Grantt explores the new game by Frostgrave's Joseph A McCullough
Ayla is an expert archer and tracker with a team of experienced woodsmen. Lord Ardwick Blythe is an old knight, past his prime, setting out to avenge his murdered sons. The Savage is a woman raised by bears, joined by her ursine companions. These were the Rangers we sent into the Shadow Deep. They braved monsters, swamps, haunted towers and a horde of gnolls, losing friends and unravelling mysteries; and it was pretty awesome.
Written by Joseph A McCullough and published on DrivethruRPG (both as a PDF and print on demand book), Rangers of Shadow Deep is a cooperative skirmish game about heroes venturing into dangerous territory to investigate a mystical phenomenon. Players take on the roles of the eponymous Rangers tasked with venturing into the Shadow Deep to find out what’s been happening and investigate what the Shadow Deep is, while rescuing those caught within it, fighting monsters, and braving the elements.
Anyone familiar with McCullough’s previous work, Frostgrave, will instantly recognise the system used in RoSD - it’s the exact rule set with some slight changes. The biggest difference is the change to cooperative play, moving away from the competitive player vs player set up seen in Frostgrave in favour of a player vs system mechanic. It’s a refreshing change of pace that marries skirmish war-games with tabletop RPGs.
Dice will be rolled, tales will be told and heroes will grow.
Each game you play represents a scenario, and includes its own win conditions, roster of monsters, terrain and random events. You set up the battlefield, including scenery elements and monsters, then deploy your rangers and start the game. Combat relies on D20s, and the system is fast and fluid, while the inclusion of random events (often handled with a deck of cards, but sometimes scripted) makes each scenario feel different. Completing a scenario earns your ranger and companions experience, and if they’ve fought well, items and equipment. If you’re unfortunate, you can lose members of your band, or they can suffer serious injuries that they’ll keep for the rest of their lives. There are numerous scenarios to a mission, and several missions to a campaign, which provides an unravelling narrative that sees your rangers developing as they progress through the campaign. The book contains two such campaigns, taking your Ranger from level 0 to level 15 - and this isn’t the end of the game. You could easily write your own scenarios, and I imagine that there will be expansions in the future.
Just like Frostgrave, RoSD is a hobbyist’s dream, allowing you to use whatever miniatures and scenery you want. From typical fantasy warriors, to a band of samurai, to anthropomorphic animals, to My Little Pony, you can personalise your Ranger and their companions to whatever you wish. The rules support this, providing you with all the options you need to build exactly the ranger you want to play. A specialist archer? Absolutely. A defensive tank of a knight? Definitely! A woman riding a bear? Why not? This kind of choice makes the game appealing to absolutely everyone - and the straightforward system makes it very quick and easy to do. It took us about eight minutes to build our bands of heroes, which meant that we had more time for games - perfect for youngsters who might not have the attention span to build complex characters. The simple rule system makes the game exceedingly quick, and requires just a rudimentary understanding of basic maths to get the best out of it. Again, this places the focus firmly on the game itself, drawing out the narrative aspect of the game and making it feel like taking part in a story.
'I'm gonna speed-run this at level one - argh, gods! The flies! The flies!'
Oddly, this strength is also a weakness; the single D20 mechanic at the heart the games engine leads to some exceedingly random outcomes to challenges. This can contribute to the narrative in fun and exciting ways, but it can also be frustrating when your carefully built strategy is undone by one poor dice roll, or sometimes even boring when you walk through a scenario that’s far too easy. Moments like this take away your player agency, and make your decisions much less meaningful, as no matter what choice you take, or what the game throws at you, it’s ultimately the roll of a dice that determines everything. Yet complicating the system with additional modifiers, or changing the mechanic to pools of dice would rob the game of its simplicity, which is arguably a strong point.
You could make your table a real labour of love. How awesome is this?
The layout of the book is great, following the old tried and tested method of fluff, core rules, then advanced rules, with great writing throughout and some great images that really capture the mood of the game. The rules are clearly explained, with enough examples to clarify potentially complicated interactions, though some rules can be tricky to find. Having to look for the Undead special rule when it’s nowhere near the entries for those monsters slows down the game a little, and could be easily solved with some additional text (spoiler; it’s basically a keyword for some spells). Our only real gripe with the layout was with the description of battlefields - they could sometimes be very confusing, leading to some games being set up incorrectly, and would be easily fixed with some basic maps, just to point out exactly where things go.
...or you could throw a table together in seconds with whatever's at hand!
Overall, Rangers of Shadow Deep is tremendous fun. The combination of the simple system and the ability to use whatever is in your collection makes it an instantly accessible game - we bought the book on Thursday and played through most of the scenarios that weekend using models and scenery from our RPG collection. If you don’t have any miniatures or terrain, then you’ll likely need to spend a little more money and take a little more time, but with the numerous different suppliers these days (Reaper and Nolzurs to name but a few) you can quickly assemble enough to play for a very reasonable amount. The game has it’s flaws - simplicity and an unreliable dice mechanic being one of them - but its easy to overlook this when you’re enjoying the random aspect of the game and you consider the low price tag - as a comparison, Kingdom Death: Monster is a similar cooperative RPG game, with far more choice, much more robust mechanics, numerous components and countless hours of replayability - but costs around 20 times more than RoSD.
Cramming your table with the minions of darkness no longer costs the earth. - Image by Thomas Wood - check out his own blog and follow the adventures of his Ravens of Alladore here!
I definitely recommend giving this game a go. We had a blast, and we cackled for hours when our rangers were all but defeated, then saved at the last moment by a random soldier appearing and fending off the enemy. We named him Rando Calrissian, and he joined our party, showing demonstrable bravery and courage until he was brutally eaten by a giant spider. It was glorious and continually hilarious watching his career unfold - and that was just a random guy. The stories that developed around our rangers were ones of glory, cunning, and even sadness that helped shape our experience of the game - and not many games out there can do that.
So do yourself a favour; dig out your favourite miniatures, come up with a little story for them, and venture into Shadow Deep. You won’t regret it!