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

Sunday, 13 November 2011

At the 19th Kobold

Regular as clockwork, along comes another issue of Kobold Quarterly from Open Design, the only games magazine to support Dungeons & Dragons – and its primary variants – or any more than the one RPG and make it to the shelves at your friendly, local gaming store. As with previous issues, Kobold Quarterly #19 provides support for Dungeons & Dragons style RPGs, particularly Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition as well as of Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying from Green Ronin Publishing; and as with previous issues, Kobold Quarterly #19 comes with a theme or two. This time around, those themes are death, magic, and a trip to the East along with various other articles and regular columns.

It should be made clear upfront that the focus upon the games that the magazine normally covers shifts with Kobold Quarterly #19. There is just the one articles for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition in this issue, the rest primarily being for Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. This is not to say that the articles written for one system will not be of use for the other, but the DM or GM will have to provide the mechanics.

The issue’s death theme gets off to a decidedly clean start with Marc Radle’s “The White Necromancer: To Understand Life One Must Also Understand Death.” Written for Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, this explores characters that though fascinated with the dead, instead honour them and aid the living. The White Necromancer is an arcane spellcaster with a limited spellbook, but with the ability to heal and as his studies of the undead advance, knowledge of some of the abilities of the undead, including Ghost Walk. This is a nice twist upon the Necromancer concept, allowing a character to interact with the undead without turning to the dark side.

More deathly characters for Pathfinder Roleplaying Game are discussed in “Archetypes of Death: For a More Badass Barbarian, Druid, Monk, or Summoner” by Phillip Larwood. The three Archetypes are the Deathrager, a Barbarian whose link to the spirit world is so strong that he can stave off death and eventually, even fight on after death; the Grave Druid, a Druid that protects graveyards and wards against the undead; the Master of Worms, a Monk that uses the abilities of the undead to fight them; and the Zombie Master, a Summoner that summons a zombie or skeleton, and then is able to evolve it to his own design. Of the four, the last again feels the least interesting, but the first three feel well thought out and will make nice additions to campaigns with a darker tone to them.

With “Bottled Hubris: New Discoveries and Archetypes for Alchemists,” Jerall Toi gives new options for the Alchemist Class in Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Using options available in the Advanced Player’s Guide and Ultimate Magic, this delves into the issue’s magic theme by giving deeper areas of study for the alchemist and new ways of playing the Class. The new Discoveries range from hardening the Alchemist’s mind to the influence of Outsiders and his skeleton with spikes against melee weapons to enhancing the intimidation effect of his intelligence and enhancing a familiar or other animal companion with another Discovery. The three new Archetypes are the Calligraphist, able to conjure creatures and weapons from his ink drawings; the Evolutionist specialises in the enhancement of his animal companion; and the Specialist, which takes up the study of singular areas of knowledge, such as the stars and planes beyond, plants, or the transmutation of metal. Of these Archetypes, the Calligraphist is likely to be the most attractive to play, whereas the Specialist as presented feels a little undeveloped.

The magic theme continues with what is potentially a divisive discussion of the magic shop in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. “Magic Shops, What's In Store: How to Turn a DM Nightmare into a Tool for Better Games” by Christina Stiles and Spike Y. Jones explores how and why the magic shop might exist in a Dungeons & Dragons style world, the divisive aspect being that some GMs feel that allowing players to purchase magic items for their characters detracts from the wondrous nature of magic and the sense of achievement in gaining such items during their adventures. The arguments are well realised and the article is supported by several sample magic shops, the most entertaining being “The Bargain Bin” and its accompanying list of items that are magical, but far from perfect (Scroll of Faecal Storm? Euw!).

The last entry following the issue’s magic theme is “The Gordian Knot” by Mario Podeschi. Again for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, this is winning entry in the magazine’s the Relics of Power competition. It is an artefact created from the very tapestry of the planes that protects the owner against detection and scrying. In either case, the owner has to work the threads of the Knot to activate its abilities. This is great artefact for any campaign that involves high level magical scrying and intrigue.

“Welcome to the Dragon Empires” is the first of two articles that take the reader out East to Tian Xia in the world of Golarion, the home setting for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Written by James Jacobs, this is a quick introduction to the region of Golarion that will be detailed further in the forthcoming Dragon Empires Gazetteer and Dragon Empires Primer supplements as well as the current Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Adventure Path, Jade Regent.The piece is really a list of the setting’s key points, since it lacks the space to go into any detail. That said, it is a preview and the setting does look interesting.

