Thursday, February 23, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Exquisite Agony (Shadow of the Demon Lord)

The lower planes have a long and illustrious history in roleplaying games. One of the first illustrations I remember looking at in my Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1st edition books was “A Paladin in Hell.” Given the dark fantasy themes of Shadow of the Demon Lord, a supplement all about Hell and its inhabitants probably isn’t a surprise.

One thing to note about the cosmology of Shadow of the Demon Lord is the place that demons and devils inhabit—they are very clearly separate things. It’s not just a difference of alignment or tactics that separate the species. Demons are Lovecraftian/Gnostic threats from beyond, and devils are much more rooted in the world that they threaten.



What the Hell Does It Look Like?

Exquisite Agony is formatted in a manner much more similar to the core rulebook than some of the later sourcebooks that came out (although it’s kind of amazing that the line has produced enough products in this short a span of time to have shifts in formatting and “older” sourcebooks). The pages are a menacing orange in color, with a red and black “burnt” border. There is artwork every few pages, and several full color spreads. The book has some impressive and disturbing artwork, including a page of “in world” artwork representing a map of Hell itself. The PDF comes in at 52 pages.

While all of the Shadow of the Demon Lord books are dark fantasy books with some adult topics, it’s worth mentioning that this book, much like The Hunger in the Void, is probably in the top tier of disturbing imagery and descriptions in the game.

Welcome to Hell

This is a broad chapter that includes sections on the history of devils and Hell, physical gates to and from Hell in the mortal realm, Hell’s geography, Hell themed treasure and magic items, and Hell-related monsters (not all of whom are actually devils).

Shadow of the Demon Lord is at its best when it really pushes the limit of where people might be comfortable, and riding that line. No matter how good a product line might be, if that’s your sweet spot, from time to time riding that line is going to be tricky. I mentioned that some of the cult descriptions veered into the gratuitous in The Hunger in the Void. The same thing happens here when we get descriptions of Hell, its environs, and day to day operations.

I also feel that I should clarify a bit. I’m not saying that these descriptions are gratuitous from the standpoint of “they shouldn’t address these topics.” Some gamers won’t like the darker themes and descriptions, it’s true, but those themes are what help to differentiate the game from other settings. What I’m talking about is when the book serves up, say, three or four atrocities, and then dives right in and ads in another two or three in rapid succession. It’s not that the content is too much on its own, but when you push past a certain amount of vile content, it loses its impact. I’m sure actually seeing Hell would be terrifying. Reading about the 15th mound of boiling body parts that spurt bodily fluids while saying horrible things about your mother starts to elicit “oh, more of that” as a response.

I wanted to get that out of the way up front, because once you get away from the somewhat overly long descriptions of the horrific, the chapter is a really solid set of tools to maintain the tone of the game.

There are physical gates into and out of Hell and some living beings in Hell, as well as actual markets. This opens up a lot of adventuring possibilities. The mechanics on temptation and the relics and objects that all have corruption as a theme are a great way of reinforcing the slow encroachment of evil in the setting.

Essentially, there are some rules on what you can bargain from devils based on how much corruption you are willing to accept, and many of the relics detailed also allow you big benefits and the low cost of accepting more corruption or doing some horrible things.

The creatures of Hell strike a nice balance between what you would expect from a fantasy version of Hell and a few unexpected twists. I don’t want to mention some of the monsters for fear of giving away secrets that the book reveals.

All of that brings me back to the beginning of the chapter, where we find out where devils and Hell came from in the Shadow of the Demon Lord setting. This book actually came out before The Hunger in the Void, and between this book and The Hunger in the Void, you get a pretty big series of surprises on how the larger cosmology works, and the nature of the universe, the world, and religion in general.



With All My Hatred

For some reason, I had gotten accustomed to the adventures that accompany some of the larger sourcebooks to be in the very back, so it’s just a slight note here that this time it’s actually in the middle of the book.

A lot of Shadow of the Demon Lord adventures are, structurally, a few broad encounters with a cohesive theme, so that they can be played out in one session or filled in a bit by the GM. This adventure doesn’t feel quite a much like a broad sketch, but feels a little more traditional and deliberate in presentation.

Structurally, it takes place during a pilgrimage, and sketches quite a few NPCs with their own quirks and secrets. The more the PCs get a chance to interact with the NPCs, the more rewarding the developments are going to be. The one thing I thought was odd was that many of the NPCs have dedicated stat blocks, instead of just referring to more generic stats from other books.

Overall, it’s a very solid novice level adventure, especially if the characters are likely to spend time roleplaying their relationship to the other people on the journey.

Hellbound Characters

This chapter introduces more story complications (first mentioned in the Demon Lord’s Companion), as well as more Hell-focused Marks of Darkness. There are paths that include Apostates, Diabolists, and Witch Hunters, which I feel all maintain the theme of Hell, devils, and the nature of the cosmology as revealed in this book, but from enough varied angles as to not make those options too limited. Cambions (just in case you may have come from another game and you miss your tieflings) and new spells round out this section.

Like the paths, the spells are all just close enough to the theme of the book but are varied enough that if your game or your player concepts don’t revolve around Hell in particular, you will still get a wide variety of options to choose from.

Damned

The sections discussing the geography and daily workings of Hell can go on for a bit too long, and lose their bite. This book has some very adult and disturbing material which may not be for everyone. Depending on your views of religion and how well you separate that from a game setting and its background, some of the revelations in the book may not sit well with you. It’s also a little thing, but while all of the formatting and art is good, it feels a little too uniform.

Saved
The big picture information on the fae, devils, Hell, and souls is going to be great for understanding the setting and it’s tone on a big picture level. If you, like me, think that tempting players into corruption is one of the underlying themes of the game, there are a lot of tools for that in this book. The book has a lot of thematic new game elements that manage to be widely functional outside of the theme.

The Special Hell

If you already embrace the dark tone of the game, and you are interested in seeing how the cosmology influences everything, if you want a lot of tools to mess with your players and give them a chance to win while wondering what they are becoming, and you want to see a few more mechanical options in the game in the form of spells and paths, you really aren’t going go wrong with this book. It’s definitely in the top tier of books that I would recommend for the system, beyond the core offerings.


**** (out of five)

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