Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Shadow of the Demon Lord vs. Dungeons & Dragons: Ancestries and Races

My comparative review of Shadow of the Demon Lord and 5e D&D continues! This time we're looking at ancestries and races.

Somewhat presciently, although perhaps the writing was already on the wall in 2015, Shadow of the Demon Lord eschews "race" as a designation, substituting instead "ancestry." The ancestries available in the core book include humans, changelings, clockworks, dwarves, goblins, and orcs.

Overall, I like the way SotDL presents the game's ancestries. They are briefly described, but there are interestingly elements here that give even the usual suspects a bit of additional interest. For example, orcs in Shadow of the Demon Lord are a magically engineered race who were used as slave soldiers by the Empire, but they have recently cast off their shackles and claimed the Empire's throne as their own. 

Each ancestry entry also gives a brief set of starting special abilities. Dwarves, for example, have darkvision, a hated enemy they're especially proficient at fighting, and a heightened ability to resist poison. One thing I really appreciate about SotDL's ancestries in comparison to D&D's races is that the amount of abilities an ancestry adds to your character sheet is far less than what the typical D&D race adds. And, frankly, D&D races add a loft of cruft, abilities you feel obligated to note but will get very little use out of; when was the last time you used your wood elf's Mask of the Wild ability or even remembered what it does?

Shadow of the Demon Lord's Ancestries also determine your character's starting attribute scores. You don't roll your ability scores in SotDL; rather, each ancestry lists the typical attribute array for each ancestry. A goblin, for example, starts with: Strength 8, Agility 12, Intellect 10, Will 9. (Yes, SotDL has four attributes compared to D&D six ability scores; frankly, this is a great way to cut down D&D's obligatory six ability scores in a way that makes more sense.) 

You can customize these starting attributes a bit in SotDL by raising one of them by a point and lowering another by a point. I do wonder how well this fits the recent move toward the idea that ancestry (or race, species, etc.) should not determine "essential" attributes as a bulwark against biological determination in fantasy rpgs. Personally, I don't mind how Shadow of the Demon Lord does it; although you have to penalize one of your attribute scores to get there, it's still possible to make a dwarf with above-average intelligence who would make a competent magician.

Each ancestry entry is capped off by a series of random tables to determine things like age, appearance, background, personality, etc. The kind of backstory material that D&D offloads to its backgrounds is rolled into ancestry in SotDLIn general, I like the array of starting ancestries available in SotDL's core book. There are some familiar faces, as well as some intriguing additions that give the game it's own flavor. D&D gives you the races that long-time players have come to expect; SotDL, on the other hand, marks a point of difference by offering clockwork automatons and changelings. 

One thing you may have noticed is that elves are not available for play in SotDL's core book. Not to be all Talislanta about it, but no elves... Although they are included in the fey-specific supplement, and they're given a makeover as horrifically cruel, beautiful, and alien, not putting them in the core product for SotDL is another way of setting some expectations about how the game is different.

Other ancestries, including some now-common fantasy types omitted from the core book such as halflings and the tiefling-like cambions, can be found in the game's supplements. SotDL even goes to some surprisingly weird places that D&D seems too timid to attempt. For example, it's possible for players to play both tiny pixies or huge jotun. The jotun are especially satisfying, particularly in comparison to D&D's goliath. Both are "giantkin," but because D&D's goliaths are still "medium" in size, the don't really have any abilities that play into the hulking and powerful story that the race promises. Jotun, on the other hand, use larger, more damaging weapons and are designated as a "powerful ancestry," meaning they get their own suite of giant-flavored abilities where characters of other ancestries are instead getting abilities from their "paths" (we'll get to them, but for now all you need to know is that a path is like a class in D&D). In a direct comparison, jotun "feel" like giants, whereas goliaths feel like any other "strong" D&D race.

SotDL also isn't afraid to get a little weird. There are cockroach people, mole-men, undead revenants, just to name a few of the more exotic choices available.

One last thing I want to mention before moving on to those paths I mentioned above: each ancestry grants an additional ability to a character at level four. Players usually have a choice between taking this ability or having their character learn a spell if they are magically inclined. I like that ancestry continues to be relevant and not just something you pick at character creation. D&D sometimes does something similar; some races gain additional abilities as your characters levels up, but that isn't true across the board and it's often easy to overlook that your fallen aasimar gets a Necrotic Shroud at 3rd level. In SotDL, every ancestry potentially gives you a little flavorful ability at the same level.