Kobold Quarterly #3
Publisher: Open Design
Publish Date: Winter 2008
|Volume: I, Number 3|
Retail Price: $7.99
Happy Holidays, readers; and a happy New Year as well! Wolfgang Baur, the editor of Kobold Quarterly, is trying to start the year off right with a bigger issue (58 pages), great insights from industry titans like Keith Baker and Ed Greenwood, a higher production value and some breathtaking cover art courtesy of Cris Griffin.
Richard Pett launches the issue with “Ecology of the Lich.” Being undead and lacking any ecology in the true sense of the word, the article mainly covers the “unlife cycle” of the notorious spellcasters-turned-skeletal madmen: Pett describes numerous methods one might consider when transforming into one of the undead and moves on from there. The author also talks about great quests and schemes undertaken by liches in order to stave off the inevitable mental decline that comes with eternity; this is sort of like Alzheimer’s patients playing card games and watching People’s Court every day to keep their synapses firing, albeit on an obscene, greatly exaggerated scale. The traditional Knowledge check results, feats, sample liches and examples of phylacteries and other magic items crafted by liches can all be found here.
This article unfortunately began with the potential for greatness was very poorly executed. Multiple grammatical errors and changes in tense are compounded by mechanical errors and oversights (one feat intended for liches, “Undeath Familiar,” makes no mention of prerequisites nor does it really explain the game mechanics involved with killing and animating your former familiar). Pett begins with a short narrative describing the last living thoughts of a druid pursuing lichdom, and later in the article the Great Druid Croglin makes another appearance along with details about his home, a cursed swamp. The entire piece would have benefitted from this character featuring more prominently, with examples being taken from Croglin’s story to flesh out the concepts explored by the author.
Wolfgang Baur comes to the rescue with “Star & Shadow Magic.” Referenced in previous issues as a strange field of research unique to the city-state of Zobeck, the school of Illumination includes spells that might otherwise fall into other schools like conjuration, enchantment or necromancy but all fall under the umbrella of magic that might be developed in a star-gazing culture. The really neat part about Illumination spells is that their save DCs, predictably, are influenced by the ambient light in the area around the caster. Curiously, utter darkness makes this magic very difficult to resist but you won’t get a lot of mileage out of a spell like Prismatic Fist in broad daylight.
My favorite spell from the selection has got to be Star’s Heart. The force of gravity in the area of effect is greatly enhanced, crushing everyone down into the dirt and forcing all but the strongest creatures to their knees. Other neat options are Flickering Fate (a divination that lets you make predictions about everyone else’s actions during the next round of combat) and Summon Star, which basically calls down a badass angel to shoot lightning bolts at your enemies. I think the chart detailing how spell DCs are affected by illumination could use some work but this was a treat to read and almost all of the spells presented here are immediately useful to practically every adventuring wizard.
Ari Marmell presents us with the latest installment (and, according to the editor, the last one for the time being) of KQ’s Princes of Hell, “Arbeyach, the Prince of Swarms.” Created from the first mortal soul to descend into the Nine Hells, Arbeyach’s rebirth was a cosmic accident and this, along with his alien demeanor and very un-devilish behavior set him apart from the rest of the plane’s nobles. Arbeyach is primarily interested with rigid hierarchies and the systematic, relentless consumption of all sentient life. To this end, he sympathizes most not with devils or sophisticated mortals but with insects.
The author is perhaps most famous in recent years for co-authoring Heroes of Horror with C.A. Suleiman and James Wyatt, and the same somber, sinister tone from that text can be heard throughout this work. A few minor mechanical errors aside (the prince freely chooses which stat his poison damages, Strength or Constitution, but no mention is made elsewhere in the text about the damage or Fortitude DC of said poison), the article is beyond reproach. Particularly interesting is Arbeyach’s fatal flaw& the infernal prince is said to have thousands of contingency plans for all of his schemes, because even he knows he is utterly incapable of adapting to change. The character is as “dialed-in” to his role in the hierarchy of all things, as single-minded in his dedication to his goals as the lowly insects he admires. If you’re looking for a creepy, unconventional diabolical enemy to drop into your game, Arbeyach might be right up your alley.
“Hardboiled Adventures,” by Keith Baker, recalls the noir genre of graphic novels, dimestore books and 50s crime dramas about grumbling gumshoes and damsels in distress who are not at all as they appear. This is a fantastic vein of storytelling but is a fairly radical departure from medieval, Western European-inspired, “traditional” fantasy (though the author achieved no small success with it in his Eberron Campaign Setting), which is why some helpful tips from someone who’s done it before are encouraged.
