Category: Featured

Four Against Darkness: Why You Will Game Again

A review by William C. Pfaff

For so many of us, young and old, we never lose our love of fantasy role-playing games. But Dungeons & Dragons sometimes takes a backseat to “Priorities & Paychecks” the less than fun game of life and responsibility. What to do when you can’t get the gang together and video games aren’t scratching the itch to sling dice and the thrill of recording tiny arcane symbols on graph paper? Andrea Sfiligoi has come up with a flawless solution.

Imagine a choose-your-own-adventure book and Dungeons & Dragons came together to create the most adorable, ‘don’t want to ever put it’ down baby on the planet. That’s what Four Against Darkness is. The basic guidebook is available in PDF format or a 90-page perfect bound book and will cost you less than an average dinner out. However, unlike fast food you’ll be simultaneously satisfied and hungry for more.

The basis is this: four PCs (all of which can be played by just one person or split up and run with up to four friends each taking command of a character) are wading their way through a dungeon filled with monsters, traps, treasures, and weirdness. In other words, thanks to the random tables, clever dungeon-generation system and a simple but robust combat system, you don’t have to wait for a Game Master or even any other people. You can sit down anywhere, anytime with a one page character sheet (which fits all four PCs on it), a 20 x 28 square map, a pencil, and a single d6 and it’s game on! Sound too good to be true? Read on my little Gygaxians.

Step one: choose and equip your 4 adventurers from Warrior, Cleric, Barbarian, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, Rogue or Wizard. Yes, it’s an old-school callback where “races” are classes. And there are just a few types of weapons and armor is divided into just light or heavy armor and/or a shield. Enough choices to allow for strategic decisions but not so many as to induce “analysis paralysis”. It’s a terrific balance. After that grab your graph paper and start rolling on the charts: generate the rooms, the contents, and the rewards.

Monsters fall into two broad categories: Minions (which include the annoying vermin who don’t count for experience) and Bosses (which include the unusual creatures known as “weird” monsters). Taking advantage of the bell curve generated by rolling 2d6 the game has you encounter weaker monsters at a higher rate BUT the results are still random so that brutal Medusa might be lurking in the second room you encounter! Adventurers make attack and defense rolls so there are no dice to roll for the monsters. Let me re-emphasize that: the monsters’ level basically controls both their attack ability and their armor rating so only the adventurer’s need ever roll dice……pure…..elegance.

You keep fighting your way through the dungeon until you face the final boss. Defeat that big bad and then work your way back out and reload for another fresh dungeon run. And you will be making that next run and the next one. If this sounds too simplistic for any “hardcore” gamers out there let me just toss out the following fun facts. You can encounter fountains and statues. You can be challenged to solve a puzzle and you can collect clues for epic rewards. Monsters might offer a peaceful passing or offer a reward for completely a quest for them! That’s right – amazing depth, real gaming, and no game master needed.

Once your characters reach 5th level you’ll want to take on Four Against the Abyss! But that’s another review for another day. There are tons of inexpensive add-ons and adventures for this incredible game, but, if you haven’t tried it yet? Get started with Four Against Darkness and get lost in a game that delivers all the nostalgia and none of the hassle.

Entering the Shadow of the Demon Lord- an EVG review

Robert J. Schwalb’s “Shadow of the Demon Lord” has been reviewed in quite a few spots on the interwebz. This review is for those of you who may be on the fence. I’m going to give you the top five reasons that this is the sorta thing you’ll like if you like this sorta thing (my grandpa used to say that and it just stuck with me).

shadow of the dl

1) Value– Player’s Guide, GM’s Guide, Barebones world, AND Bestiary in one well-laid out and nicely illustrated bundle for five sawbucks? This is one of the major selling points…’re not getting MOST of a game here – you’re getting everything you need in one pop…an amazing value.

2) Simplicity– For some this may be a bug and not a feature but you only need a d6 and a d20 to play. The game uses familiar d20 mechanics combined with a boon and bane system. (Boon roll a d6 and add the result to your D20 roll, Bane subtract the d6. Multiple modifiers provide more than one? They cancel each other out on a one to one basis. Simple, elegant, and I prefer it to 5E’s advantage/disadvantage system.

3) Familiar but Different– The mechanics and FEEL of Schwalb’s game are at once familiar and intuitive but also have some new splashes that are terrific. Humans, dwarves, and….clockworks? Goblins as a PC race? Yes, please! Corruption and Madness also make their Tolkienesque and Lovecraftian appearances respectively. How about taking a fast turn versus a slow turn? Fast is basically a single action but you get to step up in initiative, Slow gives you all your options but wait your turn…again the word is “elegant”.

