So I finally got around to playing a game of Shadow of the Demon Lord. Never heard of it? Let me explain.
Shadow of the Demon Lord is a dark-horror d20 rpg-system heavily influenced by fifth edition D&D. It was Kickstarted back in 2015 to the tune of $140,000 dollars. That Kickstarter was the product of Robert J. Schwalb, an industry veteran and creator for a number of products from a diverse array of systems including several official D&D supplements. Shadow takes place in the campaign world of Rûl, a land on the brink of collapse from the insidious incursion of an ancient and malignant entity – the Demon Lord.
What I Dig
For starters, I’ve be aware of Shadow for a while now but never got a chance to get a game in. Thanks to recent global events, I had the opportunity to Fantasy Ground a session. And boy was it fun.
As a fan of horror and the grittier aspects of roleplaying, Shadow is a welcome breath of putrid air. Going into spoilers for the scenario I played (Queen of Gold), right out of the gate the world is presented as grim and deadly. There is also a focus in Shadow on more adult themes – specifically sexuality and morality which features prominently in Shadow artwork and plot. Where D&D typically throws this stuff out the window, Shadow places it front and center. The scenario I played had a city overrun by sky-clad demon-worshiping (maybe?) crotch eating, eel-women brought to the world by a phallic-corrupted summoner. Not your typical D&D module for sure.
From a horror perspective, the fact that Shadow trades in adult content is what makes it appealing to me and I’m sure other fans. The entire look and feel of Shadow gravitates around themes of a mature nature, which as a horror fan, are kind of part and parcel of the genre. While you can get pretty gratuitous in the ‘adult’ department, my gold standard of artful inclusion of the subject in a film is It Follows which is permeated in layer upon layer of symbolism centered around what is essentially a sexually transmitted demon.
Apart from the sex, Shadow leans into the gore and corruption and mental health departments of tabletop gaming (hence the name). Insanity and madness as well as corruption are part of the core mechanics, unlike their afterthought options in the DMG. Which again, are all hallmarks of horror. Maybe its because I grew up in the aftermath of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and the deconstruction of the concept of the Superhero, or maybe the modern world is full of villains and almost no heroes, but D&D’s fanciful good vs. evil has always left me wanting a bit more teeth to my campaigns. Shadow provides these in spades.
But what about the mechanics of Shadow? It’s essentially a stripped-down 5e which itself is very rules lite. The combat in Shadow happens fast with lots of damage. In that way it leans into a typical Cthulhu game where you might die in every encounter.
For the game I played, I created my character and the process was somewhat trickier than 5e on initial inspection. This is due to a few things. First unlike D&D where you roll your stats like Strength, Intelligence and the like, Shadow defaults your stats to your ancestry. Ancestry is Shadow version of Races. Given the recent brohaha about orcs and their ‘feelings’ (don’t get me wrong #orclivesmatter), it was nice to see that these ancestries are clearly spelled out as creations of the gods so their intrinsic qualities make the stats less ‘problematic’ – a clockwork is created for a specific purpose in the same way a goblin was once a fey and fell from grace and is hence ‘damned’ by point of birth. D&D 5e has placed a greater emphasis on the ‘cultural’-ness of various races in fifth edition, but still cling to inborn traits and overarching ‘natures’ which in worlds where tribes and histories seem more important, makes races feel like a throw-back. Shadow say nah, you blood determines who you are, and that itself is magical or godly by design. Which is another boon or bust of the system if you take a step back. Every game of Shadow is presumed to happen on Rul, which means there’s less customization of different Ancestries. Where D&D might have homebrew worlds by any game master out there, where elves in one world have different traits from those in another, it’s assumed Shadow all takes place on Rul. Horror generally needs to have some functional rules to make it believable so limiting Shadow to one world, with defined peoples and terrors is okay in my book and does away with alot of unnecessary creation talk. (Lets focus on the horror can we?)
Another thing that threw me off was the character progression. Unlike traditional D&D, Shadow has level caps on the different paths. So at first level you’re a novice, at fifth you become an expert and at level 7 you become a master. Each of these levels allows you to effectively become a new ‘class’ or in Shadow case, path. There’s less emphasis on rising to 20th level, which jives with the games emphasis on quick and dirty. This may seem limiting, but the plethora of paths both in the Core book and the supplements and community content means there are loads of paths. It also makes level progression slightly more meaningful in my eyes – you aren’t waiting until level 10 or 14 or whatever to get the one thing you wanted all along.
Other than these two issues (which weren’t issues so much as system shock), character creation was slightly more enjoyable than traditional D&D. Not having to worry about stats, the Victims of the Demon Lord, the FREE starter guide I used, as well as the Core rulebook, has more emphasis on background than mechanics. For instance, things like age, appearance, backgrounds, personality and interesting things (trinkets) are considered standard unlike 5e which added these items (less trinkets) in Xanthar’s. There’s also no skills, instead you get broad professions. And similar to 5e’s bonds and ideals, you get their Shadow equivalents but with a horror twist- desires, fears and secrets.
Overall Shadow is a very streamlined, horror-focused 5E offspring. Even if you’re not a fan of 5th edition, or especially if you are, I’d say give Shadow a try – the smoothness and rules light feel of 5th edition is really suited for a gritty, highly deadly world like Shadow and the game itself leans heavily into the world of horror.
- If you are looking for an online game of Shadow, I recommend Robert Adducci’s Discord or his Warhorn signup page
- And to jump into the community immediately, there’s always Reddit
- And finally, to kick off my Shadow gaming – I put together a quick little supplement to further flesh out character creation – Desires, Fears & Secrets