Friday, October 21, 2016

Shadow of the Demon Lord: Expert Paths

The Path system is one of my favorite things about Shadow of the Demon Lord. It reminds me of old computer RPGs where you got access to different subclasses at a certain level. Its actually more flexible, because any character can take any path.

Granted, if you aren't a spellcaster and try dipping into that in your Expert or Master path you'll be way behind another character who started as a Priest or Magician, but you have the same problem in D&D. I'll try to discuss magic more in another post.

When a character chooses an Expert path at 3rd level, they are encouraged to choose an objective for their character as well. At this point they should start shaping the world around them. Again, there are suggestions for story development, reasons your character got their new abilities. I'd like to make heavy use of long downtime in a campaign, make sure there are breaks in the action to allow the characters the chance to grow off-screen. I find it jarring when characters grow amazingly powerful in weeks of game time because a campaign is moving quickly. 

Here's my thoughts on several of the Expert paths, both from my understanding of the game and how they might fit into my pseudo-European folklore setting.

Artificer:  Right away there's something anachronistic to my usual tastes. I like running Dark Ages type settings, where there are few or no nations or kingdoms, war is common, and steel swords and chain mail are the height of military advancement. Shadow of the Demon Lord has lots of steampunk inspired elements--Clockworks, guns, and a Technomancy Tradition of magic. 

Honestly though, I'm not going to worry about it too much. Sometimes bits of anachronistic tech appear in fantasy--the hookshot in Legend of Zelda, elaborate gear traps in God of War, a mechanical hand in Army of Darkness. Its not really science, just bits of Technomancy-based magic. 

The Artificer path is a spellcaster who can make random equipment from spare parts they carry around. At higher levels they can store spells in items and create mechanical servants. Pretty basic.

Assassin:  If the Assassin attacks from hiding, their target has to make a Strength challenge roll or take damage equal to their Health. Basically, they're dead. This seems incredibly powerful, but also the target number for the challenge roll is 10 like all other rolls. Even a peasant has a 55% chance of surviving. Still, there's always the possibility that your big bad monster could fail their roll and bite it easily. Two things I'll be doing anyway with big bad monsters--using more than one at a time, or giving them some ability to survive attacks like this. Like how Elite and Solo monsters in D&D 4E had ways around Save vs Suck effects. 

Berserker:  When a character goes berserk, they get a bonus to Health, resistance to mental effects, and trade a bane on attack rolls for extra damage. With that attack penalty, its doubtful anyone besides a Warrior would want to take this Path, though possibly a Magician with the Battle Tradition.

I really like berserkers because they're so prominent in Celtic and Norse myth. In both cases, the fury is seen as a gift from the gods that warps the body and gives supernatural might. The Irish warrior Cu Chulainn would go into a "warp-spasm" that would make him twist in his skin, spurt blood from his head, and make his hair stand in spikes. The 2000 AD comic Slaine depicts this for its hero as well.

Cleric:  This path is for Priests who want to use their spells in combat more effectively. Its primarily good for the Theurgy Tradition of the Cult of the New God. I say Priests, but its worth noting that if a character wants to be a "priest" with more spells, they can play a Magician. 

Druid:  Tailored for Priests of the Old Faith. Its pretty tame at 3rd level--identifying animals, trackless step, etc, but at higher levels you can jump between trees while moving and get resistance to elemental damage. Since the Old Faith is more common on the borders of civilization, Druids will be more influential than Clerics in my game. Historical druids weren't Captain Planet hippy types, they were lawgivers and advisors to kings, feared and untouched by all. 

Fighter: A Warrior with more training. A character gets one Talent at 3rd level, and while there are a few options "Fight With Anything" seems clearly superior. Weapon attacks do a minimum of 1d6 damage regardless of type, and get an extra boon on attack rolls. A Warrior who takes the Fighter path now gets two boons on attack rolls. Non-warriors who want to hit better can take this Expert path as well and get on par with Warriors. 

Oracle: The Priest version of a Berserker. Go into a Divine Ectasy which gives a Health bonus, resistance to mental effects, and get a boon on mental attacks and challenges. Its great for spell-casters who want to go aggro. 

Paladin: Good for a Priest who wants to be tougher in melee, or anyone who wants some religious magic. Characters can convert spells into extra melee damage with Divine Smite. For a Warrior or Rogue who wants to dabble in magic, that flexibility means you're not giving up combat effectiveness for one or two low-level spells.

Ranger:  This path gives a double Health boost at 3rd level as an homage to the 1st-ed D&D Ranger that gave two Hit Dice when you gained the class. You also get to target an enemy and gain a boon to attack or track it, and you can't be surprised. Definitely has more flavor and skills than just taking Fighter, and you're still effective in combat.

Scout:  A sneakier version of the Ranger. Still can't be surprised, and is good at stealth. At higher levels you can Reveal Weakness and give everyone a boon to attack a target. Good for the Rogue that likes to go off on their own. 

