Homebrew: Dungeons & Demon Lord – Session Zero

Shadow of the Demon Lord belongs to Charles Schwalb Entertainment, LLC, and can be found webside at: https://schwalbentertainment.com.
Dungeons & Dragons belongs to Wizards of the Coast, LLC, and is located on the web at https://dnd.wizards.com.
This blog and its author have no affiliation to either company and claim no rights over their respective properties. Go buy their books, y'all!

Last week we tried making a mashup of the magic from Charles Schwalb's Shadow of the Demon Lord and core rules from 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons by Wizards of the Coast. This week, we'll look at how Session Zero in the home-brew system might look.

And so, without further ado…


Basil is GMing a new home-brew ruleset with his friends Cat, David, Max, and Veri. He starts off with their standard table rules: X-Card, No dice rollers, No mobiles. Bio breaks every two hours. For the group, this discussion is old hat. They crack a few jokes and move on.

Next, Basil goes over the broad strokes of the world: it's an E6 grimdark low-magic setting, mostly medieval with a smidge of sword and sorcery, kind of similar to Conan in feel. He explains the major rule changes: character level caps at six. The only classes available are Barbarian / Fighter / Monk / Rogue. They're using the Magician and Priest paths from Shadow of the Demon Lord as the spellcasting classes.

Veri is excited. She wants to know if she can play a clockwork. Basil frowns and admits he wants to keep the -punk elements out of this setting. For the feel he's after, he needs to keep the tech level low. Veri's okay with that. She'll try out some magic from SotDL—she's been hoping for a chance to try that game, anyway.

Cat bites her lip. Does Veri want to play the Wizard? Cat thinks a rogue might be fun this time out. Sure thing, Veri agrees quickly. She likes how the Protection and Shadow Traditions look, and she'd love to test them out.

David thinks he wants to make a barbarian this time.

As for Max, he's trying out the Priest path. He likes the idea of a foul-tempered, snuff-chewing priest with a chip on his shoulder. The other players roll their eyes, but they all agree that this idea sounds just like Max.

Basil wants to touch on a few more things before they start making characters. He goes over Corruption and Insanity Points briefly, making sure everyone understands the tone of the game. Finally, he goes over how SotDL handles multi-classing and explains that the PCs can take an Expert Path from SotDL at Level Three.

All set, they pull out pencils and dice and get to rolling.


Int. At Basil's dinner table - Late Afternoon.

The players are seated around the table, an open bag of chips and a box with a half-eaten cauliflower Hawaiian pizza at the far end. Basil is at the head of the table wearing a faded t-shirt with a British rock band. David sits to his right, in front of the windows, his left arm in a sling. Cat is beside him, prim and proper, and she occasionally leans over to help him hold a paper or fetch a die from the ground. Max is across from Cat. He's wearing a pointy wizard's hat with a tight white t-shirt. Veri sits between Max and Basil, and she's idly disassembling licorice sticks and eating them between sips of a coffee drink.

Veri: Basil, is it just humans we can pick, or any race from the Player's Handbook?

Basil: That's a great question, Veri. I was back and forth on that. How do you guys want to play it?

Veri: I NEED to be a gnome…

Cat: I prefer a half-elf.

David: Come on! A dwarf barbarian is cool!

Basil (laughs): Fine, fine, I get it. Races from the PHB are okay, but no Dragonborn. Or Tieflings—they're both too strange for the setting. Mixed demographics, no widespread -isms, as per usual.

(The others approve.)

Max: (to David) Okay, nobody wants to say it, so I will. What happened with your arm, mate?

David: It hurts when I move it too much. The sling helps me remember not to.

Cat: He was skateboarding.

Max: Ouch.

David: Nah, it's good as long as I keep it still.

Basil: Well, if you need anything, just let me know. I have aspirin, ibuprofen (his voice trails off, and he waves his hand vaguely)… Guinness.

David: Later. For sure. So, how are we doing stats?

Basil: It's grimdark, so I was thinking 3d6 straight down the line.

