Monday, August 31, 2015

Buckets of Blood - My First Impressions of Shadow of the Demon Lord

Unleash the Demon

On Friday I was on Google+, just hanging out (in a virtual sense), and I saw a post by my friend +Marc Plourde.  He was skimming through his PDF copy of Shadow of the Demon Lord by +Robert Schwalb and posted his initial thoughts, including the following:

"It feels, tonally, like the bastard's offspring of Dungeon Crawl Classics and Dragon AGE in some ways."

Hold the friggin' iPhone for a second… did he say it was like DCC and Dragon Age's evil child?

This grabbed my attention, and I had to do a little more digging.  To be clear, this wasn't the first time I had heard of Shadow of the Demon Lord.  I followed the Kickstarter back in the spring, but didn't have chance to back the project…

... my cash flow at the time was marginally affected by $600 in X-Wing Miniatures purchases… sorry. 

I am a big fan of Mr. Schwalb's Numenera adventure, Beyond All Worlds, and am really looking forward to seeing his work over on Shotguns and Sorcery.  I was pretty sure that Shadow of the Demon Lord would be fantastic.  Over the last week or so several of my friends posted on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ that they received their Shadow of the Demon Lord corebook PDF's.  The first reviews were great, and I saw that the PDF was $19.99 on DriveThruRPG, but I wasn't quite ready to pull the plug.  I'm already knee deep in multiple systems, with a terrible backlog of others that I don't know when I'll ever get a chance to play…

… I'm looking at you, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space.

So initially my plan was to wait.  At least until the print edition showed up on the shelves.  Of course that's when I saw Marc's post.

"… like the bastard offspring of Dungeon Crawl Classics and Dragon AGE…"  

This wasn't just anyone writing about an RPG… this was +Marc Plourde!  Marc has a terrific blog called Inspiration Strikes that I follow.  He's also in my regular Cypher System group.  We've played Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG and the AGE System together.  At Gen Con 2015 Marc ran my wife and I through Fantasy Age.  Marc knows how much of a raving, crazed DCCRPG fan I am.  

Marc also knows good gaming.  

Within ten minutes of reading Marc's post I was on DriveThruRPG reading the thirteen page preview of Shadow of the Demon Lord.  By Friday evening I purchased the corebook PDF.  As of right now (Sunday evening) I'm planning on pre-ordering the print copy.  

Yes, it's that awesome!

What About the "Knee Deep" Comment?

I know, I know.  I was too busy in the Spring for another tabletop RPG, why would I jump into another game?  Currently I'm running a regular Cypher System Fantasy game, a monthly Dungeon Crawl Classics game at our game club, and on Friday we kick off our East Texas University campaign.  Oh, and I have the game with the kiddos.  

How am I going to run another game?  

Easy answer:  I'm not!  

Marc is an extraordinarily talented game master, so when he hinted at running a monthly Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign I was ready to roll dice role play.  Of course this is not to say that I won't run the system at some point in the future.  For now, though, it'll be really nice to rejoin the ranks of the RPG players, and spend some time on the other side of the GM screen.  

I would just need a character.  

Is This Supposed to be Some Kind of Review?

Yes it is… but not exactly.

We had a pretty busy weekend, so I've only had time to go through some of the character generation rules in Shadow of the Demon Lord.  I flipped through the entire book, and read some tidbits here and there, but as for a "cover-to-cover" read, I'm only maybe 10-15% of the way through the book.  

Sure I could wait a bit longer to give my full impression of the game, and that was my original plan…

… and then I went and made a character this morning and I knew that I had to write about the experience since it was so much fun!

Character generation in Shadow of the Demon Lord is really sharp.  It's quick, easy, random, and unexpected.  The process definitely feels similar to character generation in Dungeon Crawl Classics without the risk of having a disastrous result.  Core attributes are determined by a character's "Ancestry" (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Goblin, Clockwork, Changeling, or Orc), not by rolling.  The random aspects of character generation mostly have to do with background, profession, and gear.  Of course, this is what makes character building so much fun.

Enough ranting, I need to write about Buckets!

Buckets the Goblin

I chose the goblin ancestry because of the picture on page 20 of the corebook.  Those three goblins in the sewers reminded me of the movie Labyrinth, and the goblin entry was the first section that I read completely during my initial skim of the book.  I thought about playing some kind of pilfering, thieving goblin who grew up poor and had to sell worms.  

You'll see that what I ended up with was far, far different, but much, much cooler.

Buckets' starting attributes were a Strength of 9, Agility of 12, Intellect of 10, and Will of 9.  This would be the same for any goblin.  I would be fine with this, but later on in the process (after I rolled Buckets' Profession) I lowered his Agility by 1, and increased Intellect by the same.  This 1 point swap is allowed once during character generation.

The rest of the abilities that come with being a goblin are fairly static.  The ability to see in the dark, being extra sneaky, a vulnerability to iron due to being a fallen faerie.  

Then I started rolling.

All characters roll on the Age, Build, Distinctive Appearance, Odd Habit, Background, and Personality tables, each based on their Ancestry.  Then all characters roll on the Professions, Wealth, and Interesting Things tables.  

Here's what I got.

Buckets is a fourteen year old [Age] wiry [Build] goblin [Ancestry] with enormous ears [Distinctive Appearance].  He always speaks in a "sing-song voice" [Odd Habit], which will probably get on the nerves of his compatriots (as well as my fellow players online.)  When Buckets gets bored he loves to play tricks on his friends.  Often these tricks are painful and draw blood [Personality].

Although he started out poor, Buckets eventually took up employment in a wizard's tower as the spell caster's toady servant.  Buckets didn't have a name when he first met the wizard, but given that his first job was to carry water from a well at the bottom of the tower all the way to the top, hour after hour, his master unkindly bestowed a fitting monicker.  

