kobold quarterly

Kobold Quarterly 1

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Kobold Quarterly #1

Publisher: Open Design
Publish Date: Summer 2007
Volume: I, Number 1
Pages: 32
Rating: 3 out of 10
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.

Kobold Quarterly 2

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Kobold Quarterly #2

Publisher: Open Design
Publish Date: Fall 2007
Volume: I, Number 2
Pages: 40
Rating: 8 out of 10
Retail Price: $5.99

Hello again, faithful readers. Those who read my previous review know I voiced several concerns about our first taste of KQ and that I feared these were not just first-night jitters but a sign of things to come. Rest assured there are better days ahead! A 20% increase in page count, contributions from industry heavyweights like Greenwood and Logue, an interview with Wayne Reynolds (!!!) and much more all practically make this a different magazine. The quality of editing has likewise made a complete 180°.

Tim and Eileen Connors bring us “Belphegor, the Prince of Laziness,” the second installment of KQ’s “Princes of Hell” feature. This devil made his real-world debut way back in Numbers 25 from the Torah and is best known for convincing mortals to procrastinate and take frequent naps, while also inspiring them to create fantastic inventions that allow people to sit around and do nothing. It is not a sin to be content with what you have but Belphegor hopes to ensnare your soul by convincing you to be complacent.

It’s all here, folks. Full stats for running an encounter with Belphegor (check out his aura that just makes people want to ignore the Baron until they leave), information on his cults in the Prime and what he hopes to accomplish there, a run-down of his friends and foes in the Nine Hells, how he came to the position he now holds and, finally, information on his specialized followers: comfort devils. These are basically imps whose training and power emphasize getting people to take the day off, or stop going to church, or charge customers as much as they can get away with, etc. This is the sort of information that you expect to find in a magazine dedicated to D&D but are still pleasantly surprised to discover in each issue.

Next up is the esteemed Ed Greenwood himself with “On the Street Where Heroes Live.” Not every settlement in a fantasy setting can be a magical, sprawling metropolis chock-full of drug lords, devil worshipers, greedy and manipulative aristocrats, tavern owners and other wildly interesting NPCs. There are dozens, if not hundreds of tiny hamlets that may not have the luxury of interesting geography, historical footnotes, famous residents or deep reservoirs of plothooks. Hell, most of them probably don’t even appear on the DM’s map. But they are there, and what if the PCs, instead of just passing through or stopping for supplies then moving on, decide to stay for awhile?

Greenwood comes to the rescue here with step-by-step instructions of how to breathe new life into the town and its inhabitants. With only an hour or two of work even the most remote backwater thorp can suddenly become the place to be. By the author’s admission, “veteran GMs have been doing it for decades. . . and every roleplayer knows or senses it” (14); but even some of us veterans could do with a refresher course, and for those without years of experience under their belts informative tips like this could make the difference between a decent session and a memorable one.

“King of All Monsters” is this month’s interview, courtesy of the Open Design team. Its subject is Wayne Reynolds, whose snazzy logo “WAR” appears in many illustrations throughout the tomes and supplements of the current edition of D&D. When I first started playing the game back in the mid-90s Tony DiTerlizzi was “that guy.” Reynolds is the new up-and-comer, though, and it’s a treat to be able to hear directly from him, particularly for readers who don’t know much about the guy (he’s a soccer fan). I guess it’s kind of weird, though, to interview someone in the industry for a publication about Dungeons & Dragons and not ask him specifically about the game or how long he’s played (if he even does).

Robert J. Schwalb brings us “The Assassin,” which the editor informs us is a teaser from Green Ronin’s upcoming Freeport Companion. It is true that there is already a prestige class by that name in the DMG and it is also true that what you’ll find here is actually not very different from it. But what is special about Schwalb’s piece is that it is a full 20-level base class that anyone can take levels in. Some of the PrC’s quirky abilities like poison use and its knack for skulking around in the dark have been expanded on which means you get a cool new ability or at least an upgrade literally every level. I mean they even get blindsense!

This is one of those “take it or leave it” articles. Maybe you really like the idea of a contract killer in D&D but don’t like prestige classes. If a class anyone can multiclass freely into but that accomplishes what the Assassin always did sounds like your cup of tea, look no further. If, on the other hand, the concept of a hitman is interesting but not really suitable for player characters, consider Schwalb’s mechanic of Contracts and Reputation. The assassin makes simple d20 rolls, based on his level and previous successes or failures, to adjudicate not only how much money he’s making with each hit but also how his reputation waxes or wanes. This allows the assassin to do his job on the side without taking the spotlight from the rest of the party: as much or as little time can be spent on each contract in-game as the DM likes and the player still gets all the cool class features of a shadowy murderer. I’m sold.

Anyone heard from Skip “The Sage” Williams lately? I found him hiding right here in Kobold Quarterly. “Ask the Kobold” is his new column and each month he will not only address confusing or controversial topics in the Core rules but also provide some insight into the how’s and why’s of game design as only an industry insider can. If you’ve ever wondered about the rationale behind percentile chances for missing due to concealment, or always wanted to hear someone who actually worked for Wizards of the Coast say “Charisma is your dump stat” (24), this installment is for you.

