review

Races of Destiny

After finding myself pleasantly surprised by Races of Stone, I was quite hopeful that this book would offer a similar treatment of humans, half-orcs and half-elves. Boy, was I wrong!

Like Races of Stone, this book divides the ‘Races of Destiny’ into three chapters.

Races of Stone

It might be surprising that I waited so long to acquire this book.  After all, I love dwarves.  As a race they exhibit tremendous heroism yet remain deeply flawed.  Back in the days of 1st edition it was clear that dwarves lived *ON* the mountains more than *IN* the mountains.  Their homes were close to the surface, and full of natural light.  Over succeeding revisions, dwarves have moved deeper and deeper underground and come to resemble their Duergar cousins more and more in behavior and outlook.  So I was reluctant to purchase this book – I was afraid I would get nothing but ‘

Endless Sands - Arabian Adventures

A Desert of Broken Dreams…
 
In the ENDLESS SANDS myth comes alive, and darkness is a salvation from an eternally scorching sun.  Against that lie the dangers of a desert land filled with religious strife and political turmoil.  Cities are the only shelter against the empty desert, and water equals power.
 
Ree Soesbee’s utterly original culture of the Endless Sands draws on a combination of ancient Morocco, Middle-Eastern Persia and Antioch, and the lands of mystery outlined in the ancient tales of the Badiya people.  Cities are dominated by the strong, and the weak must do whatever they can in order to survive. It is a harsh world, but if you master it, it can be paradise.  

Expedition to Castle Ravenloft

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Expedition to Castle Ravenloft

Author: Bruce R. Cordell & James Wyatt
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 10/2006
ISBN: 0-7869-3946-X
Pages: 221
Rating: 6 out of 10
Retail Price: $34.95

In a recent thread regarding the uncertain future of WotC, Fixxxer commented on the drought of new adventures from the publishers of D&D. As it turns out, last summer WotC unveiled their plans for multiple series of adventures, all of which would feature a new more modular format (meaning, among other things, that individual encounters could more easily be taken from the adventure and transplanted into others). Their answer to the doldrums of creativity debuted in Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, and over the next few pages I'll try to address what Wizards did right and what they royally screwed up.

Before we begin, not enough can be said about Bruce Cordell. His masterful touch when it comes to anything Undead was first recognized, if memory serves, in his work on Return to the Tomb of Horrors nearly ten years ago in 1998. More recently, another critical hit was scored with Libris Mortis: The Book of Undead. Make no mistake: Cordell knows horror.

Expedition to Castle Ravenloft is the first in what is presumably a long line of adventures called the Expedition Series, which promises to revisit classic modules remembered both for their ingenuity and replay value. It's unlikely you'll see an Expedition to the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (no offense, Mr. Gygax) but Ravenloft, considered by many old-school gamers to be the finest module ever published for Dungeons & Dragons, deserves special attention and, yes, a return to the spotlight for a new generation of players. There were a few things Cordell and Wyatt had to address if they wanted to properly pay tribute to such a masterpiece.

First, the fortune telling system turned the idea of what a module was on its head. In the original module, the heroes consulted an old gypsy woman about not only their chances of victory against Count Strahd but also what his intentions and motivations might be. The catch is that every time you played through I6: Ravenloft, the entire outcome of the adventure changed because the answers to the questions the PCs asked were not static. In this new adaptation of the old story, this fortune telling encounter is one of the core attributes of the entire module and, speaking from personal experience, is great fun to roleplay with real Tarot or Three Dragon Ante cards.

Second, the original module's maps for the DM's benefit were not two-dimensional, top-down affairs like in every other adventure. The maps in the original were isometric projections, meaning they were tilted on an axis to give the impression of three dimensions. This, too, made the cut in Expedition to Castle Ravenloft although I have to say some of them are a little difficult to interpret because the hallways and stairwells of the castle, historically accurate though they may be, are very densely arranged. Before you sit down for the first game session, though the PCs' trip to the castle may be weeks away I strongly advise you become intimately familiar with the key and map and make alterations where needed.

What is the most important part of the Ravenloft setting? Fans of the campaign setting, the original modules or even inexperienced gamers who have barely heard of the place will readily answer, "Count Strahd von Zarovich." As the writers insist, "Strahd is the driving force behind everything that goes on in this adventure . . . The PCs come to Barovia because Strahd wants them to. They stay because he will not permit them to leave."1 Strahd is a tragic, all-too-human figure who eerily blurred the line between monster and person in Hickman's original module and in Cordell and Wyatt's retelling of the story, it is clear there is a soft spot in each of their yet-to-be-staked hearts for the guy. If you are concerned the writers would come up short when it came to the primary antagonist, your worries are unfounded.