Similar to a horror campaign, noir storytelling emphasizes a world where the heroes are gritty and tarnished but are still significant not because they are more powerful than commoners around them or because they routinely “save the day,” but rather simply because they still self-identify as good guys. Baker provides plenty of advice on how to flesh out characters in a dirty noir world; suggest ways to reduce the amount of “phat lewt” in the game and replacing it with other, less tangible rewards; and discusses the possible removal of Alignment from the game in a world where the distinction between Good and Evil just doesn’t make as much sense anymore. This stuff isn’t for everybody but taking a break from vanilla D&D once in awhile is never a bad thing.
Next we have “Edtime Stories,” an interview with the legendary Ed Greenwood. As far as interviews go, this one was fairly predictable but the answers from the creator of the Forgotten Realms were interesting nonetheless. Greenwood talks about his involvement with the setting in 4E, tips he might offer to novice writers and designers just entering “the biz,” and his thoughts on why D&D has persevered over multiple editions and decades. I would be surprised to hear anyone say they picked up a copy of this issue for the interview alone but it was nice, if a bit long.
Jonathan Drain is up next with a staggering two and a half pages of math on “Optimizing Power Attack.” Apparently the feat (and any other option where you trade attack bonus for damage output) is extremely complicated, or at least you can make it so with the instructions provided here. The author explains how to use your chance to hit against a target AC and average damage per hit to calculate the precise amount of Power Attack to use each round for maximum damage potential. It isn’t clear to me how you would do this at the game table without already knowing the AC of each NPC or monster, but Drain points out you can just do all the math beforehand, pick an AC you guess might be close to the target’s and work from there. Personally, he lost me at “have a clever spreadsheet drawn up,” but stuff like this is probably why so many people enjoy D&D purely as a number-crunching exercise.
“More than Dragon’s Blood,” by John E. Ling, is the latest in a long line of attempts to make the sorcerer cool. It refers to a classic conceit of the class that the sorcerer’s innate magic comes from a dragon in the character’s family tree; but, as this article (and all the others like it) point out, dragons are not the only magical creatures walking around sexing it up with mortals. This class feature replaces the sorcerer’s familiar (as many other homebrew fixes for the class recommend) and basically gives the character a spirit guide that gives advice, tempts or prompts him to perform great or terrible deeds and, when pressed, gives bonuses to Knowledge checks and divination spells. To be honest, this article was timely: I am starting a new campaign soon in the Odyssey setting from 2E, and one player’s sorcerer would benefit greatly from Ling’s take on the subject. It’s just that there are so many other articles that practically say the same thing, which makes it hard to get excited even when the author gets it right.
“Eight Ways to Up the Action!” by Benjamin Hayward offers numerous tips on how to spice up fights, chases and other cinematic moments in your D&D game. Altering the rules for improvised weapons to encourage people to do crazy and funny things with everyday objects, new rules for climbing up on top of giant monsters to stab them in the head and running on walls are all discussed here. As the author observes, too often a game becomes stagnant when even the combat or other “action” encounters, traditionally the most exciting moments in a session, devolve into mindless dice rolling and number games. While the precise mechanics offered here are a little fuzzy, the problem is real and the solutions offered are intriguing.
Stephen S. Greer shifts gears with a peculiar article called “Dangerous Doors.” It is what it sounds like: this is a collection of doors that can be placed anywhere that basically function as traps. There are doors that spit out gouts of acid or flaming oil, doors that handcuff people who try to pick the lock, doors that burn your hand when you touch the knob, etc. My favorite one isn’t a door at all but an animated skeleton half-embedded in a stone wall. When you get too close, it reassembles and attacks you; it quite reminds me of a classic scene in Cordell’s Return to the Tomb of Horrors. I was not aware of any pressing need for more interesting doors in D&D but I guess the “stout wooden door” common throughout every dungeon is as dull as the featureless 10’x10’ rooms of old.
Finally, Baur closes us out with “The Flying Traders of Sikkim.” In his homebrew setting with the aforementioned city-state of Zobeck, there are a handful of flying metropolises from a secluded plateau called Sikkim in the desert. Being only a page long, this monthly column; entitled The Free City; isn’t really intended to offer specific game mechanics or in-depth analysis of any subject. I’d wager people probably get more out of it as a source of inspiration (“Wouldn’t it be cool to have flying cities with sultans and stuff in your game?”) than any real insight into Baur’s world.
The material in this issue wasn’t as universally fantastic as #2 but the quality of paper and typesetting continues to improve every few months. A subscription is still by far the most economical option for purchase because the raising cover price is in the early stages of outstripping the page count. If this continues, buying Kobold Quarterly at the newsstand or from the website will be cost-prohibitive, no matter the quality of the publication.