Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Trapped in the Wilds

Kobold Quarterly is a like a box of chocolates. You never know what you gonna get.” Which is about as cheap a way of summing the latest selection box of articles and columns devoted to Dungeons & Dragons and its variants as you could get. After all, the cover does proclaim the magazine to the “The Switzerland of the Edition Wars” and quotes about chocolate are more prevalent than they are about Cuckoo Clocks, so I can get away with paraphrasing Forest Gump at least the once. Which begs the question, what bad quote will I use to open my review of the next issue with? No idea, but I have three months to come up with something and I really do not want to set a precedent...

Anyway, what of the latest issue, Kobold Quarterly #15? As ever it primarily provides support for Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, but both these and other articles have wider application and are suited for Dungeons & Dragons style gaming in general. Of course, you do actually have some idea as to the contents of the issue, as they are highlighted on the cover, and as with previous issues, there is a theme to the latest issue, or rather two separate themes, that of traps and nature.

First up for the nature theme is Ryan Costello, Jr.’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game article, “Nature’s Orders,” which describes three options or Orders for the Druid Class. Druids of the Bestial Order do not cast spells or use orisons, but has a deeper understanding of the animal world to gain natural attacks such as claws or constriction, better senses, and increased access to the Wild Shape ability. Druids of the Godai Order are not as bestial, but focus on casting spells that draw from the four elements and have access to the matching Clerical Domains. Lastly, Purist Druids are even more like Clerics, actually worshipping nature and able to cast Cure spells rather Summon Nature’s Ally. The article also discusses where the variants might found in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game default setting of Golarion. Of the three variants, the Purist Order is the least developed and the least interesting.

Also for Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is Jonathan McAnulty’s “Ecology of the Giant Ant.” This not only examines the Giant Ant, but also adds a dozen variants upon the species, from Acrobat and Carpenter Ants to Trap-Jaw and Treecutter Ants. The lighter mechanics in this means that it is easier to adapt to other Dungeons & Dragons variants. Rounding out the nature theme is Stefen Styrsky’s “Children of the Wood,” also for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. This is in effect, a companion piece to the publisher’s forest adventure anthology set near the Free City of Zobeck – of which there is a review to come – Tales of the Margreve. This is written for the spellcaster in your game, providing a new Bloodline for the Sorcerer – literally the Blood of the Green, that embodies the natural powers of growth and renewal; Forest and Harvest Domains for Clerics and Druids; and the School of Nature for the Wizard who has studied life and death under the green canopy, represented by the Conjuration and Necromancy schools.

For Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, David Adams corals innumerable options for the rider in “Reasons to Ride.” These include new riding gear, but they primarily consist of new Feats such as Fury of the Horselords, which enables a Barbarian horseman to use a Rage Strike attack when charging. There are also several new mounts described that are more fantastical in nature. Overall, this is an excellent article for the DM that wants to take his campaign onto horseback.

The traps theme is explored in three articles. The first is for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition and explores a logical development for anyone with the Thievery skill. It really works for the Rogue Class, because with “Rig This!” by John Flemming, he not only gets to disarm traps, but set them too! Not ones in situ mind you, but ones prepared earlier and carried on his back. In a concept reminiscent of the alchemical rituals discussed in Adventurers’ Vault, Rogues with the Trapsmith Feat can learn Schematics, each one the instructions for a clockwork, oiled, and alchemically fuelled bigger-than-a-bear trap. The article is supported with numerous examples and begs to fall into the hands of the inventive and wily Rogue. The second article for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition offers an interesting approach to the trap. “Jack in a Trap” by Philippe-Antoine Menard combines monsters with traps and traps with monsters to create hybrids. The examples given have more of a Science Fiction feel than fantasy, despite their stone dressings. The third article devoted to traps is for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is more obvious in its contents. Older gamers will find the nastiness of the traps described in Andrew Hinds’ “Pits of Despair” more than a little reminiscent of Flying Buffalo Games’ Grimtooth’s Traps, and if you are not aware of that venerable series, then Necromancer Games has released The Wurst of Grimtooth’s Traps! Anyway, if you do do dungeons – and if not, why not considering what the magazine is for? – then you can never have enough pits.