Buckets' master paid poorly, but he allowed the goblin to read from select books in his tower's library.  This is how the goblin first started learning about folklore, enough to be considered a respected scholar in the matter [Profession].  Of course there were also some strange and unexpected results from Buckets' studies.  There was this one time when Buckets accidentally animated the skeleton of a dead mouse…

… he named him Clatters and kept him in his chamber [Interesting Thing].  

Unfortunately Buckets next mistake would cost his master his life.  Opening a long forgotten tome, Buckets read some of the words incorrectly, summoning a terrible demon into the world [Background].  The demon murdered the wizard, set fire to the tower, and went on to terrorize the nearby village.  Most servants would see this as a terrible setback, but for Buckets it was the best thing that ever happened to him.  The goblin hid from the demon, only fleeing the tower when it was absolutely safe.  He left not only with his life, but with a backpack full of gear, a potion, a scroll, and of course Clatters [Wealth].  

By the end of character generation I saw Buckets as a cross between Mickey the Sorcerer's Apprentice and that freaky Jigsaw puppet from Saw.  It was definitely a far cry from what I had originally imagined.  

Next Steps

I'm only scratching the surface of this dark and gritty tabletop RPG, but I'm excited to read more.  As we kick off the campaign this month I'll come back to to Living 4 Crits and post my impressions and possibly a more formal review of the system.  Once I get a handle on the rules I'll probably try running a one-shot.  

If you already had a PDF copy of Shadow of the Demon Lord, and you've got any feedback or insight, please let us know!  

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Blocks & Bennies - A Savage Worlds/Minecraft Adventure

Crossing the Geek Generation Gap

Even though I like to think I’m a “cool dad”, up to date with all of the latest fads and crazes that my three children obsess over, there definitely a Geek Generation Gap (GGG for short) in our house.  I watch Carrie, Evie, and Cooper spend hours on their Kindles, scaring the snot out of themselves with Five Nights at Freddy’s and shake my head.

“Seriously, you’re playing Five Nights at Freddy’s again?” I’ll complain.  “Do you know how many ‘serious games’ we own that you could be playing?”  

“But we like it!” Carrie will laugh, as they all sit around tapping the screen, excitement burning behind their 11, 9, and 5 year old eyes.  Sure, I’d rather they be spending quality time doing something productive

 like finishing Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (a true classic!) or attempting Kerbal Space Program (at least it’s educational!)  

But there is a tipping point for the Walls Family Geek Generation Gap.  A place in time and space where our two generations mingle briefly.  

Spent a lot of great time here, although the sub was hard to build


For those of you who don’t know about this creative, free-form, open-world computer game, I’ll fill you in.  Minecraft places players in the middle of vast, undiscovered lands, full of promise and opportunity.  Everything in the world is built block by block.  Water, dirt, gravel, stone, magma, it all comes in block form and can be manipulated in countless ways.  You can play the game in “Creative Mode” and just build anything you could possibly imagine (seriously, ANYTHING), or you can try “Survival Mode” and play out your Lost or Castaway fantasies...

 complete with zombies, archer skeletons, and small exploding green guys named “Creepers” hunting you down each night.  

I hear other parents talk about their kids’ fascination with Minecraft, their voices often tinged with bewilderment, confusion, and a complete lack of appreciation for the creative experience.  You’ll never hear that kind of tone from me, however.  In our household I was the first person to play Minecraft. 

That’s right, gamers!  I played Minecraft... but back before it was “hip!”  

In early 2011 (version 1.2.6 I believe), I found myself completely enthralled by Minecraft.  I would spend every night foraging, mining, and building in the hopes that I could survive one more day in a wilderness fraught with peril.  Keep in mind, this was back in the early days (Beta), where there wasn’t a “Creative Mode.”  

If I wasn’t playing by myself, I would join three players from my D&D 4th Edition online game and work on group projects together.  We built towers, rockets, castles, submarines, and all sorts of other creations for no other reason than just the simple pleasure of seeing a completed project.  The game was both relaxing and invigorating, and I played during a time in my life when I needed something that could spark a sense of wonder.  

The only image I have of my very first world

Eventually Carrie started playing Minecraft, soon followed by Evie, and finally Cooper.  Of course Minecraft is mainstream now.  You can find Minecraft toys at Target and Minecraft backpacks at Hot Topic.  Minecraft Legos exist, which definitely sets off my inner “Inception Bwah.”  All three of my children can spend hours watching YouTube tribute videos and music, and course the relentless onslaught of Minecraft actual play videos.

Although I’ll occasionally boot up Minecraft just to see what has changed, I haven’t put any serious time into a new world for about two years.  Every time I do go back to check out the game, it feels so alien and different from what I remember.

Isn’t This Supposed to be an RPG Post?

Ever interested in infusing my tabletop gaming with themes and concepts that can be found in electronic games, I recently began working on a new campaign for my kiddos.  I’ve been jotting down notes for a short series of “survival” type adventures, where characters are placed in precarious situations and must find a clever means of escape over the course of a single play session or two.  I focused on one adventure idea, which was a simple “stranded in the woods” concept, and thought about how much the story felt like Minecraft.  Given the popularity of Minecraft among children, especially those under thirteen, it would make for the perfect gateway to creative tabletop gaming if I could pilfer some concepts.

Or I could just recreate as much of the Minecraft experience as possible at the gaming table.  

Building Blocks & Bennies

The key factors to building this kind of tabletop experience would be:

  • Crafting a Visible World:  Not only would I need to provide maps for the players, I would want to create the map as the player characters explored the world.  Think of this as an “improvised hex-crawl,” where the GM comes up with the rest of the world on the fly.  We would start with one sheet of graph paper, some pencils, and a few crayons.  if the players moved off one sheet, a new “section’ would be added.  

