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Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Kobold Strips... Divinely

Upon reaching your twenty-first birthday, you are widely regarded as having reached the age of responsibility and acquired not just responsibilities, but also rights and freedoms too. You are at liberty to do what you want and take the consequences of your actions. So the question is, having reached its twenty-first issue, what does Kobold Quarterly, Open Design's roleplaying magazine devoted to the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, and the AGE or Adventure Game Engine, do? Well, the first thing it does is take its clothes off and gut a rabbit and play with its entrails, all before discussing religion.

Now that sounds all so terribly rude, not to say dangerously controversial or even dangerous. The truth of the matter though, is that contents of Kobold Quarterly #21 is far from controversial, certainly not rude, and anything other than dangerous. The bulk of the issue is devoted to matters clerical, divine, and religious, all matters which are treated in a mature and reasonable manner. The first “controversy” though comes with Kieran Yanner’s cover, “The Wood Nymph.” Having seen the artist’s work inside the covers of numerous RPG titles, it is a pleasure to see a fully painted cover by him, but the fact that it depicts a semi-clad nymph might not be to everyone’s taste. It is something that is acknowledged by Kobold Quarterly editor, Wolfgang Baur. There is nothing prurient about that cover, and if it can regarded as being art of the cheesecake variety, then its flavour is a tasteful vanilla.

The controversy of the issue’s contents begins with “The Shaman – A Spirit-Based Class for the Pathfinder RPG.” Written by Marc Radle – whose The Expanded Spell-less Ranger I reviewed recently, as its title suggests, this presents the Shaman as a new Class for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. At its heart it feels much like a variant upon the Druid Class, but a combination of spells that do not have to memorised to be cast, the ability to heal by touch rather by spell, being able to morph into animal form, and having unimpeded movement through undergrowth gives the Class a wilder, more free spirited feel. The Class also has harder edge as seen in its limited spell choice and the sanguinary start to the augury powers with the Totem Secret, “Blood Divination,” which can provide a Shaman with skill and initiative bonuses. The Shaman has an array of Totem Secrets to choose from, many of which call upon the spirits for healing, protection, warnings, and other aid. In addition, the Shaman possesses a Spirit Guide, with whom he shares an empathic link, deliver touch spells for him and even help him draw spells from the spirit world for him. The Class includes a selection of sample Spirit Guides. At later levels, a Shaman can enhance his magic with a spirit dance and even go on a vision quest. Overall, the Shaman Class has a pleasingly earthy feel, and would make a useful addition to any wilderness set campaign. Where the controversy of the piece comes is in the opening colour text, which has a Shaman casting an augury through the examination of rabbit’s entrails. Perhaps a little too strong to some tastes, but still in keeping with the Class as described.

The sexual tone of the issue’s cover is continued with Sersa Victory’s “Daughters of Lilith – An Ecology of the Succubus.” Written as a piece of academia, this delves into the origins, motivations, life cycle, faith, society, and sexual proclivities (despite most actually being unable to bear children) of a type of devil that is widely regarded as being the ultimate in sexual seductresses and arch manipulators. It also discusses her male equivalent, the Incubus, and presents the Cult of the Succubus Queen, a cabal that in worshiping Mother Lust seeks to undermine the chaste morality underlying civilization’s integrity… Although the article is written for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, including a new Feat and Powers for both worshippers and Succubae, much of the background presented in the article would work just as well with any fantasy RPG setting that includes seductive devils. Especially an urban set campaign that involves power politics. This is though, an article best suited for a mature audience, as its content does touch on sexual themes. They are well handled and what could have been potentially prurient piece is nicely judged.

The first real discussion of religion in Kobold Quarterly #21 is “It's a Mystery!” by David “Zeb” Cook. This is a generic article that suggests how a GM might make religion in his campaign more interesting by adding Mystery Cults. Drawing from those of Ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt, it discusses how to design a Mystery Cult and its motivations, how and why you might join such a Cult, and hints at what its secrets might be. This being an article in a roleplaying magazine, your first thought at reading the word “cult” would be that this article is all about cabals bent on evil, but nothing could be further from the truth. As the author makes clear, Mystery Cults are about secrets and the privacy of worship rather than just being evil. A Mystery Cult could just as easily be composed of farmers worshipping for a bountiful harvest as they could “cultists” attempting to learn the secrets of summoning some tentacle creature from the nether regions. With advice on how to get the player characters involved, this is another interesting article that would work in many fantasy RPG settings. If it lacks anything, it is that it would have been nice, given the article’s historical sources, if some references and suggestions as to further reading had been included.