Cat: Decidedly not.

(Veri punches Basil in the arm. David thinks about tossing a wad of paper with his bad arm but reconsiders with a grimace.)

Basil: Alright, alright. You win. Standard point-buy?

(That goes over better. David and Cat start writing down stats immediately. Veri picks up the Shadow of the Demon Lord core book, which Basil has marked with colored tabs, and flips to the magic section. Max grabs the PHB and starts leafing through it idly from the beginning.)

Veri: So are Magicians based on… Intellect or Will? Are those the same as Intelligence and Wisdom?

Basil: Right. Will is kind of Wisdom with a soupçon of Charisma thrown in. And Magicians can use all three, depending on which traditions you choose.

Veri: Protection and Shadow look good. I want one more Tradition, but Arcana and Alteration are both interesting.

Basil: Don't forget to look at the Expert Paths. If one strikes your fancy, it might affect the choice you make.

Veri: Mm. I like to pick advancement through adventuring.

Basil: Well, okay. If you're taking a Level One spell with your fourth magic pick, look at Force Field under Protection. That's a pretty good defensive spell. And you can get Nightfall Blade with Shadow, so that'll give you an attack spell, too. Arcana is pretty sweet. It's mostly attack spells in the core book, but Occult Philosophy rounds it out with a bunch of utility spells. Alteration is basically the opposite.

Veri: Hm. Okay.

Cat: You said we would be able to take a Path at Level 3, even if we choose a class now?

Basil: Yes. Instead of the class features for your primary class, you'll get the class features for the Expert Path you choose at Levels 3 and 6.

Cat: Good. That Spellbinder path looks perfect for me.

Veri: Say hey.

Basil: What is it?

Veri: You get Levels One, Two, and Five from your Novice Path, right?

Basil: Yes. That's right.

Veri: And Levels Three and Six from your Expert Path?

Basil: Okay?

Veri: What about Level Four? Do you just... not get anything for Level Four?

Basil: Oh! You are so right. Level Four in that game is part of your Ancestry.

Veri: Like, your Race?

Basil: Yes. Now, Dwarves exist in SotDL, but I don't think gnomes--Well. I mean, there are halflings in the Demon Lord's Companion. I guess you could use that for your Level Four feature.

Veri: Okay. Let's do that.

David: Hey, Basil, how do you feel about Storm Heralds?

Basil: Remind me what they… wait. Are those the ones with the aura that burns everyone around them?

David: Yeah. Those.

Basil: Uh, no. Too much magic. (Grabs Xanthanar's Guide to Everything) But… the Ancestral Guardian or the Zealot seems okay.

David: Hold up. You know, Ancestral Guardian could work. 

Cat: You're right. If you're our primary tank, that subclass can hold the center better than a plain Barbarian would. It could make a huge difference against bosses.

David: Yeah, that's what I was thinking, too! I'm going with that.

Cat: Okay, I'm finished with my ability scores. Would you like to see them?

Basil: Sure. What do you have?

Cat: Strength is 13, Dexterity is 15. Constitution 10. Her Intelligence is 13; she has a 9 for Wisdom and 13 for Charisma. That's before racial bonuses.

David: Good rogue stats...

Cat: That's right. Half-elf rogue.

Basil: Half-elf, huh? +2 Charisma, right? And you're taking your +1 in what?

Cat: Dexterity and Intelligence.

Basil: Sounds good. Go with it. Max? How are you doing?

Max: Yeah, no. I'm good. I think I've narrowed it down to an Elf or a Dwarf. Or maybe a Human.

Basil: Oookay. Let me know how that goes.

Veri: (Is reading through Occult Philosophy) Huh! You're right, Basil. Arcana works better with the spells in here.

Basil: Yes. It pretty much doubles the magic in the main book.

Veri: Protection, Shadow, and Arcana are gonna be my choices.

Basil: Cantrip gets you an extra Level Zero spell in each. You said you were picking one Level One spell?

Veri: Right. Maybe Force Field, but Binding Shackles looks good, too.

