Given my rural retirement, I have a renewed interest in solo games. So I’ve arranged those already in my collection (including the amazingly good Aliens board game from Leading Edge) together on one shelf. And I’ve joined a couple of “solo gamer” Facebook pages.

One title often recommended on those pages is Four Against Darkness. Having played it now for myself, I agree: It’s a hoot!

How to describe it. To me it feels like a boiled down version of the original D&D character rules, married to a sleeker version of “Appendix A: Random Dungeon Generation” from the AD&D 2nd Ed. Game Master’s Guide, but all using just six-sided dice. Character stats are nowhere near as personalized as in those old D&D rules, nor are the random dungeon rules as broad as that AD&D appendix, but its streamlined approach is part of why it works so well. Four Against Darkness feels like a souped-up board game. A well-designed souped-up fantasy adventure board game that allows for old-school GM improvisation.

Let me put it this way: I just a moment ago finished telling my daughter Kate the story of how, having barely entered a dungeon, my wizard, elf, and thief fell prey to a medusa. But their dwarf friend heroically slew the medusa single-handedly, then battled his way back to the entrance, fighting monster after monster, and twice incurring curses from dark altars, in search of enough gold to hire a priest to break his friends’ spell. And how after stealthily returning to the chamber of stone victims, he and the hireling priest were surprised by a chaos lord. Facing the chaos lord alone, against all odds, the dwarf bought the priest enough time to unfreeze his friends. And even then, the group barely managed to survive.

I have not told “war stories” like that for the past 40 years. Today I couldn’t help myself.

Oh, and in the end the group stumbled out of the dungeon with only three gold pieces apiece. The hirling priest got four.

Let’s Review Reviews

Lately I’ve seen several Facebook posts by designers and small publishers concerned about reviews. “Should I worry about a bad review? Should I pay one of those professional reviewers? Should I send out review copies, hoping for a favorable review?”

What I’m about to say is from the perspective of someone who has been reviewed many times, written reviews professionally (for Dragon Magazine, and once for Space Gamer), won an Origins Award and shared in three, been on panels about this topic with other award-winning designers, and observed the subject during decades in the larger publishing world.

Awards mean next to nothing and reviews mean even less.

The best that either can do is catch a customer’s eye for a split second, in which your product must sell itself. A well-known reviewer like Dice Tower or Wil Wheaton may stretch that split second, but nobody rushes out to buy based solely on their recommendation. Even those reviewers just get people to look.

We’ve entered the age of customer reviews, and that’s awesome. Well-written 5-star reviews sell; poorly written 1-star reviews also sell (because we all know that writer is no judge of quality). Poorly written 5-star reviews hurt (because they seem bought); well-written 1-star reviews hurt.

If you’re a designer or publisher, ask your fans to write honest reviews of your previous products, then invite them to look at and comment on your works in progress. Your fans are family. They’re part of your inner circle. Family loves to help. And their insightful comments are more precious than gold.

Don’t believe me? That’s cool. Read Amanda Palmer and Seth Godin. Then ask yourself when’s the last time you bought even your favorite author sight unseen. I bet you checked the customer reviews. 🙂

Black Books Insight

Laughing through the first episodes of Black Books second season last night, I suddenly realized that Bernard is Moe, Manny is Larry, and Fran is Shemp.

Whispering Vault – Black Book Edition

SOLD! Turns out I have an extra copy of this rare edition, in mint condition. It’s yours for $50 (which includes shipping in the U.S.; use the “Contact” form to query for shipping elsewhere.) Below is my old review of this edition from Dragon Magazine #208.

Whispering Vault game

Black Book edition
88-page, 5½ x 8½”, spiral-bound book
Pariah Press $10.00
Design: Mike Nystul
Illustrations: Joel Biske, Steve Bryant, Pat Coleman, Daniel Gelson, Jeff Laubenstein, Jim Nelson, Mike Nielsen

The Black Book edition of this game is a pre-release version sold only at conventions. By the time this article sees print*, a full version of the game should be available through normal distribution channels**.

This mysterious little book is intriguing from the very start. For one thing, it has no title on its outside cover—just a strange, spiky, red rune. On the title and legal pages, we learn that the product is the Whispering Vault (an ominous title, for certain), and that the producer is Pariah Press (an evocative company name, if ever I heard one). The pages inside are a somber, grainy gray in color, with bizarre, sometimes horrifying illustrations. Visually, then, the product works to set a mood of horror and mystery.

An initial reading of the game reveals that it has a powerful new mythology as to how reality and the supernatural operate. Player characters (PCs) are persons who have transcended their own mortality to dwell as Stalkers in the realm of the Unseen. They serve as otherworldly guardians of reality, tracking down rogue gods who have invaded the mortal realms, repairing the breach made, and hauling the rogues back outside of time to be cast into the Whispering Vault (hence the game’s name).

Players design Stalkers with an eye toward attitude and imagery. When not on duty, Stalkers exist as Avatars, evidencing their essential natures both in their chosen form and the realm they create as a hideaway. (For example, one of my players envisioned his character as a Victorian sorcerer who had died in a confrontation with some great evil, only to find himself existing as an Avatar in the afterlife. Consequently, his Avatar is a corpse-pale figure in Victorian garb, dwelling in a crypt at the center of a misty cemetery, the crypt’s interior being decorated like a cross between a Victorian parlor and an alchemist’s lab.) When Stalkers reenter the realm of flesh on their missions, they manifest as nearly human versions of their spiritual selves. These are called Vessels, and their attributes can be recrafted from mission to mission, allowing the character’s abilities to vary widely.

The game invents quite a lot of new vocabulary for such a small book, but it is all evocative of the mythology being created. This helps to get players in the mood for adventures, as does the ritualistic nature of calling the hunt, summoning weavers to fashion the PCs? vessels, summoning a living bridge to the realm of flesh, and, after investigating the adventure?s plot and confronting the rogue god, binding that god and hauling it back for punishment. A strong atmosphere of brooding horror and heroic action is conveyed by the text, from vocabulary created, to creatures described, to setting depicted.

Game mechanics center around the roll of multiple d6s, the exact number being set by a character’s applicable skill. As in the Yahtzee game, players are looking for matched sets of dice, which they add for a degree of success. By spending a point of karma, a player can reroll any number of those dice, again reminiscent of the Yahtzee game. As an RPG mechanic, this works surprisingly well, allowing for a range of results from truly pathetic to incredible, with a hefty bit of influence by the player. Also satisfying is the fact that damage is divided by a target’s resistance (Fortitude). Again, with a modest range of numbers, creatures can be created that range from incredibly wimpy to absolutely awesome, in terms of the amount of damage they can withstand. Add to this the fact that mortals have die caps against supernatural creatures (sixes are ignored on their dice), and the action is pushed to even more heroic (or horrific) heights.

There are some things missing in this edition of the game, however. For example, the description of the shape-changing skill has been left out. More significantly, a central concept—the keys of humanity, which give the character a reason to care about the real world—are not explained at all. This leaves some players to flounder, wondering why their characters don’t just waste any mortal who gets in their way. The designer has promised that the full edition of the game will take care of these problems.

From the taste given in this black book edition, I definitely recommend this game for anyone who likes heroic horror. It is one of the most inventive treatments of the subject I have yet encountered.

*August 1994
**A few print paperback copies can be found online, and PDF version and supplements are currently available at Paizo.com.