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Friday, 9 April 2010

Unlucky Kobold #13

The passing of Dungeon and Dragon magazines as artefacts to buy at your local news agents or from your local gaming store has left a big hole on their shelves. At least as far as us gamers are concerned, for while it has been nearly decade since we have had a general hobby magazine available to the public at large, we can still at least buy a regular magazine devoted to Dungeons & Dragons. It may not be monthly, it may not be available at your local news agents, but it comes out four times a year, it is in full colour, it is available direct in print or PDF format, or at your local games store. Kobold Quarterly is not just devoted to Dungeons & Dragons, describing itself as it does as being “The Switzerland of the Edition Wars” (so why I have to ask, did my latest copy not come with excellent chocolate, a cuckoo clock, and a secretive banking service run by the Gnomes in Zurich?) and being devoted to all of the currently available major variations upon that game. Which in the latest issue includes the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, but that is not all, oh no... I shall come to that though.

Once past the cover of Kobold Quarterly #13 – said cover not being the most enticing affair, though not necessarily bad – and what strikes you about this latest issue and many other issues is how much the magazine apes the style and layout of Dragon magazine in decades past. This is no bad thing, nor a criticism. Simple black text on white pages makes everything easy to read with the use of colour primarily confined either to the adverts – and you know what is so great about magazine adverts? They force the advertisers to work to sell you their products, to tell you how good their latest book is, to make you want them, and boy do they work. At least enough for this reader to go and check out some of the products advertised herein. Colour is also used in some of the feature articles for particular pieces of artwork and to good effect. A nice touch is the use of small icons to indicate the game system that any one article is intended for. Barring an odd error here and there, the magazine itself is well written, and overall in physical terms, this is a pleasingly unfussy magazine.

For fans of the Cthulhu Mythos, Kobold Quarterly #13 provides two articles. The first is Phillip Larwood’s “Ecology of the Shoggoth” for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. It ties the malleable monstrosities – as detailed in the Pathfinder Bestiary – in with the same origins as other Oozes and with the history of the Aboleth and so in with Sunken Empires, a forthcoming supplement for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game that deals with the aquatic world. Besides describing the Shoggoth’s maddening mentality, plastic physiology, and vast vocal range, it gives variants of the primordial creature, new abilities, discusses cults devoted to them – an excellent basis for a mini campaign there, and suggests what an adventurer might know about them. Which is not very much... This develops a great creature very nicely, laying the groundwork for it to become a suitable threat for campaign set in the dark below.

The second article, “Lovecraftian Gods” is by Aeryn Rudel and complements his Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition supplement, Critter Cache 6: Lovecraftian Bestiary from Goodman Games. It details three gods in particular, not in terms of numbers as once was fashionable in Deities & Demigods, but in terms of how each can be used in a game, specifically each god’s role, his basic teachings, how each is worshipped, and various abilities granted to the most ardent and highly favoured of said worshippers. The three entities in question are Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, and Yog-Sothoth, the first and the latter linked via Nyarlathotep. The pleasure of both these articles is not just seeing entities of the Cthulhu Mythos outside of the 1920s – wherein we are so used to encountering them, but also in that they highlight the flexibility of the Cthulhu Mythos and its various entities.

For the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Dave Mallon offers us “The Arquebusier,” a new twenty level base class. Essentially this a Fighter variant that specialises in the use of early black powder firearms such as the hand-cannon, the musket, and the blunderbuss, all the way up to the rifle. Not only that, but the Arquebusier is also capable of crafting his own firearms and his own ammunition, with the class abilities balanced between being able to make better and better shots and being able to make better and better ammunition. So for example, at second level he gains Called Shot (minus four to hit, but grants an additional six-sided die’s worth of damage) and at twentieth level, Deadly Shot (critical shots kill the target unless a Fortitude save is made), whereas he can create Enhanced Ammunition at third level (ammunition is of Masterwork quality and gains a bonus to hit) and Seeking Ammunition at ninth (it gains the seeking quality – how reminiscent of the Hunter from World of Warcraft!). The class is accompanied with notes on using firearms, a list of firearms, notes on how the class is balanced versus a bow wielding Fighter, and descriptions of how it fits into the worlds of Golarion (the default setting for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game) and Zobeck (Open Design LLC’s house world). The class looks like it would be fun to play as it manages to provide a fantastic version of a gun wielding Fighter, but without overpowering the use of the gun to the detriment of a Fighter or Ranger using a bow. One thing that the class description fails to do is explain how an Arquebusier is meant to afford his first gun – even the cheapest blunderbuss is 200GP!

