Kobold Quarterly #4
Publisher: Open Design
Publish Date: Spring 2008
|Volume: I, Number 4|
Retail Price: $7.99
Hello again, faithful readers! What a great time to be a gamer: WotC’s 4th Edition Core rulebooks hit store shelves in June; playtesting has begun on Paizo’s new Pathfinder rules; and our own D&D Archive has set into motion plans to meet the growing demand of loyal v3.5 players in new and exciting ways.Of course, not everything is changing. I know most of you only ever visit this website to read my reviews and I would hate to disappoint adoring fans. With that said, let’s hop to it!
Wolfgang Baur and Joshua Stevens launch this issue with “Gangs of Zobeck.” Faithful readers will recall previous articles about the steampunk city-state; over the course of the past year Mr. Baur has provided insights into how the city is run, what sorts of people live there or come to visit and the things someone might see in and around the city. This time, as the title suggests, we are treated to an in-depth analysis of the various organized criminal syndicates that make up the top tier of Zobeck’s underworld.
I have two complaints about this article, one minor and the other more substantial. First, the authors thought it more relevant to emphasize the relationships between each of the five major gangs and their leadership than to delve into how these groups interact with the populace or government. One notable exception is the entry on the Spyglass Guild which uses the intel it gleans from the mean streets not only for its own nefarious purposes but also shares it with the local constabulary, functioning almost like a “secret police” force. My other beef is that articles like this are VERY useful for people interested in using Zobeck in their own campaigns but might be more trouble than they are worth to convert if the reader is only interested in taking bits and pieces. Consider also that the breadth of this information is spread out among all the magazine’s issues and its utility is reduced even further, because not everyone reading is a subscriber. Still, it is among the best material in the magazine and worth checking out.
Next up are Tim and Eileen Connors with “Adriel, Angel of Hope.” In our own world’s mythology Adriel is an angel of death, not hope, which is accounted for in this article’s narrative. Adriel was one of four angels assigned to punish and purge the wicked, and the authors attribute all sorts of Old Testament-inspired calamities to her. But when they were captured in Hell and endured centuries of torture, Adriel’s three fellow angels were corrupted and fell. Only Adriel remained, and despite her hosts’ best efforts she not only endured; but inspired many devils to seek their own redemption. Today, the Cult of Adriel Reborn on the Material Plane is comprised mainly of former sinners which means some of the methods they use to convert or battle evil are controversial, to say the least.
In my opinion there is not enough written about Good Outsiders. I understand the rationale that the vast majority of games feature player characters of good or neutral alignments, so angels are unlikely antagonists, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still play a role in the campaign. The thing this article did very well is that it emphasizes not Adriel herself but her followers, and why they cherish her so dearly. These, particularly mortal cultists, are the most likely NPCs to interact with the heroes so it makes since they take center stage. I hope to see more articles like this in the future.
Paul Leech continues this winning streak with “Ecology of the Cloaker.” I don’t know about you but I’ve never actually used cloakers in any of my campaigns; when I cut my teeth on D&D we played 2nd Edition and back then they were basically described as monsters that perfectly resemble black cloaks. The idea here was that characters would find a cloaker lying on the ground in a dungeon, foolishly try it on without further investigation and promptly be devoured. In this way, cloakers occupied the “things to spring on players when they do not thoroughly describe their players’ paranoia.” I’m not a big fan of arbitrary punishment so I never gave these monsters a second look.
But of course, as it turns out with all Ecology articles, if you did not think cloakers were the bee’s knees before you should definitely reconsider. Here we get all kinds of neat trivia about the internal organ cloakers use to produce the sonic attacks they are famous for, enable flight, heal severe wounds and even metabolize external vibrations in their dungeon environment when real food is scarce; Knowledge (dungeoneering) check results; an evil specimen with venomous natural attacks and special powers linked to the Plane of Shadow; and finally, tips for heroes on how best to combat these weird subterranean menaces. I’ve never had anything bad to say about Ecology articles in the past, for either magazine, and I won’t start now.
Next we have “Redefining Heroes,” an interview with William O’Connor (incidentally, the cover artist for this issue of Kobold Quarterly). Although Wayne Reynolds’ work graces the covers of the three Core rulebooks due out this summer, O’Connor was responsible for the artistic vision behind the iconic characters of the new edition. Here he tells the Kobold-In-Chief a little bit about what inspires his work, how he first got into the industry and what working on 4th Edition has been like, but as interviews go this is unfortunately not a very good one. It is not terribly informative nor is what O’Connor has to say very interesting to hear. Moving on&
“Dragons Without Belly Buttons: Spontaneous Generation in Fantasy Campaigns,” by Derek Kagemann, is a humorous but interesting take on abiogenesis (life that just spontaneously forms on its own from inorganic material). The article explains how in the real world we have long since discredited the notion that life could originate all on its own without being reproduced from a living parent organism, but in a fantasy setting abiogenesis could be a very real (and very important) part of the way ecosystems function. Consider that perhaps spontaneously generated life forms carry the traits of their environment and may offer clues about what explorers can uncover there, if they only know where to look: the article gives the example of red-skinned frogs that spring up near a ruby deposit. Well-informed adventurers looking to score big would pay closer attention to the flora and fauna in a setting like this.
The best part about this article is that it didn’t try to come up with ways to shoehorn in new “crunchy” material like feats or spells dedicated to the topic. Fluff recipes for assassin vines, crocodiles, ghouls and even dwarves are included and tips on how to come up with your own are also provided. If nothing else, I think Kagemann provides an easy solution to the question of “Where do all the monsters down here get their food? And where did the MONSTERS come from?”