There are a handful of relics the heroes might find useful in ending Strahd's reign of tyranny, and where to find these items (as well as how to activate their powers) are just some of the hints the fortune telling sequence will reveal to your players. But one pivotal detail that can change each time you run this adventure should be decided on beforehand, and that is what the old bastard really wants. There are half a dozen schemes to choose from that not only influence Strahd's behavior and how other NPCs react to the heroes upon their arrival, but also determine how they are invited to the valley of Barovia in the first place. Of course, I chose zombies because that's just the kind of guy I am. That it was even an option won Expedition to Castle Ravenloft a billion cool points.

Thus far this has been a pretty glowing endorsement but I would be remiss if I didn't touch on some of the areas where the writers struck out. We can start with perhaps the most important part of all, Count Strahd himself: his stat block uses material from Libris Mortis which if you know anything about my tastes really doesn't sit well with me. Not because it is a crummy product; indeed, as I said above, Libris Mortis is awesome and everyone should have it. But because everyone does NOT have it, I would have very much liked to see a Core-only stat block with recommendations for material from other sources, if those are available. Heroes of Horror and the Spell Compendium are also mentioned but only as suggestions; this is what Cordell and Wyatt should have done with all non-Core supplements.

I have conflicting feelings over the new, modular format for encounters introduced in this book. Essentially, for each encounter everything you need to run it can be found on one or two pages. Also, future encounters in the book might reference this one if they are similar enough that you need only make minor alterations to use the same enemies over and over again. For example, early in the adventure there is a ransacked building full of zombie villagers and rats. A few sentences at the end explain that if you want to use this same encounter in a different building somewhere else in the village, just swap out the rats and change a few things about the furniture in the rooms.

This is good and bad. First of all, as Fixxxer pointed out in his review for Scourge of the Howling Horde, some aspects of a monster's stats are summarized or omitted altogether presumably to save space. This is as much the fault of the new encounter format as it is the new stat block format introduced in the DMG II. On the other hand (and this is particularly true for outdoor encounters) rules for unusual terrain like how many squares of movement it takes to wade through a shallow bog or the Balance DC for perching on top of a tombstone during a fight are also provided, and this is due in no small part to the space-saving new stat block format. I am all too familiar with modules where the maps are in a different part of the book from the key or in a separate book altogether, so conveniently having everything in one place is a welcome departure from that tradition.

As you might expect in a product over 200 pages long, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft has its share (some might argue more than its share) of typographical errors as well as the unfortunate occasional mechanical error. For example, I am in fact running this adventure as part of a horror campaign using the Heroes of Horror supplement. That book uses something called Taint, which basically equates evil with a blight on the world that manifests physically when people do bad things. Well, one NPC with a substantial Taint score did not have his physical symptoms listed; I understand that Heroes of Horror is optional here but if you're going to bother to list his score, why not go all the way? These errors are mostly annoying and anyway, I'm a fascist who feels like he has to edit everything to suit his needs so I rewrote a lot of the problem areas of the module even if they were fine. But if you're looking for an adventure you can pick up on Monday, read through during the week and start running on Friday without any additional work, expect some inconsistencies.

Perhaps one of the module's greatest strengths is its adaptability. Not only can you decide how many times you want to use individual encounters or even if you want to lift them, as is, from Expedition to Castle Ravenloft for use in other adventures, how much or little of the entire book you want to use is entirely up to you. I chose to run this as a minicampaign stretching from 6th to 9th level, which means my group will be dealing with Strahd's machinations for at least the next few months of real time.

But there are shorter options: anything from a Halloween one-shot to two months of weekly gaming is acceptable and the writers graciously provide tips on what to put in, what to leave out, and where to begin the adventure depending on how long you want it to be. Of course, Cordell and Wyatt also gave tips on how to kick the adventure off in various campaign settings and even some helpful advice on alterations you should make if running the adventure for a d20 Modern game! If one part of this entire product makes the cut for future releases I hope it is this adaptability.

A product from Wizards of the Coast would not be complete without new, "crunchy" material. Surprisingly enough, for such a magic-oriented plotline only one spell was introduced (and even it appeared first in other supplements) but twenty new magic items and three new artifacts play both minor and major roles in the adventure. I should say a word here about two specific items, the Sunsword and Holy Symbol of Ravenkind. Rules introduced in the Weapons of Legacy supplement are adapted for use here for both items but, in their wisdom, the writers also included non-Legacy versions of the items for use during the adventure.

