June 22, 2021 5 min read 13 Comments

Shadowdark RPG is just good ol' D&D without all the stuff that makes it less fun. There, I said it!

Really, it's how D&D would look if I had been allowed to write it from scratch. It has a bit of the "old school renaissance" in it, but it might even be better to call it an "OSR-like," as Ben Milton from Questing Beast has done... because it's not really trying to be anything at all, except my favorite version of the game.

The secret is, I wrote Shadowdark RPG for me and my group of players. I wanted something that allowed dungeon crawling to be fast and deadly, to be systematic, to feel like the D&D I remembered as a kid. I wanted gear to matter, turns to be quick, magic to be dangerous and a bit unknowable. 

What I didn't want was cruft. Proficiency bonuses, so many actions per turn that slow the game down, weirdly defined saving throws and ways of tracking armor class, grindy combat, magic systems that are more bookkeeping than fun... 

When I combed through all the fantasy RPG systems out there, new and old, I just didn't find something that matched my personal tastes.

And so I ended up writing that system. Shadowdark RPG is based on the Open Game License, meaning it uses a lot of the core engine of the most famous fantasy roleplaying game. And that's because I wanted it to feel like an edition of that very game — but with a lot of improvements born from endless experimentation, play-testing, and hundreds of hours clocked trying all sorts of TTRPGs to see what actually works and what doesn't.

Shadowdark RPG has a few new tricks up its sleeve. It has a built-in system for time pressure: Torches last an hour of actual game time... but sure, go ahead and waste some of that time looking up and arguing over the rules, players (evil cackle)! 

Min-maxing is impossible because players roll randomly for a new-but-fitting ability every other level. No more build-tuning, but lots more excitement as the dice clatter and reveal your fate. 

It pulls some ideas from 5E: Straightforward math based on a d20 that ties back to your ability scores. Advantage and disadvantage.

It pulls some ideas from B/X: Low hit points and damage, no skills, a less forgiving character death system, quick and simple character creation.

And it has influences from lots of other places. Roll-to-cast magic a bit like you might find in Dungeon Crawl Classics. Easy distance measurement like in Index Card RPG. A roll-high system where a natural 20 is always a success. Simple XP tracking that rewards finding treasure (and spending it carousing) rather than killing monsters.

The game just works. I've used it to run lots of classic adventures with hardly a handwave in changes; I've used it to write new adventures that are receiving top ratings from folks like Bryce Lynch at tenfootpole.org.

All in all, Shadowdark is the fantasy RPG I want to run and play. And maybe that means it's the RPG you'd want to run and play, too! 

Down below is a Q&A-style explanation with a bit more about the game. Check it out!

What is Shadowdark RPG? It's a complete fantasy role-playing game contained in one book. In it, you play a character who teams up with fellow adventurers to plumb the dungeon-filled depths of the Shadowdark and explore the crumbling, lost kingdoms of a perilous and mythical world.

How can I learn to play? If you already know how to play a fantasy TTRPG, you're more than halfway there. And if not, I'll be releasing tons of resources beyond the core book that walk you through what to do. Email me (kelsey@thearcanelibrary.com) about joining the Arcane Library Discord if you want in on a supportive and enthusiastic community of Shadowdark players!

When will Shadowdark be available? The book will go live on Kickstarter in March 2023! Sign up here if you want an email notification when it launches.

This book is getting the highest production quality possible, complete with fully custom art by amazing creators, so it's taken some time.

But I'm adamant that Shadowdark RPG be fully playtested, written, laid out, art completed, and all printer and fulfilling quotes locked in before the Kickstarter even begins. That way, we can send the book right to the printers, avoid many common Kickstarter production woes, and deliver the digital PDFs immediately!

Can I see a preview of the game? Absolutely! The digital version of the Shadowdark RPG Quickstart Set is available totally for free. Download it here. You can also pick up a physical print set here

Is there a Shadowdark RPG community? There's a burgeoning Arcane Library Discord community full of Shadowdark players, and I'd love for you join it! I'm currently running the server on an invite basis, so email me at kelsey@thearcanelibrary.com with a request to join if you want to get in on Shadowdark test games, catch all the bleeding-edge updates, and impact the direction of the game and community.

What supporting material will you be releasing? There are already a few Shadowdark adventures out there so you can hit the ground running.I'll also be releasing new material regularly, and I hope you'll be inspired to write some of your own third-party material, too (see below)!

Will there be an Open Game License for Shadowdark? There already is! You can check it out at the bottom of this page. It's already fully usable with the Shadowdark RPG Quickstart Set.

With this license, you can publish your own compatible material for free or for profit at your discretion and keep all the royalties and rights. I don't want a cut — I want to be able to run and enjoy the amazing things you come up with.