4) Character Creation/Advancement– Hold on…let me just try to not lose my mind here. THIS part of the game was enough to not only make me buy it, but made me question RPG game design ever since. Let me just say that if you LOVE options but hate mindless bookkeeping, this is the system right here. The short version is this- You start with a novice path at Level 1: Warrior, Rogue, Magician, and Priest are the choices. I know, I know…you’re saying, “hardly revolutionary”. But then when you get to Level 3 (which your party advances as a GROUP- again just a great shorthand to move everyone along together) you select an expert path (one of 16 – with each of the four options basically branching). However (and here’s the kicker) – you can choose whatever you want! Tired of simply mixing it up in melee as a warrior? Grab yourself some expert path Assassin and get stealthy. Other than the normal issues (dedicated spell-caster will have more power within their spell-casting realm than those who dabble). This system is totally modular and simply works. Later on grab a master path or a second expert path for increased customization. This is simply the most amazing part of the game and if you’re in a store and have a moment flip to page 53 and read from there…then march to the counter and make the purchase.

5) Monsters and Spells and the World? Oh MY!
Bestiary– You’ve got monsters, you’ve got the framework to easily construct more, and Rob provides great advice on designing encounters.
Spellbook– Spell descriptions are TERSE and I love it. The game says look you’ve cast “fly” a hundred times in your rpg career, here’s the basic parameters and make rulings on the rest.
The World– The world provides a bit of a high fantasy at 5,200 feet overview of what’s possible in world design but I think most GM’s simply make their own. But if you don’t want to? maps, places, and hooks are all here.

That’s it. I can’t recommend this highly enough. I’ve been a gamemaster for 30 plus years. I’ve written and published my own work. I’ve picked the brains of the greats of the industry: Monte, E.G.G., Jolly, and Wolfgang. I can safely say Mr. Schwalb has secured his place in the pantheon with this offering…buy it today and you will be ready to grab the dice and roll with a great new system in no time at all!

Back from GenCon 2015

Gen Con was another tremendous event and the volunteers there are so underrated.  What did Lindsay and I pick up?  Glad you asked.


#1 Gothic Doctor from Meltdown Games is going to be the next big thing that no one has heard of yet.  In this card game,gothic dr sample you are a doctor tasked with curing Victorian era legends and patients (Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Insane Asylum patients and the like). Cards provide cures as patients stack up in the waiting room, a clock counts down the turns and action cards allow you to mess with the game and with other doctors.  It is an addictive blast and because games go so fast you’ll find yourself constantly saying “just ONE more game” until the wee hours of the morning.  I had the chance to speak with designer Doug Levandowski who has already produced a demonic expansion and is working on more (thank goodness….the gaming monster must be fed!!).


#2 Gruff from Studio Woe is a tactical card game where you battle as insane shepherds commanding mutated goats (if you are a gamer and you can’t get excited about that summary…I feel very, very sorry for you).  The game is VERY strategic and involves a lot of decision-making and demands that different goats be handled in different manners.  The art is incredible and the designer Brent Critchfield is imaginative and passionate about his creation.  I kickstarted his creation and I can’t wait to lock horns/tentacles/etc with other shepherds.


#3 WEGS Old Skool rpg system is from Gamewick Games.  The creator, Larry Wickman, birthed a free-wheeling system that will have you feeling half riverboat gambler and half Conan.  Character creation, abilities, monster design and most other game aspects are simple but not always intuitive.  It takes a bit of getting used to the system (rolling 10’s under 6’s, “come out” rolls, etc) and if you have a casino gamer background that will help immensely.  That being said -Larry brings the COOL over and over to both game design as well as his breathless writing style.  If you want a complete rpg (that is truly complete and finished) that fits in one ziploc bag this is the game for you.


Overall, the crowds were insane (60,000 plus unique visitors and nearly 200K through the turnstile) but shockingly polite.  The number of new things to see and do were definitely up from previous recent years and we are looking forward to making the pilgrimage to the gaming Mecca next year!

Receding to the (RPG) Campfire

I was recently running through some of my favorite rpg blogs which includes Telecanter’s Receding Rules ( Telecanter was discussing making the old classic campfire scene more meaningful. I immediately understood what he was trying to accomplish and I loved his article. In fiction, the campsite is a place for tall tales, meaty stews, and weapon polishing. In many game systems, the only thing that happens by the campsite is an encounter or two, spellcasters regain spells, and healing happens. That’s it. Whether you sleep in a beautiful elven made tree house or in the rain hunched against a crumbling tombstone, it doesn’t make much difference.

