Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Nuts & Bolts #72 - Review: Shadow of the Demon Lord, 5 sessions deep

Reviews are hard. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. Yes, it is easy to spout off your opinion, but doing so in a fair and balanced way, with enough exposure to the object of the review to provide a valid argument for your opinions requires time and experience and often multiple exposures.

As a result I basically never trust a review of a new RPG that comes out within the first few weeks after the RPG first hits shelves, not unless the reviewer cites experience during playtest and/or extensive and heavy play during the intervening time since release. For my part I waited a year before I reviewed Numenera (and directly via that the Cypher System), because I needed time to play the game, to run the game, to see all the wheels in motion, the progression, etc.

It's been about 6 months since Shadow of the Demon Lord (SotDL) darkened our collective doorsteps and plunged us into a filthy world of madness and shadow. I've not yet played Shadow of the Demon Lord, and so in a way I feel like I shouldn't be writing this, but I've GMed half a dozen sessions on a fairly regular monthly schedule and, that has given me some opinions.

Now keep in mind two things. Firstly, as mentioned before, I have only sat on the GM's side of the table, so my experience is as such. Secondly, this is based on only five sessions of play. As such this is more of a review in progress, than it is a true review, as I expect to have a more complete view and opinion of all aspects of the game after more time as GM as well as some player experience.

The Good

My players are now at Expert level having started at level zero. This means I have seen not only all six basic ancestries in play at least a little, but I have also seen my players grapple with the choices of both Novice and Expert paths. As a result I can say honestly that I think that character creation and advancement is probably the best part of Shadow of the Demon Lord. Creation is quick and easy with a handful of choices or rolls that allow for a wide range of unique results from hideous orcs to tiny flying clockworks.

Advancement requires choices, and those choices are unfettered by stat minimums or prerequisites from other choices. You can start as a magic using magician and then become a berserker if you want to. This allows for a great deal of variety and the kinds of unique characters that you don't always get to see in other, less flexible, systems.

The simplicity and flavor of the game mechanics is also a bright point. The system is easy to learn, and robust enough that you seldom need to remember obscure sub-systems for things. Just about anything you may wish to do comes down to adding boons or banes to a standard roll. It's elegant and adaptable. From a flavor standpoint the character abilities, creatures, and spells all go a long way toward injecting the darkness and corruption of the setting into the way things play.

The Bad

Combat, when balanced well, has been difficult and brutal with players going down to zero on occasion, but getting that balance has not been easy. I often find that new game systems often need a period of trial and error and learning the curve before a GM can really understand the balance complexity well enough to be able to throw together encounters on the fly. I may well downgrade this after more plays, but my early combats have felt (for my part) either too easy or too difficult, and I think that is due to my continued climb up the learning curve.

The length of combat is another point out of favor for me. My most recent session I built an intentionally challenging combat and it ran for a good ninety minutes with five players and three primary monsters. The combat stayed fun and engaging (at least for me), but it felt a little long and consumed fully half of the game session which is less than ideal in my opinion. Perhaps I am missing out on something to help move this along faster, or this is due in part to playing online, but fast and snappy combat that is difficult and engaging is my goal and I feel I am falling short of that with SotDL.

Current Thoughts

It's early still and I have a lot more time to play with this game and learn how best to GM it. I also hope to get the chance to sit on the player side of the table for a campaign and see how combat runs on that side. Likewise I want the chance to see how it is to be the player making the tough choices of paths, spells, and abilities.

In the meantime I don't feel the need to hesitate about giving Shadow of the Demon Lord my recommendation. It's steeped deeply in the flavor of dark fantasy, and it offers one of the best character generation and advancement systems I've seen in many years. Check it out if you haven't already, I think in the long run it'll be worth my initial reservations.