Basil: Leaning into Protection, are we?

Veri: Mm. Maybe.

David: Huh. My Dex score sucks, but I don't wanna lower my mental stats any further. I can still use my Barbarian abilities if I wear medium armor, right?

Basil: At Level One, it's just Unarmored Defense that's affected by armor. With your other abilities, it doesn't matter.

David: Good. I'll wear a chain shirt or scale mail, then.

Cat: Why didn't you just put another few points in Dex? It can't be that low.

David: Well... I could take Charisma down from 9 to 8 and Wisdom from 13 to 12.

Cat: Might as well. Seeing as how our level cap is six, you're not getting many ASIs.

David: You're right! Okay, I'll do it like that.

Basil: There are feats for increasing scores, but she's not wrong. Expect two or maybe three Ability Score Increases, tops, instead of five.

Veri: Um, GM?

Basil: Yes?

Veri: Sorry to keep bugging you. Forest Gnomes get the Minor Illusion Cantrip. Is that okay?

Basil: Good question. Let me look. (Reads the entry in the PHB.) 
That one is fine, but treat it as a Level 0 spell. You get Castings per Day based on your Power.

Veri: Got it.

Cat: I'm all done. Here's my character sheet. (Hands it across David to Basil.)

Basil: (Scans over the sheet.) This all looks fine. Honestly, your character is easy.

Cat: That's to be expected. I'm playing a rogue instead of a wizard.

Basil: You chose scandal as your Flaw? What's that about?

Cat: Ah! Yes, I'll plot it out now.

Veri: This Path has attribute and characteristic bonuses. Do I add those?

Basil: No. You get Power 1 and all the path features. No other bonuses.

Veri: 'Kay. Now, what are my proficiencies? Magician doesn't have any.

Basil: Oh, you're right. Use the proficiencies and hit dice from the Wizard class and the spells and path features from Magician.

Veri: Uhhh. Okay. That should work.
Hey, Cat? What background did you pick?

Cat: I chose Entertainer. Why? You think we should be sisters?

Veri: Mm-hm. Same troupe.

Cat: Excellent!

Basil: Okay, I'm curious. How did being an entertainer lead you to learn magic?

Veri: Ah. Hm. So. It was the troupe's healer, see? She… ah. She got me interested in medicine, but. This one day, there was this grimoire. It was tucked into her reference books like a little birdie's nest. When I found that, I got, like, totally obsessed.

Basil: You found the Arcana 101 primer?

Veri: Yup.

David: Hm. Hey, Cat, can I borrow 5 gold?

Cat: (raises an eyebrow at Basil, who shrugs) You're not getting armor, right? For what could you possibly need to borrow money?

David: That magnifying glass is 100 gold. I almost have enough!

Cat: What are you--you know what? Never mind. You can borrow the cash.

Basil: David. Have you chosen a background for your barbarian?

David: It was a close race between Outsider and Soldier, but Soldier won out in the end.

Basil: Did you come across Cat's and Veri's characters while they were with the entertainment troupe, or was it later?

David: Sure. Definitely. Let's see. It was one time we were in the same caravan. I was on boring guard duty, and they were practicing.

Veri: I'm juggling while I draw symbols on the balls with magic. It's very synchronicitized and impressive-like!

Cat: My character was walking the tightrope. Blindfolded.

David: Oh. Wow. I was… eating a turkey leg. Like a boss!

(Everybody laughs. Basil lets them continue roleplaying the encounter while he checks on Max, who is now flipping through the Shadow of the Demon Lord book.)

Basil: Still doing okay, Max?

Max: Eureka! I have found it!

Basil: Okay?

Max: Bones.

Basil: Bones?

Max: Yes, Bones. From Star Trek. I want to play him, but a priest.

Basil: That… could work. Did you pick your traditions?

Max: The religion that's called the Old Faith in the book. Is there something like it in this setting?

Basil: Definitely.

Max: Perfect. He'll be a member of that. He's taking the Nature and Life traditions?

