Thursday, January 27, 2022

Game Review: Shadow of the Demon Lord

Cover: Shadow of the Demon Lord
Art by Svetoslav Petrov;
©2015 Schwab Entertainment

: Robert J. Schwalb
Publisher: Schwalb Entertainment
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG
Engine: Custom d20 roll-over
Note: This is a review of a game that includes a lot of very dark themes. It is definitely not for children of any age, and especially not those sensitive to topics like mutilation or sexual violence.

Shadow of the Demon Lord is a fantasy horror role-playing game that draws its inspiration from sources like the Dark Souls saga, the darker parts of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and The Witcher. In it, you play characters seeking fame, fortune, and glory in a world that is facing catastrophe.

The empire of Rûl that once dominated the continent has fallen. The orc slave warriors that formed its legions have rebelled and killed the emperor. An Orc King now sits on its imperial throne. Dark cults are propagating everywhere. Bestial humanoids have multiplied in the wilds and and now sense the weakness of human communities. Worst of all, a powerful alien entity known as The Demon Lord seeks to push through the holes in reality so that it can consume all life and souls in the world.

While Shadow of the Demon Lord borrows a lot of its conventions from Dungeons & Dragons, it is most definitely a separate system. It sits primarily in the darker end of the sword and sorcery camp; even if the PCs are heroic, they are never going to be powerful enough or wise enough to completely avert that catastrophes tearing Rûl apart. It is a game where, at best the PCs can escape with their lives in the face of overwhelming evil, and save a few lives, maybe slow the coming of the end.

It is an extremely dark and edgy game. Monsters that enslave, sexually assault, or wear the flayed skin of humans are everywhere in the setting. Magic spells can skin foes alive, melt genitalia, or cause a target to excrete their internal organs. If you can hang with the over-the-top imagery and subject matter, it is impressive in how creatively it handles it's horror elements. It definitely speaks to my inner fourteen-year-old goremonger.

I do not recommend this game for anyone who is thin-skinned or sensitive to dark, gory, and violent imagery.


Clockwork Characters
From Shadow of the
Demon Lord;
©2015 Schwalb Entertainment
SotDL has a reputation for innovative mechanics that is well deserved. The game might have levels and hit points like Dungeons & Dragons, but mechanically, it is more akin to a crunchier derivative of  Knave.

Characters have a set of attributes; strength, agility, intellect, and willpower ranked from 7 to 20. Each attribute carries a bonus equal to the stat minus 10. Derived stats, health, sanity, defense, and perception are modified from those based on a combination of base stats, character development choices, and race.

Any challenge roll that is purely a test to see the character succeeds on a difficult task or not is done by rolling a d20, adding the appropriate stat modifier, and attempting to beat a 10. Any mitigating factors that will grant the character an increased chance of success are called boons, any impediments to success are called banes. You subtract the number of banes from boons to get a positive or negative total which is then rolled as d6s. If your character has a positive total of boons, you add the highest d6 rolled to your d20. If your character has more banes, you roll that number of d6's and subtract the highest from the d20.

So, for example, if you are trying to climb a surface with a number of hand holds, and have good climbing gear, and your character is an experienced climber, that might be three boons, but if it is also slippery that's one bane. Subtracting the one bane from three boons leaves you with two booms. Thus you would roll two d6 and add the higher result to the d20 roll.

On the other hand, if you were trying to locate a lost child in a foggy forest in twilight you might have three banes, if you are an expert tracker that might give you only one boon. The end result is that you have a net two banes, and so would roll 2d6 and take the highest result as a penalty to your d20 roll.

When your roll is opposed by another creature, you instead use one of their statistics as a target number, rather than a flat 10. So, if you are attacking a creature with a sword you might roll a d20, add your strength modifier, and attempt to beat their defense rating. If you are trying to deceive a creature you might roll a d20 and add your willpower modifier against their intellect score. The GM might assign boons or banes based on the creatures pre-existing attitude towards you.

Level zero characters have a base set of stats established by their race. A player character gets 1 additional point to assign to a given ability score that they wish their character to be exceptional in. They may also subtract a single point from one attribute to add that point to another once during character generation.

At level zero, the only thing that sets the character apart aside from these slight variations in stats is a description, background, profession, and equipment.

The characters description is hinged on their race, as is their background. Random tables are provided for both.

