Accessibility has been Shadow of the Demon Lord’s design goal from the start and for good reason. Over the last twenty years or so, I have watched the amount of free time available to my gaming groups shrink and shrink. Life has a way of intruding on our distractions—responsibilities of family and career rightly take precedence and when presented with a choice for how we spend time from the entertainment budget, we generally gravitate toward those distractions that demand the least from us. Gone are the days when we can spend hours and hours studying rulebooks, plotting complex campaigns, or plan out the various ways our characters will develop over time. Some of you may have the luxury of copious free time, but the people I know and with whom I game with have left those idle hours far behind. And as roleplaying games become more work, making greater and greater demands on our time to gain system mastery enough to even create a character let alone play, many gamers, once dedicated, have left the hobby behind or engage it vicariously by just reading the books rather than getting together with their friends.
To make Shadow of the Demon Lord more accessible, I adopted a strategy in the design that relied on familiarity and simplicity. The combination of these things would allow players of varying experience levels and interest to engage the game with equal proficiency and be free to focus on portraying their characters, engage the story, and, above all, have a good time.
So let’s start with familiarity. Shadow of the Demon Lord embraces tradition in that there’s a Game Master who manages the story, interprets outcomes, and decides when to use the rules to determine what happens. Everyone else at the table is a player and they each have at least one character under their control.
Most people who are passingly familiar with roleplaying games expect at least one funny-shaped die. The 20-sided die has permeated geek culture to the point that I think most people know rolling a 20 is a good thing. So Shadow of the Demon Lord uses a d20 for task resolution. When you want to know if your attack with a sword hits the demon, or if you can kick down the door, or climb the wall, or send the troll sprawling with your shockwave spell, or escape the blast of a fires from heaven spell, roll a d20. The widespread use of the d20 is a familiar element and it’s what most players expect to roll when they play fantasy RPGs.
The game also uses 6-sided dice. While the game would be simpler just using a 20-sided die, having a second die adds a bit of texture to the play experience and, most important, makes other aspects of the game simpler as you’ll see below.
Shadow of the Demon Lord uses a set of four attributes to describe a character’s most basic capabilities. The attributes are Strength, Agility, Intellect, and Willpower. The names pretty much tell you what they do. Each attribute has a score, which is a number ranging from 1 to 25, and a modifier, which is the score minus 10, ranging from –9 to +15. A typical human has a score of 10 (+0 modifier) for each attribute.
Your score represents your passive use of the attribute. The GM may judge a task’s success or failure by just looking at your score or you might use it as a defense such as when a creature casts charm on you or tries to tear your bones from your body with a part bone from flesh spell.
When you would actively use your attribute, such as when you swing a sword at a zombie, fire a pistol, climb a wall, discern an illusion isn’t real, or cling to your sanity in the face of some horrific monsters you roll a d20 and add your modifier to the number rolled. If you’re doing something directly to another creature—pushing, knocking down, using magic, you compare the total of your roll to the creature’s attribute score (or Armor Rating if you’re attacking with a weapon). If you’re doing anything else, you compare the total to 10. If the total equals or beats the target number, you succeed. Otherwise you fail.
This should be familiar and simple.
Assets and Complications
Rather than use a scaling set of numbers to model easier and harder tasks, the game uses assets and complications. For each different positive circumstance that could help you succeed, you have an asset. For each different negative circumstance that might prevent your success, you have a complication. Assets and complications cancel each other out. So if you have two assets and one complication, you’d have one asset. If you have six complications and two assets, you’d have four complications. If you have two assets and two complications, you would neither assets nor complications since they cancel out.
For each asset or complication, you roll a d6 with your d20. Of the numbers rolled for assets, you add the highest number rolled to the number you rolled on the d20. Conversely, of all the numbers rolled for complications, you subtract the highest number rolled from the number rolled on your d20.
For example, lets say Mindy is trying to climb a wall in a cave in a ledge. She uses a rope and grappling hook, so she has one asset. The Game Master also tells Mindy that there are plenty of handholds and footholds to make the climb easier, which gives her another asset. Mindy rolls Strength with two assets. She rolls a d20, and gets a 5. Her Strength is 12 (+2), which brings her total up to 7. Normally this would be a failure as the target number is always 10. However, she also has two assets. She rolls a d6 for each asset and gets a 5 and a 3. The 5 is the highest number, so she adds it to her total, giving her a 12. Mindy’s gets a success and her character climbs up the wall.
The function of assets and complications is to scoop up all the tiny bonuses and penalties one expects to gain from circumstances into an extra die roll. Multiple assets or complications have increased chances of rolling a 6, but since you’re only adding the highest, they control bonus and penalty inflation without having to introduce flag bonuses or penalties with different types. Best of all, assets allow characters to reach beyond their normal limits, when fighting powerful opponents, and complications never take away from the thrill of rolling a 20.
You might sense that there’s little point in having Mindy roll at all since she has two assets. After all, she starts with a +2 bonus and the asset should add 3 or 4 (on average) to her roll. This means she will fail if she rolls a 3 or less on the d20. Chances are, she’s going to get up to the ledge, so why bother rolling? Exactly. Assets and complications, combined with a fixed target number of 10, quickly communicate to the GM when to call for a roll and when to just grant a success. This keeps the game moving forward. Having a couple of assets for an activity serves to eliminate pointless rolls, whereas complications may indicate times when rolling might have an interesting outcome.
Whenever I run a game of D&D for new players, one of the big play challenges experienced is figuring which die is which. Even experienced gamers sometimes grab a d8 when they meant to grab a d10. To keep the game simpler, Shadow of the Demon Lord uses the d6 for all damage rolls. When you cast flame blast, creatures in the area take 3d6 damage. When you get a success for a roll to attack with your sword, the target takes 1d6 + 2 damage. When you fall 5 yards and land on the bottom of a pit, you take 2d6 damage. The game rarely has you roll more than six dice. For powerful spells, you roll a small number of dice and add them to a bigger number, such as 6d6 +20 or 3d6 + 10.
The approach I took for the core system design has many advantages. It is familiar to veterans who enjoy other fantasy games and eases the transition from one game system to Shadow of the Demon Lord. It also has the advantage of simplicity for new players. It just makes sense that when my character attempts to beat your character in an arm-wrestling contest, I roll Strength against your Strength. A constant target number of 10, for tasks other than attacks or attack-like activities, reduces calculations at the table since you’re just looking for 10 or higher. Ultimately, this simple and straightforward game system allows for rapid system mastery and permits a range of exceptions gained from character develop without slowing or otherwise taking anything away from the game play experience.