  • Crafting a Tangible World:  Minecraft is a game about creation, even the creation of typically natural landmarks, such as trees, hills, and ponds.  I would need a mechanic to allow players to have form limited control over the map itself.  

  • Survival Mode:  I don’t think a “creative mode” type of Minecraft game would translate well to a tabletop RPG, but “survival mode” is perfect.  Place several characters in the middle of nowhere with little to no equipment, and a few basic skills to make it through the first night.  After finding shelter the players would need to come up with ways to get water, forage for food, and perhaps develop a means to reconnect with civilization.  

Savage Minecraft

I decided that the best way to turn Minecraft into a tabletop role-playing experience was through the Savage Worlds system.  Some of you may be reading this blog post with very little (or perhaps no) tabletop roleplaying experience.  Savage Worlds is a generic role-playing game system that focuses on light gameplay while providing plenty of character options and customizations.  You can run fantasy games, science fiction, horror, or your very own Minecraft hack!  

I encourage you to check out the free Savage Worlds Test Drive rules and see if the game is for you.  You can also pick up the Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition rules for $9.99, which is everything you would need to play this game.

Seriously, this is one of the BEST values in RPG's that you'll ever find!  

The skill-based mechanics in Savage Worlds are perfect for a campaign featuring crafting, creation, and exploration as core themes.  Experience and advancement allow players to adapt their characters to the conditions set before them, something that you commonly find in other tales of survival.  When you first watch Tom Hanks’ character in “Cast Away” he can barely catch a fish (no ranks in Throwing), but fast forward to the end of the movie and he easily has a d10 in Throwing.  


In Minecraft, creatures are called “Mobs.”  Some, like sheep, cows, and horses, are no threat at all, and can be used to help players.  Others, like skeletons, zombies, and spiders, are very, very dangerous, and unarmed or poorly armed players should consider running.  For our “Pilot Episode” of this experience I wanted to introduce four basic hostile mobs:  zombies, skeletons, spiders, and creepers.

Zombies:  Already featured in the Savage Worlds Deluxe rules on page 165.

Skeletons:  As featured in the Savage Worlds Deluxe rules on page 162, but with the following change.
  • Shooting: d6
  • Gear:  Bow (2d6 damage, range 12/24/48)

Spiders:  As featured in the Savage Worlds Deluxe rules on page 163.

Creepers:  These green walking bombs are terrifying in the electronic version of Minecraft, and should be equally so in a tabletop game.
  • Attributes:  Agility d6,  Smarts d8 (Animal),  Spirit d10,  Strength d4,  Vigor d6
  • Skills:  Notice d8, Stealth d8
  • Pace:  6
  • Parry:  2
  • Toughness:  5(1)
  • Gear:  None
  • Special Abilities:
    • Armor +1:  Thick skin
    • Explosion:  3d6 Damage.  Medium Burst Template.  When a Creeper comes within 3” of a target it begins to hiss and immediately explodes.  Agility roll (-2 penalty) to avoid damage.  If the Creeper is unnoticed due to Stealth, the target  gets to roll an immediate Notice versus Stealth before the explosion.  If the target hears the hiss, they get to make an Agility check (-2 penalty) to dodge the explosion.     
    • Small

Setting Rules

For now I’m just adding one new rule:

Blaze a New Trail:  A player may spend a Benny just before a new section of the map (in the form of one sheet of graph paper) is revealed.  The player then announces one single landmark that is featured in the new section.  For instance, upon entering a forest, the player may spend a benny and state that a large tree, twice as high as the rest, is located somewhere on the new map.  So long as the landmark could exist in that specific biome, the Game Master may not veto the selection.  


I didn’t want a party of characters able to steamroll over the mobs in this game, so I thought I’d try something a little different: kids.  Everyone in this particular adventure is between the age of 8 and 12, and therefore has the “Young” hindrance.  This means that all of the characters start with just 3 points to advance their attributes and 10 skill points.  If these four were going to survive their time in Minecraft, they would need to outthink the mobs and avoid direct confrontation!

Since I built the characters as pre-gens, I also made sure that each one had some kind of specialty.  

Hiro - Tough Kid played by Cooper
  • Attributes:  Agility d4,  Smarts d4,  Spirit d6,  Strength d6,  Vigor d8
  • Rank:  Novice (0 xp)
  • Pace:  6,  Parry:  5,  Toughness:  7,  Charisma:  0
  • Edges:  Brawny
  • Hindrances:  Young
  • Skills:  Fighting d6, Intimidation d6, Throwing d4, Swimming d4, Climbing d6, Notice d4
  • Starting Equipment:  Clothes, Sneakers, Bottle of Soda, Pack of Beef Jerky

Liz MacIntosh - Nerdy Kid played by Carrie
  • Attributes:  Agility d6,  Smarts d8,  Spirit d4,  Strength d4,  Vigor d4
  • Rank:  Novice (0 xp)
  • Pace:  6,  Parry:  2,  Toughness:  4,  Charisma:  0
  • Edges:  McGyver 
  • Hindrances:  Young
  • Skills:  Repair d8, Knowledge: Science d8, Notice d8, Riding d6, Shooting d4
  • Starting Equipment:  Clothes, Sneakers, String 20’, Pen, Glasses

Russell - Scout Kid played by Mommy
  • Attributes:  Agility d6,  Smarts d6,  Spirit d8,  Strength d4,  Vigor d4
  • Rank:  Novice (0 xp)
  • Pace:  6,  Parry:  2,  Toughness:  4,  Charisma:  0
  • Edges:  Healer
  • Hindrances:  Young
  • Skills:  Boating d4, Shooting d4, Notice d6, Tracking d4, Swimming d4, Healing d6, Survival d6
  • Starting Equipment:  Clothes, Sneakers, Newspaper, Swiss Army Knife

McKenna - Fun Kid played by Evie
  • Attributes:  Agility d8,  Smarts d4,  Spirit d4,  Strength d6,  Vigor d6
  • Rank:  Novice (0 xp)
  • Pace:  6,  Parry:  2,  Toughness:  5,  Charisma:  0
  • Edges:  Luck
  • Hindrances:  Young
  • Skills:  Climbing d6, Throwing d8, Stealth d8, Taunt d4, Notice d4
  • Starting Equipment:  Clothes, Sneakers, Snorkel, Volleyball

Our Pilot Session

[Disclaimer:  Despite some of the pictures you've seen already on this post, none of my children were aware that we were playing Savage Worlds Minecraft.  All they knew was that we were playing a "survival" adventure.  It took them quite a while to figure it out.]