Moving on, we have Nicolas Logue and “Ecology of the Barghest.” Longtime readers will know I am a huge fan of monster ecology articles and always have been. This one in particular is awesome for a few reasons: first, it has everything we have come to expect from these gems both in the pages of the slain Dragon and in this magazine. There’s a sidebar with possible results of Knowledge (The Planes) checks. We also have in-depth analysis of how barghest packs are formed, what it’s like in barghest society back on their home plane of Gehenna, the various physiological states of the barghest and even a few new feats to really make barghests in your game “pop.” To top it all off, a short etymological history of the word itself and some specimens from European myths and folktales has been provided as further inspiration. If you’re still on the fence, need I remind you that barghests are wolf-goblin shapeshifters that eat people? They are awesome, and so is any article written about them.

Last month Sigfried Trent wrote a short blurb on the Trip rules in D&D. Now he has been kind enough to offer a how-to for character creation& but not the crunchy bits like feat selection or agonizing over how many points to put in this or that skill. “From the Outside In, Creating Vibrant Characters” delves into the esoteric realm of themes, motivations, funny accents and even what the guy or gal looks like. This information is critical for players and DMs alike and was so well-written that, frankly, I have to wonder why something like it did not appear in the PHB. Here’s hoping someone at the top is reading Trent’s work.

John E. Ling, Jr. is next with “A Kingdom for My Horse.” Most DMs have had a player or two who expressed interest in playing a paladin but was concerned a special mount would be inappropriate for a game featuring extensive dungeon crawls. I recently ran a Night Below campaign and if you are unfamiliar with that module, suffice to say that unless the player in question was interested in riding a cave lizard a mount would have been simply out of the question.

One or more alternate class features are a great idea but it can be difficult to adjudicate what the paladin should receive instead, especially because the mount’s versatility and power grows over time. This article offers three possibilities: another take on holy weapons (yawn), the services of lantern or hound archons or a small measure of elemental resistance. None of these is particularly interesting but the material seems well-balanced and the special feats paladins are eligible for when they choose one of these provide some neat options for the player.

D&D heavyweight Jeff Grubb offers up “Joining the Noble Classes,” a discussion on what levels in the NPC class Aristocrat actually mean for the people who have them. He makes the argument that the number of levels in this class should reflect an NPC’s status in the noble court, and offers ways for local rulers to hand out “free” levels of aristocrat not only to PCs who perform heroic deeds and deserve knighthood but also to loyal noble supporters. At first blush the system Grubb proposes may seem rules-heavy in a part of the game where DM fiat is normally all that is needed. But his ideas imply a world where it makes sense to have a bunch of high-level NPCs running around doing the king’s bidding and sets up an arena in which “free” levels of these classes can be handed out as rewards to players without breaking the game. For my game it seems like more trouble than it’s worth but the average DM might find something valuable here.

I spoke briefly about the design system of patronage in my last review. Essentially, Wolfgang Baur brings home the bacon by writing material directly for specific people: these patrons not only have significant input during a product’s development, they are also involved directly in playtesting and receive first dibs when the project is completed (sometimes the Open Design patrons are the only people who ever get a chance to see the finished product). The most recent Open Design project, Empire of the Ghouls, is unavailable to the general public but we do get a small sample of what Baur has to offer here in “The Avatar of Hunger.” Darrakh was a fearsome cave dragon in life but he fell to the claws of a pack of savage ghouls. Their disease mutated in him and any ghouls he creates are much more powerful than the average specimen represented in the MM, which explains quite a bit about how his followers have managed to carve out and dominate huge territories in the Underdark (defending their home even against the likes of Drow and Aboleth). The article alone provides plenty of inspiration and even includes stats for Darrakh, “Father of Ghouls,” but also serves as invitation to donate to the Open Design project and score your copy of the finished product. I’m considering it.

Last issue we got our first glimpse of Zobeck, a steampunk city of Wolfgang Baur’s creation. The city is fairly ethnocentric if not xenophobic, and so requires quite a bit of protection. This installment of “The Free City” explores the “Griffon Towers of the Margreve:” once the first line of defense against hostile neighbors but which in recent years have fallen into disrepair, the griffons gone feral. Backstory, quirky geography, more insight into Zobeck and a handful of plothooks, all on one page! You can’t ask for much more than that.

This issue of Kobold Quarterly is 110% better than the last. If you purchased either a PDF or a paper subscription to KQ and the quality is at least this good each quarter, you will definitely be getting your money’s worth. If you have not, what are you waiting for?

Kobold Quarterly 3

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Kobold Quarterly #3

Publisher: Open Design
Publish Date: Winter 2008
Volume: I, Number 3
Pages: 58
Rating: 7 out of 10
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.

Kobold Quarterly 4

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Kobold Quarterly #4

Publisher: Open Design
Publish Date: Spring 2008
Volume: I, Number 4
Pages: 70
Rating: 7 out of 10
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.

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