The Shadowdark game by Kelsey Dionne of The Arcane Library bills itself as delivering old school gaming with modernized mechanics. Shadowdark hardly rates as the first game with this approach. Into the Unknown (2019) boasts 5E compatibility combined with old-school mechanisms such as “morale, reaction rolls, random encounters, gold for XP, and henchmen.” Still, with a Kickstarter closing in on a million dollars, Shadowdark stands as an unprecedented success.
I played Lost Citadel of the Scarlet Minotaur, an adventure from the Shadowdark free quickstart set, and marveled at how well the game duplicated so much of the charm of D&D in 1974—except with zero confusion over inches, initiative, and what Gary Gygax meant by writing that elves could “freely switch class whenever they choose.” Make that year 1975; Shadowdark has thieves.How does Shadowdark create the experience of early fantasy gaming with rules that echo fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, from the ability score bonuses, to advantage, disadvantage, and inspiration?
Death always seems near
In my Shadowdark party, two characters started with 1 hp and one had 2. Sixty percent of the group would likely drop from a single hit! Those rock bottom numbers come from the game’s randomly rolled hit points and from the lowly stats that result from rolling 3d6 in order. My character suffered a -2 Constitution adjustment. To be fair, Shadowdark offers PCs one advantage over brown box D&D. Characters who drop to 0 can be revived. But stabilizing a character takes a DC 15 check and spells often fail, so forget the popular fifth-edition strategy of just letting characters drop to 0 before healing because damage beyond 0 heals for free.
This risk of sudden death gives Shadowdark a sense of peril that I’ve never felt in a fifth-edition game. That makes for a tense, exciting game.
Treasure is the goal
Shadowdark awards experience points for treasure gained and not for monsters slain. This mirrors the original D&D game, which awarded characters much more experience for winning gold than for killing monsters.
D&D players could take their characters anyplace they chose, but the XP-for-gold mechanic rewarded them for risking the dungeon crawls that made the original game irresistible fun. The lure of gold joined priests and rogues, law and chaos, together with a common goal. Plus the quest for treasure resonated with players. Gary wrote, “If you, the real you, were an adventurer, what would motivate you more than the lure of riches?” (See The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.
Battle becomes a last resort
In addition to rewarding players for seeking fun, the XP-for-gold system offers another benefit: It creates a simple way to award experience points for succeeding at non-combat challenges. As a new character, potentially with 1 hit point, you stand little chance of leveling through combat. Players joke that D&D is about killing things and taking their stuff, but in the original game and in Shadowdark, you are better off using your wits to take stuff. So long as your cunning leads to gold, you get experience.
In modern D&D games, fights routinely drag on until one side is wiped out, often because monsters that surrender or run can spoil the fun unless dungeon masters cope with the hassles of broken morale. To most D&D players, an escape feels like a loss, and nobody likes to lose. But when battle is a dangerous setback in a quest for treasure, monsters who break and run give players a quick and welcome victory. Shadowdark offers morale rolls that make fights quick and unpredictable.
Wandering monsters quicken the pace
Wandering monsters can improve D&D play, mainly by giving players a sense of urgency. Gary recommended “frequent checking for wandering monsters” as a method to speed play. In a perilous game like Shadowdark, players can slow the game with meticulous play, searching everything, checking everything, accomplishing nothing. But the game’s wandering monsters turn time into danger. Every passing minute gives foes more chances to find the party. Wandering monsters rarely carry loot and the XP reward that it brings, so idle characters just face danger with scant reward. Players keep moving, risking the next room in search for treasure.
Players choose their difficulty
In the early D&D game, players chose the amount of difficulty they wanted. Every level of the dungeon corresponded to a level of character, so the first level offered challenges suitable for first-level characters. Players could seek greater challenges—and greater rewards—as they went deeper. This system gives players a choice they rarely get in today’s D&D, and it adds a element of strategy. To lure characters to danger, the 1974 game doubled the number of experience points needed to advance to each level, then matched the increase with similar increases in treasure. (See The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat.)
The Shadowdark quick start game doesn’t explain this approach, but the structure is there. Treasure and XP rewards escalate as characters rise in level, coaxing players to delve as far down as they dare.
This design frees DMs from the burden of designing encounters that make players feel challenged without killing characters. Instead, players decide on the risks they dare to face, and if an encounter proves unbeatable, players can run. After all, skilled players avoid fights.