Day One

Four young children awaken on the shore of a strange, untouched land.  The children, all between the ages of ten and twelve, know only their names and that each has a specific set of skills.  But none know where they came from or how they came to this alien place.    

[Carrie sadly asked “We don’t remember our families?”]

The sun was high, and the air was warm and pleasant.  The beach stretched out to the east and west, and the four children were on a small peninsula that stretched into a sea to the south.  

Looking to the north, the four children noticed that a dense forest, full of birds and other wildlife, blocked much of their view of the north, however they could make out some mountains to the northeast.

[I used the "Steve" head from Minecraft Legos to represent the party on the map.  Sadly, this did not clue the kids into the true nature of this game.]

All of the children were quite hungry, and Russell decided that crab was on the menu.  Using his Swiss Army Knife, Russell set out to stab one of the crabs on the beach.  It wasn't too difficult for the skilled Scout Kid.  Without a fire, Russell ate the crab raw.  Although it tasted funny, he slurped down the small creature's insides and grinned.

[I required my wife Jennifer to make a Vigor check in order to eat the raw crab without getting sick.  She succeeded… with two raises!]

The children approached the forest but realized that very little light broke through the thick canopy.  If they were going to explore this area they would want some additional light.  Liz collected some dried sticks and considered using her newspaper as kindling.  Before the Nerdy Kid passed the flimsy paper to the scout she took a look at the head lines.  

"Eagles Win the Superbowl!"

Liz realized that it must be February, and perhaps they were somewhere on the southern hemisphere.  But then she looked at the date and her jaw dropped.  The newspaper was dated 2044!  

["No!  The Eagles finally won, but its, like, thirty years later!" Carrie cried.]

Once the fire was lit the party needed some kind of torch.  Grabbing larger branches, Russell took off his nasty, greasy socks and rolled them out at the end.  Setting the first torch on fire, Russell handed the flame to Hiro.  The Tough Kid turned towards the forest and stepped past the first tree trunks. 

[Cooper looked nervous as he considered this part of the adventure, and he turned to his mom and said "can we both hold the torch together?"  Awww!]

Liz told Hiro that they had to push through the forest to get to the nearby hill.  From there, perhaps they could survey the rest of the area.  Hiro stepped through the trees carefully, until McKenna whispered for everyone to stop.  The Fun Kid pointed to a nearby branch where a large, wildcat perched.  

Hiro wanted a pet!  He took his beef jerky and carefully approached the cat.  Holding out the jerky, Hiro beckoned for the cat to approach.  Once the small creature took the dried meat, Hiro named him "Mochi."  

[I allowed Cooper a Persuasion roll (unskilled) to become friends with the cat.  He failed the first two times, but dropped two bennies to pull off the attempt.]

Once on the other side of the forest the party saw a rocky area flanked by a large pond.  Three of the children were still very hungry, so Russell wanted to fish.  Russell fashioned a hook out of the toothpick from the Swiss Army Knife.  Liz handed over her string and McKenna found a long branch to make a rod.  After baiting the hook with a big, fat worm Russell started fishing.  About an hour later he pulled a massive catfish from the pond.  The party returned to the fire and cooked the fish for a late lunch.  

[This scene took about fifteen minutes in the game.  The players knew they wanted to fish, and knew they had string, but couldn't figure out how to get a fish to bite the string and get caught.  I allowed the players to spend a Benny in order to get a clue, and all I said was "check the Swiss Army Knife."  When I revealed the toothpick they knew what to do.]

After eating, the party of kids returned to the hill.  At the hill's base was a large, spooky cave. The summit of the hill would certainly give the four children a good view of the surrounding area.  But it was also getting late in the afternoon.  So there was a choice to make:

  • Climb the hill
  • Enter the cave
  • Find shelter
The party chose to climb the hill first.  The entire party ascended to the first level of the hill, but found the climb very difficult.  Still unable to see past the trees, the group elected McKenna to climb to the top.  This was a piece of cake for the Fun Kid!  As she scaled the stoney hill, she looked out, and saw a vast and beautiful land to the north.  

McKenna could make out some hills to the northwest, as well as a small lake.  The young girl smiled when she saw what could be a small village to the north!  But before she could make out any more details, the sun passed below the horizon!

[This was our first use of the "Blaze a New Trail" setting rule.  I allowed Carrie to spend a benny to declare one important feature to the north.  She wanted a village, so I placed a small set of buildings to the northeast of the map.  You may notice that I used X,Y,Z coordinates on the maps.  The original map is 0,0,0 while the map to the north is 0,1,0.  Carrie asked what I was going to do with the "Z" coordinate.  "Underground!" I cheered.]  

Night One

McKenna grew nervous with the lack of light, and prepared to climb back down when she heard something behind her. 


Completely on instinct the young girl jumped and tumbled down the hill as a small, green creeper exploded in a concussive blast!