Author and head of Green Ronin Publishing Chris Pramas makes two appearances in this issue. The first is as an interviewee, but the second is an author himself, contributing a set of Backgrounds for the publisher’s highly popular Freeport setting using the Age: Adventure Game Engine. This is the same set of mechanics as used in Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, so opens up the possibility of running a game in Green Ronin’s not only piratical but Lovecraftian setting using those rules. The nine new Backgrounds will be familiar to anyone who knows the Freeport setting or has seen any of the Companion volumes for it, including Dwarf Tradesman, Gnome Artisan, and Orc Raider. Most of them would also find a place in a standard fantasy world if the GM wanted to run that world using the Age: Adventure Game Engine, but some would also find their back into the world described in Dragon Age itself. Here I am thinking of the Dwarf Tradesman, the Human Burgher and the Human Mariner. This I hope will be the first of many articles, because while the magic described in Dragon Age needs a little effort to work in Freeport, the slightly cinematic nature of the game’s mechanics fit easily with Freeport’s swashbuckling feel.

The issue is rounded out with a short scenario, “The Wreck of the Goodwife.” Written by Jonathan McAnulty with Brandon Hodge and designed for sixth level characters, it as much an adventure as it is a piece of advertising for Sunken Empires. In the adventure the heroes are hired to salvage a wreck, but find themselves in competition with the widow of the man who captained the sunken ship. It comes with various magical items of a nautical and sub-nautical nature, plus a new monster. It is more of extended encounter, but fulfils in part, Kobold Quarterly’s need for more scenarios.

All magazines come with their own regular features, and Kobold Quarterly is no exception. It has of course an editorial, a letters page – “From the Mines” (where else would you find a Kobold?), a Book Reviews section, while in “Free City of Zobeck” editor Wolfgang Bauer deals with another aspect of Zobeck (Open Design LLC’s house world), specifically what lies to the East of the Free City. Several other articles look like regular features, but since they vary from issue to issue, I will deal with those on a case by case basis. Matthew Hanson’s Encounter Design is “Alternative Objectives: Capture the Flag,” which turns the “capture the flag” multi-player games seen in first person shooter computer games into an encounter for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, enforcing the need for the player characters to keep moving, but not make it easy for them to get away. It comes with a sample encounter for eighth level, in which the heroes need to enter a crypt and recover the Shadow Orb. With “The Thrill of the Unknown” for Games Theories, Monte Cook explores how a book or film can leave something unknown, whereas an RPG demands that everything be defined, a subject rather in keeping with the magazine’s earlier exploratory dabbling in the Cthulhu Mythos.

For “Better Gameplay” Mario Podeschi offers the reader “The Heart of a Hero: A Guide to Sex and Romantic Subplots in Fantasy Adventure Gaming.” While many gaming groups ignore this subject, even for those that add elements of romance to their campaigns, it can still be a thorny issue. The article takes the GM through the delicate process of adding a romantic subplot to his game and then how to present it dramatically as part of the game. It is written with most fantasy RPGs in mind unlike “Scions of Shadow” by Maurice de Mare. For the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game it gives us a short description of shadow magic and those that attempt to control it, including the Shadow Bloodline for Sorcerers and the School of Shadow for Wizards. This adds a nice variation to those already available in the core book. One last pleasing article is “Destined Weapons” by Hank Woon. Written for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, it allows a character – with the selection of the Destined Weapon Feat – to own and wield a weapon that he can infuse his spirit into. In essence, a character has to wield the weapon effectively before he takes this Feat and so gain the Destiny Points with which to design the weapon’s special abilities. For example, Munga the Orc’s axe was given to him by his mother and after inflicting much hacking and hacking, including ten confirmed critical hits, twenty five Cleave attempts, and twenty strikes against foes with attacks of opportunity, the axe, now known as “Mother’s Teeth” gains the powers of Keen, Mighty Cleaving, and Vicious. The rules feel a little clumsy, but they do allow a player to create and own a weapon of his design for his character and in a manner much simpler and infinitely less expensive than going to a Wizard for it.

With roughly thirteen or articles in the pages of Kobold Quarterly #13 that have some direct application to gaming, there has to be at least one of them that will find a use in a DM or GM’s game, whether that be Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition or the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. The likelihood is that more than one of them will do so, and as for the rest, they are at least readable, interesting, and potential nudges for the GM’s own imagination. If I have a grumble about this issue or any issue, it is that (a) it would be nice have a fuller scenario in each issue, and (b) its price is not given in sterling as opposed to the dollar, the Canadian dollar, and the Euro (it cannot be an exchange rate issue, otherwise why include the price in Euros?). Grumbles aside, Kobold Quarterly #13 represents good value for money, primarily for Dungeons & Dragons, but also for this issue, for fans of the Lovecraftian. As ever, Kobold Quarterly #13 maintains it reputation for high quality, high imagination, high application articles for your favourite fantasy RPG.