Basil: Those are good ones. Have you set his background yet?

Max: Soldier.

Basil: That fits! Maybe he was a soldier in the same unit as David's character.

David: Sweet!

Max: I… find that acceptable.

Basil: You only picked two traditions. Did you see a Level One spell you wanted?

Max: Yes. Healing Berries from Nature. That way, I can take Life Sense instead of Minor Healing as my Level Zero Life Cantrip.

Basil: That does make sense. Smart.

Max: I know, right?

Basil: Cool. Now, everybody introduce your character and say something about hir background and personality. Cat?

Cat: Have you given us guidelines on naming conventions?

Basil: Sorry, not yet. It's all European: English, French. German. Italian. Whatnot.

Cat: I can work with that. Her name is… Giselle. Giselle of Kerika.

Basil: Perfect.

Cat: Giselle is a dancer. She roams the countryside performing for commoners and kings. She loves talking to new people and learning about their customs and festivals and adores hearing and sharing the latest gossip around a new town. Nobles. She cannot get enough stories about nobles and their intrigues and affairs. 
Giselle believes in creativity above everything else. Creativity is the spark of the gods that will elevate this drab world and the peons in it from the tragic quagmire of tedium in which they languish.

Basil: Love that. Does Giselle follow a particular faith?

Cat: What religions are available?

Basil: I hadn't worked out any specifics, but the world is medieval. We already know, thanks to Max, that there's an Old Faith, so it makes sense that there would be a new religion coming in to take its place.

David: Kind of like in Westeros?

Veri: (quietly) Or Tamriel.

Basil: Sure. Like those. What if we make it two separate religions that are vying to take the place of the old ways?

Cat: Sounds intriguing.

Max: It sounds like R'hilor in Westeros.

Basil: Well. If it worked for Martin

David: So what are these other religions about?

Basil: I like the Divines from Elder Scrolls and the Seven from A Song of Ice and Fire. Let's make one based on virtues.

Cat: Plato listed four virtues: Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Moderation.

Veri: And the Seven Capital virtues are Chastity, Generosity, Charity, Humility… Diligence… uh. Temperance. And… oh, there's one more. What is it?

Basil: Did you get meekness?

Veri: Hah! Meekness. Or patience.

Basil: Let's go with the Greek ideals this time. We'll avoid ripping off Westeros any more than we have to, shall we?

David: What if the third faith was dualistic, kind of a yin-and-yang thing?

Max: Or Brahma and Kali.

Cat: (to Max) Aren't you forgetting someone?

Basil: Actually, that works. What if we made it a fire-and-ice kind of dynamic?

Max: I'm sorry, what was that about ripping off Westeros?

Basil: I know what I just said. Sorry.

Veri: You mean, like… the creator gave birth to these two beings that are now stuck trying to freeze and burn up the world?

Basil: (laughs) Yeah, I guess so.

Veri: (quietly) Sounds Greek.

Cat: I think that one fits Giselle better than the other. She'll follow the fiery one… um. Le Feu?

Basil: Hey! That's good!

Max: And the other is called La Glace, I suppose?

Cat: Naturellement.

Basil: Okay, so Lefuh and Laglas are the Warring Gods of the eastern faith, Erima. Within the land already, you have the Old Faith, and then there's the religion of the four saints from the South. Let's call it…

David: (in a stern voice) This is the Way.

(Everyone laughs.)

Basil: I have this suspicion that would crack everyone up too much.

David: It would. It totally would.

Veri: What about 'Transcendance'? Or 'Ideal'?

Basil: 'The Transcendent'. I love that. We'll go with it.

Anyway. Cat? Anything more about Giselle? What about that scandal?

Cat: Tsk. Of course you'd bring that up. So, hypothetically speaking, Giselle may have been a nobleman's daughter…

Max: You're a half-elf. You wouldn't just happen to be—

Cat: Who, yes, happens to be illegitimate. When they caught her fooling around with the crown prince…

Max: (singsong, with jazz fingers) In-stant crisis!