Theme aside, Kobold Quarterly #15 includes several articles for both games. For example, Anthony Eichenlaub expands upon the concept of skill powers first seen in the Player’s Handbook 3 to provide thirteen new skill stances in “Masters of Great Skill.” While the concept is welcome given how Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition has de-emphasised skills, the author never quite develops it fully. The problem is that the flavour text for each Utility or stance feels at odds with its effect and the effects themselves are often more powerful than the flavour text suggests or warrants. The DM would be wise to consider carefully if he wants these in his campaign. Better developed is Quinn Murphy’s “A Call to Awesome” for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition in which he expands upon the critical roll. Where in the past that would have just given a player greater damage, with Critical Actions and Scene Criticals that natural roll of twenty can be used to trigger more interesting and longer lasting effects such as trying to being able to climb a behemoth and so gain access temporarily to a weak spot. This is an excellent article that nicely develops an idea. It will take a little set up by the GM to set up, but if done right, the heroes get to be more heroic than just hitting an opponent with an axe! Jobe Bittman gives us a nasty dungeon denizen, the Horakh in “King of the Monsters.”

Michael Kortes’ “Collaborative Killers” for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game keeps things mechanically simple for a discussion of tactical manoeuvres that a group can co-operate in performing. They include the “Eldritch Flank” for spellcasters, the “Lure” for pack animals, and “Pile On” for when the heroes need to overpower an opponent. Of course, there is nothing to stop a GM from turning them on his player characters! This is followed by “Blades from the Past” by Alex Putnam which describes ten historical weapons for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and suggests where they are used in Golarion.

Penultimately, in Mario Podeschi’s “Going Vertical” we are given a system-less discussion of side view dungeons exploring the fun, excitement, and danger of adventuring in the vertical rather than the horizontal. It comes with a full sample setting and suggests that the DM look at old fashioned side-scrolling video games for further inspiration. Lastly, Kobold Quarterly #15 returns to the Free City of Zobeck a second time for its more traditional visit, this time to explore the Cartways as its undercity is known.

Of course, there is always more to an issue of Kobold Quarterly than gaming articles and Kobold Quarterly #15 is no exception. Historians of the hobby will enjoy “Those Dark Dungeon Blues,” James Lowder’s look back at the hysteria surrounding Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s, while anyone with an interest in how we roleplay will enjoy Monte Cook’s opinion on simulation versus game play in “Simulating Game Reality.” Besides the usual fiction reviews, the latest issue includes an interview with the author and publisher, Margaret Weis. The fiction reviews are likely to be of more use than the interview or the issue’s two cartoons, and as good or as humorous as they are, they are just extras and hardly what the reader will come back to in the future.

Available as a seventy-six page magazine or a 33.59 MB PDF, Kobold Quarterly #15 is cleanly laid out and written to the magazine’s usual standard. It feels a little light on colour and technical in style. That said, much of the information it has to impart is technical and has to be technical to get that information across. With that limit in place, Kobold Quarterly #15 is as always, readable.

While not every article in Kobold Quarterly #15 hits its mark – “Masters of Great Skill” sadly letting the side down, there is as ever a plethora of ideas to be found in its pages. All of them are well presented and all of them are worth GM or DM leafing through to see what he can borrow and adapt. Sadly there is no scenario this issue, though my wish for some “Edition 0” material is all but answered in both “Going Vertical” and “Pits of Despair,” both of which have a pleasingly Old School feel. It is a pity that there are only three article devoted to its traps theme, though these articles are well done. As are all of its articles, with options aplenty for both the DM and the player alike. If I have to pick favourites it would be “Rig This!” for its portable traps, “Going Vertical” for forcing the heroes up (or down), “A Call to Awesome” for opening up both the action and the story, and oddly, “Those Dark Dungeon Blues” for its history, but then I like that kind of article.

Kobold Quarterly #15 marks another solid issue for the magazine. Solid though for Kobold Quarterly is still good though and what else would you expect but more ideas and more food for thought from a magazine with standards as high as it has?