Playing Shadowdark

I tried out Kelsey Dionne's Shadowdark this morning with Alex as the game master and joined by Moth as another player! We were going through Alex's megadungeon that he had made for OD&D, one in which I had played before but died just a couple rooms in. Got farther this time! :P This is a session report as well as a review of Shadowdark. It's a mixed bag but more good than bad. It hangs onto conventions from classic D&D that I think it is (or should be) better than.

Session Report

Moth and I both rolled up halflings. Apparently Alex's dungeon has historically only ever seen little player-characters. To compensate for our small stature, we were accompanied by two human retainers: Karl Marx and Felix Guattari.

We entered through a sewer, walking along a quay on the left. Some blue guys in the dark were mad at us for entering the dungeon, so we fucked off into the door immediately on the left where we came upon a dozen-ish white-collar skeletons. I told them that we were collecting them for a quarterly meeting and that they had to line up single-file outside the room. At first they didn't believe me and were about to attack, but Moth's character doubled down (risking greater consequences if he were to fail) and managed to convince them we were serious. We barricaded the northeast door right before the blue guys saw the skeletons standing in line outside ("All you do is lie to us!"), at which point we snuck through another door in the southwest while the blue guys navigated around to the northeast to try to kill us.

We happened upon some more skeletons sitting around a campfire but they were really sweet. We just hung out and relaxed for a minute, and we waved goodbye before heading on our way again. Checked out more stuck doors. One had a bunch of dungeon urchins, slow-moving gold-eating spike-covered creatures (they're cute!), one of which Moth shot so we could recover a handful of coins. Another was a platonically empty room, of legend. The last was a room full of things covered by white linen sheets. The first thing we uncovered were two big casks, one with aged wine and another with gold coins. Then there was an empty shelf. Then there were three giant centipedes that first attacked Moth's character. My character tried to stabilize him but failed before also being attacked by centipedes. Then we both died!

System Review

The main pull of Shadowdark is its "always-on initiative" play procedure, where players act in the same turn order in both exploration and encounters. It's very fluid, as non-distinction between time units (or play-loops) means that the game flows without breaks while time passes in aggregate during play (as torches deplete in real time). Everyone getting a full individual exploration turn, while encounter checks are per cycle, makes exploration go much more quickly and also makes individual players feel more empowered to act. However, this was sort of a reinterpretation on Alex's part that the whole party can move on each player's turn, rather than just the individual character. Alex's take is better.

(Everyone can move 30' or 3 squares per turn while exploring, but I would prefer the typical 120' or 12 squares per 'turn'. Or just have room-based movement rather than being fiddly about it).

That being said, I am much less interested in the light source tracking than in the roundtable play procedure itself. Torches just feel like a timer on the session, which is fine but not worth tracking if you know how long your session will last (like "We're going to have a 2-hour session, so you better escape before then! Or whatever."). It being called "initiative" also feels misleading because all NPCs act on the GM's turn, so the relative turn order between players is more or less insignificant. The important thing is that everyone does something in a round of the game. Another improvement Alex made was having the encounter likelihood be n-in-20 where n is the number of acting characters. This made the GM's turn feel more responsive and helped keep pace with the rate at which exploration actions were being made.

The rest of the rules felt pretty basic and non-obtrusive if you're used to playing D&D in general, whether 5e or classic. Not much to speak about. I liked that Dionne labeled DC-15 checks as "hard" rather than "medium" because 5e is stupid about that, but in practice it's all what you would expect. This is a problem with classic dungeon design in general, but I did feel like having to constantly force open doors (DC 15 ≈ 2-in-6 from classic D&D) is not super engaging. I liked that Alex had failure result in an automatic encounter check rather than the door not opening, but I still didn't care for the interaction itself. Why not have the door check be the encounter check, so when you see a closed room the GM rolls to see if anyone's there, but the question isn't one of opening the door?

I also now generally oppose many cases where rolls would be made in classic or modern D&D. Old-school revisionists talk mad shit, but the dreaded perception roll has a lineage in classic D&D in the form of noise-hearing and secret-searching. Although these dice rolls are parts of the worker placement system which defines the dungeon crawl game, they do not lead to interesting decisions as much as play-time wasted. Why can’t you just hear the other side of a door, especially when some monsters like undead are already always silent and prove an exception to the rule—or when an encounter check has not yet been made? Why can’t you just deduce a secret door from clues in its immediate surroundings, or from gaps in the dungeon map (admittedly an ‘old-school’ technique but one specifically in contrast to classic D&D)? To say nothing of, ughhh, stuck doors. Why not just cut to the decisions, which are the point of the game?

The above are really complaints about classic D&D, not Shadowdark in particular. It's especially informed by modern games without many player-characters or retainers, which makes the worker placement game overly tedious. Shadowdark seems to be a reaction specifically to Old School Essentials which revises D&D B/X to say that the party gets one action per exploration turn, rather than each character. The question becomes: how do you make exploration more engaging for individual characters? Out of the question are non-player characters who steal the focus away from the players' own. Shadowdark here is symptomatic; it didn’t just fall out of a coconut tree 🤣!

Something else Alex said: Misfires and spending spells should be a choice, rather than losing the spell to be the default outcome of failure and misfires being the worst case scenario, since low-level characters have a very high chance of failing at magic (which is unappealing in itself, I think, but we wanted to work within the game's logic). 100% agree!


Shadowdark is fine, overall. It has interesting solutions for classic D&D but is still overly beholden to its play conventions, despite its modern veneer. The way it collapses the typical modes of play, from exploration to combat to conversations, is really admirable (and more successful than Trophy Gold), but its particular approach feels clumsy for what it holds onto. Would still prefer to play in this manner than in the classic way, and I can see how such a procedure interfaces well with 5e expectations!

That being said, I think readers who want to use Shadowdark to trick 5e players into playing a more OSR-style game completely miss the point of what makes 5e appealing in its particular play-style. If I asked for character-driven D&D and you gave me Shadowdark, I would probably be annoyed! It’s not a mix of 5e and OSR play, but more like OSR play with 5e-esque mechanics. Don’t confuse the two.


  1. I don't understand, I always let each player act in one dungeon turn. It's not supposed to be like this?

  2. I definitely share your thoughts about tedious dice rolls. In my own game, players always hear noise by default, just not the minute details. My listen roll then takes up 1 full turn, but on a success players learn the exact type and number of creatures, are able to discern exact speech, and so on. I don't read your blog religiously but this post got me thinking "I wonder if Marcia is gonna work on their own rules, now?" and it appears that you are... more to read!


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