Kobold Quarterly #1
Publisher: Open Design
Publish Date: Summer 2007
|Volume: I, Number 1|
Retail Price: $5.99
What’s a gamer to do? Not one but two announcements this year rocked the D&D world to its very foundation: not only would Paizo be handing back control of Dragon and Dungeon to Wizards of the Coast, but now plans for 4th Edition have been unveiled, scheduled tentatively for a May ’08 release. Well, one gamer in particular, already famous within the industry for returning to the patronage system of publishing at his personal website, simply decided to put out his own magazine. Thus, the “small but fierce” Kobold Quarterly was born.
Let’s talk about some of the things KQ is and some of the things it most certainly is not. First, Wolfgang Baur’s latest project is NOT a replacement for Dragon. Not only does that publication still technically exist, albeit in an online format on WotC’s website, KQ only musters roughly a third of Dragon’s page count. Consider also that except for two articles in this first issue (accounting for six pages in total), the entire issue was written and edited by Baur himself. This is a labor of love and not yet ready to contend with the big dogs, if that is even the publisher’s intent; that said, because it comes on the heels of Dragon’s departure from the paper market, in this initial review I will often compare the two for ease of reference.
On the other hand, because it such a small affair as Mr. Baur explains in the editorial, “kobolds may not have the big marketing dollars or the massive staff of a multinational corporation, but we’re also free to do as we please” (2). It is not an official D&D publication so you aren’t going to see articles about campaign settings like Eberron or Forgotten Realms, but that isn’t really so bad. At the very least, an emphasis on generic, Core material will be a breath of fresh air for me to review. If you’re wondering who KQ’s intended audience is, picture a handful of collaborators on a designer’s private website who publish material they would be interested in playing, and which they think might also be useful to the greater gaming public. You needn’t worry about any of their credentials: Castle Shadowcrag, an adventure privately designed by Baur and his Open Design patrons, received an ENnie nomination this year even though it still isn’t available to the public. As for the editor, if you don’t recognize Wolfgang Baur’s name maybe this will refresh your memory.
So, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. The magazine is currently priced at six dollars an issue, which is two dollars less than Dragon. Then again, as I said before KQ only boasts 32 pages, which if you’re like me is a pretty big deal (it’s not like we’re all made of money so we really have to pick and choose what we spend it on). Alternatively, you can subscribe only to quarterly PDFs at $16 a year, but if you’re going to spend four bucks a pop don’t you really want to spend six and actually hold something in your hands? The most economical option is a paper/PDF subscription at $36 a year within the US (shipping included). That’s what I did, but if you want to know more consult Baur’s subscription policies.
The cover is thick, sturdy paper, not glossy but high quality. Likewise, the paper inside is clean and strong but if you’re used to the sleek shiny interior of Dragon and other magazines I guess this is another strike (for me, not smudging the articles with a thumbprint will be a relief. I never did like that about Dragon).
More important than the paper quality, though, is the distinct lack of editing. This is so prevalent throughout the magazine I thought I would mention it here instead of the individual blurbs on each article: that the editor-in-chief is also the guy who wrote over two thirds of the magazine is a significant problem and one I assume will be amended as soon as possible. If any one thing is likely to convince you not to purchase KQ #1 it is that the editing is so jumbled not only are there multiple typographical errors per page, but in one case the pages actually appear out of order. Pages 28 and 29 should be swapped. As Baur explained to me in an email, the paper copy “has a B&W interior rather than the full color of the PDF, and it features a number of corrections and a fine-tuned layout.” Well, this is definitely the sort of thing someone should have caught before KQ shipped off to the presses.
There are a handful of one- or two-page pieces sprinkled throughout the publication the editor recognizes may be of limited use to the reader. With thirty pages it’s not like Baur has a lot of room to screw around here, so for instance when it comes to a list of over 150 monsters you are most likely to run into while exploring the Underdark (organized by Challenge Rating, no less), the editor made every effort to conserve space and present the material as clearly and efficiently as possible. On the other hand, it may be possible to try too hard to conserve space: the book each monster was drawn from is abbreviated but the key was left out, to be posted online.