Finally, a new prestige class (the Knight of the Raven) is introduced; which in my opinion is far too powerful as-is, considering how easy it is to qualify for, but almost all of its special abilities are undead-centric and if this is the only part of your campaign where that creature type plays a role, I guess the impact won't be too severe. There are also a few alternative class features for PCs in a new organization called the Lightbringers that, similarly, are quite powerful against the undead but practically useless in other situations. Caveat emptor.

In closing, this is an absolute beast of an adventure and "minicampaign," for the full 20-session version, is an understatement. As I said before, do not expect to run this without doing your homework; I suggest reading the module from cover to cover at least twice then working extensively to ensure the parts you want to use for your campaign are in working order. Despite the omnipresent specter of "BUY OTHER BOOKS WE HAVE PUBLISHED," I believe as much was done as possible to make the module adaptable and, most importantly, enjoyable. My group is having loads of fun with it so far and I think yours will too, but I only recommend Expedition to Castle Ravenloft to very experienced DMs with mature players.

1 Bruce Cordell and James Wyatt, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft (Renton: Wizards of the Coast, 2006), 13

Dragon #345

Dragon #345

Publisher: Paizo Publishing
Publish Date: 06/2006
Volume: XXXI, Number 2
Pages: 98
Rating: 6 out of 10
Retail Price: $7.99

I began my love affair with D&D back in 6th grade, which for me was in 1996. True to form, shortly after discovering this game I subscribed to Dragon Magazine because back then, at least among my friends, it was customary for everyone to take turns as DM in the group. This meant one had to be versatile and proficient not only in game design but also in the fine art of character survival. Unlike its sister publication Dungeon, Dragon accommodates both components of the gaming group.

Although the magazine has admittedly changed quite a bit over the last ten years, despite the ebb and flow of various trends (and the transition from AD&D 2E all the way to D&D v3.5) the generally high quality of the publication has been maintained. In this, what I hope is the first in a long series of monthly reviews of Dragon, we’ll take a look at Issue #345. If you’re a subscriber, this information may only be useful as another interpretation of the material. If you haven’t forked over your hard earned cash yet, though, maybe I can help you decide if Dragon is right for you.

“First Watch” is the latest incarnation of a concept that has been around for years. This is your standard series of advertisements for upcoming products in the gaming industry, for everything from the latest and greatest in the D&D Miniatures line to the re-release of Princess Bride (sweet action!) on DVD to a blurb for the 2006 ENnies, an award event sponsored by the gaming website ENWorld. Sprinkled here and there in “First Watch” are also previews of what’s happening next month in both Dragon and Dungeon, as well as some pertinent info for those RPGA members out there. Frankly I’m not sure I know anyone who knows anyone in the RPGA but lately the magazine has been making a big deal out of it so it must be worth looking into.

My only complaint about this feature of the magazine is that one might have assumed when Paizo took the reins from WotC, they would be freed of the obligation to advertise for them anymore. Not only is Dragon still a fairly reliable way to learn about the upcoming product line for Wizards of the Coast, Paizo has taken the opportunity to advertise for every other gaming company, too! Doesn’t anyone use the Internet anymore? Information about future products can change at a moment’s notice anyway, printing it just seems like a waste of space. You would think now that Dragon has so many ads one could mistake it for a fashion magazine it would cut down on some of this junk.

The latest jewel in Dragon’s crown is the “Demonomicon of Iggwilv,” a monthly biography on one of the infamous demon princes from the Infinite Layers of the Abyss. Ol’ Iggy has yet to disappoint and this issue’s pick is no exception: Kostchtchie. It’s ok if you can’t pronounce his name, I’m sure he can’t either. In the “Demonomicon” articles you get it all: a full history of where the demon prince has been, a brief explanation of his most notorious schemes, where he lays his head at night and what some of his latest ambitions are. Dragon also uses this opportunity to introduce more material into the D&D universe, like new monsters, feats, Prestige Classes and magic item properties. Not only that, but if there is any real-world inspiration for the demon in question, this article is where to find it. Here we learn that Kostchtchie made his debut back in the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth module by Gary Gygax in AD&D 1E. If you’re curious, Kostchtchie was inspired by a Russian legend about a typically lecherous old coot whose soul was hidden inside one of those sets of dolls that you stack up inside each other. So not only is he the Prince of Wrath, he’s also pretty handy with arts and crafts! Aside from the whole “Lord of Frost Giants” thing, one might draw an eerie correlation between Kostchtchie and Martha Stewart.

