I wrote about The Dark Lord when it was still a kickstarter. Last time I mentioned it, we were still in the funding phase of the kickstarter. Well, I got my PDF and put together a review (physical copy pending).
The pitch is simple. You play a council of big bad evil folks, out to conquer a region. You have armies who can go occupy territory, and can expand your reach, but every so often, you and a bunch of your minions need to go take care of something personally. When that happens, someone plays their Dark Lord, and everyone else plays a minion. Or series of disposable cannon fodder. You have a series of sessions doing that, with each player taking their turn as their Dark Lord, before you have a domain management phase, and do it all again.
Right out the gate, this is a 647 page pdf thanks to all the stretch goals hit that were hit. I was expecting like, 60, so that was a big bang for the buck (we all judge book quality by page count right? Why else did people read Harry Potter?). Normally I rail against shelf breaker books, but I read the entire thing, and couldn’t really cut any content. The “How do I Play” for players section is a very tight 14 pages. The DM section is a little longer, but it’s a total shift from how most TTRPG games are run. It really benefits from spelling out how to do it.
The rest of the content? That’s all the various armies, factions, and monster manual style stat blocks you need to play the game, alongside a full sample campaign that you could actually run for an actual year of IRL play time. I didn’t see anything to cut really. Sure it could be two books, but I’d imagine that is more expensive, and not a huge saver. Especially with PDFs. To get an idea of the armies content, imagine if you were to sit and play warhammer. You need write ups for each faction, and each unit. Each Dark Lord gets their own write up like those books, in the middle of this one. There are 13 Dark Lords, and each has about 15 units.
The art style is mostly black and white, and plentiful enough. I like the style throughout, and I didn’t find myself going pages on pages without getting any. There are some full color big page spreads which are a nice break too. some of the pieces are better than others, The Shogun on page 497 for the Yokai Fleet might be my favorite in the book.
Mechanically, the system is d20 based and tongue in cheek probably compatible with 3e, Pathfinder 1e, 5e, or something else, but it’s also not exactly. This has some big advantages in that, the author didn’t bloat the page count even more by publishing both systems, but it also means that he isn’t restricted by the downsides of them either. It’s a sort of “pick the best rules” sort of thing that tends to work really well at the table, and doesn’t hold up well to strict theorycrafting online. In practice, its awesome, but there will certainly be instances where someone can skirt rules legality to do something unintended. The answer IRL, and in this book is to tell them not to do that, and the game relies on that sort of good faith, at the table with friends, style DMing. The how to play section makes that clear, and are written in a frank, conversational style that I enjoy. The first 3 pages essentially condense all of d20 (3 and 5e) into a classeless, rules essentialist version so you can play. There is even a “I play pathfinder” and “I play 5e” guide for conversions thats a half page each.
The latter half of the book is the domain management, and territory conquering rules. This is the meat of the game from a new content perspective. The rules are laid out pretty clearly and the sample campaign spells it out in detail so its crystal clear. Without it, I might have gotten a little lost, because it’s so “not normal D&D” that I didn’t really have a good frame of reference. Even as a hexcrawl, nation building D&D fan. I do think a real example map would have gone a long way, in addition to the diagram maps, and explanations of how one would build the map.
I will gripe a little, and say some of the layout could have been a little neater. There isn’t a lot of back and forth flipping or anything, but I did find myself wishing there were headers, or tags or something to let me know where in this massive tome I actually was. For example, when reading the 3rd entry for Elite Beast Lord units, the Harpy Assassin, it would have been nice to have a symbol, or text box, or something indicating what it was. When browsing between units for selection, something you will do a lot, I can see folks forgetting that its an Elite. Mechanically in play, it doesn’t matter. Always pick the best you qualify for, but when trying to get a sense of options it’s not super clear. The other thing that would have gone a long way, there is a ToC and index, but neither are hyperlinked. For a 647 page book, that’s a big quality of life thing.