Tim and Eileen Connors continue the divine theme with “Clerical Conflicts – Thy Will Be Done” for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Although its opening paragraphs feel bland, the piece really steps up a pace with the five well-written and colourful examples that support the idea that the faith adhered to by a player character Cleric can the source of character conflict. Essentially, it asks what if a character’s experiences or interpretation of his faith conflict with the dictates of his deity or his church? The examples all use members of the same faith, all sat down to the same meal, and all mulling over questions of faith. Each one comes with a mechanical effect, mostly minor, but some come with major effects instead. For example, a Cleric with the “Forsaken” Conflict has not only lost his direct connection to his god, but also his Domain spells too, and in praying for them he literally steals them from other Clerics around him. These are all interesting and colourfully written dilemmas that could easily adapted to the religions detailed within a GM’s campaign, and whilst the mechanical effects are written for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, the dilemmas would work in most fantasy RPGs.

With “Howling Tower: Why No Monotheism?” Steve Winter asks an interesting question. Why do so many fantasy settings have pantheons of gods when most real-world religions are monotheistic and have the single, one god? The article comes up with some good answers and suggests ways in which such a faith can be added to a game. “Divine Archetypes: Angelic Heroes, Holy Traps, and Celestial Fists of Fury” by Stefen Styrsky, details divinely scented Archetypes for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, turning the Sorcerer, Fighter, Gunslinger, and Ranger into the Angel Scion, Seraphic Cohort, Peacemaker, and Spirit Hunter respectively. Also for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, Christina Stiles’ “Saints of Mavros” describes two saints worshipped in Midgard, either widely in the case of St. Brigantia of Valera, or just in Morgau, Doresh, and the Ghoul Imperium, in the case of Saint Whiteskull of Bratislor. Both include descriptions of each Saint’s worshippers, Domains and favoured weaponry, symbols, noted books, famous shrines and priests, connection to other faiths, and what demands each places upon his worshippers.

As its title suggests, “A Background in Magic – Alchemists, Druids, Illusions, and Seers for the AGE System” by Rodrigo Garcia Carmona gives new magical backgrounds for the magic-using character in Green Ronin Publishing’s AGE or Adventure Game Engine. These are reasonable Backgrounds, but they feel like half an article because there is no information about these forms of magic given for the Adventure Game Engine. With just that half, both GM and player will have to work hard to supply further detail and flavour.

Diverging further from the issue’s divine theme, “The Scriveners of Allain” further develops background and concepts previously described in Kobold Quarterly #8. Written by Brian A. Liberge for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, it describes glyph and ink magic and the disparate cult devoted to it in the magocracy of Allain. In a Scrivener’s hands, this form of magic summons deadly glyphs that for a time will obey the summoner’s commands, though their diabolic nature makes them wilful servants. Again, this article contains a nice mix of flavour and mechanics. Also for the wizard or sorcerer is David Schwartz’s “White Tongue, Black Heart,” which describes a literally tongue twisting companion for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Known as a Witch Louse, it replaces the mage’s tongue, as his familiar it can help by maintaining the Concentration required to keep a spell going, deliver a nasty bite, give the mage a really disturbingly intimidating countenance, and because of its duplicitous nature, it can enhance his lies. The article is rounded out with a fully-fledged NPC, the enchanter Kergart, who is commonly known as “the man with the silver tongue.”

More entertaining flavour for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game comes with Nicholas Milasich’s “Nine Treasures of Deep Midgard” which describes a nonet of goods, treasures, and trophies that might be brought up from the Underdark. Drow Brandy is a euphoric intoxicant whilst Tinned Heads are literally that, each crafted by the Ghoul Imperium to contain a head that will each serve the owner as a fount of certain knowledge… What brings all of these intriguing items together is their unfamiliarity to surface dwellers, that is, the player characters. Everyone requires an Appraisal skill roll to identify and value each item. Lastly, “The Shadow Lodge Insurgency” describes the events surrounding an attempt to subvert the Pathfinder Society of Golarion, the setting for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. As recounted by Marius Scipio, it is a lengthy background piece that is interesting enough, but it lacks an immediate use and brings the issue to disappointing close. This is not to say that it is a bad article, but the issue would have all the better had it included a scenario in its stead.

Rounding out the issue is an entertaining interview with Bill Slavicsek, the former Director of R&D for Dungeons & Dragons as well as freelancer and writer on numerous titles for West End Games’ Star Wars and Torg RPGs. This is in addition to the usual “From the Mines...” (letters) section, cartoons, “Ask the Kobold” column that answers questions about being “Flat-Footed in Heavy Armour,” and the Free City of Zobeck column, “Deadly Tolls and Honest Challenges,” which looks at banditry in the Midgard campaign setting. The issue is without its usual book review column, but it promises to return with issue #22.

Available as an eighty page magazine or a 26.69 Mb PDF, Kobold Quarterly #21 is well presented and pleasingly adheres to its theme although it does need an edit in places. Overall, Kobold Quarterly #21 is another entertaining and useful issue, with plenty to say on matters divine whatever your choice of fantasy RPG. That it does so with maturity and a lack of controversy over what could be contentious issues is a sign that it has come of age.