This article is a “piggyback” article to Telecanter’s terrific piece. I won’t be using any game specific references. Each item/situation I describe will provide a “small bonus (or penalty)” that will be up to individual GMs to determine. A d20- based game might give a +1 to a certain roll. A game based on percentiles might give a 5% boost. Perhaps making use of these items allows for a re-roll of the worst possible roll (a natural 1 in many game systems). What boons are given are described here qualitatively it’s up to the GM to quantify it.

Everyone packs the classic “iron rations”, “elven travel bread”, or some kind of jerky. This stuff is designed to keep everyone functioning minimally. But shouldn’t there be an opportunity to make things better? If the ranger forages/hunts and comes back with a delicious boar, tart apples to stuff it with, and perfectly in season herbs to make a broth shouldn’t that matter? If the party manages to forage and find a particularly delectable food let them enjoy a “small bonus” to healing. If the party finds the perfect feast (such as described above- which in terms of rolls would be the result of a “critical success” or “perfect roll”) let them not only have the small healing bonus overnight, but perhaps the entire next morning they receive a small morale bonus to saves against fear or mind-affecting abilities (which represents their fortified mental state and overall happiness). I for one can’t wait to see the players cheering when the ranger’s player screams, “Nat 20! It’s boar tonight ladies and gents!”. The flipside of the foraging feast is days upon days of rations. I would be tempted to let the party eat rations for one week. After seven days of the same tasteless hardtack, flip the above bonus into a “small penalty” to healing. If the party suffers particularly horrid luck (the travel bread gets soggy or moldy) perhaps hit them with the above morale bonus turned into a penalty as well.

Item: Halfling Spice Set (or whatever race is the food connoisseurs in your world)
This non-magical set contains spices for improving rations, hardtack, and other “travel foods”. Each set allows a proficient chef to season 20 day’s worth of individual rations (thus a party of four could make use of this for five days) and not have to suffer the penalties associated with rations. Note: This set doesn’t allow for the bonuses successful hunting/foraging grants but it does keep the above-mentioned penalties at bay.

Water is essential for almost all races and lack of potable water is a real survival issue in all environments and of extreme importance in particularly hostile environments (poisonous and fetid swamps, deserts, etc.). What if the party happens upon the perfect water (I just had flashbacks to the 1998 movie “The Waterboy”)? Let’s say the foragers discover a fey-created, enchanted spring. There are numerous scenarios that could…ahem….spring forth. Let’s go with a table of results….

d8 roll       Result

          1. This water provides the same benefits in one-third the volume, allowing the party to fill their waterskins with water that will last three times as long.
          2. This water has healing powers (small instantaneous healing bonus).
          3. This water has slow regenerative powers (small healing bonus while sleeping overnight).
          4. This water is mentally refreshing (a spellcaster can memorize one additional spell of the lowest level he/she knows after resting).
          5. The water is a poison antidote.
          6. The water is nutritious and provides the same benefits as a good meal while also quenching thirst.
          7. The water reveals the drinker as a friend of the local fey granting him/her a small diplomatic bonus in social situations.
          8. The water reveals the drinker as a thieving enemy of the local fey giving him/her a small diplomatic penalty in social situations.

The Campfire Fuel
Telecanter discusses a hearth stone idea that is tremendous. In the same vein, I like the idea of a particular type of wood helping the party. If those with botanical knowledge harvest these special woods to burn in the fire they enjoy some varied bonuses.

Wood with its effect
Barkbane This thick-barked wood is purported to keep all dogs and wolves at bay and is found to be nauseating to lycanthropes (any lycanthrope suffers a small attack penalty while fighting near barkbane).

Bloodthorn This reddish wood has severe thorns all over it. Those who have open wounds will find they quickly close and coagulate (a small immediate healing bonus for those affected by naturally occurring battle wounds of the cut/slash sort).

Greencloak This leafy, vibrant tree has wood that burns with a very thick low-laying smoke. Anyone who burns greencloak is somewhat obscured as the green smoke helps hide them. The GM may institute a small penalty to any foe trying to spot the party’s campsite.