A character's profession is rolled separately, and it is closest shadow of the Demon Lord comes to having a skill system. The character with a profession may be able to do things without rolling that other characters would have to roll to do. And on some rolls, a profession may provide a boon. For example, a hunter would be able to track creatures and find game without roll. When trying to find a monster's wilderness lair, or discover hidden tracks, they may have a boon to an intellect role.

A character's socioeconomic status is rolled randomly, and gives them a set of starting equipment. A character may also randomly roll for an amount of coin to shop for gear if they start above level 0.

As characters adventure they can accumulate damage, insanity, or corruption.

Damage heals based on a healing rate that is a quarter or a third of a characters health score, depending on race. Any rest, magical healing, or regeneration effects always restores hit points based on this healing rate. If damage is equal to a character's health, they are disabled and must roll to see if they are in a coma, and on death and dismemberment tables thereafter. 

From Shadow of the Demon Lord
©2015 Schwalb Entertainment
If their insanity equals their willpower, they roll to go temporarily mad, at the end of a madness bleed off 1d6 + Will modifier insanity. A character may once per day to gain a long-term character quirk, such as an aversion, phobia, or depression, in order to relieve 1d6 insanity. 

Corruption increases when characters do truly vile or brutal things, and comes with a chance of mutation. Characters with a high corruption score also suffer penalties to social interactions.

Some character backgrounds can cause a character to start with one or two points of insanity like corruption.

The real meat of Shadow of the Demon Lord's innovations are in character development.

At first level, characters choose a novice path. These are very similar to Dungeons & Dragons four core classes, they are Warrior, Magician, Priest, and Rogue. The first time a character takes a novice path they gain a small boost to their health and a couple of attributes. If they take a magical path they also gain a power attribute that determines how powerful a spell they can learn and how frequently they use it. They also gain a talent or ability that is unique to their path.

"Priest" from Shadow
of the Demon Lord;
©2015 Schwalb
Magicians getting the ability to sense magic, and learn additional spells each time they gain new kinds of magical knowledge. Rogues game and ability to dodge and a choice of dirty tricks, Priests gain the the ability to heal others, and warriors game boons on attack and the ability to heal some damage mid battle.

At levels 2, 5, and 8 a character games additional benefits from their novice path from a set of options.

At level 3, a character chooses an expert path. This is a more refined set of skills that they have picked up over time. They may be in line with the characters novice path, or represent a whole new direction of development. Expert paths have a very specialized bent to them, and their abilities work along a theme. Expert paths generally feel like the additional Advanced Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder classes: Assassins, Barbarians, Wizards, Crusaders, etc.

At 6th and 9th level the character gains new abilities from their expert path. At 6th level, a character May instead game the beginning benefits from a second expert path. In that case, they only gain the 9th level benefits for one of their two expert paths when they reach that level.

This allows characters to grow organically based on what they do, and an uncomplicated form of multiclassing. A priest, a magician, or a rogue could as easily become a berserker as a warrior might. However, their benefits will be spread a little thinner, as the bonuses to attack and damage that a berserker has will complement a warrior's improved chances of hitting far more than it will complement a priests healing powers.

At 4th level of character gains additional health based on their character race and their choice of either a racial ability or a new magic spell.

At 7th level a character chooses a master path. The master path is a highly specialized in extremely powerful set of abilities that build on existing abilities they will have developed through their Novice and Expert paths. This might be specialization in one kind of magic, mastery of a specific weapon, the fusion of magic and martial skills, etc. These feel a lot like specialist wizards, upper level class abilities, or prestige classes from later editions of Dungeons & Dragons. In order to develop a Master path, a player character must accept some kind of great undertaking or personal quest. They cannot achieve the second benefit of their Master path at 10th level until they accomplish that quest.

This ability to combine different paths allows a lot of character customization.

Leveling is suggested to occur during downtime between each adventure. A Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign is therefore designed to last 11 adventures before characters reach the pinnacle of their ability and then retire. This finite campaign size is designed to hit with the schedule of adult players with busy schedules.

Magic is broken into multiple traditions that have spells along the theme. When a character gains knowledge of a tradition, they also gain access to one or more zero level spells. As a character gains more magical knowledge they can either learn more spells from the same tradition, or gain knowledge of other traditions.

