Schwalb Entertainment. Frankly, at first the announcement for Robert Schwalb’s upcoming Shadow of the Demon Lord Dark Fantasy roleplaying game did not appeal to me. In recent years the Game of Thrones sex and violence HBO interpretation of the popular George R. R. Martin books has brought a lot attention to the Dark Fantasy genre. After games like A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, Dragon Age, Ravenloft (D&D), Midnight (d20), Shadows of Esteren and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay may another representative of the genre sound pretty rehashed at first, but prejustive is a double-edged sword. I thought I had enough of grim and gritty worlds full of morally gray ‘heroes’ and their bloody tales.
On the other hand, Robert Schwalb has worked as the developer of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (2nd edition) and as lead designer on A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying. In my opinion they are both popular for good reasons: Traditional roleplaying games with a strong Dark Fantasy theme. He was also member of the design team for the successful Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. These examples and the authors design reputation kept me curious. I asked him for a Q&A and he kindly agreed.
The following interview and Robert Schwalb’s design blog with more tidbits of information are my reasons to abandon my restraints against Shadow of the Demon Lord. I changed my mind and put it on my personal most anticipated adventure games of 2015 list (German, sorry).
It’s time to form your own opinion.
Your announcement for the Shadow of the Demon Lord RPG reminded me of the Midnight Setting (d20, Fantasy Flight Games). The evil overlord conquered the land and the player characters fight back. I also read an elevator pitch: “If D&D and WFRP screwed in a church, Shadow of the Demon Lord is what they would have nine months later.” What distinguishes your game from the mentioned product lines?
While a sibling to the games you mention, for sure, Shadow of the Demon Lord stands apart from them in several ways. A great many fantasy roleplaying games and settings pin the story or campaign to before or after a cataclysmic event. Take Midnight, a setting I love and for which I did work in a couple of support products. Midnight posits that the evil god’s conquest is complete and the characters are rebels, agitators, or survivors in this world overrun by darkness. Similarly, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, at least in 2nd Edition, sets the game in the months following the horrific Storm of Chaos that left much of the Empire in ruins.
In many campaigns I have played and run, the stories point to some future climactic event that will leave the world changed. The expectation is that the player characters do things to stall or stop this event from happening, or confront it head on after months or years of play. While this is a great pay off for a long campaign, I find fewer and fewer people can commit to that timeline. So rather than make the Demon Lord a distant, nebulous threat to be dealt with at the end of the campaign, the “apocalypse” is a present crisis, one whose rumblings may cause a wide range of setting-wide problems—unpredictable magic, places where reality slides into the Void, the awakening of terrible monsters buried deep in the world, the collapse of civilization, plagues, famines, warfare, and so on.
The game system lets the GM choose what apocalyptic event is affecting the setting using the “shadow of the Demon Lord” mechanic. The idea is that a world-devouring entity, known as the Demon Lord, haunts the Void, the darkness between realities. This malevolent force seeks entry into the world and as it presses against its boundaries, it influences the world in different ways by casting its shadow on certain individuals, places, and organizations. When the GM starts a campaign, she can choose one of the manifestations of shadow to affect the game world or make one up. She might choose to seal the Gates to the Underworld, causing the recently dead to become zombies, corrupt the Great Druid and unleash a global pandemic, drive insane the Archmage and cause magic to behave in unpredictable ways, or embolden the Orc King and spark an uprising throughout the last Empire of Mankind. During play, the PCs might deal with the manifestation—redeem the druid, reopen the gates, and so on—only to find the shadow falls elsewhere.
In your press release for the Shadow of the Demon Lord RPG you claim that it will be an “entertaining play experience for both casual and hardcore RPG enthusiasts.” What does this mean and how do you want to achieve this?
I feel the primary objective of a roleplaying game should be to provide a set of tools to enable groups to create and play interesting stories. I want to eliminate feelings of anxiety, frustration, and disinterest that arise when casual players engage complex game systems and neither have the time nor the desire to fully explore the options to create an effective character. Similarly, I want to ensure that invested players have plenty of toys with which they can make their characters.
The path system of character creation and advancement achieves this. In Demon Lord, you create a beginning character by making one big choice—your character’s ancestry. For example, you could choose human. Or you could play a jotun, a hulking albino humanoid with the blood of giants flowing through her veins. Or, you might play a clockwork, a person made from cogs, springs, and gears. The character creation system provides tools to refine your choice in small ways to help make your character unique. It takes about 5 minutes to make a beginning character. During game play, the players learn how the game works by engaging the game’s engine without the exceptions that reflect character development and power growth.
Once the group completes its first story objective, everyone in the group chooses a novice path based on what they did during the first story. If you, for example, spent your time fighting in hand-to-hand combat, you might choose warrior. If you discovered a tome of forbidden magic, you might choose magician. A couple of stories later, you choose your expert path—archer, oracle, druid, or thief to name a few of the expected options. Finally, several stories later, you choose a master path—sharpshooter, shapeshifter, dervish, gunslinger, or something else that describes the area where your character focuses his or her training.
As you play through stories, you gain benefits from your ancestry and paths. The higher your group level, the more powerful and more complex your character becomes. Since you build your character by choosing paths, it’s easy to create characters of a higher level, which lets more experienced players skip over the starting expectations and dig into a more complex game. But if you prefer casual play, you might stick with low levels, which will give you an old school or even a Call of Cthulhu vibe. For groups containing a mix of casual and hardcore gamers, you can run a more traditional campaign, where player characters begin with relatively few choices and little power and grow those characters over time to reach their potential.