Wyrdwoode This white, gnarly wood burns with a pale yellow smoke. The smoke has a calming effect on all persons and animals nearby (horses won’t spook as easily, the party familiars will rest easily). The wood’s effect may reduce the duration of any sort of agitated condition or mental state (shaken, scared, etc.) or remove the effects of a spell that affects the target’s mental state.

In most scenarios the party has a bedroll or blanket, sticks their heads on their backpacks and camps out under the stars. What about some modifiers to this basic level of comfort? Here are several things the party may seek to help them or may not be able to avoid which harms them.

A well-built lean-to/ cave or cavern/ or abandoned building- is an ideal situation.  Having such a roof over their head and protection from the elements
should be worth a small bonus to overnight healing.

Particuarly Thick Furs -The party’s hunter kills a furry creature for dinner. Sleeping on its pelt might be so luxurious as to allow one PC to enjoy no penalty for sleeping in armor ( a huge advantage to not have to don armor in the middle of a midnight ambush).

Foul locale – Some places ( a desecrated area, hanuted battlesite, or fetid swamp) will give the PCs the “heebie-jeebies” or will be so nasty as to disturb sleep. Perhaps haunting nightmares prevent the PCs from gaining the full benefits of sleep. A noxious/poisonous area may interfere with healing. And pack animals may refuse to sleep in a haunted area and will whinny and stomp all night.


This is your best chance to let the “hams”/story-tellers/bards shine. If someone prepares a story, song, or poem and presents it in character-as a GM- you almost have to reward this sort of role-playing.

* A worthy performance can result in the party being extra motivated the next day. Example: The player of the bard tells the tale of the downtrodden villagers who took up farm implements to take down a party of marauding orcs. With these reassuring and heroic thoughts in their mind, each PC gains a small bonus the next day on their first attack roll against orcs.

*A singer or musician might provide a song that is so enchanting that it distracts a creature that would have attacked the party during the night. Example: A giant snake slithers up to a party encamped in a jungle. The party musician plays his pungi and the snake pauses to enjoy the soothing and entrancing notes. It later retreats somewhat unsure of what made it not wish to attack the musician and his or her party. The GM can let the party find the tracks the next morning and let them know that the party’s musician prevented a snake sneak attack (perhaps even awarding a small experience point bonus equal to overcoming the snake).

In Closing

As one can see, the opportunities to make the campfire a vibrant part of a campaign are many. Take one or more of these ideas and run with it. These are now your ideas as a GM to use, modify, or discard. Post other ideas here or at Telecanter’s blog. Let us know how the campfire has started to shine brighter in your campaign world!

The Malicious Moth Invasion Has Begun!

The newest Escape Velocity Gaming monster product is out now!  Check out just one of the six fully-detailed monstrous moths available in Malicious Moths…it’s our level 10 solo Faunus Moth illustrated by Cumberland’s own Sarah J. Salmon-Cooper!

My Dungeon Doesn’t Even Have Corridors

Greg Bilsland (a guy I have great admiration and respect for) posted this awhile back.  I wanted to write my take on it earlier but other projects got in the way and our actual campaign has been rolling.  Bilsland talks about old-school vs. new-school dungeon design and says his dungeons aren’t just delve-style but actually contain empty rooms. You know the drill: a smashed bit of furniture, a forgotten bit of equipment, broken pottery shards, etc.  I like that old-school style, I really do…but (and you knew there would be a but) it’s time (for my players and I at least) has simply passed.  Let me explain before the flames rise up!

Bilsand talks about pacing and setting the mood as key factors in the decision to place “empty” rooms in his dungeon.  I want to really play devil’s advocate and simply argue (in a very dime-store philosopher style)  that the rooms aren’t empty…they contain mood.  Obviously not in a physical sense.  But the empty rooms are placed for a reason.  I think this is great…and I also think “old-school” dungeon design didn’t even consider the empty room for that purpose.  Gygaxian Dungeon Ecology simply stated that almost 20% of rooms were empty and so they were.  The AD&D DM’s guide (iirc) even had tables for “dungeon dressing” for empty rooms.  The empty rooms were there simply to add realism.  Not every room was going to be a jam-packed thrill-ride.  Danger really wasn’t behind every door.  It made sense.  And… I don’t run my dungeons this way…at all.

I used to.  I was the king of graph paper in middle and high school.  My players back then didn’t even ask if I had an “adventure” ready.  The question was, “Hey Bill…do u have a dungeon ready?”  Oh yeah…wandering monster chart, lettered and numbered rooms, and traps and secret doors…I was ready.  And of course there was always a room or two with that simple statement, “This room contains nothing of interest.”    Now…not so much.