The DMing advice is probably the most important section here, and it’s also probably the best. There’s a lot of focus on the blocking and tackling of actually running a game at a table, with things like “You should use 25% of a session to do X, which in a 4 hour game is 1 hour”. This sort of thing is awesome to have spelled out in general, and for a game whose goal is to run a mini adventure a session, it’s even more critical. Chamomile spends at least 20 hours a week actively DMing groups (plus whatever prep is involved), and it shows. There is a lot about table management, and pacing. All the how, when, and what to expect the player group to do, and why they might, or might not. With insight on what sounds fun, but isn’t. It’s not the same old stuff you read in every DMG, that’s for sure. (For more on insights like this check out his GM’s guide series)
The other thing the book is full of is party dynamics, and advice on how to keep everyone on the same page regarding expectations. That’s really important here, because The Dark Lord isn’t like other RPGs. You aren’t a group of plucky hobbits going for a walk and running from ghosts. You are powerful, evil monsters who don’t like one another set out to rampage. You will do Mean Things to people, and backstabbing is encouraged. Paranoia handles this sort of training by being an Old RPG and expecting GMs to be experienced and know it on their own (if it were released with no context today, people would hate it). The Dark Lord is new, and spelling that sort of thing out is important.
The real test for a TTRPG is, do I want to play it? Of the 13 factions, there are some I recognize as important for other players and not me, but there were a bunch I’d be interested in actually playing. Including some that are outside my normal wheelhouse, which is a win for any game. My top factions.
- The Fey Queen: It’s the elf faction, and if you know me, you are looking confused. These evil elves bring in hags, treants, werewolves, and pixies. You probably won’t see me picking an elven minion, unless I have to, but I’m all over those four.
- The Elder Brian: This one was basically written for me. You’ve got your “These totally aren’t mind flayers” guys, and it actually is a different enough look that I’m not even 100% sarcastic. There is also an element of super high tech warrior guys, chaos frogs, and floaty eye beasts. It’s not just a bunch of mind flayers and thralls like I would expect. Instead, it’s a reasonable, and cool sci-fi twist to a fantasy RPG.
- Fallen Seraphim: I get into demons and devils, and fallen angels. This faction is an angel and demon who fell in love and it’s the most tragic backstory ever. That’s all good though, because the faction lets me play outcast angels, and demons.
- The Hive Queen: Clearly inspired by the Zerg, any of the countless Zerg like factions, who doesn’t like a hivemind bug swarm? Their fodder units have a unique mechanic, where you want to protect them, which I thought kind of turned the premise of the game around a bit.
- The Ice Queen: I’m always into a game letting me play frost giants.
- The Lord of the Damned: The actual Lord of the Damned is demon summoner, and it’s a little much for me. His secondary lieutenant though? I’m playing a pit fiend, with a horde of demons. Let’s do it.
- The Sahuagin High Priestess: The Sahuagin priestess herself, I’m a little whatever. The Sahuagin Baron is like every dream PC I have ever wanted to run, shut down by DMs who have better sense than I. He’s a sharkman, with arms like Goro, and dressed like a pirate. What else is there? The rest of their units are various types of shark and angry fish human hybrids which are neat. Their Shoggoth unit is pretty sweet too. Overall, I’m picking this as a Dark Lord for sure, and maybe my minions aren’t as cool as I wanted.
- The Troll King: The Troll King got the best full color spread of the Dark Lords, and gives the trolls in this setting a neat twist. In addition to fire being the key to the puzzle to beat them, they are loaded down with fire priests, and fire giants. It’s a cool look, and a cool vibe.
Yes, I just listed 8 of 13 as things I’m excited to play. D&D can’t even manage that with their classes. I am hyped to sit down and run some sessions.
Reading the Dark Lord, I can’t help but be hyped to run a game. It hits most of my desires in a game, is a great framework that could be expanded on, and looks like you could use as the chassis for your IRL sessions for a long time.
You can find copies on DriveThrough RPG (split copies are for sale now, and one big pdf is to be released)