We start things off this month with “Ecology of the Derro.” To my knowledge the derro enjoyed their debut alongside other classic monsters (like the behir and bodak) in Gygax’s 1E module S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. These tiny dwarven mutants suffer a form of racial madness but according to Wolfgang Baur, this is not genetic but cultural. Not being very strong or clever the derro were forced to make dark pacts with unspeakable horrors from other planes, and although this won them their freedom from the likes of aboleth or drow it cost them their minds. Today, derro youths are indoctrinated very early on in the cult-like society of their parents, forced to endure special rituals that are often fatal. Those who emerge arguably benefit from newfound abilities but are mentally never the same.
The article makes reference to several things that don’t appear anywhere in this issue, like clockwork magic or incantations using Knowledge (forbidden lore) (only one of these is explained in detail, the aforementioned “Parting the Veil” undertaken by derro children). This shouldn’t impede your understanding or use of the material here but it does make me wonder whether it’s the sort of thing we can expect in future issues, or if it is already available in some of the Open Design projects published by the patrons at his personal website. Overall I’d say this is pretty solid work and we even get our first glimpse of Baur’s stat block: it is quite reminiscent of 1E modules with simple bold arial text and is even a similar size of print. Minor typographical errors aside this is very retro and thus very cool.
My suspicion is that this next article is the first of several in a series called “Princes of Hell.” The first infernal bureaucrat KQ introduces us to is Titivillus, who it may interest you to learn was first mentioned by name in John of Wales’ Tractatus de Penetentia in 1285. He is the patron devil of contracts and the Scribe of Hell. Through a series of misadventures and clever ploys he has denounced and trumped his rivals and, although the nature of devils and their obsession with record keeping makes someone like Titivillus extraordinarily powerful, he has somehow managed to remain in the shadow of big names like Mammon. Wolfgang Baur explains: “It is a subtle, hidden form of power, the ability to add or remove the word “no” from a document& the power to smear reputations and create evidence to support his plans and destroy his rivals” (10).
In addition to a stat block roughly comparable to the strength of the archdevils who appear in the Fiendish Codex, this bio on Titivillus also provides readers with a new form of imp called ink devils. With the ability to curse opponents so they are more vulnerable to the special powers devils wield, disrupt spellcasters and curse scrolls, ink devils perfectly capture the essence of what it means to be from the Nine Hells: they embody the philosophy that the letter of the law is more important than the spirit, but that since letters can always be edited what really matters is that you have friends in low places.
Next is “It’s Not (always) About the Gold: Eight Great Non-Monetary Rewards.” The premise here is that the first time the heroes defeat all of a dungeon’s inhabitants and topple the local villain from his throne of tyranny, and finally gain access to the treasure vault piled high with coins, gems and other phat loot, it is unquestionably thrilling. It is not quite so thrilling when the PCs are 20th level: nobody wants yet another longsword +1 or potion of cure moderate wounds so creating your own art objects or magic items works for awhile, but the root of the problem is that all magic items are basically the same in that they provide a handful of bonuses in the abilities that allow PCs to kill more monsters and seize more magic items.
Baur thinks he has the solution in non-monetary rewards. Whether it’s a book that gives the reader a few ranks in a handy, underutilized skill or some kind of magic boon that gives the recipient extra hit points or another 4th-level spell slot, this article is all about stuff people will be grateful to receive even if they’re technically worth less according to the DMG than a comrade’s magic breastplate. The author is right on the money here and his tips on social rewards like knighthood or tracts of land are sometimes specific to a feudal setting but generally applicable to all games.
