Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Demon Lord's Companion (Shadow of the Demon Lord)

When DVDs first hit the market, one of the best features a movie could have was deleted scenes. I remember everyone I knew wanted to see what scenes could have been in the movie, but didn't quite make the final cut. There were all kinds of debates about whether those scenes should or shouldn't have been in the original movie, and DVDs that didn't have deleted scenes seemed to be lacking in features.

The novelty of deleted scenes has worn off a bit today. Cable outlets will show "director's cut" movies with the scenes inserted back into the movie, and people often watch the movie from streaming services or buy their movies digitally, and sometimes the cheapest way to own a movie is to just own the movie without any extras. Still, there are movies that make you wonder if there was something that might have explained some element of the plot in more detail.



I post all of that to be able to frame my analogy when explaining what the Demon Lord's Companion is. On one hand, it would be easy to see it as the "Dungeon Master's Guide" for Shadow of the Demon Lord, but that's not quite right. The product is less a guide for people running the game, with deep dark secrets going on behind the scenes in the campaign (but, oh goodness, are there some products that give you deep dark secrets going on behind the campaign), and more of, well, just more of what you got in the main rulebook.

Companion Piece

The book has the same grey parchment background and red borders that most of the core line sports. It has the same readable font and attractive layout that is a hallmark of the line. The artwork is also a bit more numerous in this volume than in the Forbidden Rules supplement, coming every two or three pages on average. The PDF has 54 pages, and overall is as attractive as just about every product in the line.

Ancestries

The first chapter, while being titled ancestries, also goes into some alternate character creation options by introducing story complications. Essentially, story complications give you a negative thing that hinders you in exchange for a minor benefit. If you have seen other games that give you extra benefits for flaws, it works a little like that, except that the benefit is hard coded to the drawback. Overall they are much more flavorful and likely to be triggered in a campaign than some flaws in other similar systems. 

These complications include addicted, cursed, doomed, haunted, mad, maligned, plagued, and possessed. There are some neat mechanical repercussions involved with some of these. For example, if you are plagued, you may not notice the drawbacks of your disease, but if you touch another being, you could cause them to contract your illness.

When we get to the actual ancestries included in the chapter, the examples we have are halflings and fauns. 

First, a disclaimer--I like halflings. Nothing wrong with them. There is nothing wrong with these particular halflings. But when I say they are halflings, you pretty much know everything you need to know about this ancestry. Some ancestries have clever twists that make them a little different than what you would expect from other games, or take the ancestry closer to weird fiction or folklore. These are the platonic ideal of halfling kind across the multiverse. 

Fauns are interesting, as they are what you would expect them to be physically, but in Shadow of the Demon Lord, Fauns are actually the result of a fae creature and a human having a child, meaning that the faun is a mortal being. They are shunned by humans for being too "other," and by fae creatures for being mortals, and I think that creates some interesting roleplaying space for them.

Paths

The next section includes more expert and master paths that characters can take. These paths include things like elementalists, mountebanks, mystics, psychics, sages, shamans, bound spirits, swashbucklers, wardens, alchemists, blackgaurds, corsairs, demonologists, entropists, martial artists, mediums, mind benders, psychokenetics, reavers, sappers, and seekers. There are a wide range of new paths, many covering fairly standard fantasy ground. Most of these are very good for fleshing out character concepts, but a few jump out, either because of how they do something, or what they imply about the setting.

Psychics are essentially the game's answer to psionics, and essentially, they just let you pick a tradition that you interact with without using a focus or components. I really love how simple that solution is. Sappers are noteworthy because they deal with explosives, and are a subtle reminder that while characters start out with more standard fantasy trappings, in the more civilized areas of the setting, something closer to steampunk level technology exists. Finally, I'm going to call out the alchemist, mainly because its a master path rather than an expert path. That just seems odd to me. Alchemy, as a magical tradition, can be accessed as early as 1st level by a magician, but the tailored path that goes with that tradition isn't available until a character chooses their master path. 