These traditions include things like chaos, battle, healing, teleportation, curses, or the elements like fire. As characters gain more power in various traditions, it tends to have supernatural effects on their personality and appearance. A mage who has developed ability in the fire tradition might be hot to the touch, have bright shiny eyes, and develop a bad temper. A master of the protection tradition might become cautious or even paranoid over time as they become more and more focused on defending themselves from danger. Some of the traditions also have particular cultural significance. The tradition of life is connected to a sacred order called the House of Healing, and all characters who learn it are expected to bear certain tattoos and wear a crimson cloak.

Some of the darker traditions, like curses and necromancy, also cause a character to gain corruption with each spell they learn in the tradition.

As characters develop magical knowledge they slowly increase their power score. The power score grants a number of uses per day of each spell they know. So, a character with a power score of two can cast each of their zero level spells three times per day, and cast a first level spell twice per day, and - if they know any second level spells - they can only use them once per day. A character with a seven power score can use the same zero level spells eight times a day, and will be able to use their second level spells three times per day each. This table includes uses per day of spells of up to 10th level, although the core book doesn't have any spells above fifth listed in it.

This makes particular magical characters fairly specialized in thematic if they wish to attend any serious level of power. Magical generalists tend to have access to a lot of traditions, but will have learned only the zero level spells in them.

Shadow of the Demon Lord has a point-based encounter design system. Different monsters have difficulty values ranging from 1 to 500. Encounters are described based on difficulty teirs from easy, to average, to challenging, to hard. different level ranges we'll have different point totals to reach the appropriate difficulty. For example a medium difficulty encounter for a party of three to five characters of novice level is going to be between 11 and 30.

Shadow of the Demon Lord is most definitely a modern role-playing game: it suggests daily allowances of encounters of mixed difficulties for designing an adventure. The model for adventures recommended in the GM section of shadow of the Demon Lord suggests five to seven fixed encounters per adventure, with specific sorts of goals in mind for the different tiers of play.

What I Loved

Character Development

"Artificer" from Shadow of
Demon Lord; ©2015 Shwalb
When I'm playing Dungeons & Dragons, I like having a limited selection of character classes. I find even AD&D may have more options than it needs. Character should be distinguished by how they are played and what they accomplish, not what is on their character sheet.

That said, the multiple tiers of paths and the ability to mix and match them suggests all kinds of interesting character concepts. And it allows characters to grow a little more organically. A character that starts off using magic but then finds himself needing to use a sword to defend themselves more often than not can easily follow the magician novice path but take up fighter as their expert path, and eventually take a master path that lets them fuse their magic in combat.

The different paths are not so complex or sophisticated as to encourage complex "builds" and planning out a character from day one. As such, it gives a lot of the variety that Dungeons & Dragons 3td edition offered without a lot of its pitfalls.

If I felt like running a crunchier system, it should definitely be a route worth exploring.

Boon and Bane system

This system is a departure from the popular Advantage/Disadvantage we see in a lot of OSR products. Although, I've seen a good number of people recommend a bonus d6 in place of an extra d20 roll on the OSR blogosphere. I like the mechanics of this system, they are lightweight, simple, and allow a GM to very quickly work through a series of complicated factors to decide whether the character has boons or banes to sort out the roll.

Narrative Focused Structure

I also appreciate the very loose professions system, and the fact that the game emphasizes narrative play over complex dicey mechanics. The bulk of the book is a combination of the paths and magic available to the player characters. The actual rules are compressed into a single relatively short chapter.

In many ways, Shadow of the Demon Lord does a great job of straddling new school and old school philosophies It offers a lot of customization for characters, but it must be earned over time. Characters are not start off complex, they earn complexity through their actions and their choices.

The Magic System

I like how the magic system in Shadow of the Demon Lord encourages specialization. The traditions and character choices are going to flavor every spell they have access to. Over time, each magician is going to have a unique flavor to them that will keep them from feeling too similar. And discourage the predictable and repetitive choices that tends to come from wizards in modern Dungeons &Dragons.

Making each spell castable limited number of times a day makes tracking fairly easy, without using Vancian and spell slot system.

From Shadow of the Demon Lord; ®2015 Schwalb Entertainment


The setting of Shadow of the Demon Lord is lavishly detailed, with multiple regions, many of which I would love to explore. You don't lack for possible locations and backdrops for adventures. The deities, the religion, even the afterlife in Rûl are dark and twisted take on Celtic folklore and Norse mythology. It's a rich world with enough darkness and danger that it doesn't really need thr impending apocalypse to make it interesting.