Until last month Erik Mona was the Editor-in-Chief of Dragon but retains his post as publisher of Paizo. In “Mordenkainen’s Apprentice” Wolfgang Baur interviews him for Kobold Quarterly, a conversation in which they talk about everything from Mona’s D&D roots, to his time with Dragon and the RPGA, to his views on Greyhawk and finally what he intends to be doing with his time in the near future. If you’re the type who can’t get enough of stuff like this for any word from an industry insider on the future of gaming, you’ll appreciate the interview. If you think, as I do that this is the sort of thing Baur should have put up on his website and kept the eight pages (that’s 25% of the first issue!!!) open for something else, you will probably be disappointed.
Sigfried Trent brings us “The Ups & Downs of Tripping: Knock ‘Em Down and Keep ‘Em There.” This is effectively an expanded, two page explanation of the sometimes-complicated rules presented in the PHB. You won’t find anything new here but you might find it helpful that someone spelled out every aspect of tripping for ease of reference, like the obscure “Can I ‘trip’ a flying creature” problem. I think it’s fair to say this article was pretty handy but not exactly the sort of thing you may have been anxiously awaiting in the debut issue of a quarterly magazine.
Next we have Scott Gable’s “The Far Darrig: Red Hats and Arcane Fetishes.” The far darrig are a reclusive race of fey whose entire culture revolves around the concept that the entire world is just an elaborate illusion, ostensibly one so elaborate and methodical not even natural-born illusionists like them can succeed on the Will save. As iconic as their philosophical beliefs is the ubiquitous red cap, which although identical to the ones worn by the murderous little troublemakers of the same name is not dyed in the blood of their enemies and is actually the focus for many racial spell-like abilities.
At only four pages this article really covers a lot of ground. Here you can find information on the far darrig’s tribal society, why their red hats are so important, physical characteristics, tips and tricks on how to run them in combat, a 5HD paragon class progression, and even a full 20-level core class which is sort of a hybrid between the sorcerer and illusionist (although unfortunately bereft of any information on HD or skill points). Unfortunately, here we see a distinct lack of continuity: the stat block for the far darrig is actually the revised one first appearing in the DMG II, not what Wolfgang Baur used earlier in the article. This is one more area that will undoubtedly receive more attention as the editor becomes more comfortable in his role but the real question is, how many inconsistencies and goof-ups will readers put up with?
I mentioned at the beginning of this review that Baur isn’t publishing an official D&D magazine so he doesn’t really have any duty to WotC to publish material for official settings (indeed, there would be a series of legal hoops to jump through even if that were his intention). On the other hand, within the context of Kobold Quarterly it seems perfectly reasonable to have some sort of baseline assumptions about the setting articles refer to, and to that end Baur closes KQ #1 with “Steam and Sorcery: A Visit to the Free City of Zobeck.” Zobeck is a tiny, independent city-state in a steampunk setting but because of its relative political isolation from its neighbors, it can readily be plugged into any setting with rivers and mountains. It is easy to see the influence of authors like China Miéville in Zobeck’s clockwork robots, arcane university and filthy non-human miners (kobolds, anyone?). While the information is woefully sparse and leaves you wanting more of everything, this is a great initial glimpse of Zobeck and hopefully a hint of more to come.
Well, that’s it. I would be remiss in my duties as a reviewer if I told you to overlook all of the marks against Kobold Quarterly I mentioned here. Again, unless you’re rolling in money you’re probably pretty careful how you throw it around and only want to make a purchase (particularly in a hobby like ours where expensive sourcebooks, rules supplements and modules all compete for your dollar) you can feel good about later.
My suggestion to you is that while it is more economical to subscribe for the year and get a PDF of every issue to go along with the copy you receive from the postman, you will be most pleased if you stick with individual PDFs. With no shipping costs you won’t get raked over the coals for not subscribing, and you’ll only pay for the stuff you actually want (it is my hope you rely on reviews like this one before you spend your hard-earned coin). As for this issue in particular, many will feel compelled to buy it and get in on the ground floor of what promises to be a very compelling publication, albeit a labor of love. If you are not one of those people, regretfully I have to tell you to pass.