More detail though, is to be found in the companion article, “Làu Kiritsu: Golarion’s Lord Of Absolute Obedience.” Written by Richard Pett – one of my favourite writers for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game – it describes Tian Xia’s greatest archdevil as well as the strictures that his adherents must obey absolutely. There is plenty of flavour in this article, not just in how he is worshipped, but also in the magical objects particular to Làu Kiritsu’s worship that constrain and admonish those that they are used on. The author also provides some nice advice as to how Làu Kiritsu can be used in a game and a trio of good adventure seeds.

The issue comes with three generic articles. The first is Rick Hudson’s “Courting Adventure: Bringing the Royal Court to Life in Your Games,” an excellent description of the courtier and the offices that he could take at court along with some adventure hooks and the author’s inspirations. This would be useful for any game that takes place at court – not just one in a fantasy setting, whether that is a court that the player characters have to visit or hold themselves. The latter is a possibility for characters of higher levels, of course. The second is “10 Ways to Turn Dull Traps into High-Stakes Encounters” by Britian Oates, which discusses how to make traps in a GM’s game much more of a challenge. The last is Monte Cook’s “Balance-Free Bonuses (Or, Making the Elf More Elvish),” part of his regular Game Theories column. It explores how to give “little” benefits that expand racial abilities without resorting to the traditional “+1” effect. For example, whilst Elves never get dirty and can see half again as far as humans, they also possess mystical empathy/intuition that grants them occasional flashes of insight. Only though, when the DM wants impart some information, and not when a player wants it to work. It is a well thought out set of ideas and a referee should be inspired to add these to his game or create some of his own.

The two articles for Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying from Green Ronin Publishing are not actually for the Dragon Age setting, but rather for the age system. They are all about characters and backgrounds, both written to tie in with Open Design’s forthcoming Midgard Campaign Setting. The first of these is “Land of Horse and Bow: 6 Midgard Campaign Setting Backgrounds for AGE” by Simon English, which give Backgrounds suitable for characters originating from the Rothenian Plain, whether that is a Free Tribes Centaur, Windrunner Elf, Steppes Shaman, or Vidam Boyar. The sextet are pleasingly accompanied by a list of Arcane Lance variants such as Flame, Lightning, Wind, and Winter that are more likely to find their way in to Dragon Age before the Backgrounds, that is until the arrival of the Midgard Campaign Setting.

Just as the “Land of Horse and Bow” provides Backgrounds for one region, Josh Jarman’s “Scions of Terror: 4 New AGE Character Backgrounds for the Midgard Campaign Setting” gives Backgrounds for another, in this case, the Western Wastes. These Backgrounds have a harder edge to them, each necessary to survive the dangers of the Western Wastes, the grey desert created following a war of magic. What is interesting about both of these articles is seeing how they model elements particular to Dungeons & Dragons. In this case, races more commonly found in Dungeons & Dragons such as the Goblin with the Dust Goblin Dune Trader which scavenges the Western Wastes for artefacts and the Tiefling with the Tintagerian Hellborn.

The one article in Kobold Quarterly #19 for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition is Brian A Liberge’s “Bark at the Moon: Werewolf Themes for Your Character.” This explores the origins of lycanthropy and how to make the werewolf playable as a player character, moving it away from the ravenous beast into a more heroic role. As much as the author tries to add flavour to the various powers of this new character theme, it still feels all too mechanical and not up to the ideas presented in the main body of the article.

Similarly, this issue comes with a single adventure. As with recent issues, Matthew J. Hanson’s “Aneela, Human Cleric: Party of One” is a solo adventure. It is a quick affair, easy to play, and pits a young cleric against some undead, keeping it in theme with the issue’s deathly theme. Rounding out the issue is Kobold Quarterly’s usual book review column; Kobold Diplomacy column, this time interviewing the award-winning indie designer of Grey Ranks and Fiasco, Jason Morningstar; and Wolfgang Baur’s regular Free City of Zobeck end piece.

Physically, Kobold Quarterly #19 is disappointing. This is not to say that some of the artwork, including the cover, is excellent, but in places it feels ill suited. Further, the magazine needs editing in places, which was not the case with previous issues. Overall, the impression with Kobold Quarterly #19 is it has been rushed. It also feels as if there is less to this issue than previous ones, but that may be due to the fact that “Welcome to the Dragon Empires” is more of an enticement than something that can be added to a game.

There is much to like about this latest issue. Though some will decry its shift in emphasis away from Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition to Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, this does mean that there is more room for the Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying articles, and the likelihood is that there will be more of them given the forthcoming publication of the Midgard Campaign Setting. Kobold Quarterly #19 contains an interesting selection of articles that each in their own way can be added to a game, with the plethora of strong options for the player outweighing the GM support.