Dragon #351


Dragon #351

Publisher: Paizo Publishing
Publish Date: 12/2006
Volume: XXXI, Number 8
Pages: 98
Rating: 2 out of 10
Retail Price: $7.99

Season’s greetings, everyone! I hope you all had a safe and happy holiday. I would very much like to report that I have something special for my readers this month but sadly, January’s issue roped in my lowest rating thus far. Annually, Dragon offers a treat to those of us who rabidly support now-defunct campaign settings: every January they put out an issue chock-full of articles from such favorites as Spelljammer, Ravenloft and Hollow World. Ok, maybe we’ll never see anything from that last one but even if you don’t get an article in your stocking this year from that setting you’ve nostalgically put on a pedestal, the writers probably at least paid lip service to it; anyway, there’s always next year. The problem, as you will see, is Paizo’s approach to the time-honored tradition this year.

Before we talk about the first article I need to expound on the editor’s design philosophy this year. Apparently one magazine, Dungeon, where adventures and other DM-specific material are showcased, was not enough; we need a double helping in January, and in keeping with the annual Ghosts of Campaigns Past theme, every adventure hook is set in a different world. This seems to break my cardinal rule of publishing (that Dragon should shy away from campaign-specific material and seek the center), and in fact it does, but Paizo has a trick up its sleeve! OP1: Tales of the Outer Planes, published nearly twenty years ago, introduced the concept of the World Serpent Inn. In Eric L. Boyd’s article by the same name, we learn more about this mysterious tavern and its implications for individual campaign settings. In short, the World Serpent Inn is a planes-hopping bar that appears in only a handful of locations in each setting and doesn’t stay for long. If you want to tempt the players with adventure hooks in other worlds, this is very convenient because they can just get their feet wet and there is a strong incentive to be back before dinner.

“World Serpent Inn: Gateway to the Planes” tells us all about the bartender, waiting staff and (in)famous regular patrons who all call the tavern home, and also gives roughly enough information to at least run an encounter or two inside, if not a full adventure. Paradoxically, this single article contributes to how frustrating the ones that follow are but it is also the least offensive in the whole magazine. The core concept of an inn that you can use to go anywhere is fun and cool, and actually something like this is appropriate to include in the pages of Dragon. Unfortunately, the rest of this issue consists of ideas which have yet to be developed into full adventures, and thus do not belong in Dungeon, all under the blanket excuse that “It doesn’t alienate anyone if we explain how to sneak it into your game earlier in the magazine!”

Next up, Wolfgang Baur offers “Al-Qadim: Magic and Intrigue in the High Desert Tribes.” The premise is simple: if you arrive in that setting through a portal somewhere in the dark and winding hallways in the back of the World Serpent Inn, you appear close to a gathering of multiple tribes of who are called the Enlightened. The article goes on to explain some of the political games each of the tribes has to play with the others and introduces a few hooks like a rampaging Dao war party, a phoenix and a bunch of ghosts on undead camels.

This article is heavy on flavor, which is great because Al-Qadim is a really cool setting. Unfortunately, what appear at first glance to be a handful of separate interesting things for PCs to do while in the Land of Fate are actually all part of the same quest. One plus is that the article includes a new spell and a few uses for a phoenix’s tail feathers but this piece, like most of the magazine, is really all over the place and would have benefited from a more focused writing approach.

Chris Flipse brings us “Dark Sun: Athas and the World Serpent Inn.” For those who don’t know, Dark Sun is a sort of post-apoc world where magic has gone horribly wrong and now, most wizards are reviled for the destruction their arcana wreaks on the environment. To make matters worse, the few remaining pieces of real estate capable of supporting life are lorded over by Epic-level despots. It’s a blasted desert world that incorporates all your favorite D&D races but in new and interesting ways, which is great if your group is looking for a change of pace.

Here, again, we have a few plot hooks that assume the PCs are all off-worlders, revolving around a refugee camp founded by a band of ex-slaves. Mr. Flipse does a really good job of capturing the essence of the setting but it isn’t clear what we’re supposed to focus on here. Is the article about the escaped slaves? Only one of them is mentioned by name and we aren’t even given his alignment. The article demonstrates very well that elves are different, magic is bad and psionics is a bigger deal on this world than magic is in the Forgotten Realms but any one of those concepts would have been enough to take up these four pages, and instead we’re rushed through all of them.