I'm going to continue to add to the free Shadowdark RPG Creator Kit to give you all you need to write and publish for the game, including templates and design advice. Gone are the days of confusing legalese, licensing fears, and game design quandaries! You'll get my best advice on publishing for success, too. Any mystery around writing engaging material and getting it into other people's hands ends here.

You're still going to publish for 5E, right? Of course! I have no plans to reduce or change any of my 5E publishing. And if you've liked my 5E material thus far, you'll see plenty of good ideas that made the jump into Shadowdark, too.

Will you have an option for FLGS or small retailers to sell Shadowdark RPG? Right now, retail plans are on pause while I figure out the book's final production costs and how the whole fulfillment chain will look from my end. I'll update this with more information once I have a clearer picture!

How can I stay up-to-date on further news? Sign up to get an email when the full Shadowdark RPG book launches! You can also join my regular newsletter for updates on my projects, including 5E material, Shadowdark RPG material, and otherwise (bonus: you get a free 1st-level 5E adventure when you join). 

I have more questions! Can I contact you? Please do! Email me directly at kelsey@thearcanelibrary.com, or fill out my contact form here. I may also update this article with further FAQs.

13 Responses

Thy
Thy

October 24, 2022

Hi Kelsey,

speaking of PoD: I’m not really conviced of that. Usually one only has limited printing option and if we take a look at DrivethruRPG which is distributing to the US, UK and EU then I have to state that it’s only mediocre. Some options are really crap (like #70 paper for b&w printing) and the rest is average. Premium color books are even overpriced there imo.

Maybe you can ask Leo from L.F. OSR how to create premium books. He seems to be an expert on high quality and fancy books.

If you’re still looking for an option for worldwide distribution you can consider to partner with Exalted Funeral. They offer this kind of service and they are experienced in kickstarters.

Kelsey
Kelsey

October 05, 2022

@Dave – Thank you so much! Will definitely read this in detail. I love the ease of PoD, but I also want to give this book the most premium treatment possible… I’ll definitely do a few end-to-end tests (probably including ordering a small batch from the printer on my dime) to make sure there’s a good proof of concept. And devouring all advice possible from others who have succeeded! Thanks again for this link!

Daveb
Daveb

October 03, 2022

Kevin Crawford (of stars without number) wrote a decent article about fulfillment and kickstarting products. A bunch of it is probably a known element for you, but he has reliably done and delivered good products. Print on demand seems to be the best way to avoid over extending yourself and getting stymied by shipping to various parts of the world.

The article is in here (it’s free!) https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/143764/The-Sandbox-1?manufacturers_id=3482

Nitehood
Nitehood

May 25, 2022

Just got my ShadowDark Starter kit in print today. Wow! Looks fantastic! I will using it to do an impromptu session tonight with the kids…
I am looking forward to this.

Hankerin
Hankerin

May 23, 2022

The torch idea is just great

Kelsey
Kelsey

March 16, 2022

@Joel – Gladly! :) This is an original piece by Lucas Korte, also known as shoggoth_kinetics on most social media (I first came across his work on Instagram). He’s the flagship artist for the game — there will be 7-8 more full-sized pieces from him within the book, plus an oil painting on the cover! This beholder is the first page of the Monsters chapter.

Joel
Joel

March 04, 2022

Could you share who drew that amazing tentacle eye beast on the cover?

Kelsey
Kelsey

January 08, 2022

Hi, Vernon! I’d love to hear your thoughts — please email me your comments at kelsey@thearcanelibrary.com. :)

Vernon Fults
Vernon Fults

December 31, 2021

I’ve just read the beta rules and like the way your choice of having ten levels and restructuring the spell lists into five tiers. There are, however, some things I’d like to comment on in detail. Is there an email address or website where detailed commentary may be posted?

Paul Rodriguez
Paul Rodriguez

August 05, 2021

I tried out the Core Rules at my table and everybody had positive things to say about the game system, how there’s so much detail to the adventure.

I explained to them that your Core Rules document isn’t completed yet (at the time of my post) and the adventure was based on rolling tables found within what is publicly available.

They were speehless at the quality and level of detail of what was available. We want to dive back into the adventure (of which only one survived).

John Sikking
John Sikking

June 29, 2021

Very excited to see this labor of love come to fruition and I am very interested in seeing the final product and the creator’s kit you are developing.

Kelsey
Kelsey

June 23, 2021

Hi Nerval! I’m still working with third party logistics teams to see who offers what. I’d be spectacular to land on a company that has some UK/Europe presence, so that’s among the things I’m looking into as I weigh different fulfillment partners.

Nerval
Nerval

June 23, 2021

Will there be a UK distributor?

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