Category: Reviews

Crucible of Classic Critters? A Critical Hit Confirmed

Don’t let the title fool you. The Crucible of Classic Critters is far more than a mere menagerie of monsters; it’s mostly a manual for maximizing your merriment! (whew…enough of that… I’ll leave the alliteration to the always erudite and entertaining expositor Erick N. Bouchard.

In all seriousness, I won’t bury the lede. This book is “blow you out of the water” amazing. I can’t emphasize enough the strength of this content. This reads like the expanded rules for Four Against Darkness (i.e. if you bought the rule books in two halves…THIS would be the second half). There is a lot to be said for Four Against the Abyss being that “other half” as well because of the expert skills and ability to take your characters past fifth level, but if that is so…then Crucible joins the original game and Abyss as the “Holy Trinity for the tabletop”.

What’s inside? Glad you asked. Number one, you can get out of the dungeon and into the forests! And it isn’t just the matter of exchanging copses of trees for dungeon walls. You’re out in the open so flying critters like to show up, there are bridges to cross, rivers to swim, and you may even discover an old drinking well that bestows a healing boon.

Next up (based on very popular demand!) animal companions show up. These provide some very cool options (have a wildcat as your buddy? He will kill rats for you!) . I think these are going to be immensely popular and for those who like a more narrative/rpg approach to the game will be able to add their animal companions to the fabric of the story. What would animal options be without new mounts? Erick provides a plethora of perambulating ponies and pals. With all these creatures running around you would think the game would have a beastmaster class…well…it does now! Erick handles that beautifully and even provides an option for the beastmaster to share his or her experience to level up the companion instead.

Beyond the beastmaster, two new cleric variants (both incredibly useful…one that charms foes and one that can calm animals) make their debut. And then finally we come to the critters…they are classic indeed! How about harpies, centaurs, troglodytes, the sphinx, griffins, lamias, rakshasas and unicorns? These monsters are amazing and slightly more complex than the base book creatures which adds additional interest. New magic items (check out the Scarab of Undeath…bring a fallen party member back as a vampire!) a special events table, and more content that I haven’t even mentioned (can’t give away all the surprises!)

The bottom line? a nearly flawless product (I personally wasn’t a fan of the- nearly strictly for laughs -useless spell section, but I can see some enjoying the chuckle). This should go directly to the top of everyone’s buy list. Kudos to Mr. Bouchard.

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!

Review of WOTC’s HAMMERFAST: A Dwarven Outpost Adventure Site

  • Orcs and Dwarves share a city built for the dead.

That’s the hook for Hammerfast and it’s a darn good one. Hammerfast is a 32-page adventure site supplement featuring Mike Mearls as the lead designer.

First off, major kudos to WOTC for beginning to flesh out their whole “Points of Light” world. Enormous hardcovers and boxed sets are nice…but sometimes you don’t need a seven-course meal, sometimes a light lunch is plenty. Hammerfast is a delicious and satisfying overview of a town created out of conflict and originally built as a massive graveyard full of crypts, chambers, and sepulchers. The ghosts of the past make suitably spooky appearances, orcs shuffle about side-by-side with the dwarves (thanks to a special divine compact), and the maps included are top notch. All in all, this is a terrific product at its price point of $14.95 (U.S. dollars).

My favorite parts of the supplement are the maps (the town overview and the most popular tavern are on each side of a full-color poster map) and the quest links. Mearls and company demonstrate a complete heroic-tier campaign outline complete with individual quests. This is the sort of stuff that I, as a DM, absolutely crave. I also applaud a decision that WOTC has made that I’m sure will meet with derision from other camps. The interior artwork is scarce and black-and-white. I say, “good!” I’m a huge fan of evocative and beautiful color artwork but as a DM I need content…not bells and whistles. This product delivers solid, usable ideas and some corners were obviously cut on the art budget to keep costs down. Thank you WOTC!

More good stuff includes a threat to the town- a group known as “The Circle of Stone”. They represent my favorite type of “bad guys” in that they are not clichéd, “hand-wringingly“, slaughtering evil with a capital “E“. They actually see themselves as the good guys and are more like rivals to the PCs than truly evil-doers. The Circle of Stone could best be described as “dangerously misguided” and this makes them much more interesting in a long-term campaign.

My only real negative to this whole affair is a bizarre “naming” issue. Flip quickly through the supplement and you’ll see that someone on staff was positively in love with the letter “T”. The outpost of Hammerfast features a Tathik, a Toren, a Tras, a Telg, both a Tharra and a Thora, and a Thar and a Tharn. Don’t forget Trell, Therai, Terras, and Therd! Yes, keeping track of NPCs with such amazingly similar names is going to be a headache. Maybe the editor (Torah Cottrill) is to blame for the “T” party. I’m all for internal consistency, and perhaps the letter “T” is common in the dwarven language, but… please…throw us a frickin’ bone here and help the players keep their heads from spinning. Also keep in mind, the supplement features an “Old” Gaff and another NPC also named Gaff (with no indication that they are related which mighta, sorta, kinda explained things).
As I stated earlier, the name game aside, this supplement is very good and is exactly the sort of stuff I’ve been wishing WOTC would produce for years.

  • Overall rating 8.5 out of 10.

REVIEW and (Re-skin) of the Dark Sun Creature Catalog

Still on the fence about picking up the Dark Sun Creature Catalog? Let me give you the bottom line first…don’t hesitate to pick this product up.  I have been delighted with WOTC’s latest creature offerings (MM3, Monster Vault) and the Dark Sun Creature Catalog (hereafter abbreviated DSCC) may take its place at the very top as far as true value.

144 page full-color (brilliantly illustrated) hardcover for $19.95.  This is how major monster books are supposed to look.  The monsters feel extremely coherent and part of the world of Athas.  However the creatures contained therein have the ability to thrive outside of a harsh desert world.  Just the tiniest of tweaks (some requiring almost zero work other than fluff changes) and these beasties are ready to terrorize a multitude of worlds.  Need an example?Let’s dive right in to the Silt Horror.

The Silt Horror is a massive tentacled beast that bursts appendages up through the sand which constrict, rake, and sweep victims.  The tentacles are treated as separate minions in a really terrific use of the minion mechanic.  Fight going too easily for the PCs?  Just pop two more tentacles up out of the sand.  The obvious reskin is drop this badboy into the ocean and you’ve got the kraken.  How about making him slimy and green and he becomes the “Marsh Horror”.  Another example?  Glad you asked.  How about the Tembo?

The Tembo is a saber-tooth tigeresque solo apex predator.  It however has the aberrant origin and several stealth-related abilities.  Hmmmm….How about we change his origin to “shadow”.  And change his “Tainted Wounds” aura to a “Shadowy Reckoning” aura that says “While the Tembo is bloodied, creatures in the aura that take necrotic damage are pushed 1 square.”  This forces a change of tactics halfway through the battle as ranged attacks become much more effective.  Maybe even a name change?  I like “Shadow-tooth Lion”.

As far as creatures that beg to be moved to other environs…How about the Belgoi?  This eerie bell-ringing fey humanoid just asks to be put in a gothic horror setting.  The Cilops (a single-eyed centipede with psychic powers) would be right at home in a campaign world modeled after ancient Greek mythos.  Make the Obsidian Golem into a colorful precious gemstone (I like Amethyst) and drop him into a fungal cave in the feydark.

The bottom line is this….WOTC has hit a grand slam with the DSCC and it takes very little effort to move these interesting and unique monsters out of the desert and into your world!

Overall Score: 10 of 10- a flawless effort.