Sunday, October 1, 2023

Playing Shadowdark

 This last month, we played 4 games of Shadowdark. The point of this exercise was to test the game to see what we liked and what we didn't. This is in part due to over all dissatisfaction with Dungeons & Dragons 5E. Don't get me wrong, I like 5E, it is probably the best version of the game to date. However, it does have some problems that do need to be addressed. First and foremost being, combat is slow, and I mean really slow. We tend to play 2-3 hours, if there is a fight, that is about all we do that evening. Another issue is there are just so many choices and variations, that characters get encumbered with so many powers and abilities that it becomes difficult to know what do in any given situation. Over the last couple of years, I have noticed my players tend to play their character sheets rather than their characters.

I am going to start with the things I liked about Shadowdark and then I will move into the things I really didn't care for.

First, character generation was interesting, we have not used completely randomized ability scores for a very long time, so it was interesting to see what the dice gave every one. We rolled 3d6 in order, but I allowed each player to swap two attributes, to give them some flexibility. It was fun to see my players lean into the whole "Play what you roll" shtick. One player went so far as to roll his class randomly and ended up a Wizard with an Intelligence of 9. 

Second, combat was a breeze, there was no waiting for players to decide what they were going to do. The first session was getting characters rolled up and then a short introductory session starting in a tavern. There was a bar fight, but it went down fast and the rest of the session was all RP. The next three games, we managed to get through 2-3 encounters each session, something was basically impossible in 5E.

The torches burning in real time kept the players on task. It really makes a difference in how they play when there are resources that need to be managed and timers just waiting to hit zero. We have had sessions where they group moved 10 feet in 3 hours of play, there was none of that here, they kept moving.

Now for the things either I did not like or my players did not like.

Roll to cast magic, while an interesting idea on paper, did not play out well in game. There were two Clerics in the party and there were times when neither of them could cast Cure Wounds. This was very frustrating, not just for those players but everyone in the game. The problem was two fold, first the DC of 10 + Spell Tier is too high, all of the spell casters were failing 50% of their rolls, for the Clerics it was not terrible because they could still attack, but the Wizard was just done. This probably needs to be 7 + Spell Tier so a Tier 1 spell gets successfully cast 60-70% of the time. The second issue is once they failed a roll, they could not cast the spell again they rested, but because of the resource management issues, resting was difficult and even counter productive.

Encumbrance is never fun, it is a book keeping chore that no one really wants to do. I have to give credit to the game designer, they really did try to make it as simple as possible with the gear slot mechanic. Unfortunately, it was still not fun. I am not going to advocate for for letting the party carry whatever the fuck they want, but I do think a maximum of 18 slots and the average being more like 10 or 12 is too low. This basically encourages the players to do ridiculous things like bringing mules into dungeons, or exiting the dungeon every time they find even a little treasure. I think probably making gear slots 15 or Strength x 1.5, whichever is higher is probably good. I think I would also make items of negligible weight, basically anything that weighs less than a pound, should be 1/4 or 1/2 of a gear slot. A dagger should not take up the same number of gear slots as a longsword.

While there is something to be said about limiting choices players have for classes and ancestries, I think Shadowdark takes it too far back to just four classes and six ancestries. Fortunately there are enough 3rd party supplements out there that I can bring the game into parity with 5E. Players should be able to play interesting characters and the game should not be human centric, if the players and GM don't want it to be.

Over all, I enjoyed running the game and my players did enjoy trying it out. I think they especially liked the Gloaming setting from Cursed Scrolls #1. It is very different from my Caldoom setting or something like the Forgotten Realms. It is a darker fantasy world, but is not so grim and dark as there is no hope or happiness in the world. I am leaning towards using Shadowdark for my next campaign, however, I will be house ruling the things we didn't like.

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