[This was when the kids finally realized what we were doing… and all three children were grinning ear to ear.  Actually Evie was starting to doze a bit during this part of the adventure, because it was almost 10pm.  But once she heard her sister and brother shout "Minecraft" I definitely had her attention.  Cooper actually started dancing!]

McKenna rolled out right in front of her three companions, and was about to tell them exactly what she saw when everyone heard a low moan.  

"Zombie!" Hiro called out.

Unarmed with any real weapons the party had to make due with their few items.  McKenna lobbed her trusty volleyball at the zombie's head, stunning it just long enough for Hiro to punch it in the face.  The force of the Tough Kid's strike crushed the zombie's skull.

[We had some incredible rolling at this point in the game, bolstered by the party's over abundance of Bennies.  Since everyone was "young" they got one Benny, and McKenna was Lucky so she got another.  Both Evie and Cooper's dice exploded on their actions.  I have to hand it to my kids, they kept their calm during this encounter.  Perhaps Jennifer and I are training them well.]

The quartet survived this brief encounter, but without shelter, and several hours left in the evening, could they survive the night?

To be continued…

Post Game Report

We had a really good time last night during the session, and all three children asked if we could play again the next night.  Perhaps we'll try for Sunday or Monday this week.  

Carrie and Evie both said that they would've played the game differently if they knew that they were in Minecraft.  Better resource management and an emphasis on building shelter would've been their first priority, not exploration, Carrie explained.

"We should've been punching trees," Carrie said.

Now that everyone is "in the know," when we play again I'll probably lean on Carrie for more useful details about Minecraft, since she is the resident expert.  When the zombie died, Carrie told us what the creature "dropped" - rotten flesh.  

We'll definitely have another session of Blocks & Bennies, and Carrie expressed interest in running the game for some of her friends, perhaps at the next Norwin Game Knights event.

As to where this blog series goes I leave that up to you, my dear readers.

Would you like to see more conversions and notes?  

How about expanded rules and concepts?

Let me know what you'd like us to include and perhaps this will be a longer running series of posts!

Stay safe, out there, and make sure not to mine at night!

Friday, August 28, 2015

The 100,000 Mark

Yesterday was huge for the Living 4 Crits blog.  Our little blog passed two major, albeit selfish and somewhat arbitrary milestones.  

First, not even counting the four days left in the month, this August will be the “most viewed” month yet for Living 4 Crits.  Second, we broke the 100,000 page view mark!

Yes, I’m bragging, but I’m pretty impressed given that this site was only supposed to be an online database of adventure summaries for my players.  Of course everything changed when I wrote my first Numenera: Disenchanted Tales post.  Suddenly there were several dozen people reading and commenting on the poorly crafted words I just threw up onto the internet.  I worked to improve my writing, and even included some other gaming related articles.  

Eighteen months later and Living 4 Crits is a “thing”… 

… okay, it’s not a very “BIG” thing, but it’s bigger than a “small” thing

 and I'm okay with that.

To mark the occasion, I thought I’d share some of my favorite “oldies”.  These are posts from the earlier days that I’m particularly proud of, but are so far back in the past that most of you may have never seen them.  

What passes for a play report in August of 2015 is far, far different from what you would’ve seen in early 2014 on Living 4 Crits.  Back then I wrote a summary and an occasional quote… that’s it.  No “Bonus Features”, or “Behind the Screams.”  If you were reading, you got a simple story.  I wrote “Let’s Go to Queslin” for a GASP (Gaming Association of Southwest Pennsylvania) event, as I was incredibly captivated by the sheer torment that the sick, salty city provided to those poor travelers arriving on that side of the Sere Marica.  Hopefully I’ll run the adventure again, with a bit more introspection as to what was going through my crazy mind to run such a game.

For all you new Cypher System Rulebook fans, I need to tell you about the old days.  Back in early 2014, if you wanted to run a science fiction adventure using those incredible Numenera rules you had to hack the whole thing yourself.  There was no book to help.  Just grit and determination and yeah I’m totally blowing this out of proportion.  The Cypher System has always been an incredible engine to run other kinds of games, especially science fiction.  So during the Norwin Game Knights’ very first International Tabletop Day event at the Norwin Public Library I used some Lego Figures, 0-hr art & technology maps, and a bunch of plastic dinosaurs to run a pretty amazing game.  There were even some Cypher Marines conversion notes at the end of the post!  See?  I was learning something about blogging.  

I was on a full social media blitz by late spring of 2014, and fully believed in the power of the “hashtag.”  I wanted to create something viral, I’ll admit it, so I came up with the idea of #GetOutAndGame - a movement where players of all games, and especially RPG’s, go out and play their favorite games in public.  But it wasn’t going to just be about gaming exhibitionism (as a few folks called it), but rather a combination of physical activities and gaming.  Okay, the idea never really took off outside of my own household, but I stand by the concept!

In the summer of 2014 my family was caught up in Savage Worlds: Accursed mini-campaign, and we were looking for a way to further get into the gothic spirit.  You see Christmas in July, so why not Halloween?  Although I tend to celebrate “Hallowthanksmas” as one big nonstop holiday between October and December, the Halloween portion is still my favorite.  By doing this event I got to experience a mini-Halloween a few months early.  We even got some of our friends to show up and join in the festivities that took place on a side-scrolling Castlevania style map.  We also had candy.

When I started Living 4 Crits I wanted to stay clear of any gaming drama or edition wars.  Between January and July I somehow forgot about my initial goal and wrote a blog post about what I loved best when I played 4th Edition D&D.  I then had the bright idea to share the post on Reddit myself.  There was a lot of feedback on this post, some good, some bad, some really bad, and some downright mean.  If you want to find out my position on the subject, feel free to read the post.  The TL;DR is that while I enjoyed my time playing 4E I’ll never play it again.  I’ll leave it at that.