Cat: Precisely.

Basil: How'd she end up in an entertainers' troupe, though?

Cat: (Thinks for a minute.) Okay, how about this? Giselle was a bastard, so she didn't have guards or retainers. She had to escape the city alone.

Basil: Hold on. But wouldn't her background be as a noble instead of a performer?

Cat: Oh. Right. Darn it.

Basil: Well, hang on. It sounds like she may have been a dilettante. We'll say she learned more in the troupe than she did at court.

Cat: That works for me.

Basil: Okay. Anything you want to add?

Cat: Not I.

Basil: So. David? You ready?

David: Cedric. Cedric Emberblade.

Basil: Wow. That sounds like a story, right there.

David: He was only ten when he slew his first wolf. He took a hot poker from the fire and stabbed out its eye.

Basil: Effective.

Veri: Ew.

Max: Badass!

David: Cedric isn't religious, but he observes the Old Faith on the high holy days. Solstice. Equinox. Et cetera. He joined the army young and trained as a scout. Most of his life has been war and fighting. Cedric was an idealist, though. He didn't always take orders well. He got dishonorably discharged when he tried to protect a kid from an officer's beating.

Basil: Nice. I think you covered it. Anything else?

David: That's all. For now…

Basil: Cool. I guess that takes us to Max, then?

Max: Dammit, Basil, I'm a doctor, not an improv actor!
Well, hello. I'm Blake Tanner. I'm the one that had to patch up those sorry excuses for soldiers in Cedric's unit when they got themselves skewered or chopped up. The Old Man of the Mountain and the Lady of Summer favor me with the capacity to work miracles, but most of the time, I still wind up using a needle and thread to stitch up the dumbasses that step out in front of an arrow. 
The kids all say I'm brave. But, see, what they don't realize is: that hellhound is gonna eat you, whether your back is turned or not. So you might as well face it. Somebody's got to, and it sure as shit ain't gonna be that uppity third-son aristo captain with a stick up his ass.
Now, there's one thing you gotta know about me: I'm right. I'm always right. If you think I'm wrong, you're wrong. So when I say something, just shut up and do what I tell you. Then, maybe you won't die.

Basil: (laughs) That's awesome. Veri? Your turn.

Veri: (bites her thumbnail and talks around it) Mm-hm. Yeah. 'Kay. So. I'm a gnome. Hiya. My name is Kaylea Glittergreaves. You can just call me Kay.
My mom, she was a farmer's daughter, but my father was a war hero. Actually, he wasn't around when the farm burned, so I wound up in the orphanage and eventually got bought by Lila, the same woman that ran Giselle's troupe. I mean. Adopted. You know.
I could do a little magic, so they tried to teach me performing but… I was… well. I was not great at it, I'll tell you that. So they pretty much told me to juggle balls in the corner and play this little harp behind the screen, and then they forgot about me. But Deann—that was the healer, right? She thought I could maybe help with tending her cauldron and stuff like that. She taught me how to read so I could help out with recipes. And then I found a magic primer on her bookshelf. And. I mean, I learned. Right?
When I started reading stories in books, Lila discovered I was pretty decent at telling them. So she got me to do that. I love stories! They tell us about our past and the heroes that shaped it. There's this one knight: Lady Starheather? She slew a dragon and saved a town and married a wizard and saved her country from an invading army and was an amazing mother to five children. I wanna be her when I grow up.
Oh. And. Um. Sorry, but. Max, that shirt looks dumb on you. Some people say I have no filter. I'm not sure what that means, but. Yeah. You should really think about your life choices.
So there. That's it.

Max: Hey! This shirt has character.

Cat: It's a white shirt, Max. Kay is right. It makes you look dumb.

Max: Everybody's a critic…

Basil: Okay, great. If you have anything to finish up on your characters, go ahead. We'll move on to talk about the town…

And that's a wrap! Do you have fun stories about trying to create characters in a brand-new ruleset? Let me know in the comments!

Game well, my friends,

Jonathan Andrews

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