Sorcerer:  Spellcasters who channel more power but can overload. They can increase the effectiveness of their spells but get Strain points, which at some point will explode around you. Not bad unless allies are nearby.  

Spellbinder:  This path allows you to have an enchanted weapon and cast spells at the same time. Its the best option for trying to make a "fighter/mage", whether your Novice class is a Warrior or a Magician or Priest.  A spellcaster with the Battle Tradition could be especially deadly, but won't have the Health of a Warrior. 

Thief:  This path lets you be extra slippery and gives Talents that cover most expected Thief abilities. Not much else to say.

Warlock:  Spellcaster who can mimic others' spells. Good for Magicians who want to get sneakier or Rogues who dabble in magic. I think this one would be really fun to have in a game. Spellcasters are fairly specialized, so mimicking the spells of enemies would give a player the chance to cast more of a variety of spells.

Witch:  This is awesome. I love witches and don't understand why they're not more prominent in fantasy games. They start off with a unique spell, Witch Fire, which kind of turns the caster into a will-o-wisp temporarily. At higher levels they get a flying broom and a familiar. Witchcraft is actually a religion, so Witches could be Priests or Magicians depending on how they want to play, and of course any Novice path can go into any Expert path if they want.

Wizard:  I'll go into more detail in another post, but even Magicians don't get that many total spells. Its comparable to Sorcerers in D&D or a 1st-ed Magic-User who has a stingy DM and only has the basic number of spells. I think it will work fine in play, but they don't have as much versatility as D&D players are used to. The Wizard path tries to correct that, but I think I would tweak it a little more. They get a grimoire with three spells that they can swap for spells they know when cast. The problem is its difficult to replace the spells as you level up, and I would make that easier. 

There's lots of cool options with the path system. Its easy to build on a Novice path with an appropriate Expert path, like Warrior into Fighter, but there are some other interesting possibilities. Especially if you have a DM (like me) who is flexible with the rules. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Shadow of the Demon Lord: Novice Paths

The class system in Shadow of the Demon Lord is based on three different Paths a character chooses during their adventuring career. You select one of four Novice Paths at 1st level, one of 16 Expert Paths at 3rd level, and at 7th level choose from 64 different Master Paths (or choose a second Expert Path instead, so actually 80 options).

I've seen the comparison, and it fits, that Novice Paths are like Basic D&D classic options, Expert Paths expand to sub-options available in AD&D and later, and Master Paths are like Prestige Classes. You get an ability from your Paths at every level (except 4th level, where you get either a new spell or an Ancestry ability).

Your Novice Path gives you abilities at 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 8th level, and the abilities at 1st and 2nd level are particularly defining for your character. This makes the Novice Path you select the biggest factor in who your character will be. Its more like a specialization than multi-classing.

If you want to dominate in combat, go with Warrior. You get lots of Health and a Boon to all weapon attacks right away. At second level you get an extra 1d6 to all weapon damage rolls. At higher levels you get the option to do extra damage to a single target or make attacks on multiple opponents. Every Path gives the ability to heal yourself one quarter of your Health total once between rests, along with an extra benefit. The Warrior gets to use this as a Triggered Action, so they can do it immediately after taking damage, leaving them free to still fight on their regular Action.

Rogue is good if you want to get away with a lot in and out of combat. You get a Boon to one attack or Challenge roll a round. Since Challenge rolls are used for "skill checks" and "saving throws", it makes you good at everything and hard to pin down. And if your attack Boon isn't negated by a circumstantial Bane, you do extra damage. At second level, they get a bonus turn if they roll 20+ on an attack roll. In the one session I ran where a player had this ability they loved it. It fits the fiction of a tricksy character while also being very "game-y", for players who like to min/max at the table. Rogues also get Talents that allow them to specialize in combat or skill styles, or dabble in magic.

Priest allows you to fight while still supporting your party, and gives you a few spells. When a Priest heals themselves one quarter Health they allow another character to do the same thing, and they can give a Prayer boost to attacks and later damage starting at second level. Prayer can be used on yourself, so its possible to hold your own in combat. Religions include the Cult of the New God and the Old Faith (I love the new church vs paganism dynamic), as well as Witchcraft and Dwarven Ancestors. Spells are more limited than the Magician, you'll likely be picking from just two Traditions for your character, so if you want to cast more go with the other class.

Magician is all about spells. Spells are divided into Traditions and you have to spend a "new spell" to learn a Tradition (Magicians learn both cantrips associated with a Tradition, unlike other classes that only learn one). Your total spells known will seem limited if you're thinking of later D&D options--if you focus on spellcasting paths you'll still only get a total of 13 new spells by 10th level. On the upside, you get to specialize your spellcaster into a Storm Mage or a Fire Mage, instead of having a berth of options but only a few optimal choices.

If the first session where you only have an Ancestry is a prologue, your Novice adventures are about coming together as a party and getting comfortable with your basic abilities. There are suggested options for training for each class, so I'll let some campaign time pass between the first session and the second to allow for the characters to grow and become their class. The first few adventures will be about responding to dangers presented, setting the stage for the characters to become movers and shakers in the world.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Shadow of the Demon Lord: Ancestries

Campaigns in Shadow of the Demon Lord are designed to be short and fast moving. Characters start off with an Ancestry and no class, and level up after every short adventure. So you can run a character all the way through level 10 in just 11 sessions.

