Dragon #345


Dragon #345

Publisher: Paizo Publishing
Publish Date: 06/2006
Volume: XXXI, Number 2
Pages: 98
Rating: 6 out of 10
Retail Price: $7.99

I began my love affair with D&D back in 6th grade, which for me was in 1996. True to form, shortly after discovering this game I subscribed to Dragon Magazine because back then, at least among my friends, it was customary for everyone to take turns as DM in the group. This meant one had to be versatile and proficient not only in game design but also in the fine art of character survival. Unlike its sister publication Dungeon, Dragon accommodates both components of the gaming group.

Although the magazine has admittedly changed quite a bit over the last ten years, despite the ebb and flow of various trends (and the transition from AD&D 2E all the way to D&D v3.5) the generally high quality of the publication has been maintained. In this, what I hope is the first in a long series of monthly reviews of Dragon, we’ll take a look at Issue #345. If you’re a subscriber, this information may only be useful as another interpretation of the material. If you haven’t forked over your hard earned cash yet, though, maybe I can help you decide if Dragon is right for you.

“First Watch” is the latest incarnation of a concept that has been around for years. This is your standard series of advertisements for upcoming products in the gaming industry, for everything from the latest and greatest in the D&D Miniatures line to the re-release of Princess Bride (sweet action!) on DVD to a blurb for the 2006 ENnies, an award event sponsored by the gaming website ENWorld. Sprinkled here and there in “First Watch” are also previews of what’s happening next month in both Dragon and Dungeon, as well as some pertinent info for those RPGA members out there. Frankly I’m not sure I know anyone who knows anyone in the RPGA but lately the magazine has been making a big deal out of it so it must be worth looking into.

My only complaint about this feature of the magazine is that one might have assumed when Paizo took the reins from WotC, they would be freed of the obligation to advertise for them anymore. Not only is Dragon still a fairly reliable way to learn about the upcoming product line for Wizards of the Coast, Paizo has taken the opportunity to advertise for every other gaming company, too! Doesn’t anyone use the Internet anymore? Information about future products can change at a moment’s notice anyway, printing it just seems like a waste of space. You would think now that Dragon has so many ads one could mistake it for a fashion magazine it would cut down on some of this junk.

The latest jewel in Dragon’s crown is the “Demonomicon of Iggwilv,” a monthly biography on one of the infamous demon princes from the Infinite Layers of the Abyss. Ol’ Iggy has yet to disappoint and this issue’s pick is no exception: Kostchtchie. It’s ok if you can’t pronounce his name, I’m sure he can’t either. In the “Demonomicon” articles you get it all: a full history of where the demon prince has been, a brief explanation of his most notorious schemes, where he lays his head at night and what some of his latest ambitions are. Dragon also uses this opportunity to introduce more material into the D&D universe, like new monsters, feats, Prestige Classes and magic item properties. Not only that, but if there is any real-world inspiration for the demon in question, this article is where to find it. Here we learn that Kostchtchie made his debut back in the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth module by Gary Gygax in AD&D 1E. If you’re curious, Kostchtchie was inspired by a Russian legend about a typically lecherous old coot whose soul was hidden inside one of those sets of dolls that you stack up inside each other. So not only is he the Prince of Wrath, he’s also pretty handy with arts and crafts! Aside from the whole “Lord of Frost Giants” thing, one might draw an eerie correlation between Kostchtchie and Martha Stewart.

Unfortunately, sometimes this article can get a little carried away. I wasn’t exaggerating when I was giving the skinny on what sorts of stuff you might find in the “Demonomicon,” there’s a lot going on here and with only so many pages available, Dragon had to sacrifice 13 for Kostchtchie alone. That’s over 10%! Still, the author maintains the juggling act reasonably well between “fluff” material for those interested in the lore behind NPCs and unique monsters, and the “crunchy” bits like a PrC for cult leaders in the Prince’s name (not to mention the ginormous stat block for Kostchtchie. Actually, he’s so important he has two or three of them!).

