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Saturday, 4 February 2012

A Kobold's Score

As Kobold Quarterly #20 attains its score, its coverage of Dungeons & Dragons – and its primary variants, continues to maintain a high standard with its mix of articles, advice, and scenarios. As with Kobold Quarterly #19, this latest issue from Open Design continues to move away from its previously self-avowed tag line – “The Switzerland of the Edition Wars” – with more coverage for Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game than Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. This is not to say that Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition receives less coverage than in the previous issue, but the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game definitely gets the most space. In addition there are articles for the Adventure Game Engine, the mechanics that power the Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying from Green Ronin Publishing.

So if being neutral is not what Kobold Quarterly #20 is all about, what then, does it have as its theme? Again, the clue is in the tag line: “A Strong Bow and a Full Quiver,” for its theme is all about archers and archery, arrows and quivers, hunters and the hunted. Kicking off this theme is John E. Ling, Jr.’s “The Elven Archer: For Some Heroes, the Arrow Strikes Swift and True” which provides a Racial Class for the player who wants to play a character akin to Legolas. The Class is essentially a variant of the Ranger Class, but a pleasing touch is that it includes notes on how to adapt the Class to other races, roles, and missile weapons, as well as how the Class fits into the publisher’s Midgard Campaign Setting with a discussion of the Arbonesse Exiles and Daughters of Perun.

Thus “Arrows of the Arbonesse” by Jarrod Camiré can be seen as a companion piece, describing as it does the deadly and varied arrows of the Elves known as the Arbonesse Exiles. Again for use with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, it offers arrows that splash acid on a target, that release an obscuring fog, that leave a trail of razor wire, and need to be fired in pairs to create the anchoring points for the equivalent of the Web spell they release. The theme continues with Christopher Bodan’s “Fey Hunters & Shadow Hounds: Hunting PCs in the Margreve and the Shadow Plane,” which delves into the dangers of the hunt in the Old Margreve Forest in Open Design’s Midgard Campaign Setting. The region itself is described in more detail in the supplement, Tales from the Old Margreve, but this article looks at one particular aspect – how the Shadow Fey use the forest to hunt their prey. Their prey being the player characters… Discussed are the shadow fey’s tactics, devices, and servants, the latter possibly being the heroes’ fate if they fail to escape the shadow fey’s predations. It is perhaps not as punchy as the previous articles in the theme, but instead provides a greater depth.

Nicholas L. Milasich adds a mucky element to the art of Alchemy in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game with “Derro Ooze Magic: New Discoveries and Archetypes for Alchemists.” It introduces the Ooze School of magic, a variant of the Transmutation school, the most notable features of which includes the ability to turn your arm into a slimy pseudopod and attack with its acidic touch and even temporarily transform into an Ooze! Similar abilities are available to the Sorcerer who selects the Ooze Bloodline, whilst adherents of the Ooze School who can take an Ooze familiar! Naturally, the article includes a list of oozy spells, but it is also much more than its mechanics as there is plenty of detail to be found here that can be added to a game, whether for player characters or NPCs.

A regular contributor to Kobold Quarterly, for this issue Mario Podeschi offers “Servants from Beyond: Lesser Planar Allies that are Ready to Summon,” a quartet of servants that the heroes could summon to their aid by casting the lesser planar ally and lesser planar binding spells. All four come with motivations as well as their stats and a list of negotiation mechanics that help bring them alive. The best of the four is Kaliskaria, an ambitious Fire Mephit whose jealousy and arrogance will surely try the patience of anyone who summons her. More obviously dangerous creatures are on show in Jack Graham’s “Night Terrors: Four Creatures to Truly Terrify.” They include the Chrysalis of the Changeling Moth, which charms groups of humanoids to care for it to the detriment of their own well-being and the haggard Pishtaco, a form of undead that butchers the living for their body fat and are reputed to be Alchemists or Gunslingers. Each of the four threats comes with a corresponding adventure hook and should present an interesting challenge to the heroes. Both articles are for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

Of a similar nature is “Small Spirits: 5 Nature Spirits for Any Campaign” by Matthew J. Hanson, which is written for both the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Each of the five is powerful force of nature within a localised area and whilst capable of granting a boon will not always do so readily. Each comes with an adventure hook or two that the GM can develop. My favourite of these is the “String of Grandfathers,” a necklace of teeth from a lost tribe’s shaman that will offer the wearer the toothy advice of the ages if he can win the shamans’ approval.