“DragonLance: Scavengers of Istar,” courtesy of Cam Banks, is the best of the “Run a one-shot in a different world this week” articles from Issue 351 but maybe I’m biased. Ok, time for a history lesson. While campaigns run in “contemporary” Krynn emphasize different aspects of the setting, for a very long time there was no divine magic and this is because the gods largely abandoned the world. An egotistical fellow, lord of a city swollen with nearly half a million souls, called down the wrath of the guys upstairs and they basically broke the planet for his hubris. The article explains that while it is normally impossible for even the most powerful clerics and wizards to hop to or from the DragonLance setting, the event which would later become known as the Cataclysm was so pivotal that this is the only Where and When accessible via the World Serpent Inn: three days before the end of the world.

I said above that this article is the best in the magazine and the reason is simple: it’s very well-written, the key NPC and important locations are fairly well explained (as well as can be expected given that the writer only had five pages) and the plot hook, while mediocre from a design perspective, is popular and familiar to most DMs: the task of the heroes is to find a handful of magic items scattered around town because if they can’t or won’t, they’ll die along with everyone else when the fiery mountain from the sky grinds Istar to dust. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, Istar has a population near 500,000; the article wouldn’t have been long enough even if it was only about the city and didn’t include an adventure seed at all.

Speaking of articles that focus solely on a city and don’t have much in the way of plot hooks, “Irongate: City of Stairs” by Gary Holian and Denis Tetreault does a lot of things right but more things wrong. It’s set in the Greyhawk setting, which is technically Core although publications about that world have been scarce since 3E’s release. The city is a cliffside technological wonder, developed by both human and dwarven engineers to extend even further underground than its towers loom over the surface. It’s a pretty cool place and, one can imagine, lots of secrets for PCs to uncover.

Sadly, we have absolutely no information on the population, demographic make-up or even why it’s so remarkable that Irongate managed to win its independence over a hundred years ago. You would think the authors, once they had made the decision to limit the plot hooks to a single sidebar, would have expanded more on the city’s history but there’s not much they could have done anyway, since (yet again) the editor only allotted them four pages.

Edward Bonny and Brian Cortijo follow with “Kara-Tur: Cham Fau and the White Tiger Monastery.” Although Oriental Adventures in 3E is set in the world of Legend of the Five Rings, back in 2E it introduced Kara-Tur, which became so popular it actually became “the East” of Faerûn. Ironically, while the flavor of Kara-Tur is the least like medieval Western Europe, the material in this article is the most easily adaptable in the whole magazine because monks, since 3E, are Core. The beginning of the article is about Cham Fau, a port city along the Hungtse River. Cham Fau seems a little bland but the real meat of this piece is in the detail given to the White Tiger Monastery: although I don’t use monks in my games, I at least have an inkling that we’re supposed to incorporate them into our games using monasteries which dot the countryside and are bristling with Asian-flavored NPCs. However, I’ve never been to a monastery, Asian-flavored or otherwise, so my understanding of the topic ends there.

Here, though, I have a locale I can pretty much insert into my game as-is. A manageable population of monks, a few hooks to work with about important NPCs, the typical daily routine around the White Tiger Monastery and even a map of what the place looks like. Toss in a few cool kung-fu magic items and a handful of reasons the locals are fearful/curious about the World Serpent Inn and you have a pretty solid article in an otherwise crummy issue.

“Planescape: The Gatetown of Ecstasy,” by Todd Stewart, not only hints at the weirdness of Planescape but also helps to clarify some of the wonky aspects of a planehopping campaign in general. We all know that Sigil, the primary location in any Planescape campaign, is set in the Outlands (if the Multiverse is a Great Wheel, this place is the hubcap); but what is the rest of that plane like? Well, it’s filled with portals to the rest of the planes roughly equidistant from the central spire Sigil squats on top of. Given that planes influence planes they mingle with, it makes sense there is a city that has sprung up around each of these portals which shares the traits of both the Outlands and the plane in question. In the case of Elysium, a happy neutral good world filled with Redwall-esque angels, the city around the portal is called Ecstasy and, true to form, it’s basically a glimpse of what Elysium has to offer.

The merit of this article is that it explains how the planes work and why it’s important that Ecstasy remains faithful to the ideals of Elysium without being absorbed by the plane entirely, while at the same time making sense of a population center where people are basically hippies. It doesn’t seem like a happy sunshine world could be possible but even the dead people in Ecstasy are friendly and well mannered, and somehow that doesn’t seem strange in Planescape. The other cool thing about this piece is that Ecstasy, unlike the other places mentioned in this issue of Dragon is actually accessible in the core D&D setting.