Now I only build the rooms I need…my players have utter faith in me as a DM and I have faith in them as players.  Together, we cut right to the chase.  I truly understand 4e D&D’s “get to the fun” mentality.  If the dungeon is sparsely populated and three-fourths of the rooms are empty…the ones we actually encounter are full…chock to the brim with the “fun” elements.  I simply give the appropriate flavor text, “After several rooms which contain little more than blood-stains and claw marks, this oaken door creaks forward and a very startled {insert creature name}  looks your way with malice in its eyes…roll initiative!”  Now, please understand I’m not saying this is the only way to play…I am firmly in the mode that says, “If you’re having fun-you’re playing it right!”.  There is no such thing as badwrongfun.

What I am saying is the flavor texts take the place of the featureless rooms.  If the party has found nothing for half the dungeon except a few coppers and some fine examples of orcish fletching….I say so…and then we kick down the next door which actually has orcs behind it.     Again, I’m not saying Greg Bilsland is wrong, not saying old-school is wrong, just describing how we do it.  My players love that there is no frustrating mapping, no corridors,no dead ends, nothing extraneous….just set pieces with monsters to bash, npcs to get secrets from, challenges and puzzles to overcome, and loot to grab.  That’s it.  We get right to the fun and it works for us.  So no…my dungeon doesn’t have empty rooms, it doesn’t even have corridors….but it’s jam-packed with fun!

The Vanquisher Campaign: And here… we… go!

This is a new series of posts written by both BMO and William (appearing in red) – gamer and DM (that’s me!) , for William C. Pfaff’s new “Vanquisher Campaign”.  I get to gloat about some of the things that I think make 4E great (less prep time for the DM more time for the FUN), brag about how much I enjoy playing under William as a DM with his somewhat unique (somewhat?) approach to running the game, and he gets to explain to everyone some of the tricks (but not all of them…for that you have to take one of my special DMing classes) that make his methods so effective.  This is a bit of an experiment, so the format may change a bit, but, for now, I,  BMO,  will write, then William will add in after the fact (thusly).

Let me begin with a very special shout-out.  The “Big Nerd” himself, the famous Shawn Henry, who IS our friend, inspired this series.  The poor guy is stuck in a larger town than we live in and yet doesn’t have a gaming group.  He was so excited about the prospect of this campaign that he pleaded with me to blog the happenings so he could live vicariously.  Not only that, today is Shawn’s birthday, so, as a gift, I think everyone should go check out his amazing art and figure out a way to buy stuff off of him at The Big Nerd.

Ok, with that out of the way, let’s get to the juicy stuff.  You must be wondering, “Is this campaign bloody like William warned? -Brett from Lexington”, Yes.  With no actual defender, we bleed a lot.  Luckily, we have a Bard that seems to have just the right powers at just the right time to keep us upright (Despite the massive chunks of damage done by the strikers Johno’s Bard was easily MVP of the first session. As a DM I was truly impressed at the leap John has made from last campaign to this one in terms of both rules knowledge and willingness to ‘jump right in’. Kudos to Johno!).

The Vanquisher Campaign: The Countdown is Officially ON!

This is a new series of posts written by both BMO and William (appearing in red) – gamer and DM (that’s me!) , for William C. Pfaff’s new “Vanquisher Campaign”.  I get to gloat about some of the things that I think make 4E great (less prep time for the DM more time for the FUN), brag about how much I enjoy playing under William as a DM with his somewhat unique (somewhat?) approach to running the game, and he gets to explain to everyone some of the tricks (but not all of them…for that you have to take one of my special DMing classes) that make his methods so effective.  This is a bit of an experiment, so the format may change a bit, but, for now, I,  BMO,  will write, then William will add in after the fact (thusly).

BMO:  T-minus a bit over 48 hours (sure wish I had the finished map drawn…sigh….more ‘5 hour energy’ coming online) until we roll characters for the Vanquisher Campaign.  I’m reporting in with limited knowledge of what’s going on altogether, but I do know this, we’re going OLD SCHOOL.  I can hear the traditionalists sinking in, cracking open a Mountain Dew, and getting comfortable in their office chairs as they read that.  (Admit it, you cheered a little, I know it.)

Yes, this campaign will apparently be a nod, (a throwback even), to the days when treasures came from a table, healing came from a potion and diplomacy was served at the tip of a blood-stained sword.  Everyone is pumped!

…except me.