Unfortunately, sometimes this article can get a little carried away. I wasn’t exaggerating when I was giving the skinny on what sorts of stuff you might find in the “Demonomicon,” there’s a lot going on here and with only so many pages available, Dragon had to sacrifice 13 for Kostchtchie alone. That’s over 10%! Still, the author maintains the juggling act reasonably well between “fluff” material for those interested in the lore behind NPCs and unique monsters, and the “crunchy” bits like a PrC for cult leaders in the Prince’s name (not to mention the ginormous stat block for Kostchtchie. Actually, he’s so important he has two or three of them!).

One has to wonder, however, how useful all of this junk is to the average gamer. I would argue that the number of games utilizing demons and devils as the primary antagonist is relatively slim, since most games probably start and conclude at the lower levels before ever reaching that upper tier of challenges. A sidebar in the article assures the reader the recent publication Fiendish Codex I has plenty of rules for how to ADVANCE Kostchtchie and other Demon Princes, but nothing at all about how to water these beasties down. I mean geez, he’s already CR28.

“The Giants of Xen’Drik: Dark Elves and Giants Clash” is up next, and yes, it’s Eberron-specific. One could argue that the material here is easily adaptable to non-Eberron campaigns but the article references a book called Secrets of Xen’Drik at several points and, although the authors try to find replacements for various feats, items, PrCs and templates a perfect match isn’t always possible. The reader is left with the sense that he or she is really missing out without that extra book, and it has always been my philosophy that a magazine like Dragon should strive to meet as many of the needs of as many gamers as possible. Sure, you could salvage enough of this material using the sidebars in the article as a guide. But unless stone giants in your campaign are descended from an ancient, advanced and peaceful civilization and dark elves are primitive jungle folk, most of it is worthless.

Next we have “Excursion: Four Ways to Travel the World.” This article is pretty neat, finding ways to inject real-world nautical terminology into the text. You could probably guess we’re talking about a variety of ways to facilitate overland travel; there are a few charts here and there in the Core rules but unless you make use of the various terrain supplements like Frostburn or Stormwrack, you’re pretty much in the dark about how the actual vehicles function in their environments. Actually, this article tackles that challenge specifically: the “four ways,” here, are four separate vessels over (and under!) the sea, land and air. Included are blueprints on 5-foot square grids in case the inevitable happens and your PCs have to draw cold steel while cruising over the Wild Blue Yonder; information about the crew and a brief bio about the captain; and a detailed description of the vessel, what it can and can’t do and its various defensive capabilities. Of particular note here are a zeppelin, submarine and what is actually over a dozen multiple vessels: a trade caravan. The vehicles themselves are ho-hum but there is plenty here that could inspire even those with no engineering experience at all. That’s what makes a good Dragon article: even if what is actually presented is mediocre, as long as it sets the imagination on fire the reader can connect the dots on his own.

What a great segue (you know, “segway,” like that contraption Dubya couldn’t operate without almost cracking his head open)! Next we have “Sea Serpents: Dragons of the Briny Depths.” Essentially, sea serpents (according to this article) aren’t some vague, generic threat beneath the waves. They’re analogous to the dragons we know and love, though one has to wonder why dragons (some of whom are aquatic themselves) really need or could possibly have a salt-water counterpart. I’m sorry to say this is pretty much crap. The monsters themselves are cheesy and ill conceived (c’mon, an angler fish dragon?) and the only way a reader might possibly find inspiration here is if they were already trying to think of ways to expand the basic format of a dragon’s power progression.

The wyrms in the Monster Manual, save for different lists of spell-like abilities and slight variations in power per HD, are pretty much all the same. Here we have one new creative feature in a monster’s repertoire: fluctuating Save DCs. The Crested Sea Serpent has what looks like a triceratop’s frill on top of his head and uses it to whistle through water. Actually I’m not sure how it works, exactly, the article is a little short on details. What matters is that Perform (Crested Harmonics) is treated as a class skill for this guy and whenever he uses any of his hypnotic spell-like abilities, the sea serpent also rolls a Perform check to determine the DC. This isn’t unbalanced and it may not seem revolutionary but it is a slightly different approach, something only seen before in non-Core material or in optional rules in the DMG. So, even if the article is trash, the debate of Non-Static vs Static AC/DC (get it?) is worth having.

Here we come to the beloved “Ecology” installment, and this month it’s about the Annis Hag. In each Ecology article you get the scoop on psychology, physiology, culture (if any) and maybe even a few new magic items of the monster in question. This article gives a brief explanation of how the Annis reproduces (unless you’re into nasty old ladies twice your size and with a libido to match, maybe this isn’t for you) as well as an interesting sidebar on the Hag Goddess Cegilune. I always get a kick out of stuff like this because it’s a veritable goldmine of possibilities. Who can’t use another ancient but waning Evil Power with dastardly servants of darkness? Articles that contain all you need to pretty much launch a whole new campaign get an A+ in my book.

