Rob Schwalb’s Shadow the Demon Lord (SOTDL) is an excellent system, and a great one for con games and one-shots. A grimdark fantasy world of demons and apocalypse a shade or two more gonzo than Warhammer and the like, it’s also the system for a post-apocalypse game, Punkapocalyptic. I’ve run several games of both of them as one-shots, and a full campaign of SODTL, and there’s a lot to recommend it.
It’s d20-adjacent with a Boon/Bane dice system that reduces the spread of numbers and keeps everything quick and easy, and has some really neat system tweaks that come into play. On a read through, you might think it’s a drifted d20 system game, but in play it feels very different – in a good way – and it’s built for pace. There’s plenty of examples of Rob running it on his podcast, and they are a great example of a fast-paced game. Here are five recommendations I’d made if you want to bring it to a con.
Start at the right level
Shadow has a great advancement system, where you start out at 0-level, then add a core class at 1st level, an expert class at 3rd, and a master class at 7th – making your character get gradually more defined and niched as you advance. For a one-shot, I’d start somewhere between 2nd and 4th level – 3rd level gives the Expert class, which creates some nice wedge issues between PCs, and will give players a few options in combat without being overwhelming.
In campaign play, PCs have a lot of options past 7th level, which would be a bit overwhelming in a one-shot, including options that break initiative order and allow them to make their allies make immediate attacks – I’d steer away from those as this will slow down a system that works best played at pace.
It would be easy to read the guidance on building encounters as gospel, and follow it rigorously for your players. But in truth, this isn’t a tightly-balanced game like D&D or Pathfinder – not all the classes are necessarily equally good in combat, for instance, and some of the monsters at a certain Threat Level can vary a lot in lethality. Use the guidance as a starting point (and, for one-shots, in all systems, you should have no medium-difficulty fights – it’s easy to let the players show off, or hard to make them sweat) and then have a careful read of the opponents powers. You might need to adjust up or down. I found running published adventures I quite often had to adjust, and often adjust up, the opposition, but that may have been informed by my group’s “play hard” approach to character building.
Reskin, reskin, reskin
The bestiary in SOTDL is generous – you have lots of easily adaptable monsters and NPCs that, as in any game, are easy to reskin to whatever you want. I made my Punkapocalyptic players fight an animatronic Owlbear that was just another stat block, and in SOTDL “Large Monster” stood in for an awful lot of opponents in my campaign. The system is sufficiently fast and loose that your players won’t know.
Fast Turns and Slow Turns
SODTL’s initiative system is weird, and took me a while to get used to. PCs take a Fast Turn or a Slow Turn; on a Slow Turn you can do two (different) actions, but Fast turns (from both the PCs and the opponents) go first. It took me a while to get this right, but in play, just shout “Fast Turns” – whichever player shouts first, they go first; then all the other player fast turns, then the opponents, then player Slow Turns, then opponent Slow Turns. If somebody takes too long to respond and doesn’t shout up for the Fast Turn, they must be taking a Slow Turn. Giving it this degree of pace really helps combat to flow fast.
I added a ‘house rule’ that I think is an actual rule in Punkapocalyptic that you could use an action to assist an ally, granting them a Boon on their next role. This worked really well and made Slow Turns worth taking, and the players narrated what they did to give their ally a bonus in the next round which was all good action scene stuff.
Steady with the dick jokes
The gonzo-ness of SOTDL, and especially Punkapocalyptic, does contain some references that you might want to shade over in convention play or in a one-shot with people that you don’t know. A PC starting the game with a gym bag full of sex toys, or a wizard losing his genitals due to Corruption, is all good clean fun if everyone at the table is up for that, but – even with safety tools in play – I’d suggest isn’t necessarily as fun for strangers.
As with every safety discussion, it’s not just how you react to it – it’s how all the players react to it that might make it an awkward situation. So in a one-shot, I’d reign in some of the more scatological aspects of the settings – it’s not as if there isn’t enough flavour there already – just to avoid any risk of this.
To conclude, SOTDL is a great one-shot, and deserves to be run more at conventions, either online or face to face. The Roll20 character sheet is a good implementation as well, and fairly straightforward for the players to use, although the system is such you could easily just use an A/V setup and have all the players roll their own dice. There’s an absolute pile of published material for it, as well, from adventures to entire campaigns and short supplements on parts of the setting – you’ll never run out of stuff for it. What have your experiences been with SOTDL / Punkapocalyptic? Let me know in the comments, or on twitter @milnermaths
A ‘play hard’ approach to character building? I think we just picked the obvious stuff to be honest. Our wizard got more wizardy, our fighter got more fightery, our ninja got more ninja, and I became a decidedly non-optimal admiral… I reckon it’s just a bit broken at high levels.
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