So it has been a busy summer of blogging, but instead of becoming burned out I feel that I’ve got even more to talk about for the next eighteen months.  

Obviously I want to play more games, especially within my “Triforce of Gaming Systems” (Cypher System, Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, and Savage Worlds), but occasionally I get the urge to dust off some of my older books and give those games a spin.  

Anyone up for an ElfQuest RPG one-shot?  

What I’d truly love to do is some more gaming on the road.  Last summer I took the MCG Asset Team Adventure Shadewalker to meet some folks in Ohio for a one-shot session.  Maybe I could expand upon this “traveling GM concept” take some weekend trips this year to connect with the folks I’ve met both online and at Gen Con.  This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned the idea, probably because I can’t stop thinking about it.  I actually went and mapped out a great loop that would take me through Canada, Michigan, Chicago, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and back to Pittsburgh.  I know people in all those places… I bet I could schedule quite a few sessions!  The trip could make for an interesting week of stories.

So that’s what I’ve got running through my head.  If you’re a long-time reader, thank you so much for sticking around.  If you’ve only recently started checking out my blog, please spread the word.  If you think everything I write is crap, thanks for toughing it out and making it to the end of an entire post.  

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Cypher System Fantasy - Ardeyn - Session 2

“Now that you have returned, where is my offering?” the voice grumbled from the pool of magma below the enchanted bridge.  Zamani could make out a shimmering humanoid form resting just above the surface of the magma. 

“Offering?” Zamani questioned.  The ugallu attempted to take on a voice similar to that of the hermit Shenuesh killed earlier, but realized he was failing when he felt the magma-spirit's glare.  A rather impressive feat by the spirit, given it's complete lack of eyes.  

The ugallu storm monk was having a terrible morning already, now made far, far worse.  

Just a few moments earlier the party discovered this massive, magma-filled cavern.  At the center of the chamber was a pillar balancing a large, disk-like platform.  A small, sparkling pool of water somehow carved its way into the stone disk.  Three enchanted rope bridges, protected from the cavern’s natural heat, stretched from the platform to three portals.  

Zamani had emerged from just such a portal, and tried crossing the easternmost bridge  to the platform before the magma-spirit arrived.  The hermit must have used the stone platform as a lair, Zamani concluded, since a small slate lean-to rested next to a pile of rubbish.  Perhaps there was more of worth on the slab, but Zamani needed to get past the spirit to find out.  

“I require the offering!”  the voice boomed, as the lava-spirit realized that a potential intruder was now in its midst.  The glowing figure rose up out of the magma and centered itself on the rope bridge between the stone platform and Zamani.

With the rest of the party still at the portal, unwilling at the moment to walk out onto the bridge, Zamani was alone.  

"Oh great spirit!” Zamani cried out.  “See, the guy who was living here and giving the offerings before was weak.  So we killed him.”  Zamani’s voice cracked a bit at the end, but the ugallu retained his resolve and stood defiantly, prepared for battle should it come his way.    

The spirit began to stir, but Zamani was prepared... not just with empty words but with a promise.

“We can give you better offerings!" Zamani smiled, bearing his fangs.  

Living 4 Crits Presents

Cypher System Fantasy Campaign

Ardeyn: Land of the Curse


  • Sister Sariety, a Charming Speaker who Works Miracles, played by Frank
  • Zamani, a Spiritual (Ugallu*) Explorer (Magic) who Masters Foot and Fist**, played by Andy
  • Shenuesh, a Graceful Adept (Combat) who Wields Two Weapons at Once, played by Jeremy
  • Milja the Ranger, a Sharp-Eyed (Qephilim) Explorer who Controls Beasts, played by Andreas
  • Yaren, a Foolish Warrior who Stands Like a Bastion, played by Craig
* Ugallu is a race option from Broken Immersion by Ryan Chaddock Games
** Masters Foot and Fist is from Worlds Numberless and Strange by Monte Cook Games

Episode 2: Ribs

The party of freelance adventurers made the decision to explore the depths of the hermit’s home on a whim.  Since the poor, now deceased human seemed so eager to protect his abode, perhaps something of value rested within the old abandoned mine.  Milja picked up the hermit’s trail easily enough, and led the team of adventurers down several passages, traveling at least two miles, before coming upon the large, magma-filled Cavern of Zodrod...

... Zodrod the Mad Magma Spirit to be precise.

Zodrod was well pleased with Zamani’s promise of improved offerings.  “Steel,” his voice cried out.  “I demand steel!”  

A simple enough solution for travelers who had taken weapons from their slain enemies in the Citadel Hazurrium.  Zamani looked at the rest of his teammates and motioned for them to turn over something, anything that would sate the magma-spirit’s desires.  The ugallu grabbed a shield from Sister Sariety and threw it into the magma.  Zamani was allowed to pass and explore the platform.  

Forty feet across at its widest, the platform made for an interesting domicile.  The hermit’s lean-to, crafted from wooden slats and slate tiles, offered poor protection from the magma’s heat.  There was little of value in the shack, save for a sack of thirty-five crowns and some steel horseshoes.  Several piles of filthy rags situated near the lean-to once gave the hermit jackdogs some comfort, while a simple wooden chair near the pool served as the platform’s only piece of true furniture.  

The pool was quite the enigma.  

Zamani examined the shimmering water.  The surface was cool to the touch, despite the ambient heat in the cavern.  A promise of enchantment rested at the bottom of the pool, where a simple metal rod lay, perhaps untouched for generations.  Not wanting to investigate any further, the ugallu monk walked over to the lean-to and grabbed the horseshoes, throwing them into the magma below.

“An offering for my fellow adventurers to cross,” Zamani announced.  

The rest of the party made the trip to the precariously balanced stone platform.  Since she was a good swimmer, and the metal rod was a dozen feet below the surface of the shimmering pool, Milja offered to go and retrieve the artifact.  