Christina Stiles makes two contributions to Kobold Quarterly #20. First, she authors the issue’s single scenario, “Captured in the Cartways.” Designed for use with fifth level characters for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, it is an entertaining side trek adventure set in the tunnels under the Free City of Zobeck that sees the adventurers captured and given a small task before they can progress with their current task. Quite literally a mucky adventure, it throws the adventurers into the murk of the city’s underworld politics as well as providing a set of NPCs that can be added to a GM’s campaign. Written to support the release of Open Design’s Streets of Zobeck, to get the fullest use out of the scenario a GM will need access to the recently published Zobeck Gazetteer and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Bestiary 1. For her second contribution to this issue, Christine is interviewed as part of the magazine’s regular “Kobold Diplomacy” feature. This is a thought-provoking article because the interviewee has been involved in various aspects of the industry that are rarely considered by the gaming public at large. As an editor myself, it was interesting to read her thoughts on the process.

Although the idea of old heroes coming out of retirement to perform one last deed is not new – it certainly gets used in books and movies aplenty – it is rare that such a narrative device gets used in roleplaying. Stefen Styrsky remedies this with “Putting the Band Back Together Again” for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, supporting it with examples and a full set of age related Feats. This has everything bar the plots specific to the GM’s campaign, but it could spur a great campaign and be a chance to bring back old, retired player characters that could revisit the sites of their former victories. (As an aside, an existing example of how this could be done would be with B2, Keep on the Borderlands followed by Return to Keep on the Borderlands).

Kobold Quarterly #20’s single article for the Adventure Game Engine is Randall K. Hurlburt’s self-explanatory “AGE of Specialization: Five New Character Options.” This presents five new Specialisations, one for the Warrior class, one for the Mage class, and three for the Rogue class. These become available once a character in Adventure Game Engine reach sixth level – as detailed in Dragon Age – Dark Age Roleplaying Set 2: For Characters Level 6 to 10, with the selection here providing some alternatives to the limited number given in that set. The number assigned to the Rogue class is indicative of the class’ flexibility, with the inclusion of the Marksman Talent covering for an odd omission in the rules given in the box.

“The Bardic Arts” by Aaron Infante-Levy is the first of the issue’s few articles written solely for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. It provides a set of new Class features that expand obvious features of the class, whether that is its use of magic with “Cantrip Study;” interaction with “Carousing,” “Etiquette,” “Seduction,” and so on; and study with “Polyglot” and “Student of Human Nature.” Over the course of a Bardic character’s career he gets to choose four of these and they nicely add non-combat aspect to the Class and the game. This is followed by the second article, Jerry LeNeave’s “Unearthed Ancestry: Racial Utility Powers for Gnomes, Tieflings, and Minotaurs” which provides five new Utility Powers for these three species that do add more flavour to them in play.

The last article for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition is actually for the Adventure Game Engine and Pathfinder Roleplaying Game as well. “Make Haste! How to Design an Adventure with Time Pressure” by Ron Lundeen is really a generic article that provides a simple set of mechanics handling adventures that are a race against time. It is well explained and its mechanics are so light that it would work with many other RPGs too.

Rounding out Kobold Quarterly #20 is perhaps the issue’s oddest article, “Fish of Legend: Magical Seafood for Fighters & Wizards Alike” by Crystal Frasier. The idea is that in a world of magic that fish can provide more than the mundane – dyes, food, medicine, cosmetics, leather, and so on. This adds magical elements to fish and gives them innate abilities and secondary abilities to anyone who consumes or uses them. For example, the abaia has the knack of creating small rainstorms, but when eaten, renders a person impervious to dehydration and able to drip water from his skin for a day. In addition, it can be used as a material component doubles the duration of the control water and control weather spells. As the article explains, this is a means of recreating magical items in a different form, and a clever one it is too. Its contents should be used sparingly, but there is detail enough to add flavour and feel to a game.

For his regular Game Theories column, Monte Cook offers “The Power of the Game Master,” an exploration of the “GM as God,” the “GM as a Player,” and how this affects the group. All told its conclusions might be obvious to anyone with an interest in some of the theory behind roleplaying, but this is a well thought out piece. Of the other regular columns, Skip Williams answers questions about disease and poisons in “Ask theKobold,” Jeff Grubb explores “The Ruins of Arbonesse” in the “Free City of Zobeck” column, plus there are the usual cartoons and book review column.

Physically, Kobold Quarterly #20 is an improvement over Kobold Quarterly #19. It feels far less rushed, the art is more appropriate, and there are fewer editorial problems. The issue also feels as it has much more in the way of content. Similarly, the inclusion of more content, even if only a slight increase, for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition makes the issue feel more balanced. Anyone who wants to play a character akin to Legolas will get a lot out of the issue, but equally, the article on Ooze magic begs to be added to a campaign (now can I persuade my GM to me play a Kobold Sorcerer with the Ooze Bloodline?). There is material aplenty in Kobold Quarterly #20 that can be added to a campaign, with the detail galore present that add flavour and feel.