Way back when I first backed the Shadow of the Demon Lord Kickstarter, I hadn't played as much Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition as I have now. I am really close to saying that 5th edition may be my favorite edition of D&D that I have played, and it's done a lot to rekindle my love of D&D specifically, after avoiding anything D&D-like for several years.
I bring that up only to illustrate that--at the time--I was still looking for alternatives to scratch my fantasy roleplaying itch. I wasn't drawn in specifically because it was a dark fantasy setting, or due to any of the themes of the game. It looked like an interesting take on the genre, and it was being made by Robert Schwalb, who was a name I recognized and associated with quality products in the past.
Shadow of the Demon Lord, to date, is probably the roleplaying Kickstarter I'm happiest to have participated in. That isn't to diminish any other Kickstarter that I have helped to fund, but the investment to return ratio on this game was insane. Like, to the point to where I almost feel guilty about how much cool material I have gotten.
When I'm doing these reviews, I like having a fairly good sized product to dig into. I like giving details, looking at what I think worked and what didn't, and letting people know what's in a product. Because of that, I tend to avoid shorter products, like the Glimmers produced by Monte Cook Games for their Cypher System games, and unfortunately, a lot of good products that released as part of the Shadow of the Demon Lord line. Thankfully, there are still quite a few longer form products that have released for Shadow of the Demon Lord, and since I'm running a game online on my YouTube channel, I thought this would be a good time to share some reviews.
The first of these reviews is going to be on the lower end of products--by page count--that I would usually tackle. In this case, the Forbidden Rules supplement.
What Do These Poisoned Pages Look Like?
Like many of the Shadow of the Demon Lord books, Forbidden Rules has a grey parchment background and a stylized red border that sets the tone for the setting that it is portraying. The formatting is attractive, clear, and evocative of a dark fantasy setting, while not being too artistic to be easily readable. The artwork is a little more sparse than in some of the Shadow of the Demon Lord offerings, appearing every five or so pages, and is largely recycled from other products. Despite that, it is really high quality fantasy artwork. The page count of the PDF comes in at 36 pages.
The Big Picture
Usually I would break a product down chapter by chapter, but essentially what you have is one large chapter of optional rules, broken down by what type of optional rules you have. Rather than create a mob of headings, I'll paint with a broader brush this time around.
The broad options in the book include optional rules for die rolls, corruption, fortune points, damage-reducing armor, wounds, simplified death and dying, variant healing, social combat, combat, abstract combat, chases, character creation, skills, skill categories, the adept novice path, simplified armor, simplified weapons, variant magic, downtime, and beyond level 10. That's a lot of options.
The core rulebook has a lot of simple rules, but there are many of them that layer into a more complex system. Because of the structure of how many of these rules interact, it's very easy to take one of the modular sections of the rules and swap it out for something else. That's completely what this product is--a collection of modules that can be swapped out for a different way of resolving one aspect of the system.
Die roll options include conventions such as the players rolling all dice, making combat into opposed tests, fixed damage to cut down on die rolls, and switching out the d20 for a more flat probability curve of rolling d6s.
Playing With the Existing Rules
Corruption covers more Marks of Darkness to use in the game (permanent alterations in a character from their contact with external or internal evil). Fortune points cover scaling back the Fortune mechanic so that it's a little less potent, but so that characters gain more points to use over the course of a session.
Damage-Reducing Armor covers what happens if you want armor to absorb damage instead of making a character harder to hit, and there are additional rules for changing the value of wounds to adjust for this. There is also a section on simplifying the death and dying Fate rolls down to a single roll, or changing the game to add instant death rules. There are variant rules for introducing "healing surges," similar to what some d20 systems in the past have done, into the game, as well as introducing longer healing times.
Combat, Social and Otherwise
The core game already mentions multiple approaches to performing social tests. This section broadens the rules to what amounts to health for social encounters versus influence as damage. In addition to creating a system of social "attacks" that seek to overcome the resolve of a character, there are a number of actions other characters can take to add boons to their allies or determine what approaches will work best on the NPC. It adds a few options for those characters that aren't themselves the face of the group.