Success requires conserving resources and planning for escape
In the 1975 Greyhawk supplement to D&D, the 6th-level cleric spell find the path focused on escaping dungeons. “By means of this spell the fastest and safest way out of a trap, maze, or wilderness can be found.” In the original books, the sample tricks and traps aimed to get PCs lost in the dungeon where wandering monsters and dwindling resources might finish a party. When Gary’s shifting rooms and unnoticed slopes made the PCs hopelessly lost, find the path offered a way out. (See Spells that let players skip the dungeons in Dungeons & Dragons.)
Shadowdark includes rules that make dungeons as risky as the underworlds that made find the path merit a 6th-level spell. All characters need light to see, so the guide explains, “In this game, a torch only holds back the pressing darkness for one hour of real-world time. There isn’t a moment to waste when the flames are burning low.” In darkness, the characters suffer disadvantage and wandering monsters rush to prey on the vulnerable.
A supply of torches and other light sources become essential, and the tracking the supply becomes more than bookkeeping. The game boasts a simple encumbrance system that matches the one Runequest offered as an old-school innovation in 1978. Characters can carry one item per point of strength. Torches and other light sources fill those precious inventory slots.
Shadowdark also lifts the burden of totaling time in the dungeon by dropping 10-minute turns in favor of the simple method of making 1 hour of play equal 1 hour in the dungeon. This speeds play by spurring players to act with the same urgency as their characters.
In the game I played, as we lit our last torches, we knew we only had an hour to escape the dungeon with our loot. And the wandering monsters made that escape no sure thing. This made our run to the exit as tense as our descent into the underworld.
Ability checks become unusual
Some gamers say that ability checks make modern D&D less fun. These fans of an older style prefer a game where instead of rolling perception to spot a trap door, characters tap the floor with their 10-foot pole.
Shadowdark includes D&D’s modern rules for d20 ability checks, but the game favors an old-school reluctance to make checks. The Game Master Guide recommends “giving players the opportunity to make decisions that rely on their creativity and wits, not on their dice rolls or stat bonuses.”
Faced with a challenge, players must observe and interact with the game world. Instead of scanning their character sheet for solutions, players rely on their wits and ingenuity. Ideally, the game tests player skill more than character stats.
Characters develop through play.
Before starting my Shadowdark game with my 1 hp character, I joked that I’d just finished writing his 8-page backstory. For modern D&D games, I appreciate players who invest in backstories; for a 1 hp character, such a document is pure folly. Instead, the story of a Shadowdark character evolves from playing the game and from the random luck of the die. Starting with characters rolled using 3d6 in order, Shadowdark asks players and GMs alike to surrender control to the dice. Forget planning a story and nudging characters along. Things like wandering monsters and morale rolls take the game into into an unknowable future. Even when characters advance, they roll their hit points and new talents. This trades the fun of building characters in favor of the challenge of playing a character that fate and the dice delivered. Characters stories begin and end as part in the shared story everyone experienced at the game table. (See D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.)
With so many nods to the D&D of 1975, why play Shadowdark instead? The game gains from a foundation built on the fifth edition rules and the nearly 50 years of innovation in the modern game.
So Shadowdark includes cyclical initiative instead of a reference to a system that only appeared in the Chainmail rules.
In the original D&D game, ability scores hardly mattered. Characters with a high score in the most important ability for their class might get at 10% bonus to XP, but otherwise the scores meant little more than a +1 on certain attacks.
In the Blackmoor campaign that led to D&D, Dave Arneson used ability scores as the basis of tests that resemble modern saving throws or ability checks. “Players would roll against a trait, Strength for example, to see if they were successful at an attempt,” writes Blackmoor scholar D. H. Boggs. However, when Gary penned the D&D rules, he lost that effect. Gary favored estimating the odds and improvising a roll to fit. Now, GMs and player alike prefer a clearer system for deciding whether a character succeeds. The d20 mechanic delivers that transparency. (See How Dungeons & Dragons Got Its Ability Scores and Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D.)
Rather than the system of ranges and movement in inches that made sense to a tiny audience of miniature wargamers fluent in inches on a sand table, Shadowdark puts distances into close (5 feet), near (up to 30 feet), and far (within sight during an encounter or scene). You can still play on a grid, but narrative battles play fine too.
Gary’s early games would sometimes put as many as 20 players into a party. The 1975 D&D tournament at Origins gathered parties of 12 for a trip into the Tomb of Horrors. Such large parties designated a caller to speak for the group. Nowadays, gamers speak for themselves. In Shadowdark, everyone takes turns, even outside of combat. No one feels like a spectator. Disciplined parties avoid scattering and becoming easy prey for wandering monsters.
As for elves switching classes, Shadowdark opts for the the 1979 innovation of separating race and class, and the 2020-something innovation of calling “race” something else (ancestry).
As a mix of old and new, Shadowdark lands in a good place.