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Saturday, 29 January 2011

Sweet Kobold 16

Almost as soon as I review one issue of Kobold Quarterly, another one appears ready for me to read. Then again, I should be reading and reviewing them – and the host of other books to hand – a whole lot faster. Then again, that is by the by, because what you really want to know about is the latest issue of Kobold Quarterly #16. The most curious thing about this issue is the strap line, which reads “Digging Deathtraps All Winter” rather than the usual “The Switzerland of the Edition Wars.” Not curious because it means I have to find something else to make an aside about other than chocolate and cuckoo clocks, but rather because the last issue was the one with the traps theme. So if the theme of this issue is not traps, what is it? Well, in continuing to provide support for both Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, its theme is that of artifice and magic, in particular the artifice that is clockwork. In addition, this is the issue that announces Open Design’s forthcoming Midgard Campaign Setting, which was begun with the Zobeck Gazetteer, and Kobold Quarterly has visiting again and again in its various issues. This provides the background for many of the magazine’s articles and serves to give the issue a more cohesive feel.

The Midguard based articles begin with the first article, Henry Brooks’ “Ecology of the Gearforged.” We have seen a mechanically bodied player character race before, in the form of the Warforged from Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, but the Gearforged are different. Clockwork driven, each Gearforged possesses a soul which passed into it via a ritual from the elderly, the dying, the dedicated, and the convicted crook, which means that a player character can live on if he purchases the materials and undergoes the correct ritual to become a Gearforged. Gearforged are revered in Zobeck for their aid in defending the city, but there is nothing to stop a DM adding them to his own game. A nice touch is that this article is for both game systems, Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, potentially making it useful to every reader rather than dividing and disappointing them by being for one game rather than the other. As much as I am not all that much of a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, covering both games in one magazine is a clever, more inclusive move.

The second article is specifically set in the Midgard Campaign Setting, but again, its contents can be transplanted elsewhere. “Odalisques and Concubines: Courtesans of Zobeck” by Stefen Styrsky expands on a “Free City of Zobeck” column from an earlier issue of the magazine and gives rules and support for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Apart from forcing me to look up the meaning of one of the words in the title because I had forgotten it – you can guess which one – this details an interesting variant of the Bard class complete with Conversation and Storytelling as alternative Perform skills, new spells that charm and entice the victim, and new magical items like the Pillow Book which collects salacious details about the high and mighty. Although written for the Midgard Campaign Setting, this class can easily be put into any game that primarily takes place in large towns and cities, or that has an Arabic feel. Although this type of character has been seen in other RPGs and settings, its potentially prurient nature has kept it out of Dungeons & Dragons since the appearance of the Houri character class back in White Dwarf #13. Of course, that was not an official character class, but this one is and is all the better for being tastefully done.

The third article written for the Midgard Campaign Setting is for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, and is the shortest of the pieces for it. Russell Jones’ “The Royal Order of the Golden Fox” examines an ancient, but secretive organisation that dedicates itself to the hunt, sometimes of dangerous animals, but sometimes of more dangerous foe, such as murderers, necromancers, and so on. It is useful as potential patron, especially for Druids, Rangers, and similar classes. One reason to accept the invitation to join is the Order’s treasury of magical items that it rewards members for completing quests.

The clockwork theme begun in “Ecology of the Gearforged” is continued in “The Clockwork Adept: A Prestige Class of Mechanical Precision” by Jason Sonia. This details a new Arcane Prestige Class that is capable of commanding, crafting, and understanding clockwork mechanisms. This works very well with the earlier “Ecology of the Gearforged” and it would have nice this had been worked into the Midgard Campaign Setting as well. In “Clockwork Monsters,” David Adams continues the theme for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition with rules and guidelines adding clockwork and steam driven technologies to a trap or creature.

As to artifice, Michael Kortes’ “Dancing Brooms, Skittering Sconces: Animated Mayhem” provides an entertainingly obvious use for the animate objects spell in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game – bringing to life the mundane contents of the room around you, just like Micky Mouse did in Disney’s Fantasia. More artifice comes with “Magic Items of Golarion,” though all of them complete and in working order. The twelve on show here all come from Paizo Publishing’s RPG Superstar Contest of 2010 and are inventive and clever. My favourite is the “Vessel of the Deep,” a squid shaped submarine that is stored as a bottle of ink, but others will enjoy the “Tankard of the Cheerful Duellist” and the “Goblin Skull Bomb.” Lastly, the dangers of artifice are explored in Scott A. Murray’s “Potion Miscibility” for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, which looks at the potential perils and benefits of mix potions.

In what is a nice change, the issue comes with not one, but two short scenarios, both for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Christina Styles’ “Beer Run! An Adventure in the Northlands” uses material from the forthcoming Frozen Empires supplement to present and has the heroes raiding a giant’s mead hall to get back two casks of ale, and not just any ale, but ale that heals! The other scenario is more demanding and will require some roleplaying and investigation upon the part of the players. By Willie Walsh, “The Curse of The Blue Titchyboo” begins with one of the characters having his pockets picked and the culprit appearing to have run into a school. Not just any school, but a school for turning out Tengu! This is a pleasing change of pace after “Beer Run!” with the characters trying to determine feathered friend from feathered foe.

Elsewhere, Jonathan McAnulty explores and expands upon “Places of Sanctuary” for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, while monsters for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition get a tune up in two articles. In Raymond D. Falgui’s “The Minion Academy: Making the Most of Your Minions” the mooks of the monster world get a last hurrah that will make player characters give them ever so slightly more consideration. When a minion dies – easy enough given that most possess a single Hit Point – it grants a one-shot combat to an ally, usually the minion’s lord and master. With “True Hit Locations: Monsters with Weak Spots and Tactical Combat” Matthew J. Hanson makes monsters more challenging with abilities and powers that can also be targeted by the heroes to negate them and weaken the creature.

As ever Kobold Quarterly#16 is rounded out with cartoons and comic strips, the Book Reviews column, a column of Ask the Kobold – this one devoted to illusions, and of course, Free City of Zobeck, the regular column that ends every issue, this time devoted to Zobeck’s armies. In addition Monte Cook tells you how he handled a really powerful magical item in “The Ring of Rule-Breaking” and in “If You're Having Fun” game designer Robin D. Laws is interviewed about his Gumshoe RPGs from Pelgrane Press; his guide to storytelling, Hamlet's Hit Points; and his Pathfinder fiction.

If truth be told, Kobold Quarterly #16 feels a much better issue than the last. There is much more of a focus to its themes and they are well served in all of the articles. There is more energy to the issue as well, partly due to the focus, but also to the fact that the Midgard Campaign Setting is announced and then supported to a greater length than has been the case in the past. I can only hope that this focus is maintained in future issues that will also further illuminate Open Design’s house campaign. The news that Green Ronin Publishing’s "age" or "adventure game engine" mechanics – used in the publisher’s Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5 – has polled well with the patrons of the Midgard Campaign Setting, also signals the possibility that we will see more articles for that system in Kobold Quarterly. In the meantime, an excellent issue and Kobold Quarterly certainly deserves its sweet sixteen.