The last thing I want to say about this is that Shadow of the Demon Lord expects a typical story or adventure to last one session about 3 to 5 hours long. At the end of each story, the group should increase to the next level. The game will provide rules for play from level 0 (or no level) through level 10. This means that a “campaign,” from start to finish, could be completed in as few as eleven game sessions or 33–55 total hours of play. The shorter play time is perfect for casual players in that a player can miss a session without screwing up the story and it also lets hardcore players engage more of the game’s options through repeat play.
What are the most important features or what do you think is your favorite of the Shadow of the Demon Lord RPG (setting- and system-wise)?
Setting-wise, the “shadow of the Demon Lord” mechanic that I described above really makes this game distinct and lets gaming groups to create interesting stories of horror fantasy.
As for mechanics, the game uses assets and complications in place of bonuses and penalties. This is important as it reduces the amount of accounting that goes into game play. For each circumstance that would help you complete a task—attacking a demon, climbing a wall, picking a lock on a door, you have an asset. For each negative circumstance that would hinder you, you have a complication. Assets and complications cancel each other out. When you roll the d20 to determine whether your task succeeds or fails, you roll a d6 for each asset or complication you have. If you roll with assets, you add the highest number rolled on the d6s to your d20 result. If you roll with a complication, you subtract the highest number rolled on the d6s from your d20 result. It’s quick and simple. It helps players to account for their “bonuses and penalties” and gives the GM a powerful tool for adjusting the difficulty on the fly without changing the target number (which is always 10 for a task does not involve harming another creature).
What can supporters or backers of the upcoming Kickstarter expect to see in your game as far as classes, feats/powers, races, etc.?
The basic game provides rules for game play up to level 10. At a minimum, I plan to include four ancestries—humans, goblins, jotun, and clockwork, four novice paths, and several expert and master paths. Stretch goals will increase the page count and thus let me include additional expert and master paths, more spells, a larger bestiary, and so on.
What are typical threats or plots that the players will have to handle?
Whatever the GM wants! The game supports a variety of play styles, from investigation to dungeon crawling, intrigue to hex crawling. The game features demons, dragons, undead, weird creatures that haunt city streets to carve out human eyes for their tears, horrific skinless humanoids called bloody bones that steal flesh from their victims, the inscrutable hoods that serve the Dark Lady, muttering maws, and so much more.
What kind of products can we expect for the Shadow of the Demon Lord RPG? When will you launch the Kickstarter and do you have any further development plans after the crowdfunding project?
The Kickstarter will tell me the manner in which I will support this game. Ideally, I would have a core rulebook, two to three print products a year, and a slew of digital offerings. If we hit a particular stretch goal, I plan to split the core book into two books—one for players and the others for GMs. I also plan to do short gazetteers to help GMs build the world, a big book on weird magic, a bestiary, and dozens of the one-night adventures that are key to the fast play experience.
You have a lot of experience developing roleplaying systems and settings like Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying. What are the major lessons you have taken from these experiences that you are trying to apply to the Shadow of the Demon Lord RPG?
From working with other game systems, I learned that you never get it right the first time or the second or third or even fourth. Game design may begin with a solid idea, but it’s one you must constantly refine and redesign. You have to mold it, shape it, scrap it and start again. Shadow of the Demon Lord now has little in common with the earliest drafts of the game and this is good. Ideas I thought were brilliant proved themselves to be critically flawed or misguided, while other bits of design that I was dubious about turned out to be awesome.
What other projects do you have planned? I just saw that you are also involved in the Shotguns & Sorcery RPG Kickstarter. Please tell us more and do you see any interactions between these projects?
Yes! I am excited to be involved in the Shotguns & Sorcery Kickstarter. I’m a big fan of Matt Forbeck and I’ve always wanted to work on a project with him. So when Outland Entertainment approached me to handle the system design for the game, I couldn’t pass up the chance. Plus, I have had a lot of fun working with the Cypher System from Monte Cook Games and I look forward to exploring how to adapt that engine to Forbeck’s killer setting.
Aside from Shotguns & Sorcery, I have been involved in a few other projects, notably something for 5th Edition D&D, supplements for Pathfinder, and The Strange. Check out The Strange Bestiary, available in stores now. While I am still doing some freelance work, I’m largely focused on getting Shadow of the Demon Lord ready for the Kickstarter—design is nearly complete.
Where can we get more information, news about the Shadow of the Demon Lord RPG and your other projects?
My company page is www.schwalbentertainment.com and you can find all the links to the various places you can learn more about my company and games. Be sure to check out schwalbentertainment.blogspot.com for weekly updates about the game’s design, follow me on Twitter at @schwalb_ent, or Schwalb Entertainment, LLC on Facebook.
Thank you, anything you would like to add?
Thank you for the interview and thanks to all the readers for reading. I’ve really fallen in love with Shadow of the Demon Lord and I think you will too when you give it a spin.
In Spring 2015 we will see the Kickstarter for the Shadow of the Demon Lord RPG. I particularly recommend his design blog. Amongst other things, you can already learn there how the game handles initiative and who goes first. Check it out!