Shadowdark review

As a Kickstarter backer for Shadowdark I have read the PDF and my bottom line is it’s a really great game that skillfully synthesizes many different ideas and mechanics. If you were turned off by the hype, don’t be. I see it as a really well executed effort for what it intends to accomplish. I suggest you consider if you’re in the market for that type of game, and if so check out the free quickstart guide. My own feeling is that in some ways it is what I’d been waiting for, but explaining why requires a digression.

I originally started playing with Mentzer Basic and AD&D, then took a few decades off, and then got back into D&D as a player in a 5e campaign (but which had an OSR sensibility). My initial reaction to 5e was “wow, they fixed D&D.” A lot of OSR people will tell you descending armor class is familiar but even back in the 1980s I thought “this is backwards.” I know now some of those changes are things 5e inherited from 3e, but I was coming to 5e straight from AD&D and so I was thinking of it as fixing confusing and inconsistent mechanics problems with AD&D not dialing back some of the crunch that was introduced by 3e.

Over time, I came to sour on 5e as it suffered from late edition player option bloat and came to be dominated by a YA style culture and got interested in the OSR as an escape from both the “optimal build” and “orcs are racist” mentalities. I read over half a dozen OSR rules sets, being especially excited to read Five Torches Deep as I still basically liked the 5e core mechanics and so FTD seemed promising. My notes on FTD appreciate that it inherits key 5e mechanics like d20 resolution, single XP scale, and ascending AC as well as several improvements on 5e like eliminating darkvision, abstracting weapon damage to be about one vs two-handed and martial vs. simple, and a “supply” mechanic reminiscent of “preparedness” in Gumshoe. So given that there’s a lot to like in Five Torches Deep why don’t I play it? Well, here is the last paragraph of my notes:

[FTD is] not so much a game that grafts the best OSR ideas onto 5e as a set of notes on how to do so. As written, all by itself, it is unplayable. You need the 5e PHB (not a big deal) and a lot of work to adapt it. For instance, if you play a warrior with the ranger archetype, you can choose a feat of “adv to track or hunt.” What are the rules for tracking? A wisdom roll? FTD doesn’t tell us so the DM needs to make it up or look it up in 5e PHB. Another example, there are references to healer’s kit as an inventory item but what does it do? There are a lot of cases like this. A bit like how OD&D didn’t make sense unless you were an experienced wargamer, FTD won’t make sense unless you are an experienced 5e player. This is especially disappointing as there’s a 5e SRD so there’s no legal reason FTD couldn’t be written to be playable. I’d say it’s laziness but it has great layout and art so they obviously weren’t lazy. I suspect they prioritized making it short and sweet. Inshallah there will someday be Moldvay or Holmes edition of FTD that actually makes sense. On that day I suspect it will be my top pick for OSR, or even F20 in general.

With the publication of Shadowdark we finally have what I was hoping FTD would be: a game that blends the core mechanics of 5e with the sensibility and best mechanics of the OSR.

As everyone knows, Shadowdark is an OSR version of 5e. This is true insofar as Shadowdark uses d20 and advantage/disadvantage, thief skills integrated with ability checks, and long rest for HP recovery. What “Shadowdark is OSR 5e” misses is that the game borrows ideas widely and in many ways is a greatest hits mélange of modern game design.

  • The magic system is not Vancian but a Dungeon Crawl Classics style roll-to-cast with mishaps system. This goes some way to addressing the “linear fighter vs. exponential wizard” problem since wizards can cast multiple times at first level but when a wizard gets to high level they find their high level spells are hard to cast successfully. Also from DCC there is an optional level 0 funnel.
  • Index Card RPG is the source of various mechanics, including abstracting distance to close/near/far.
  • There is slot-based encumbrance as pioneered by Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
  • The hexcrawl rules are similar to those of Swords & Wizardry, which pleased me since B/X hexcrawl rules are overly generous.
  • Like many Gumshoe system games, there are “modes” for adjusting play to be harder, easier, or just emulate a different subgenre.
  • From Jeff Rients’s blog there is a carousing XP mechanic.
  • Finally, like Tome of Adventure Design or the Crawford Without Number games there are lots of tables. Indeed, the random encounter tables are not the B/X standard of [creature name] and then you check the entry in the bestiary and see to expect 2d4 x 10 of [creature name]. Rather the random encounter tables (which include not only different biomes but also different types of urban neighborhoods) are more like hooks. For instance, here are a few entries from the swamp encounter table “a headless scarecrow stands on a rock holding a lit lantern,” “Sir Augrim, a knight, is stuck up to his neck in quicksand,” “a group of rival [adventurers] prods at a half-sunken menhir.”

I want to be clear that I am not knocking Shadowdark as “unoriginal.” Rather I appreciate that Kelsey Dionne has great taste and has skillfully curated, synthesized, and in many cases improved a lot of game elements. Even if you could do this yourself, there is value in being able to tell people beyond your regular group (eg, at a con or an open table) “I am running Shadowdark” rather than “I am running an OSR game with a lot of cool house rules, see the PDF on my Google Drive for the complete list of them.”

There are also a lot of original elements (or at least ones where I didn’t recognize the source). The famous one as alluded to in the title is that light is a big deal. No PC races have darkvision (which eliminates the incentive for a Star Wars cantina party) and torches are relatively bulky. And torch duration is based on real time rather than in-universe time. I’m not sure how I feel about that but it is intended to incentivize rapid decision-making.

A less discussed but very smart game design choice is the level advancement system. Aside from hit dice and known spells, PCs do not gain any particular class abilities when they level. PCs don’t even gain a to-hit bonus as they level. Rather, on odd-numbered levels the PC rolls on a class-specific 2d6 bell curve “talents” table. The result might be a “to hit” bonus or an ability score improvement, but it could also be “gain weapon mastery with one additional weapon type” or “gain advantage on casting one spell you know” (remember, it’s DCC style roll to cast). This system is a bit like feats in that it makes each fighter, each thief, etc. unique but it avoids the choice paralysis / system mastery problem of feats in that there aren’t many of them, they’re all simple, and the choice is randomized.

Some more scattered thoughts:

  • The GM screen is mostly an NPC fluff generator which is, ahem, certainly a choice. I don’t recommend buying it unless you do a ton of social pillar. The stuff you would usually consider DM screen material is on the inside front and back cover pages (like Lamentations). I suggest printing these pages out for easy reference.
  • There is great B&W art in various styles. The “ten-eyed oracle” (beholder) on the cover is metal af and the art generally sets a sword & sorcery tone but some of the art is a bit cartoony (as was also true of AD&D DMG).
  • There is a standard magic item list but also a creative system for generating magic items with options for the “blessing + curse” approach.
  • I watched a (recorded) livestream of Kelsey Dionne, the designer, as she designed the optional ranger class for that game. She’s extremely likeable with a very strong knowledge of D&D history, an OSR sensibility, and a strong sense of game design. I can see why all the big personalities were so happy to hype her Kickstarter.
  • There are no rules for hirelings, retainers, or henchmen.
  • Many spells have no savings throws, especially the artillery style evocation spells. Some spells get a save by an ability check. Turn undead is a contested roll modified by the caster’s WIS and the undead’s CHA mods. In effect this makes turn undead less level-dependent and more effective at low levels.
  • XP is based on treasure but it’s abstracted, not strict GP=XP. A corollary is this allows treasure to be considerably more stingy/realistic than the inflated expectations of most old school D&D. I like the Shadowdark approach but it requires adapting treasure given in modules written for S&W, OSE, or OSRIC.

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