There are sections on combat, abstract combat, and chases, which all effect how the standard combat encounters will play out. There are rules for converting the game to a more traditional initiative structure, new actions, zones, and how that affects movement and ranges, and the resolution phase for playing out combat as a chase. It may be my bias, by my least favorite aspect of this section was the initiative options, in part because they end with "there are probably some other rules that interact with this stuff that you will have to figure out how to deal with," in so many words. The initiative system is one of the big selling points for me, so reintroducing traditional initiative is one of the last things I'd do, anyway.
Character creation, skills, and skill categories are next. This introduces a more "old school" randomization option to character stats, as well as introducing a more granular structure for traditional skills. There is also a section on rules that simplify weapon damage and armor ratings so that things fall more into light/medium/heavy categories for armor and weapons.
The Adept is introduced as a novice path, that changes the structure of how magical traditions are learned and used. There are also variant magic rules that substitute power points for number of castings, and again, there is a larger section that explores how this changes existing rules and spells.
Between sessions, you can introduce a downtime roll to see what happens before the next adventure. In a manner that is truly indicative of the personality of the game, there are some wonderfully over the top results that can occur between sessions. You can gain or lose money, find some trinkets or magic items, or gain contacts or enemies. All of that is not unexpected for downtime rolls.
Where these charts really shine are options like waking up naked in a field with a tattoo and no memory of what happened t, or dying between sessions. There is always the option to have the character raised, off screen, so you aren't actually losing your character to a die roll, just adding a really extreme circumstance to what happened to them. Additionally, the GM can allow a character killed in this manner to access the undead ancestries in some of the supplements, like Revenant or Vampire.
If you couldn't tell, this is probably my favorite part of the book.
Beyond Level 10
This is an interesting section, where going beyond the established maximum level doesn't shift you into a new "epic level" scale of levels, but gives you some advancements each time you would get a level. These advancements are suitably potent, but overall, there are fewer changes to a character at this level than what happens when gaining a level for the first 10 levels of the game. For example, you gain one health each level, and then pick from a chart of Legendary Talents for each level advance.
These Legendary Talents include things like being able to read and write all languages, getting a permanent boon to attack rolls, increasing your Power score by 1, or you can just stop aging. They feel epic, but they also feel as if the first few Legendary Advancements aren't going to radically alter how 10th level play would normally unfold.
One of the biggest strengths of the Shadow of the Demon Lord game is the personality and tone set by the story elements, and there is very little in this supplement that reinforces that. Some of the alternate rules, like initiative and power points, seem to alter very fundamental aspects of the game, and don't seem as well integrated into the core assumptions of the game.
Most of the rules in this work the way many rules do in the core rulebook, meaning that you can swap out a "module" of the game without changing much of the rest of the game. Rules like social combat and chases, for example, add complexity to a given section of the game, but that complexity doesn't cascade out of the section of the game where they are used. Downtime rules would be great to port into any dark fantasy game where there is a gap between adventures, and the Beyond Level 10 rules summarize on one page what other game systems have introduced hundreds of pages to try and express.
One of the things that is very nice about this supplement is that if you don't like an aspect of the game, it's likely that there is a modular solution to be found in this supplement. With a few exceptions, the solutions don't rewrite large sections of the game. While there isn't much in the way of story content, even things like the downtime entries and the Legendary Talents go a long way to reinforcing a certain style that pervades the game.
Normally something that is this rules heavy, even if it was a solid supplement, wouldn't score this high from me, but the fact that it can be used to customize the game to bring in more players, and the fact that adjusting the rules really helps players to understand how the core rules work in the first place, and I've got to give this one high marks. It's not something people will regret buying, if they are fans of the game, and they might even get some good ideas if they aren't fans of the game.
**** (out of 5)