The swim down to the rod was easy enough, but prying the rod loose was not without its hazards.  The rod was stuck in the stone below, and as soon as the qephilim ranger pulled the it free a flood of boiling water entered the chamber.  Milja desperately tried to swim to the surface, before becoming qephilim soup, but required the assistance of the rest of the party.  

Once the rod was in open air, Zodrod returned.  “My rod!  You have found my rod!” 

The party didn’t want to give up the only real treasure they had found in the chamber.  When Zodrod moved to block the exit to the east, the adventurers ran to southernmost bridge and crossed. 

Zodrod immediately began to laugh, as he dispelled all three enchanted bridges.  “There is no exit from that direction, you are trapped, foolish mortals!”  

Milja the Ranger wasn’t about to take any attitude from a simple magma-spirit.  The qephilim tried wheeling and dealing with Zodrod, but did so in a most unprofessional manner.  The word "demon" may have been slung at least once at the magma-spirit, much to his displeasure.  When Milja turned to Sister Sariety, proud of her witty banter, Zodrod again called out.

“Not only will I require the return of my rod... I must also have one of the female qephilim’s limbs for you all to leave my lair!”  

Zamani’s examination of the rod showed that it’s usefulness was limited given the party’s skill sets.  There was some discussion of exploring the southern passage further, but with risk of failing in the job for which the team was initially hired.  

Sensing the company's indecision, Sister Sariety groaned and took charge of the situation.  Sure, Shenuesh could far step across to the platform with a long rope in tow, and then out of the chamber entirely.  But there was little chance that the rest of the team could deal with the magma-spirit while trying to use make-shift rope-bridges to cross the large, open spaces.  So the sister started to fast talk Zodrod.  

Using carefully crafted words, and keenly placed compliments, the Sister was able to reduce the fee for exit by one qephilim limb.  Before Milja could rebuke the new plan, Sister Sariety grabbed the Rod of Zodrod and threw it into the magma.  

An hour later the party was back on the road headed west.  

The remaining trip to catacomb 1177 was quiet save for a small situation around lunchtime.  As Shenuesh walked along the Path of the Dead he started to hear a calling from a cracked portion of the stone structure.  

“Brother...” a voice rasped.  “My dear brother Shenuesh.”  

“Sabian?” Shenuesh called out in response.  No one but the graceful adept seemed to hear the voice, and so he had to investigate.  Before anyone else could react, however, the adept disappeared into the crack.  

Zamani was the first to notice that Shenuesh disappeared, so the ugallu returned to the wall.  Several minutes passed and Shenuesh wasn’t coming out on his own.  Entering the thin catacombs Zamani saw a rather sad sight.  Shenuesh was sitting on the floor cradling a pile of bones, lovingly stroking the top of a skull.  The adept was charmed to believe this form was his decreased sibling.  But before Zamani could say anything in response the skull  itself turned to the ugallu.

“You want to get him off me, I want to go back to sleep!” the skull yelled.  

Shenuesh didn’t seem to notice the skull’s comment, and Zamani was no longer sure who was crazier, him or the human.  Zamani noticed that Shenuesh was trying to keep the bones warm, covering them in wrappings as if they were a swaddled baby.  Creating a small fire with some flint and steel, Zamani promised that “Sabian” would be warm.  Shenuesh nodded and followed Zamani out of the catacomb.

The ugallu could hear a voice calling from inside the Path of the Dead.

“Dammit, how am I supposed to sleep with that light?”  

Several hours later the party arrived at catacomb 1177, ready to begin their Dream Patrol.  Preparing their weapons, and determined to face whatever may come their way, the crew slowly walked along the Path of the Dead while on the lookout for the dark arts.  

It did not take long to discover something amiss.

Several hundred feet to the west there were clear signs that someone, or something, had tampered with the Path of the Dead.  A large segment of the catacomb wall was torn from the rest of the structure, and fifteen skeletons rested on the ground, draped in their burial shrouds.  Yaren led the team forward while Shenuesh guarded the rear.  

When the foolish warrior was a few feet from the bodies the bones began to rise!

Yaren didn’t hesitate to draw first blood... or bone for that matter.  The warrior pulled his sword and struck down one of the undead in a single blow.  Quickly the rest of the party entered the fray, swords drawn, and warcries echoing along the wall.

But despite being walking piles of bone, the skeletons were quite skilled at chucking pieces of themselves.  Shenuesh was leaping through the air when he found himself under fire by fiercely thrown rib bones.  The werejackal tumbled to the ground in absolute agony as a serrated bone pierced his thigh.  

Zamani was in even more trouble when one of the ribs impaled his abdomen, pinning him to a nearby tree.  The ugallu tried to free himself, but it was slow work.  To make matters worse, something cold touched the monk’s ear from behind the tree.

“Aid me,” a soft voice whisper.  Zamani stopped struggling and became content with remaining stapled to a tree.  His friends would be fine, the ugallu concluded.     

Although the skeletons continued their attack, lashing out with their jagged claws while throwing ribs with deadly accuracy, their numbers dwindled.  Two by two fell to Shenuesh’s claws, while Milja and her griffin dismantled several more.  In one blow, Lusia the griffin actually grabbed her qephilim master's cutlass, and used it to cut down a charging skeletal terror.

It took less than a minute for the skilled team of freelancers to end the undead threat, although much of the team was bruised and battered.  Most of the party had at least one dirty rib bone protruding from an open wound.  Milja the Ranger was just about to go looking for the party’s ugallu monk when Zamani appeared from the swampy marsh to the north.  

“I got him,” Zamani grinned.

