Saturday, October 22, 2016

Shadow of the Demon Lord: First Impressions

Game Date: 10/22/2016
Location: The Game Keep
System: Shadow of the Demon Lord
DM: Rusty

The Party:
B'omarr (Matt) - Clockwork
Grakas (Gary) - Gnome
Torstein (Daniel) - Jotun/Skinchanger

The Session:
Today we didn't have enough people for our normal game, so we tried out a new game - well, new to me, anyway.  Not knowing much about the system, I decided to roll all of my character's traits randomly, including the race (or "ancestry").  I was pleasantly surprised at how quick character creation was.

I ended up with a spider-shaped construct with a religious background.  A devotee and temple ward of the "Cult of the New God", he was the last survivor when a plague wiped out his temple.  Now he wanders the world looking for a place to fit in. He has a strange and unsettling appearance, and has a determined and obnoxious personality.  I named him B'omarr, and if anyone at the table got the Star Wars reference, they didn't mention it.

My companions were a gnome named Grakas, and a giant wereboar named Torstein. We were an odd looking party, with Torstein towering over the rest of us.  We had been hired to protect a caravan which was on its way to a small town called Fletcher's Rest.  A group of bandits had ambushed the caravan, and the three of us had fled into the woods.  We began the session lost in the woods, hoping to find our way to town.

We spent a long time wandering through the woods, making really bad checks, and climbing trees to get our bearings.  Eventually we came upon the bandit camp, but saw more enemies than we thought we could handle, and retreated without being seen.  We kept wandering until it was too dark to continue, and we camped for the night.

The next day we continued getting lost, until finally five bandits attacked us.  As the fight began, Torstein picked up both Grakas and B'omarr and tried to make a run for it.  It was a hilarious sight, this giant fleeing from the humans, holding a gnome and a mechanical spider under his arms.  The bandits were faster than us, so we didn't get too far.  We did manage to leave two of the bandits behind, but the other three stayed on us.

We realized we weren't going to be able to stay away from them, so we fought.  We traded blow for blow until there was only one bandit left.  It was close, but we managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  As the largest target, Torstein went down first.  Grakas and B'omarr kept on hitting, but we just couldn't hack it.  With his last breath, Grakas exploded (apparently gnomes can do that here), which finished off our party but not the bandit.  TPK.

Afterthoughts and First Impressions:
Shadow of the Demon Lord is a very interesting game, but I didn't get to see a lot of the really distinctive elements of the system.  So forgive me if I'm way off base on some of my impressions.  Before the game I jumped around the rulebook, skimming here, skipping there, and giving a few sections an in-depth reading.  But that's no substitute for actual gameplay, and I can't wait to see more.

I'm not in love with the title of the game.  "Shadow of the Demon Lord" sounds more like a module than a system.  However, I'm used to playing games with more universal applications - meaning, D&D rules work well for a lot of different fantasy universes (Greyhawk, Dark Sun, Eberron, etc).  But SotDL's rules appear to be designed to complement the world in which it takes place, and might be more difficult to divorce from the setting.  In that context, "Shadow of the Demon Lord" is a perfectly appropriate title, but it still wouldn't have been my first choice.

I notice the rulebook has a Forward, a Preface, and an Introduction... clearly these people have difficulty getting things started.  But now I'm nitpicking.  My next issue was that there weren't enough races in the core rulebook.  I've since learned that there are a lot more in the splatbooks, but I'm such a fan of fantastic races that I would have liked more available in the core book.  I do like how they allow humans to have a wide variety of unusual skin colors. 

There are several unusual mechanics, some of which I've considered in my own homebrew RPG ideas.  At level one, you don't have a class, just your race.  You don't get experience points, instead the entire party levels when it seems appropriate to the story.  There is no rolling initiative, instead the party goes in whatever order they like, partly based on how many things they want to do on their turn.  These are all really fun things, I definitely approve. 

There's a boon/bane system for adding extra d6's to help/hurt your d20 rolls.  It's interesting, but I haven't decided if I like it yet.  Rolling multiple d6's and only taking the largest roll is a great way to set a maximum result (6), but still have a point to rolling extra dice (for the extra chances of getting that 6).  It keeps the math from getting out of hand but still motivates you to get as many boons as possible.  Not long ago I was telling a friend about the “Hero Kids RPG” (I keep hoping he’ll try to get his kid interested in RPGs, but it ain’t gonna happen), which uses that sort of rolling throughout.

I did not get to see the Insanity rules in action, which is a shame because it looks like a major part of the system.  Whenever I see “Insanity” on a character sheet, I know it’s going for a specific genre.  Most systems have sanity rules in there somewhere (even if it’s just effects from specific monsters), but if they actually have you track it on the character sheet, you can expect it to be used with some regularity. 

I’m generally skeptical of insanity rules, because I’m afraid some DMs will overuse the concept.  I think some will have you have you roll sanity checks in situations that most people would find scary and disgusting, but not necessarily insanity-inducing.  Call of Cthulhu gets a pass because the creatures actually have psychic powers that can damage mental stability.  I assume SotDL’s universe has something similar (probably involving the eponymous Demon Lord and the whole “the end of the world is coming” theme), but I haven’t seen those elements yet.

Exactly what has the potential to drive people insane is obviously going to vary from person to person.  I once knew someone who lost four family members simultaneously (both parents, sibling and sibling’s spouse), due to a bad car wreck.  She had a nervous breakdown, quit her job, and moved to another state to live with some other family members.  Of course she didn’t go insane, but it was a few weeks before she could handle the stresses of everyday life.

I recently read the creepypasta “NoEnd House” (because it’s going to be a TV miniseries next year), and while it’s no “The Shining”, it had some imagery in there that I could see challenging someone’s sanity.

And now that I've typed all that it occurs to me that I'm basically talking about the plot of "The Killing Joke".  The Joker has a very bad day and it drives him insane, so he wants to prove that everyone's sanity is just as fragile.  But his experiment fails, because that's not how sanity works.  It's not just about bad experiences or seeing something brutal.  For most, there's either a chemical imbalance in the brain, or an entire childhood full of unhealthy experiences that keep the adult mind from being able to handle stress.  In the Joker's case, it could have been either of those (or something else), and his bad day was just the straw that broke the camel's back. I'm not saying an adult can't be driven insane by a few isolated incidents, but I doubt it's common enough to be tracked on a character sheet.

Note I feel the same way about fear effects in D&D.  If a creature has a magical fear aura, fine.  But being afraid just because it’s a dragon or zombie – when that character is a professional warrior who has already defeated both creature types in the past – is silly.  It just seems sort of random to me when this brave fighter hacks his way through dozens of monster-filled rooms, then suddenly turns around and flees because this monster’s a little scarier looking.  But in "All Flesh Must Be Eaten" (for example), the fear effects made a lot more sense. It's all about the setting.

Anyway, I obviously have strong feelings about the how insanity and fear are instituted in RPGs, but I'll hold of judgement here until I've seen it in action.

Final Thoughts:
I don't know if I would want to play this game indefinitely.  D&D will probably always be my go-to game for long running campaigns.  But I'd love to play SotDL for a few months at a time.  It looks simple enough to learn quickly, and it uses several ideas I would have thought of myself.  It's a bit dark for my tastes, in fact the entire setting is depressing to the core.  As a fan of optimistic stories, I don't know if my psyche could take this degree of grimdark week after week.  But overall it looks like a blast to play.   And lets face it, I automatically approve of any system where gnomes explode.

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