Next we have James Lowder’s “Ravenloft: The Shadows of Sithicus.” If you have no idea what Ravenloft is, it’s basically a cool Gothic Horror world where each province is ruled over by a despotic super villain, all of whom are malicious, undead or worse. A key theme of the setting is despair, emphasized by the inability of anyone to escape once they’ve arrived. This is problematic in the framework presented by the World Serpent Inn: you can go in and out of the inn all you want but if you aren’t back inside by sunrise, the tavern vanishes and you’re stuck in what is fondly referred to as the Demiplane of Dread.

This article has little to do with Ravenloft as a whole and is really just about Lord Soth, transplanted from DragonLance to this realm after becoming a death knight. Specifically, the article is about what happened after he left Sithicus, but again, space limitations (and the conflict between “We only have a few hours to get back home” and “The only adventure the author provided will take longer than that to complete”) make this piece less than useful to the average DM, and not useful at all to the average player.

Jacob Frazier treats us to “The Ecology of the Isle of Dread: The Journal of Larissa Vanderboren.” As faithful readers and those playing in Astute1’s PbP Savage Tide game know, the Isle of Dread is a supercool place with dinosaurs, tribal humans and little raccoon people. Combine that with the smash hit of “The Ecology Of&” articles and you have Mr. Frazier’s contribution this month. The cherry on top, of course, is that in the spirit of the old-school Ecology articles about the monster hunter guild, this one is written as a narrative.

According to a sidebar on the first page, the aforementioned journal is uncovered in “There Is No Honor,” the first installment of the Savage Tide adventure path. In addition to fleshing out some of the more pertinent entries in the journal to the task at hand, this issue also offers a foldout map of the island. Maybe it’s just because this was the only article I was looking forward to but I don’t have a bad word to say about it.

Appropriately enough, Jason Bulmahn, Steve Greer and Gary Holian follow that homerun with “Savage Tidings: Dread on the Isle,” uninspired though its title may be. This is a regular feature so I can just hit the high points: this installment is all about animal companions, mounts and familiars your characters have access to once they make it to shore. In addition, if the worst should happen and someone’s character needs to be replaced, the native humanoids are briefly described and a new race is offered up, the Phanaton. A Small sized mix between raccoons and flying squirrels, the accompanying artwork suggests their tails are prehensile but, alas, this is not the case. C’est la vie.

Weirdly, in addition to all of the discontinued settings in this year’s Campaign Classics issue, the editor saw fit to include a blurb on both the Forgotten Realms and Eberron campaign settings, too. In this month of paradoxes, while these are right on the money as far as target audience is concerned (at least compared to the other articles, these will find a home with proportionately gaming groups) they’re also out of place in an issue dedicated to campaigns that are out of print. I fail to see why WotC’s publishing juggernauts had to tag along, too. I wouldn’t even bother mentioning them but sadly, both pieces promise to be semi-regular features.

Eric L. Boyd introduces “Volo’s Guide” this month with “Lost Regalia of the North: The Toppled Thrones.” The premise here is that in the Savage Frontier on Faerûn, the rate at which monarchies and empires rise and fall is fast-paced even by human standards. Of course, all those kings and queens needed places to sit, and oftentimes (according to the long-winded Volo), these thrones are enchanted. Long after the lords and ladies of those realms are dust, their literal seats of power still carry potent enchantments that might be of use to heroes lucky and bold enough to uncover them.

I tried my best to make it sound cool but this concept is so specific it will be very difficult for anyone to incorporate the material into their games. At least a few of the thrones are portable but that isn’t the only problem with the article: not only would FR fans be hard pressed to find a use for this stuff in their campaign, there is absolutely no mention made of the World Serpent Inn here. If you want to make the most material useful to the greatest amount of people, why not use every tool at your disposal?

Keith Baker brings up the rear this January with “Dragonmarks: Sorcerers in Eberron.” In a nutshell, inexplicably sometimes people develop something like tattoos that grant them magical powers in the Eberron Campaign Setting. These are called dragonmarks and the people blessed (or cursed) with them are considered to have a special place in the prophecies dragons around the world are currently piecing together. Sorcerers, who in many campaigns can boast draconic or otherwise supernatural ancestors, may be even more important to the prophecies: some of them might even be able to trace their family trees all the way back to the three draconic deities who created the world. By virtue of alternate class features, these sorcerers, for better or worse, have a stronger connection to the fate of the world than most.

I was less annoyed by this article than you might suspect because a friend of mine is currently planning a new Eberron campaign but I’m still pretty steamed about the whole issue. From an editor’s perspective, almost none of the material this month made any sense and what’s worse, the publication seems to be headed in exactly the wrong direction: more campaign-specific material each month, not less. I don’t really recommend this issue to anyone.