This is my Shadow World. What’s yours?

I’ve had the opportunity to correspond and talk with many other Shadow World games over the last decade or so and one aspect I really enjoy is hearing about their own interpretation of the setting; what aspects of Shadow World they use a what they don’t. Some of that trickles into the forums and discord server so it’s clear that no two Shadow Worlds are alike. That’s the way it should be!

I’m always irritated when I read a SW review that describes it as a “kitchen sink” setting. I’ve discussed this before, and it’s probably the result of the early third party modules that varied in style and tone, but it’s also true that the 1st Ed. Master Atlas and even Jaiman could be considered standard fantasy fare. When takes as a whole though, Terry’s collected works, “Canon”, is as distinct in flavor and often very unique in material as any other established setting.

I’m going to avoid a compare and contract situation, but I think Kulthea stands up well compared to the 2 standard AD&D settings: Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms. It’s certainly more unique than the “white bread” Harn or Midkemia. But like all settings, each campaign, and each GM dips into the materials differently. Perhaps by preference or taste or driven by the players.

Throughout this blog I’ve written quite a bit of material that references my own Shadow World campaign–a campaign that I consider 1 single story despite 30+ years with different groups and players. In my mind, it’s been a continuous narrative, interwoven and ultimately heading towards a climatic conclusion that will never occur!

Over those years, I’ve adopted, discarded and changes a number of setting elements as Terry produced new material and covered new areas but some common elements remain a core part of my campaign style. I thought I’d note a few and invite others to describe their own unique elements in their Shadow World game. For this blog I’m looking for setting elements that are used or not used and not Rolemaster Rules…

  1. I’ve eliminated “Orcs”. Not just Orcs, but all of the standard D&D critters: Goblins, Trolls, Ogres and Giants. While Terry came up with new names for these races, I always felt they diluted the atmosphere of my game and leaned to heavily on ingrained tropes my players know too well. I use Quaidu, Neng, Krylites and of course the Unlife (which can infect all living things) as common opponents of the players. It’s not a hard adjustment, Terry uses very little of these races in his material.
  2. The Unlife. My use of the Unlife embraces the standard SW stuff: Priests of Arnak, Messengers etc but I’ve expanded it with a more liberal use of possession we call the “Soulless”. I also de-emphasize standard undead tropes (no ghosts, wraiths or vampires) and instead a Priests ability to Turn is effective against Unlife possession and manifestation. In fairness this was in no small part due to the Evil Dead and Deadites. The players experience more existential dread from fearing anyone being infected or possessed than being confronted with a standard Undead creature.
  3. I don’t really use Loremasters. It’s too easy to lean on a powerful mysterious figure that can save a group, offer advice and guidance and provide direction. As a GM it’s basically my avatar that ends up leading the party; a role I shouldn’t have. Instead I use Navigators quite a bit. Not only do I depend on the fickle and unpredictable nature of Essaence Flows, but travel is part of the setting. Getting from one place to another can be just as challenging as the ultimate goal and Navigators are an essential tool. Navigators can be funny(I play a few favorites with a very dry and fatalistic wit) but more importantly, completely neutral. In many cases wickedly mercenary with the group.
  4. Apparent to anyone that reads this blog, I lean heavily into the Gods. They are real and manifest, so they should have a significant role in the goings on of the world. But they are also fickle and capricious, so when they do provide aid or guidance it can be with a hidden cost or inexplicable purpose.

Of course I’ve blogged about ret-conning a number of things in Shadow World as well, but these are just some basics. I’m curious what you use, or don’t use, in your Shadow World campaign?

One Reply to “This is my Shadow World. What’s yours?”

  1. Hey! Neat article. I agree SW is unique but also ripe for customization. Given there aren’t really many modules, much of a campaign is sandbox anyhow. And the canon timeline if a bit too rigid, especially if you use the most recent years.

    Here are a few minor changes we have going on in our campaign:
    (1) I think I mentioned this before, but we are specifically targeting the Navigators Guilds to take it down. Two of the characters in the group have seen the monopoly they have on both travel and the fair distribution of information in Kulthea and wish to add some competition. That is a long term plot however and there are many twists and turns there. The Navigators in our SW are definitely NOT neutral. They have too much power and it didn’t make sense they wouldn’t let that go to their heads … affecting wars, shuffling assassins, etc. Not the whole guild, but groups within the guild, tainting the whole.

    (2) The northern star has not been taken. It creates way too much time pressure. We are but lowly adventuring heroes working on much smaller fish.

    (3) The Unlife is indeed pretty neat in SW. We have taken the concept of the Unlife as a “super organism” to be feared. There is a fairly complicated system we have in place for how they are “alive” in this world and who can do something about that (Cleric, Animist, etc). No vampires, etc for sure … been done too many times and there are worse monsters. I like the Deadite idea though.

    (4) Our Loremasters are kind of bumbling, doddering book nerds. They mainly serve the purpose of tasking us with things to do because they never seem to actually know what you think they would.

    (5) Immortal races do not exist. The idea of an “elven” races (the present ones, or the ones derived from other immortal ancient ones like the K’ta’viiri) that live forever just makes no sense on many levels. It breaks cycles of history. And one’s mind would be so packed full of junk you would go insane or be useless. It also makes a group where a low level elf is 120 and the common man is only 18 kind of silly. The 120 year old (despite being “young” for their race) would have like 50 ranks in various lore just from having lived a long life already.

    (6) “Technology” lite. Default SW is rife with gizmos that break the fantasy element we’re after so yeah it might have existed 190,000 years ago, but is not in use now. Magic has dominated.

    It is quite fun to have a near infinite combos of SW. Given Kulthea sits on a rift in space and time, anything goes.

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