Game preparation or improvisation?

SHADOW LORDS and “preparation”.

Inspired by a discussion elsewhere, I thought to talk about the design philosophy behind Shadow Lords, especially from the point of view of “preparation or improvisation”.

Shadow Lords has been designed to be a narrative game but also a bit ‘crunchy, which allows each group to decide the level of detail at which they want to play certain elements of the game, without having to change the rules.
For example, rolls can be more or less focused on the detail or “macro” of what is happening, even during the same session, so for example a traditionalist could use them in a little more “task-oriented” way, while someone that prefers that the story goes on and prefers more drama on the screen could use them in a much more conflict-oriented way.
Another example is equipment: it can be extremely hand-wavy or more detailed and nothing serious happens if a player prefers to have more detailed items and another one does not care (and this allows to make more narrative stories but also stories where equipment and supplies are important).

And a GM can easily “switch” the levers of these elements to change the tone of the story or even just a specific scene or element, in a “seamless” way (that is, no one notices it because the rules do not change, only the result and the resulting “visual” elements of the story/game).
For example, is my habit to pass from more narrative moments of the story, with a camera set to “macro” to moments where the cam is “micro” focused on the action, because I like action and I like to roll the dice in SOME heated one on one battles.

This same philosophy is brought into the preparation of the game: we can move from TOTAL improvisation and TOTALLY EMERGING story to a more precise and maniacal preparation (but facilitated by the system itself) of every element of the setting, with a thousand shades in between, without the need change the rules.

For example I prefer myself improvisation and semi-emergent story in a more precise setting that exists in continuity with previous stories.
So I prepare some elements of the Saga, like the main theme, the initial situation, the setting, and then let the players create their characters in this situation and decide who they are and what their goals are. From there the story moves by itself and since I am a often very busy, 95% of the time I prepare almost anything and can just start a session and master it without problems, just by looking at my Saga sheet and my players Hero Sheets: everything I need is written down there!

During the session I need to create an NPC on the spot? I create it with a couple of quick Traits: SNOOTY YOUNG NOBLE D8, ABLE DUELIST D8, ARROGANT D4. Maybe I add a Drive (motivation) to give it a more in-depth personality, or maybe I just need to know it in my head.
Those data are enough for me to interpret it and use it mechanically in history. Even only ONE of those data would be enough, or even NONE.

In the last session my heroes faced the main villain of their Saga, a step below the big Boss behind the curtains (in short, like a Nazgul of Sauron, or perhaps even better Saruman), but I had not prepared because I did not expect them to get there so quickly (the horde of giants of which one of them, a giant himself, became King, helped: D).
But … no fear, I write down THE DUKE D12, Fire magic D10 (Tier•2), and I’m set: I have a powerful png, I know that it has a great power related to the fire and that this will be dangerous and funny for the pg.

And indeed it was an epic battle and full of twists, very exciting and fun. I could have solved it in 15 minutes with a roll, but it was the big villain, and I focused the camera on the single actions of the pc, and we did the battle in a hour and half (there were also other things around, inner dramas of the pg, a God who was incarnating, the battle between the army of the Duke and the giants, a lot of stuff in short).

Let’s now see an example of more in-depth “preparation” I did for the same story.
In one of the adventures, the PCs were looking for a magic crown that was owned by a Titan who built an arena in a fortress in the Labyrinth (a magical place in the shadows).

This was the “SET” of the arena: I did not know how they would have dealt with it, but I had to prepare myself and give myself an idea of the setting of this adventure, so I wrote it down as a “set”.


Fortress controlled by Nurgas the guardian of the fire


• Absorb the souls of the defeated to animate the Obsidian Giant
• Make new slaves

TRAPS AND SECRETS: the walls move by cutting the street or crushing people, pitfalls open on wells with blades, poisonous spiders hide in each corner
DO NOT FEEL PAIN: when the soulless guards are attacked with normal weapons
ABSORB THE HEAT OF LIFE: when the soulless guards surround someone or hold him or touch him
MAGIC OF FIRE: when the defensive spells are directed by Nurgas in flash attacks
CORRUPTED PLACE: if they destroy the Giant or the fortress itself, discard a D12 from the shadow and all heroes take 1 Deed

It’s very simple and gives me lots of ideas. In fact, during the session the players have fought some in the arena, others have faced the maze under it, others have interacted with its undead / slaves and eventually attacked the owner.

This instead is one of the “gladiators” that I had prepared for safety, would they decide (as they did) to fight in the arena to win a prize:


Tragic but kind warrior of Gallic origins, captured as a slave by the Baron, he escaped here to redeem his freedom


• Fights for his freedom
• Just wants to go back to his family

INDOMITABLE SPIRIT: to resist mental attacks or demoralization
I HAVE TO WIN! If he is almost defeated, he can use this move once to overturn a situation
SHIELD: if he is defending himself or, once per scene, for a surprise attack
YOU DESTROY ALL MY HOPE OF FREEDOM !: if defeated in the arena and left hopeless, he commits suicide and adds a D12 to the Shadow. If killed, add a D10 to the Shadow

At the beginning they wanted to make a pact to save it, but then they faced a pg a little less good than the others and died (the dice added to the Shadow make the subsequent actions of players more difficult).

The SHADOW MOVES are a simple system to add an interesting element to something with which the characters can interact mechanically: when the situation described by the move is presented, the GM can spend a Shadow Die for some narrative effect at the expenses of the Heroes, but then they can decide if they want to resist it or not.
For example, if a PC decides to ignore the shield of Carantorius above, and to attack it from the front, the GM can spend a D8 and declare “Your blade is aligned with the neck of Carantorius, but the shield interposes with your attack and he blocks it without problems, also the Gaul uses the impact of the shield to hurl you to the ground, take FALLEN D8. I used the “Shield” shadow move of Carantorius “. The Hero can reject this and spend a Hero Die or Burn an appropriate Trait (for example “GREAT WARRIOR”) to narrate how they resist the move instead.

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