Horror Advice

The game masters section of shadow of the Demon Lord has an extended discussion of the various types of horror that one tends to encounter in film and fiction. They discuss how each is deployed, it's limitations, and gives examples of how it could be included in the campaign. It even makes some suggestions on how to balance the types of horror used. 

The advice given here is far better than the advice I have read in any other game that incorporates horror elements, including Call of Cthulhu and the new World of Darkness core ruleset, which purport to focus on horror exclusively.

Growth Points

Encounter Balancing

I feel that the game doesn't serve itself very well by mirroring D&D 5e's encounter balancing system. Precise rationing of encounters and balancing of difficulty strip the game of the feeling of threat and danger that makes it's dark and ominous setting so interesting.

If characters face a hopeless battle against the rise of a demon invasion in theory, but overcome every adventure put in front of them with minimal losses, the game is going to feel schizophrenic. I might disregard a lot of the complex encounter and adventure design advice given on that basis.

The Apocalypse has Nothing To Do With the PCs

Shadow of the Demon Lord has a literal mechanic called the "Shadow of the Demon Lord," offering complex narrative twists or randomly generated world+spanning disasters. The problem is, that they have nothing to do with the PCs. The corebook frequently reiterates that there's nothing to be done about many of the major apocalyptic events. At best, it suggests that the PCs might be able to temporarily push back the influence of the Demon Lord by killing some possessed cult leader or the like, but doing so is almost coincidental.

At the end of the day, the PCs aren't really involved in the apocalypse. They can't do much to stop it. In fact, even the highest tier adventures are not recommended to directly deal with the influence of the Demon Lord instead they are still about searching it after legendary treasures, building dominions, or uncovering lost magical secrets.

Given that the players can do nothing about it, and don't necessarily engage directly with it, one has to ask why it is there at all. Certainly things in Rûl are bad enough: with beastmen invasions, an orc rebellion, mad fairies, centaur legions, necromancer queens, and corrupt aristocrats. It hardly needs and apocalyptic alien consciousness justify it or make The campaign World seem any worse.

If there were a way for the characters to seal away the Demon Lord as it has been done to me past, and that was the focus of the campaign at higher levels, it would make sense. As is, it's not much more than window dressing.

Ultimately, the gothic exterior is hiding a fairly generic fantasy role-playing game.

I would have much preferred a setup where averting the apocalypse was built into the progression of the campaign in some way. After all, it is suggested that it has been averted in the past in the setting.

The nihilism of this framing device leaves me a bit cold. What's the point of having an apocalypse I can't be averted. What's the point of the heroic actions of the PCS if it just means I get to watch the End of Days in relative comfort? What's the point of becoming an accomplished archmage if your magic can do nothing to save the people around you? I find the game is, on some levels at odds with my values and life philosophy.

I am very curious to be able to compare Mörk Borg, which similarly places characters as helpless spectators in the last days of the world. I'm told that while Shadow of the Demon Lord is grim and edgy, Mörk Borg is more gloomy.

I suppose to some this is a liberating element of the game: There are no long-term consequences once their characters are done their adventuring career. You are posed the question: "If you had the power to accomplish almost anything, but there were no consequences to your actions, what you set your mind to?"

Where are the Jøtunn?

Evil, magically gifted, and intelligent Frost Giants figure into the lore of Shadow of the Demon Lord quite heavily: They prey on the southern part of the focal continent. The orcs are slave warriors who were created by warping Jøtunn prisoners with terrible magic that stripped them of their intelligence, magic, and will. Their kingdoms were a major foil to the foundation of Rû where are they?

The only Giants listed in the monster section are huge naked dullards in the style of Blunderbore from the story of The Brave Little Tailor. The Frost Giants being absent from the bestiary is a glaring omission.

How do these Mortal Communities Get Along?

Shadow of the Demon Lord features an empire that covers most of the continent in which play occurs. This empire reigned for 800 years, with and often morally ambiguous record.

With a military that was made mostly up of orc slaves, the empire both kept potential enemies at Bay and kept its client states in check. Prior to the start of the campaign the orcs revolted, killed the emperor, and through the largest and most powerful province into disarray. The banking institution of the empire decided to back the orc King in order to stabilize things as best it could.

Almost every state it seems to be preparing itself for invasion, but how is it none of them are actually raiding each other already? Surely there are plenty of rivalries peppered through the game's history that remain old wounds. Why is it that we don't see separatist movements, breakaway nations, and inter provincial warfare already? It doesn't even seem to be treated as a possibility.

