Dragon #352


Dragon #352

Publisher: Paizo Publishing
Publish Date: 01/2007
Volume: XXXI, Number 9
Pages: 98
Rating: 7 out of 10
Retail Price: $7.99

There is a little known contemporary fantasy author named China Miéville. He is part of a movement called New Weird: authors known for their attempt to put a new spin on what fantasy is and can be. Miéville’s novel Perdido Street Station introduced his readers to the world of Bas-Lag, which is vaguely Victorian-era steampunk with a dash of real magic and fantastic races thrown in. Top it all off with capitalism and democracy and you have something that is definitely not Tolkienesque, but which can still be called fantasy. Mieville’s work was honored in February’s issue of Dragon but before we start things off, I’d like to point out an area of the magazine we rarely discuss here. “Scale Mail” is where the editor-in-chief fields questions, comments and requests from the readers and a certain Archive devotee’s critique of Issue #349 made it to the front page. If you can’t wait to see what I’m talking about, a copy of the e-mail this intellectual juggernaut sent in can be found here.

A majority of this issue comes courtesy of Wolfgang Baur who claims he worked for more than a year on the Miéville project. First up is “Runagate Rampant,” an interview session with the author himself. Here we gain important insights into his background as a gamer and his love of monster design. We also learn something about his view on technology: specifically, that he doesn’t feel the need to distinguish between it and magic, nor does he view it with the pessimism and paranoia of many post-modernist thinkers.

There is nothing really D&D-centric here (although Miéville does mention a fondness for umber hulks). The Q&A does, however, introduce the reader to some of the concepts and themes of the author’s work, which is good because the next forty plus pages are an attempt to adapt some of it to the v3.5 rules. Anyway, it’s always interesting to hear what a fellow gamer and DM (albeit retired) thinks about the genre and gaming in general.

Next we have “Bas-Lag Gazetteer: A Guide to Perdido Street Station & the World Beyond.” New Crobuzon, the major industrial center on its continent and “the greatest city-state of the world,” features heavily here, and in fact the material presented would make it a simple thing to incorporate the city into your campaign. Maybe a far continent with strange monsters and more advanced technology exists, waiting to be “discovered” by the PCs. The world of Bas-Lag has electricity, trains, “torque bombs” (think atomic energy, but if you visit the blast site before the radiation dissipates you risk magical cancer and other hazards) and other aspects of the modern world but it also offers bird-men, beetle women and spiders that can see the future.

One reader commented on the Paizo boards that this issue would not be of much use to readers unfamiliar with Miéville’s world. My readers will likely assume I agree, but I myself have yet to read Perdido Street Station and after reading Issue #352 I already feel like an expert on Bas-Lag. That said, the article most would find least relevant to their games is this one.

Mr. Baur follows up with “People of Bas-Lag,” offering a few playable races. It should be noted that not all sentient races are featured here, but those with only a +1 or +2 level adjustment do make an appearance, and anyway you can find practically everything you need to populate the streets of New Crobuzon here without dipping into the monster article that follows. As for my favorite race, it’s a toss-up but I think I have to go with the Khepri. It probably speaks to my deep-seated neuroses but I can’t help it, ladies with bug heads are irresistible.

Possibly the least useable (although still very cool) part of this piece is the template for the Remade. These poor souls are political dissidents, petty criminals and general ne’er-do-wells who have been tortured and magically or surgically augmented with machine parts. The idea is really cool and reminds me quite a bit of the Combine from Valve’s Half-Life 2 (which is always a good thing), but the system of Benefit vs. Penalty they use doesn’t seem to mesh well with the concept of Level Adjustment. Not only is it still just +1 no matter how many enhancements you add, I fail to see why a drawback is necessary to balance it out if you’re just going to add LA anyway.

“Monsters of Bas-Lag” is more of the same good stuff, with plenty of goodies that can be dropped into your game as-is. What DM ever said, “No thank you sir, I think I have quite enough aberrations, outsiders and monstrous humanoids?” From the scabmettler (barbarian humanoids with magical blood that can actually wrench a damaging weapon from the attacker’s grasp) to the handlinger (parasitic hands who take over the minds and nervous systems of any creature they graft onto), what struck me most about this article was that all of it would fit quite nicely in a post-apocalyptic setting. I could easily see a bunch of mosquito people buzzing around trying to suck everyone’s blood out after a long nuclear winter.