Jaye Sonia contributed “Lessons from Arabia: Language and Gaming.” The author speaks from real world experience about an American traveling and living in a foreign country (Kuwait, to be exact). When applying these experiences to the game table, Sonia realized that while adventuring parties often consist of people from many different cultures and races (and have dealings with many more); the use of the Common language negates the difficulty of even the most complicated verbal exchange. But what purpose does Common serve? If it is meant to facilitate trade and simple diplomacy, characters using it should only be able to convey the most basic ideas to their audience. From there the article dives into how people in their native environment communicate, even to mixed audiences, and even offers some helpful tips to both DMs and players on how to incorporate these roleplaying challenges into their game.
The problem is that Common is intended specifically to avoid problems like that. It may be true that in a real world no one would be able to talk to each other without saying the wrong thing or losing something in the translation but realism doesn’t necessarily make the game more enjoyable. Your mileage may vary, of course, and if you disagree this article is definitely for you. If nothing else it at least provides a counter argument to the tricky subject of linguistics in D&D.
Next up is “Better Gnomes and Gardens,” courtesy of David Schwartz. The premise: gnomes suck. I vehemently disagree and wonder why halflings didn’t get the boot from the PHB in the new edition instead; gnomes, who have all kinds of interesting powers and a unique cultural identity, are shunted into the Monster Manual and halflings are rewarded with arbitrary bonuses to compensate for being exactly like humans, but three feet tall. Anyway, for those who DON’T disagree, this article provides four alternate “fluff” entries for gnomes to replace the material found in Chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook.
Nothing mechanical needs to change to be able to implement these alternate versions of the gnome in your game. The objective here is to find a fresh way of explaining the gnome’s racial traits and modifiers that isn’t so jumbled up as the technology-loving, subterranean hippies we see in most settings. My favorite is the Mustelids& tiny mole-men!
Scott Gable brings us “Cluracan: Bottom’s Up!” The cluracan (or clurichaun) appear in Irish folklore, similar to leprechauns but characterized by perpetual drunkenness. Although sources differ on whether cluracan are “mean drunks,” Gable’s depiction of them is very jovial, if a little dangerous to mortals (which is true of most Fey anyway). These little guys are always naked and always plastered, forever looking for the next good time. To describe a cluracan as alcoholic is an understatement: they need no food or drink but without booze, they shrivel up and die.
Within the past year or two we have seen a renewed interest in monster supplements in Fey, which is a very good thing. But aside from the vanilla dryads, nymphs and satyrs, which are generally good hearted but might pose a real threat to unwary humanoids, these Fey are mostly of the Evil persuasion. It is very refreshing to see Fey who are not particularly interested in helping or hurting mortals, particularly if the material is as well written as this article on the cluracan. Even if you don’t use the cluracan in your game, though, the author has provided no less than seven feats that provide various bonuses to the user while inebriated. My favorite is Under the Table, which lets drunks delay the effects of anything you ingest (poison, potions, tainted food, etc) for a number of hours. The material here would be a great starting point for any DM interested in incorporating mind-altering substances in their games.
It’s a tough act to follow but Phillip Larwood continues with “Might and Mastery: Alternate Class Features and Feats for Fighters.” If you aren’t familiar with alternate class features, the way they work is the designer identifies a specific cool thing characters should be able to do thematically but currently do something else instead. But the classes as they exist today are supposedly balanced against each other so you can’t just add abilities. Something has to go: so, a paladin might sacrifice his special mount ability and gain access to Weapon Specialization and Greater Weapon Specialization in his deity’s favored weapon.
I guess the fighter is one of those classes you don’t take past 5th or 6th level: it is not very flavorful and the only thing the class really offers is feats (a lot of them, but who needs and qualifies for over 15 of them?); people usually end up taking their business elsewhere. But trading in some of those bonus feats for an ability like Surge of Adrenalin (spend a swift action for a few temporary hit points or an extra move action) or Master of Strategy (make a level check at the beginning of every fight to earn a bonus on attack and damage rolls) might make the class more tempting. And if not, Mr. Larwood was generous enough to provide six new feats perfect for martial characters of all stripes. This article was all-crunch, but mechanically solid.
Mike McArtor closes us out this issue with “The Mithral Dragon.” It is what it sounds like: three pages of material about a new breed of true dragon based on the special metal of the same name. The premise here seems to be “a very dangerous dragon, almost impossible to kill” (even moreso than the other breeds). Energy resistance to practically everything, eventual immunity to critical hits or sneak attacks, fast healing, defensive spell-like abilities and claw attacks that cause bleeding wounds all add up to a pretty nasty opponent.
But aren’t all dragons nasty? I could see this monster working as a template for an iconic wyrm if it were the only kind of dragon you used, mechanically, in your campaign; but adding the mithral dragon to the roster seems unnecessary and uninspired. I also don’t like powers that basically strip the characters of their ability to contribute to the fight, or that arbitrarily defeat the players’ well laid preparations before combat begins. So, while the bleeding wounds are fine (if frustrating for PCs), the mithral dragon’s claws automatically overcoming any kind of DR based on special metal (like adamantine or alchemical silver) is a little cheesy. On the other hand, the mithral dragon does have a far lower effective sorcerer level at every age category than his peers (ostensibly for game balance), which is a step in the right direction.
That’s it, folks. This issue concludes the first year of Kobold Quarterly and in retrospect I just have to scratch my head in wonder at the dramatic turn-around from #1 to the magazine we’re reading today. Production value, page count, tasteful advertising from companies whose products the reader might actually be interested in purchasing (unlike obscene two page blurbs about the latest Final Fantasy installment without a shred of justification about how it applies to D&D& from a publication I will not name here)& KQ is where it’s at. If you have not yet subscribed, I encourage you to do so: finding back issues in print will be a challenge but you can always pick them up in PDF format from Open Design on the cheap.