Taking a Look at Shadow of the Demon Lord’s Corruption Mechanic

After the flurry of the holidays, business trips, and other such real-life distractions, my group was finally able to get back into our Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign. All in all, the system is fantastic at what it was made to do – horror fantasy. Seriously I’ve thrown so much fucked-up shit at the table it’s outrageous.

A common theme in Shadow of the Demon Lord (SotDL) is that evil is a real and palpable concept in the world. I say palpable in the sense that committing evil acts will corrupt a person. The more corrupt a person is the more grotesque deformities or unholy quirks they gain. You can tell who is an atrocious person in the world of SotDL just by looking at them.

However, even good or decent people commit countless evil acts in the name of survival in these dark times in the world. It is the apocalypse after all. Anyone can become corrupted if they find themselves desperate enough to survive.

All of this is the result of the Corruption mechanic. It’s a fantastic tool for GMs as it gives the players mechanical consequences for their choices as opposed to D&D 5e which relies on the DM to provide narrative consequences.

A character that is corrupt and/or evil will experience these narrative consequences as well, but at least in SotDL, the players are well aware that they deserve these consequences and can plan for them to happen.

Enormous demon with bull-like horns towers over a small house feasting on its livestock.
A corrupted soul can attract all sorts of unsavory creatures. Credit: Andrey Vasilchenko and Schwalb Entertainment.

What is Corruption

Corruption exists to keep track of a character’s evil deeds. Each evil act you commit will increase your Corruption score by 1. The higher a character’s Corruption is, the more effects they suffer based on the Corruption Effects table on page 36.

Corruption is a numerical value that ranges from 0-9 (or higher). Most characters start the game off with 0 Corruption, but there are exceptions to this rule.

The effects of Corruption come online at different thresholds of Corruption. Here’s a quick summary to showcase these effects:

  • 0-3 Corruption: No effects.
  • 4-6 Corruption: 1 bane to socially interacting with others.
  • 7-8 Corruption: -1 on fate rolls while incapacitated. (This makes it easier to permanently die.)
  • 9+ Corruption: You immediately die if you become incapacitated and cannot be revived.

There are other flavor and role-playing effects in each of these tiers as well, but either way, the mechanical detriments each tier gives your character are reason enough to try and avoid gaining Corruption.

Gaining Corruption

Corruption is awarded (if you can call it that) by the GM so it is entirely subjective as to when a character might gain a point of Corruption. However, there are a few guidelines and examples listed in the rules to help GMs get a feel for when and why they should be giving a character a point of Corruption.

For example, stealing from a poor person for personal gain would be worthy of a point of Corruption. Murdering an innocent person also deserves a point of Corruption. However, killing an evil person would not necessarily corrupt someone if they had a just cause or an acceptable reason for doing so.

Interestingly enough, Corruption can also be gained by learning spells from truly evil spell traditions. This makes forbidden magic a costly investment and really drives home the point of it actually being forbidden magic.

All in all, this take on how to gain Corruption and having the GM act as judge and jury for doling it out is a great way to explore morality in a morally-bankrupt setting. Stealing and killing are objectively bad, but if you’re stealing from an evil person to save an orphanage is it really all that bad? Do the ends justify the means?

Dark Marks – Reveal Your Corruption to the World

I mentioned previously that evil, corrupted, people in SotDL can be recognized by their physical appearance. While it’s true that you begin to show physical signs of Corruption once you have at least 7 Corruption, you also have a chance to gain unique quirks and physical mutations/deformities called Marks of Darkness each time you gain a point of Corruption.

One example of a Mark of Darkness is only being able to eat rotten or spoiled food. Another is to grow a second row of teeth. Not all Marks of Darkness are as detrimental as others, but each one will certainly change how your character is viewed.

There are 20 Marks of Darkness listed in the Mark of Darkness table in the rulebook. Each time you gain Corruption you must roll a d20. If the result of that roll is less than your new Corruption score you roll the d20 again and then gain the Mark of Darkness that corresponds with the roll.

Again, this just showcases how the more corrupt you are, the worse the effects of Corruption become.

Getting Rid of Corruption

Even in the literal hellscape that is most SotDL worlds, atonement is a possibility. Evil people can become good people just as a once just and honorable person can become a horrible villain out of necessity in this setting.

However, atoning for your sins is not easy. You cannot just wish your Corruption and evil acts away. You need to work for atonement in a selfless way.

A character needs to make a complete change of heart in order to erase some of their Corruption. Basically, someone who wishes to atone for the harm they’ve done needs to live their life as a good person, even when it’s not the easiest path to follow.

Characters that aid the weak and sick or give to charity because it’s the right thing to do are ones that will slowly cleanse themselves of Corruption. While this sounds simple on paper, it’s certainly not in a world that is infested by demons and is nearing absolute destruction.

Anyone’s soul can be saved in SotDL, but it’s considerably easier to gain Corruption than it is to rid yourself of it.

the inside of a catholic church. Rows of pews are on each side of the photograph and the altar is at the center of it surrounded by stain-glass windows
If all else fails, donate to the church! I can’t see that backfiring at all…

Conclusions

All in all, I’m a fan of Corruption in SotDL. It’s a great way to ensure that the players know they are making an evil choice (not a wrong choice) and that there are consequences for their actions. It of course also adds that awesome body horror flavor you come to expect from a typical SotDL world.

Every TTRPG campaign should ensure that choices have consequences. In my experience with games like D&D 5e, the DM will utilize the narrative to provide consequences for their actions. For example, being caught stealing could land you in prison.

While SotDL still includes these narrative consequences, Corruption gives the GM a way to also impose mechanical consequences for evil acts. I also believe that having a trackable mechanic like this is a fantastic way for the players to gauge how they are viewed in the world.

At the very least, it’s more reliable than D&D 5e’s alignment system. There’s no room for a disconnect between the party and the DM with regards to how “good” or “evil” they are. If everyone is running around with a fair amount of corruption, they’re definitely bad people.

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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