One has to wonder, however, how useful all of this junk is to the average gamer. I would argue that the number of games utilizing demons and devils as the primary antagonist is relatively slim, since most games probably start and conclude at the lower levels before ever reaching that upper tier of challenges. A sidebar in the article assures the reader the recent publication Fiendish Codex I has plenty of rules for how to ADVANCE Kostchtchie and other Demon Princes, but nothing at all about how to water these beasties down. I mean geez, he’s already CR28.

“The Giants of Xen’Drik: Dark Elves and Giants Clash” is up next, and yes, it’s Eberron-specific. One could argue that the material here is easily adaptable to non-Eberron campaigns but the article references a book called Secrets of Xen’Drik at several points and, although the authors try to find replacements for various feats, items, PrCs and templates a perfect match isn’t always possible. The reader is left with the sense that he or she is really missing out without that extra book, and it has always been my philosophy that a magazine like Dragon should strive to meet as many of the needs of as many gamers as possible. Sure, you could salvage enough of this material using the sidebars in the article as a guide. But unless stone giants in your campaign are descended from an ancient, advanced and peaceful civilization and dark elves are primitive jungle folk, most of it is worthless.

Next we have “Excursion: Four Ways to Travel the World.” This article is pretty neat, finding ways to inject real-world nautical terminology into the text. You could probably guess we’re talking about a variety of ways to facilitate overland travel; there are a few charts here and there in the Core rules but unless you make use of the various terrain supplements like Frostburn or Stormwrack, you’re pretty much in the dark about how the actual vehicles function in their environments. Actually, this article tackles that challenge specifically: the “four ways,” here, are four separate vessels over (and under!) the sea, land and air. Included are blueprints on 5-foot square grids in case the inevitable happens and your PCs have to draw cold steel while cruising over the Wild Blue Yonder; information about the crew and a brief bio about the captain; and a detailed description of the vessel, what it can and can’t do and its various defensive capabilities. Of particular note here are a zeppelin, submarine and what is actually over a dozen multiple vessels: a trade caravan. The vehicles themselves are ho-hum but there is plenty here that could inspire even those with no engineering experience at all. That’s what makes a good Dragon article: even if what is actually presented is mediocre, as long as it sets the imagination on fire the reader can connect the dots on his own.

What a great segue (you know, “segway,” like that contraption Dubya couldn’t operate without almost cracking his head open)! Next we have “Sea Serpents: Dragons of the Briny Depths.” Essentially, sea serpents (according to this article) aren’t some vague, generic threat beneath the waves. They’re analogous to the dragons we know and love, though one has to wonder why dragons (some of whom are aquatic themselves) really need or could possibly have a salt-water counterpart. I’m sorry to say this is pretty much crap. The monsters themselves are cheesy and ill conceived (c’mon, an angler fish dragon?) and the only way a reader might possibly find inspiration here is if they were already trying to think of ways to expand the basic format of a dragon’s power progression.

The wyrms in the Monster Manual, save for different lists of spell-like abilities and slight variations in power per HD, are pretty much all the same. Here we have one new creative feature in a monster’s repertoire: fluctuating Save DCs. The Crested Sea Serpent has what looks like a triceratop’s frill on top of his head and uses it to whistle through water. Actually I’m not sure how it works, exactly, the article is a little short on details. What matters is that Perform (Crested Harmonics) is treated as a class skill for this guy and whenever he uses any of his hypnotic spell-like abilities, the sea serpent also rolls a Perform check to determine the DC. This isn’t unbalanced and it may not seem revolutionary but it is a slightly different approach, something only seen before in non-Core material or in optional rules in the DMG. So, even if the article is trash, the debate of Non-Static vs Static AC/DC (get it?) is worth having.