Yes, I’m normally against new monsters but since Paizo seems dead-set on giving us more of them, I figure it can’t hurt to praise the ones that are actually worthwhile. These are, even if you don’t know the first thing about the setting they’re derived from.

If you’re tired of hearing about Miéville, I promise that was the last of it. Next up, Erik Roelofs gives us a crash course on “The Ecology of the Yrthak,” about everyone’s favorite dinosaur with super hearing. Not only is the monster featured this month from the Monster Manual, which is a huge plus, illustrator Peter Bergting was kind enough to give us a crosscut of the yrthak’s head, demonstrating exactly what happens when the monster uses its sonic lance attack.

In my opinion, the yrthak doesn’t see a lot of play because it’s 1) Very weird and 2) Near the back of the book. This is a sad mistake because apparently they’re totally awesome. I don’t actually have anything constructive to say about this article, except that it’s an Ecology piece and the high standard these are held to lately means you’re bound to glean something useful from its pages.

Nicolas Logue brings us this month’s installment of Savage Tidings, “Braving the Isle of Dread.” Given that the Olman are the island’s only native humans, it begs the question: what’s up with them? What is their culture like, and how can outsiders best impress them? The general thrust of this article is that the PCs would do well not to alienate the seven tribes, and in fact may stand to gain from befriending them. A few brief words about each tribe and what makes them stand out and then the author springs into action, giving us a few new weapons, new feats that allow you to make use of the Olman’s unique unarmed fighting style, and a new faction affiliation (we’re seeing a lot of those these days). As always, Mr. Logue also offers a few ways for PCs to be replaced using the material presented in this issue, and he even offered some advice on NPCs the heroes could look up (based on their prior affiliations back in Sasserine) as well as ways the party could make themselves useful to the colonists of Farshore.

What more could you ask for? Plot hooks, NPC contacts, crunchy bits like weapons and feats and even a few famous monsters from the Isle of Dread to hunt. I don’t play Savage Tide so I am speaking from inexperience but I think this is the best update yet.

We follow that homerun with “Volo’s Guide to the Forgotten Dead,” courtesy of Brian Cortijo. Much like “Monsters of Bas-Lag,” the Undead featured here are really high quality. From the ubiquitous “graveyard come to life” titan to a totally gross but cool liquefied swamp zombie, these baddies are hardcore and, fortuitously, DMs are given a few tips on where in Faerûn one might find a specimen of each. Four pages, three monsters, and only one of them is questionable. It may be setting-specific but Undead are so universal you shouldn’t have any trouble injecting some Skuz or Charnel Custodian goodness into your game.

Finally, the esteemed Mr. Logue returns to give us “Dragonmarks - Warforged: Fierce and Furious.” If you aren’t familiar with the Eberron setting, the Warforged are sort of like the Terminator but more autonomous. They were created near the end of the Last War by House Cannith and sold to the highest bidder, and after the war they were awarded their freedom, finally acknowledged as sentient beings. That said, they were certainly never mass-produced and even if they had been, every forge couldn’t have been exactly the same so shouldn’t they all look slightly different? If not, wouldn’t it be cool if they did?

What you find here are a few sample tables like “Body Types,” “Head Types” and “Personality Quirks.” The player or DM can roll randomly or choose the result he likes the best; I suspect the most convenient use for this information would be during the game when introducing a Warforged NPC. The article also features some new components, which are similar to magic items but built into the warforged’s body, and (you guessed it) a new faction affiliation. I must say, this is the least useful article to a mainstream audience this month, but fans of the setting will likely find it very entertaining.

This is a complete 180º from last month. Even though the first half of the magazine was devoted to material based on novels yet to be incorporated into a campaign setting, and allowing that the oldest in the trilogy was published only seven years ago, it was so well-written and the concept behind Miéville’s work is so fresh that it would be a mistake to dismiss it out of hand. In fact, I’m proud to say that since reviewing this issue I’ve purchased Perdido Street Station myself and look forward to reading it. There were a few rough spots but this was easily one of the best issues in the past six months.