The “him” that the monk was referring to was a black-robed necromancer.  The scrawny young man looked like he was resting peacefully, his face placed on a mud covered stone.  Zamani explained that he saw the man flee the scene, and the ugallu gave chase.  Once halted, the necromancer began begging for his life.  That’s when Zamani gave him a “shock”, using his newfound ugallu ability to lightning punch the spellcaster into unconsciousness.  

Sister Sariety tried using her miraculous healing abilities to cure the party of their wounds, but it was tough work.  

"The Maker isn't happy with us attacking these skeletons,” Sister Sariety claimed.  “Or maybe he didn't like how we treated Zodrod." 

Most of the injuries were serious, and the Sister wasn’t used to these kinds of tearing wounds.  It was slow going, but the party had time as they waited for the necromancer to awake.

Once the man came to, he seemed very eager to plea for his life.  When asked for his name, the necromancer responded Memnosh.  An acolyte of Trazzoek, Memnosh explained that he was just doing his duty, and was on a mission to cause trouble along the Path of the Dead in order to gain the attention of some freelancers.  Memnosh offered to take the party to his master, and the group agreed.  

Another mile down the path and the adventurers were at a strange stone structure.  Once a keep that overlooked the Path of the Dead, the building was now barely a pile of stone.  But on top of the toppled tower a man in grey robes looked out upon the party.  

“Hello,” he called.  “I am Trazzoek!”  

The adventurers were somewhat surprised at the master necromancer’s open hospitality, and were equally concerned with the strange partially ethereal entity flanking Trazzoek.  To his right a young woman stood, appearing both living and dead, corporeal and incorporeal at the same time.  

“Who is she?” Sister Sariety called out.

“She is of no consequence to you,” Trazzoek answered.  “At least not yet.  Please join me downstairs for some tea.”

Sure enough, in the lower level of the keep there was a table, some chairs, and a hot pot of tea.  Trazzoek politely offered drinks to each of the adventurers before asking Memnosh to take care of something strange outside.  Apparently someone had set a nearby tree on fire, and this needed attending.  A moment later Shenuesh entered the tower, having been distracted by something outside.  He smirked as he watched poor Memnosh try to extinguish the flames.

“I’d like to make a deal,” Trazzoek stated boldly.  

The master necromancer began telling a tale of woe, hoping that the party would assist him in his cause.  The strange ethereal woman, Ralli, was Trazzoek’s apprentice, just like Memnosh.  During an expedition in the subterranean ruins beneath Shalmarn the three necromancers came across an artifact that turned Ralli half dead.  Trazzoek believed that a ritual could be cast to reverse the process, but he needed three rune-carved skulls that he could only aquire near catacomb 1000.  Trazzoek had one skull prepared for the ritual, but at least two more remained inside the catacombs.

The master necromancer produced the skull, and for some reason Yaren felt a stirring within his soul.  Most strange, the warrior thought, with a chill running down his spine.

Trazzoek explained that he required a distraction to complete his quest for two additional skulls.  The part of the catacombs where he needed to explore was under constant guard, and most surely another team of freelance adventurers would be on the lookout for rogue necromancers.  Trazzoek promised payment and future riches, as well as employment, if the party would join his cause.  As a token of his promise, the necromancer would hand over the one skull he had acquired as a sort of ransom.  

After a brief discussion amongst themselves the party decided to pursue Trazzoek’s offer at least for the time being.  


"It's fancy and its powerful and we'll figure it out later..." - Milja didn’t want to wait around to figure out what the Rod of Zodrod’s powers.  

"Just say 'I'm sorry' and 'you're not a demon'..." - Sister Sariety begged Milja to apologize to Zodrod.

Frank - "You guys want to see if there's another way out?"
Jeremy - "I can jump it... so I don't really care."

"Bad touch!" - Andy didn’t like having Zamani’s ear get stroked by Memnosh.

"We could take that lust poison and combine it with one of the others I'm carrying and make for a really awkward encounter." - Jeremy was ready to really use some of those new cyphers.

“You punch one dude with lightning and everybody thinks you’re a wizard.” - Andy realized, one day later on Facebook, that his monk was the party’s only true spellcaster.

Bonus Features

I never expected the players to want to explore the hermit’s cave.  It never even crossed my mind.  I figured we’d start off the evening with the characters waking up, stretching, maybe having a light breakfast, and then back to the Path of the Dead.

I was wrong!

When Andreas announced that he was going to track the hermit’s path into the mine I was desperate to pull something from my sleeve.  I could make something up on the fly, but I really didn’t have a monster encounter ready.  Granted, in the Cypher System it’s a piece of cake to pull something like that together, but I preferred to share an experience with an exploratory theme, rather than just another battle.

Enter Zodrod.

The Zodrod encounter was not completely ad-libbed, rather it was a fragment of an encounter I was planning for a future adventure in a ruin.  I’ve always hated the “lava levels” in the Legend of Zelda games, and I wanted to toss one into my Cypher System Fantasy campaign.  Originally I wanted to create some kind of skill challenge where this metal rod was placed in a magic pool on a carefully balanced stone guarded by a spirit that wanted the rod.

“Zodrod” was a placeholder name, never meant to be permanent.  But with only a few minutes to spare to create the encounter I just used the name.  Figuring that Ardeyn is based on an incomplete video game, the idea of some half-baked, unfinished encounter could possibly work.  

Unfortunately I never finished fleshing out Zodrod’s stats or what he could do save for make the magic bridges disappear.  Big surprise for my players:  Zodrod had no stats!  The party could’ve just walked through him at any time and I would’ve allowed it. He was an incomplete creature, so I wanted to treat him as such.  

Incidentally, if you would like to include the Rod of Zodrod in your own game, here you go:

Rod of Zodrod
Level 5 Artifact

Depletion: 1 on a d6

Touch turns level 5 creature to stone for 5 rounds but slows the user for the same amount of time, increasing all Speed related difficulties by 1 level.