Here we come to the beloved “Ecology” installment, and this month it’s about the Annis Hag. In each Ecology article you get the scoop on psychology, physiology, culture (if any) and maybe even a few new magic items of the monster in question. This article gives a brief explanation of how the Annis reproduces (unless you’re into nasty old ladies twice your size and with a libido to match, maybe this isn’t for you) as well as an interesting sidebar on the Hag Goddess Cegilune. I always get a kick out of stuff like this because it’s a veritable goldmine of possibilities. Who can’t use another ancient but waning Evil Power with dastardly servants of darkness? Articles that contain all you need to pretty much launch a whole new campaign get an A+ in my book.

Ah, the infamous “Bazaar of the Bizarre.” Some hate it and others hate it a little bit less, depending on the topic this month. This article, for those who don’t know, basically takes a theme like “dragon slayer” or “necromancy” and gives you a wish list of magic items under that category. Here we have, as you might have guessed, magic items for Giants (though it is important to note that stuff like rings and bracers magically alter in size to fit the owner so even the typical adventurer can make use of some of this stuff). I don’t know about you but I’ve always been content to equip my Giant NPCs with much larger versions of the stuff any other NPC would use of that level. To tell you the truth I’ve always been a little vexed by the Giant type, period. What are they? Aren’t they just really big people who can inexplicably see in the dark? Shouldn’t something that big actually receive some sort of penalty to vision regarding objects sized for Medium creatures? I guess I just don’t get it. Anyway, the real gem here is the obligatory golden talking harp. Strumming it can put your foes to sleep but the harp is an intelligent item and doesn’t like non-Giants very much (I don’t imagine we’d get along). The rest of the stuff is pretty lame and, I suspect, filler.

Egads, another Secrets of Xen’Drik-inspired article! Now we come to “Artifact Spells: Magic of the Giants.” The author basically assumes you don’t have access to that book (which is awesome, the others should have done that with the one about dark elves and stone giants!) and spends half a page explaining what “Artifact Spell” means. It’s a spell so powerful it must be inscribed on an immovable object like an obelisk or the wall of a tomb or something. Y’know, where ancient spells are always inscribed in all those bad movies. You spend a period of time, make a Spellcraft check and for up to one year you can memorize that spell once (or spend a slot, if you’re a spontaneous caster) and only once. As you might expect, the stuff presented here is a little over the top for its listed level but not necessarily so high you would place it more than a level or two above its station.

That’s the trade-off, I guess. Of particular interest is life spring, an alternative to raise dead. This 6th level Artifact Spell rezzes the willing subject without level loss or Constitution drain, and although he is stunned for 1d6 hours he comes back completely healed of disease, ability score damage and HP loss! The concept that the spell can only be memorized at a specific location means those interested in controlling access to it need only control that real estate. It’s an interesting piece of ammunition for the argument made by those who feel the recent incarnation of the game feels a little too much like some console RPG where characters die in almost every battle and the barrier between life and death is paper-thin.

A standard feature for Dragon today is a series of one or two page blurbs entitled “Class Acts.” Each gives a clever twist on one of the Core classes (although in recent months they have been increasingly dedicated to classes from splatbooks like Complete Warrior), like new Fighter feats or a more powerful alternative to the Psion’s psicrystal (which is sort of like a Wizard’s familiar, for those who don’t know, except way cooler and made of crystal). This feature is typically a crapshoot: there’s no way any one campaign could use all the suggestions offered by this article from month to month. In fact, unless you really hated the classes as they are presented in the PHB it’s unlikely you could even use all the stuff from one issue. Then again, that’s true of every feature in every issue and you never know! You may find just what you’ve been looking for, articulated perfectly and ready to plug into your game tonight.

I specifically left out mention of “Scale Mail,” “Sage Advice” or “Comics.” It goes without saying that the comics are generally hilarious, Scale Mail is and has always been a waste of space and Sage Advice, even when Skip Williams (who is actually known as “THE Sage”) was at the helm, can actually sometimes do more harm than good. Anyway, I hoped you enjoyed this review and found it informative. It’s difficult to meet the needs of so many gamers, all with such varied tastes, and Dragon doesn’t always succeed. This month is an example of the tendency to cater to a specific few, wasting pages that could be used for more general, helpful information.