Wow. This one creeped up on me out of nowhere. And I probably would have just passed it by. I’ve seen too often the blurb that combines old school and modern design that have left me saying that ain’t old school.
Let me first tell the little story of how stumble across this gem. I was just perusing my way around DrivethruRPG and I stumbled across The Nightmare at Castle Goldgloom. Hey, this is an old school adventure that’s compatible with Shadowdark. OK, what’s Shadowdark? Hmm. It isn’t on Drivethru so let’s do a quick Internet search which lead me to the Arcane Library and the beta Rules for Shadowdark. And this explains a lot why I hadn’t noticed it before. Kelsey at the Arcane Library has been doing primarily (and apparently successfully) creating 5E content and as most readers know, I haven’t really paid attention to that much of the 5E content especially stuff on DM’s Guild. Don’t let that stop you here. Shadowdark has some strong OSR DNA.
Let me start with basics. You’ve got the classic classes: Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User and Thief. Yes, Thief and not Rogue. And yes, they have a d4 Hit Die. For Races, there’s pretty much the standards: Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, and Half Orc plus Goblins are thrown in as a race. And yes Race is separate from Class. Task resolution and Saving Throws are handled with Attribute checks (d20+Mod) with any additional modifiers from Class. Shadowdark uses Ascending AC.
Since most readers here are interesting in the old school style of play, let me start there. For Attributes, it’s 3d6 in order. You can’t get more old school than that. There’s an option to start a campaign with 0 Level characters (ala Dungeon Crawl Classics) or 1st Level characters. It uses the old school three Alignment system (Law, Neutral, and Chaos). And Encumbrance is handled with a Strength based slot system similar to Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Scattered throughout the PDF are many of the traditional bits of advice like those found in Matt Finch’s Old School Primer. You know the drill. The answer to a problem isn’t on your character sheet. Rulings not rules. Go ahead and houserule to make the game fit your group’s style. Player Skill vs Character Skill and so on. These are great bit advice for those new to the old school style.
Let me talk about the modern and new game mechanics that snuck into the Shadowdark. It does use the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic (which I think is the neatest thing to come out of 5E). There is a metagame currency in Luck Points which are a bit like Inspiration but not quite. Experience is handled a bit differently but you still can get XP for Treasure. The neat thing about Leveling is how character improvement is handled. On odd levels (1, 3, 5, 7, 9), each class gains a Talent. Here’s the catch it’s random. Each class has a random table to roll on to see what the character gets at that level.
There’s one mechanic that I thought was cool and I’m not sure if originates from another game. Torches last one of real time. Not game time. Real time. I like that because it actually puts some pressure on the players to move ahead and not mess around.
Magic (both arcane and divine) uses a roll to cast system. Fail or fumble and bad things can happen. The spells keep to the basics and take more inspiration from the old school versions rather than the newer ones. Like Power Word Kill: You utter the Word of Doom. One creature you target with 9 HD or less dies if it hears you. That’s basically it. The spells are to the point and simple to use at the game table without a bunch of useless fluff text or extraneous mechanics.
For the over mechanics feel of Shadowdark, I can see the inspiration from games such as Index Card RPG, Five Torches Deep, 5E Hardcore Mode, and Dungeon Crawl Classics. I will say that I’m (like many others) aren’t that fond of the “You get all your HP back with a Long Rest” but hey that can be worked around. And there’s a neat little mechanic to add a bit more of challenge. Have a Random Encounter during that Long Rest. Make a CON check, fail and you get no healing or anything else.
Even after all the above and you don’t think it’s your thing, it’s still worth looking at. Why? Well, there’s a bunch of handy random tables to use no matter what rules you happen to be playing. There’s a game within the game (Wizards & Thieves) for when the characters want to gamble at the tavern.
So yes, this well worth a look and a lot of it is going to end being used at my table. I’m going to be really bold here but IMHO Shadowdark is the kind game that fits into the so-called next wave of OSR games. It’s not artpunk. It takes the best of old and new school games and makes a game that feels and plays more like old school. The rules are clean, easy, and most importantly efficient.
And in case you missed above just head on over to the Shadowdark page on the Arcane Library.