The first adventure of a group can be a prologue of sorts, showing how they came together as a group and introducing threats and themes that will be in the game.

Ancestries are like race in D&D. You get your starting stats and a few abilities from your Ancestry, and later at 4th level you have the option to get another ability based on it. I'll go through the Ancestries and talk about how I'll use them in my upcoming game, which will be heavily based on folklore.

Humans get some flexibility but nothing outstanding. They're good for any class. In my game they will be the dominant group, but that doesn't mean I'm favoring them as a PC race. Like in legends or even Lord of the Rings, humans are all over and run the kingdoms, but adventures frequently involve the more supernatural elements of the world.

Changelings are fey beings created by elves and swapped with human babies. They can change their appearance like D&D changelings, but their origin is more in line with the folklore that inspired them. Its notable that elves are NOT a playable race in the core book, and I like them being aloof and potentially dangerous fey creatures. I'm going to use lots of fey-oriented stuff in my game so changelings are already a good fit. They make good Rogues and Magicians.

Clockworks are mechanical beings. There are elements of steampunk in SotDL, including guns. Part of me thinks this clashes with the Dark Ages/medieval tone I like, but then if Final Fantasy and Link can include steampunk and mechanical things then why not my game. Clockworks would still be rare in the world, but that just makes a character more special. The dark twist of Clockworks is that they are "powered" by a soul called up from the Underworld. This could supply latent memories or such, and would be fun to play with. They make good Warriors or Magicians, depending on their build.

Dwarves are pretty typical--tough, greedy, and insular. Its implied that adventurers are often survivors of underground cities overrun by monsters because dwarves are too paranoid to ask other people for help--which is pretty much the background of The Hobbit. I'll add that there was only one great dwarven kingdom in the area of my game, and it was destroyed by a volcanic eruption. And the elders are hiding something about it. They make good Warriors or Priests.

Goblins are fey outcast by the Summer Queen, doomed to live in the mortal world. They are small and each has unique appearance and odd habits. Again, I love using more fey folklore stuff for my game. Goblins will be aware that the Summer Queen has gone missing after an assassination attempt by giants, and the Raven King has led an army of goblins and dark fey against the Summer Court in the confusion. Goblins make good Rogues and Magicians.

Orcs are big brutes used by the Empire as soldiers until civil war broke out and the Orc King Drudge strangled the Emperor on his throne. Created by dark magic, I'm adding a Celtic element to their origin. A legendary king quested to find the Cauldron of Resurrection from the Underworld but was pursued into the mortal realm by its guardians. After the battle the Cauldron was missing, recovered by agents of the Empire. Unable to use it properly, they warped its purpose and used it to animate captured prisoners into Orc slave-warriors. Supposedly an orc witch is in possession of the Blood Cauldron now, building an army somewhere.

Shadow of the Demon Lord: Overview

I'm really excited to be running Robert Schwalb's Shadow of the Demon Lord soon and thought I'd share some thoughts I've had about it recently.  This will be an overview of things I like about the system first, and some in depth thoughts about the classes, magic, and subsystems later.

First of all, its similar enough to D&D that it plays well to gamers familiar with that system (or even new gamers familiar with fantasy tropes). The main mechanic is d20 based. There are orcs, dwarves, and goblins as Ancestries. What sets it apart is a darker tone with lots of horror influence, more adult themes, and the impending doom of the world that lurks over every campaign.

Orcs are a barbarian tribe warped with dark magic to become warrior-slaves for the Empire, until they rose up and overthrew the Emperor. Forbidden magic has horrifying splatterpunk effects--exploding eyeballs, literally shitting yourself to death--and taints the soul of the spellcaster who uses it. The potential for apocalypse, the "shadow of the demon lord", can manifest as plagues, hordes of beastmen, or awakening elder gods. These are just examples, and while the game has a setting provided, the themes and ideas are easily adaptable to a variety of homebrew settings, which I will be doing.

The system is simple but flexible. Robert Schwalb has worked on a lot of different rpg games and one of his design goals was to create a system that could be learned easily and didn't require mastery to play (*side-eye at you, 3.5 D&D and Pathfinder*). The bare bones mechanic is: roll a d20, get a 10 or better to succeed. That's it. Your only numerical bonuses will be from your attributes--Strength, Agility, Intellect, and Will. These bonuses will vary from -2 to +5 for typical player characters. Situational or class bonuses are called Boons or Banes. For every Boon you roll a d6, taking the highest one and adding it to your roll. Banes work the opposite and the two cancel each other out one-for-one. The DM is free to adjust difficulty of an action by applying Boons or Banes to a roll, and the roll-all-take-the-highest rule means less math and prevents a task from ever being too easy or too difficult.

Next I'll dig into the class system, which I love.