Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? The Hunger in the Void (Shadow of the Demon Lord)

Previously, we looked at some rules heavy supplements for Shadow of the Demon Lord. While the mechanical resolutions in the game tend to be fairly straightforward, there are lots of modular elements in the game that allow for various sliders when it comes to complexity and granularity in the game. Individual elements don’t tend to be too complicated, but there can be a lot of elements.
Those supplements hinted at the assumed setting and tone of the game, but the ratio of rules to story elements was fairly high. For anyone wondering if this is common in the Shadow of the Demon Lord books, I’d say no. Most of the supplements are much more steeped in story elements than Forbidden Rules or the Demon Lord’s Companion.



For proof, I’m going to offer The Hunger in the Void, a supplement dealing with demons as they exist in the Shadow of the Demon Lord setting, and their home, the place between realities known as the Void.

What Form Does it Assume?

The Hunger in the Void, like many of the supplemental sourcebooks to the Shadow of the Demon Lord line, has slightly different formatting than the core book. The pages are yellow parchment instead of grey, and the border is dark red and black, in a wispy pattern that evokes the feeling of red mist swirling in the dark. There are a lot of illustrations in this book, and befitting the material covered, it can be both beautiful and disturbing. The formatting remains very clear and easy to read, despite artistic embellishments. The supplement is 80 pages in PDF, including the index, front and back covers, and an ad at the back.

The cover should be a warning but it should be stated that this supplement has some disturbing imagery and descriptions. While the core book touches on some of these themes, and the rules supplements hint at darker topics, this one dives right in.



The Shadow Darkens

The first section of the book broadly explains the Void, gives some variations of the previously introduced Void Larva (including mob versions of the creatures), and details Void Stains (fading but still dangerous evidence of past incursions into reality). There is also a large section on Shadows of the Demon Lord, which we’ll go into next.

Shadows of the Demon Lord are the campaign frameworks that serve to push the narrative towards the concept that reality is falling apart as the power of the Demon Lord draws near. Each “tier” of the character’s career has a corresponding section for the how the Shadow grows, which might be large scale campaign events, mechanical effects that alter how the rules of the game work (magic, weather, survival tests), or possibly both. The final section of each of these details how the world (or the universe) finally falls apart if the player characters are unable to reverse the incursion of the Demon Lord into their reality.

The core rulebook contains a few of these, but there is a much larger section included in this book, including scenarios where the sun turns black, plants run wild, organizations become corrupted by cultists, unkillable monsters awaken, fae form the Wild Hunt, the dead begin to walk, radiation causes mass mutations, demon princes show up, and a host of other calamities. Some of these Shadows are subtle, and may not even directly affect the PCs until late in the campaign if they don’t pick up on some of the clues. Others are going to alter the tone of the campaign right from the beginning.
I really love this section, in part because if you have ever been stuck for an overriding theme to a campaign, this is a whole chapter on how a larger threat might be introduced and grow. In fact, these are great campaign seeds even if you aren’t playing Shadow of the Demon Lord, and even if “the” Demon Lord isn’t your big bad.

Servants of the Void

This chapter presents several cults that directly or indirectly work for the Demon Lord, hastening the end of the world. In addition to the cults presented, there is a brief section on playing as followers of the Demon Lord (not the default assumption, even with the bleaker tone of the game), and new magic for the game.

The chapter takes a good amount of time to explain that most of these cults don’t fully realize that their actions are hastening the end of the world, although some in positions of leadership have become so corrupted or seized by madness that they are willingly working to open the world to the Void. Each cult makes for an interesting read, and while all are presented as being active in the campaign setting, it’s probably going to be best if you limit your campaign to just a few of them.

Several of the cults tie in nicely with one or more of the Shadows of the Demon Lord presented in the previous chapter. I also think it’s worth noting that, like the rest of this book, this chapter is just very readable. It presents cogent information for a campaign, and doesn’t skimp on details, but it’s so clear and easy to grasp the information presented, and the plot hooks, while not explicitly called out in every entry, present themselves very clearly.

Beasts of the Demon Lord

Beast Men are the foot soldiers of the Demon Lord, so they get some more detail in this section. Formors, Wargs, and Minotaurs get the spotlight, usually including an upgraded “hero” example of each race (wow, those Void Bulls are an upgrade from normal Minotaurs), but the chapter also introduces Bugbears. Bugbears are much more literally bear like than the D&D variety, and they tend to represent the loners of beast mankind.

There are also rules for playing as Beast Men, although it’s called out that this would make for a strange campaign, and that the rules are mainly presented for GMs that want to build an NPC beast man from the ground up, rather than modifying a monster stat block.

Demons

The chapter on demons goes into some extra detail on demonic possession, summoning, and binding. Then there is a huge section on randomly generating unique demons, followed by a few example demon princes (super powerful demons that have developed more of a personality and recurring habits than less powerful demons).

One of the things that strikes me about this chapter is that it’s really a showcase of one of the mechanical strengths of Shadow of the Demon Lord. The rules for creating more detailed, random demons can sit right alongside the “generic” demons presented in the core rules, and the possession rules build on and add some depth to the previous rules, without fully replacing them. You can snap on more complexity, but if you don’t want to keep using that extra complexity, it doesn’t spiral out into other aspects of the game, so it’s easy to scale back again later.

Secrets of the Void

This is some deep, cosmic level campaign setting information in this section. Like “the meaning of life” and “where does everything come from” level of detail. The cosmology is a little bleak, but very interesting, and makes perfect sense for the tone of the setting and everything that has been revealed previous to the publication of this book.

In addition to the high concept setting information, there are details on what the Void itself is like. Since some fragments of destroyed universes might drift into the Void, it is actually possible to adventure in (and even have a whole campaign within) the Void. Rules for navigating and surviving the Void are presented, as well as a few sample locations in the Void. I was actually fairly surprised at how useful the Void could be as an adventure location.

The book also presents Incarnations, the shattered spirits that have been trying to hold reality together, who might possess mortals to complete their ambitions. They don’t retain full knowledge of their past, but they do have a drive to keep the universe from falling apart. The mechanics of the ancestry mean that you effectively track two separate characters, in case the Incarnation transfers themselves to another host.

Incarnations almost remind me of angels from Supernatural, but I’m not going to go into too many details, because there really are some big cosmic twists in this chapter. While the concept of playing them is intriguing, it does feel a bit complicated and heavy on the book keeping. The nice thing is that it is even mentioned in the ancestry write up that if the player choses, they can just regress to the mortal that the Incarnation was inhabiting as their core character if they don’t want to continue with that character.

Growing Shadow

The stark setting and brutal art and descriptions mean this book isn’t going to be for everyone. Incarnations might be a bit too complicated to live up to their fun potential. Some of the descriptions of cult behavior start to feel gratuitous.

Surviving the Void

Even if you aren’t playing Shadow of the Demon Lord, the Shadows serve as amazing campaign templates. The cults are easily portable to other campaigns with a few name changes. The cosmology is so deep that it could serve as a great template for other dark fantasy settings, especially with those with a Lovecraftian twist to them.


Escaping the Void

If you are the type of person that enjoys actual dark fantasy settings, this book is a joy to read. The campaign frameworks and cosmological information is great as inspirational material. If you are using this expressly for Shadow of the Demon Lord, you will most likely want to have this product in your collection. It is a great showcase of design work, blended extremely well with the story elements of the default campaign setting. The only thing that keeps me from rating it higher is the fact that the material, by its nature, isn’t going to be to some fantasy gamer’s tastes.

**** (out of five)

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