Equipment

This section has alchemical items, forbidden items, marvels of engineering, potions, and vehicles. 

Alchemical items are items that likely won't surprise anyone accustomed to fantasy games and the types of items that usually fall under that heading. 

Forbidden items include some truly disturbing limited use magic items, like an undead head that can watch and report on what it has seen and answer questions about its former profession in life, the unicorn's horn, which is fatal to remove from the unicorn, but lets you resist death spells, and the Azeen, a parasite you can ingest which lets you grow bio-enhancement whips out of the palms of your hands. 

Marvels of engineering include those early industrial/steampunk style items like smoke bombs, bombs, flares, and constructs.

Potions, much like alchemical items, run the gamut that you would usually expect from such items. They can grant you the ability to do things like breathe underwater, fly, shrink, or phase through solid objects, among other effects. That said, if you are a fan of old school "don't mix potions together rules," there is a sidebar for that very thing in this section.

The vehicles section is one of the places in this supplement where brand new rules are introduced, as special rules for controlling and maneuvering vehicles, and what happens when they lose control or crash, are covered here. While there are more mundane fantasy conveyances in this section, like carts, wagons, and barges, this section also veers into the steampunk category with airships and locomotives, although those vehicles are extremely expensive, and not likely to fall into player character's hands as a casual purchase.

Magic

This section includes new spells for alchemy, demonology, telepathy, death, spritualism, and telekinesis. Alchemy, telepathy, and telekinesis are especially welcome to help flesh out the themes introduced with several of the paths introduced in the earlier chapter on that subject.

The end of the magic section contains a section on spells that are not normally learned as part of a tradition, but are most often found as Incantations (essentially spell scrolls, if you are used to conventions from d20 fantasy games). 

Game Master Tools

A large number of "GM facing" rules are grouped together in this section. These include magical places and relics.

Magical places give you some rules for haunted areas, null magic regions, and void shoals. Void shoals are particularly nasty, because they are essentially regions of reality that have been worn through by the Void produce some unpleasant effects when challenge rolls in the area total 0 or lower. I really like that "below 0" and "above 20" triggering mechanism that is used for various effects in the game. I think it may be due to the fact that there has to be some mitigating factor modifying your roll in order to get those results, so they aren't just a normal 5% probability of something happening one way or the other.

The relics introduced here reflect the personality evident in the game setting. While some of them do things that "traditional" magic items might do, like allowing you to have out of body experiences or travel through walls, but the limitations, potential drawbacks, and history of the items make them seem far less mundane than they would otherwise. Traveling outside of your body could permanently damage your health, for example, and placing an extra-dimensional space involves affixing a door handle to a solid surface.

Bestiary

This section includes a variety of monsters that don't really follow a specific theme. Compared to the main book, there aren't any demons, devils, and only one undead. There are things like brownies, shapeshifting spiders, and murderous constructs included. There are nine new monsters total.

Forbidden Traditions

The worst thing I can really say about this product is that there is a lot that you would assume a fantasy RPG would eventually cover, and not with the same kind of clever twist that Shadow of the Demon Lord has deployed in other aspects of setting and rule design. 

Cleansed of Corruption

Some of the equipment, traditions, and rules for magical places and relics really show the twist that the game can put on elements of that otherwise feel familiar. Even the rules elements that don't have their own unique twist to them are varied enough to give a spectacular amount of specialization to players, allowing them to get really close to making exactly the kind of character that they might imagine from just about any fantasy tropes they might be familiar with.



End of Turn

This is an odd product, not because what it introduces is odd, but because so much of the setting is (sometimes literally) oozing with personality that the utilitarian nature of much of this material makes it seem less good than it actually is. This is a really good, solid product, and it gives a wide variety of options to both GMs and players. I doubt anyone that likes the system would regret buying this product. But compared to some of the other products in the line, it feels like eating a tasty, healthy meal instead of ordering a pizza. 

*** (out of 5)

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