warhammer, The One Ring, and many others have all broken well away from those basic concepts and gone in totally different directions in terms of spell design and basic game mechanics.
Those spells — and much of the rest of the game design and world building — don’t disappoint on the grimdark front, however.
The Forbidden spell tradition in particular is just brutal and leaves the Book Of Vile Darkness in the dust. If you thought Seething Eyebane was a nasty spell, you haven’t seen anything yet. Just take a look at the spell effect to your left.
Yep, that one guy is vomiting his guts while decaying away into nothing, and that other guy is exploding all his insides out through his anus. There’s literally a spell called “Hateful Defecation.”
On that note, madness and corruption are built right into the rule set, adding a Call Of Cthulhu flavor to the typical D&D style. At some point your character will have to do something exceedingly immoral to survive, or he’ll see something mind-shattering, and it will have an affect on the character.
The class system offers unprecedented modularity for a D&D style fantasy game, with three tiers of classes available over time that let you retool your character focus. First you start with a classic novice path, which is incredibly broad (Magician, Rogue, Warrior, Priest) then you move onto one of 16 more specialized expert paths (Druid, Scout, Warlock, Artificer, Ranger, etc.) and then finally onto one of a whopping 64 hyper specialized master paths (Beastmaster, Chronomancer, Gunslinger, Exorcist, Duelist, Weapon Master, Pyromancer, and many, many more).
Beyond the number of class options, SotDL shines in the various options for each path, like the wildly divergent reasons for why a character could take the Oracle class (“you angered a supernatural power and caused it to haunt you” vs. “you are a mortal vessel for benevolent gods” vs. “the entity that possess you is a spirit that escaped the Underworld or Hell and takes control of your body when you use your abilities”).
Unlike prestige classes, there aren’t any pre-requisites for any of the three class tiers, beyond the player and DM figuring out how to make the class mashup fit within the context of the story. If you want to start as a thief, then become a paladin, and finish as a water mage, there’s nothing stopping you.
Granted, you won’t have as many (or as powerful) hydromancy spells as someone who was an arcane caster the whole way through the class progression, but you’ll still have some cool water spells so long as you can come up with a compelling story reason for why a character would have made those drastic changes.
The base ruleset is both simple (which I prefer) but also has the possibility to become unwieldy with too many modifiers. Most rolls involve a single d20 with a series of d6s either adding to the base roll (a boon) or subtracting from the base roll (a bane).
Wrapping it all together is very clear influence from classic games like Warhammer and Rolemaster with “Interesting Things” tables and “Professions” tables to randomly roll and add more flavor to your character.
World And Themes
First and foremost, the depictions of the various demons throughout the book are absolute works of art (with one very notable exception below) that could grace the walls of any roleplayer’s home.
The game presents different ways for employing the “Shadow” itself, echoing the various apocalyptic scenarios from the Elder Evils supplement from 3.5 D&D.
There’s everything from a fading sun to a Warhammer style world overrun by chaotic beastmen to an undead uprising to dreams of a dead god driving the world mad.
The base assumption of the Shadow’s influence is “Fall Of Civilization,” which is the core game story, giving you a campaign along the lines of PC ARPG Grim Dawn. Essentially the Empire has fallen overnight after a coup by the orcs and now everything has descended into chaos. Traveling the roads is a pretty surefire way to get gobbled up by something unpleasant or robbed and murdered by those who are taking advantage of the lack of order.
While I love that style of setting, the annoying part of this modularity is that the game developers pretty much immediately discard that base idea and entirely forget about it. None of the descriptions of the various areas and cities reflect that sort of world that is crumbling as civilization has fallen. They all oddly read as though things are still business as usual, which is a shame.
The flavor of the game comes to life more in the race choices, which are varied and changed up quite a bit from D&D. A series of random tables for each races gives your character some life, and the goblins in particular have some crazy options (“you were orphaned and raised by giant rats,” “a hag made you her love slave,” or “you save all your secretions in small bottles and give them as gifts to people you like.”)
Remember how I mentioned a notable exception on the artistry of the demons? There are a few places in the text where the grimdark attitude sort of goes off the rails into over-the-top silliness.
Yes, what’s happening in that image to your right is what you think is happening. If you haven’t figured it out yet, just take a good long, hard look and think about this guy swinging around his sword in frenzied bloodlust during battle. It’ll come to you.
I still can’t decide if that’s superbly grim or just silly and gross.
That issue aside, there is a core concept to this world that’s exceedingly dark. This honestly may not even have not been intentional and perhaps is just my grimdark brain reading between the lines and seeing the worst in everything… but there seems to be an unspoken truth in the game’s cosmology that maybe the worshipers of the Demon Lord aren’t wrong, or perhaps aren’t even the bad guys at all.
Everyone in this particular universe goes to either Hell or the Underworld after they die and then are purified via torture (in Hell) or live a life of ascetic boredom while slowly giving up all their attachments to the physical world (in the Underworld), and then they return to life in a new body.
Those who are morally “good” stay in those places shorter times, while those who are exceptionally selfish or morally “bad” stay longer. But since life on Urth is getting worse and worse by the year as everything descends into chaos, neither the good nor the bad camp really have it any better than the other.
Think about it — you can be good and live a life of selflessness in a terrible world (which probably means poverty, sickness, hunger, and death) and get less torture in the afterlife, or you can improve your lot in life by being a backstabbing tyrant who is comfortable while alive and then spends longer getting tortured in the afterlife, but the end result is essentially the same amount of suffering.
The cultists of the Demon Lord maybe don’t have it wrong, and it could actually be better to bring about absolute oblivion rather than keep that awful cycle of suffering going forever.