Edginess for the Sake of Edginess

"Conjurer" from Shadow
of the Demon Lord;
©2015 Schwalb Entertainment
Much of the Shadow of the Demon Lord's aesthetic seems to be built around trying to create the bleakest fantasy setting it can possibly manage. Traditionally in Art, grit and darkness is always set up to be juxtaposed against hope for the spiritual. A work that is unrelentingly dark without meaningful points of light is not much more than wallowing. The setting's bleakness doesn't even attempt effectively to deconstruct Fantasy or Sword & Sorcery as a genre, as it provides no alternative frame 

Don't get me wrong! I like some dark, gory Art, but it has to serve a purpose. Lamentations of the Flame Princess is gorier, uglier, and more disturbing, but it also has a mission that it's Art and aesthetic serves: it is out to create narratives about just how fragile and limited our grasp on Truth and Reality really is, how dangerous our ignorance is, and how devastating Truth can be. But even it indulges in shock to the point of being masturbatory at times.

Unlike LotFP, SotDL isn't interested in deconstructing fantasy. It's not investigating Truth.  It doesn't even really challenge The narrative of the hero, as the player characters still act in heroic ways. It only makes all their victories pyrric ones.

And for a game that tries to be so dark, it has some curious hangups, like discussing monsters and cults that commit acts of rape, but for some reason use the blandest euphamistic language to avoid using that word. Why be afraid of the word when you have half a dozen villains that commit the act?

Ultimately, the dark, edgy quality of Shadow of the Demon Lord is purely for purposes of genre emulation. Without the artistic drive of LotFP, or the satirical edge of Warhammer Fantasy.

From Shadow of the Demon Lord; ©2015 Schwalb Entertainment

I guess that leaves a question that I probably ought to have asked while reviewing Grave: is it necessary for a game to touch the underlying themes of a genre as well as it's surface aesthetics? Or can it leave that to the GM and still be the best product it can be? I think a negative answer to that question could also be taken as a scathing indictment of cyberpunk role-playing games even more so than dark fantasy, as both genres are often imitated aesthetically, but often only on the surface level.

The Specific Combat Maneuvers are Excess Weight

The combat section of the rules of Shadow of the Demon Lord have several side boxes with rules on things like disarming, tripping, and grappling. They are not nearly as detailed as modern editions of Dungeons and dragons, but still offer a fairly hefty set of mechanical procedures and consequences.

I personally enjoyed the level of sophistication that Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition / Pathfinder brought to the table. Sometimes I miss that level I'm crunching the games I play today. However, they often serve to slow down the game and create a mentality that favors rulings over rules. I find that that is contradictory to the spirit of shadow of the demon lord. It claims to be a narrative-focused game. If that's the case, why even bother with rules like this instead of letting the GM simply adjudicate as they see fit?


Shadow of the Demon Lord treads a fine line between being a fast and light system and being a crunchy modern one. It offers a lot of opportunity for complex character development, but makes it far more organic than recent additions of Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder. If you crave a little more crunch than a D&D retro clone or a rules light old school Renaissance game can give you, it is a solid compromise. Especially if you want to give players lots of customization options.

The game's tone is dark to the point of approaching hollow and needless shock jockeying. They certainly know how to create an atmospheric and horrific setting, but the game just doesn't offer you enough hope, or enough witty commentary to make it feel particularly poignant. You could easily cast aside almost all of the horror and gritty elements and the game would play exactly the same.

That being said, the trappings of Dark Fantasy they do include are glorious in their grotesquery, Including ooze monsters made of stitched together human face, killer moth-men with ovipositors, and Grimm fairy tale classics like bloody bones and the boogeyman.

Campaigns are designed with a finite expiration date in mind, combat is likely to be quite lethal, and the magic system is simple but offers a huge variety of options and a lot of flavor.

If I were to recommend Shadow of the Demon Lord to a specific audience, it would be people who came into role-playing games with Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, but don't like the light-hearted and silly tone that the game is moving towards, or who wants a much more challenging play experience, but aren't willing to give up the complex character customization options that characterize it. It might also be a good option for someone who is looking for a very crunchy fantasy system, but still want something that plays swiftly.

In my own test adventure, combat resolved very quickly, and even mid-level PCs feel pretty fragile.

Overall I would characterize the game as being very innovative mechanically, and having a rich setting that is worth exploring, but suffering from both excess of style over substance and excessive case specific mechanics.

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