Ah, the infamous “Bazaar of the Bizarre.” Some hate it and others hate it a little bit less, depending on the topic this month. This article, for those who don’t know, basically takes a theme like “dragon slayer” or “necromancy” and gives you a wish list of magic items under that category. Here we have, as you might have guessed, magic items for Giants (though it is important to note that stuff like rings and bracers magically alter in size to fit the owner so even the typical adventurer can make use of some of this stuff). I don’t know about you but I’ve always been content to equip my Giant NPCs with much larger versions of the stuff any other NPC would use of that level. To tell you the truth I’ve always been a little vexed by the Giant type, period. What are they? Aren’t they just really big people who can inexplicably see in the dark? Shouldn’t something that big actually receive some sort of penalty to vision regarding objects sized for Medium creatures? I guess I just don’t get it. Anyway, the real gem here is the obligatory golden talking harp. Strumming it can put your foes to sleep but the harp is an intelligent item and doesn’t like non-Giants very much (I don’t imagine we’d get along). The rest of the stuff is pretty lame and, I suspect, filler.

Egads, another Secrets of Xen’Drik-inspired article! Now we come to “Artifact Spells: Magic of the Giants.” The author basically assumes you don’t have access to that book (which is awesome, the others should have done that with the one about dark elves and stone giants!) and spends half a page explaining what “Artifact Spell” means. It’s a spell so powerful it must be inscribed on an immovable object like an obelisk or the wall of a tomb or something. Y’know, where ancient spells are always inscribed in all those bad movies. You spend a period of time, make a Spellcraft check and for up to one year you can memorize that spell once (or spend a slot, if you’re a spontaneous caster) and only once. As you might expect, the stuff presented here is a little over the top for its listed level but not necessarily so high you would place it more than a level or two above its station.

That’s the trade-off, I guess. Of particular interest is life spring, an alternative to raise dead. This 6th level Artifact Spell rezzes the willing subject without level loss or Constitution drain, and although he is stunned for 1d6 hours he comes back completely healed of disease, ability score damage and HP loss! The concept that the spell can only be memorized at a specific location means those interested in controlling access to it need only control that real estate. It’s an interesting piece of ammunition for the argument made by those who feel the recent incarnation of the game feels a little too much like some console RPG where characters die in almost every battle and the barrier between life and death is paper-thin.

A standard feature for Dragon today is a series of one or two page blurbs entitled “Class Acts.” Each gives a clever twist on one of the Core classes (although in recent months they have been increasingly dedicated to classes from splatbooks like Complete Warrior), like new Fighter feats or a more powerful alternative to the Psion’s psicrystal (which is sort of like a Wizard’s familiar, for those who don’t know, except way cooler and made of crystal). This feature is typically a crapshoot: there’s no way any one campaign could use all the suggestions offered by this article from month to month. In fact, unless you really hated the classes as they are presented in the PHB it’s unlikely you could even use all the stuff from one issue. Then again, that’s true of every feature in every issue and you never know! You may find just what you’ve been looking for, articulated perfectly and ready to plug into your game tonight.

I specifically left out mention of “Scale Mail,” “Sage Advice” or “Comics.” It goes without saying that the comics are generally hilarious, Scale Mail is and has always been a waste of space and Sage Advice, even when Skip Williams (who is actually known as “THE Sage”) was at the helm, can actually sometimes do more harm than good. Anyway, I hoped you enjoyed this review and found it informative. It’s difficult to meet the needs of so many gamers, all with such varied tastes, and Dragon doesn’t always succeed. This month is an example of the tendency to cater to a specific few, wasting pages that could be used for more general, helpful information.

Dragon #346

Dragon #346

Publisher: Paizo Publishing
Publish Date: 07/2006
Volume: XXXI, Number 3
Pages: 98
Rating: 5 out of 10
Retail Price: $7.99

Last month I included I my review some tidbits about sections of the magazine like “Class Acts” or “First Watch.” Note also that the review was something like 4 pages long! So, this time around I think we’ll jump right in.

“Core Beliefs” is a semi-regular installment in which a single deity is showcased. Similar to the “Demonomicon” or “Ecology” articles, this bad boy has it all: lesser deities associated with this one, ways different types of divine spellcasters fit into the church hierarchy, interesting holidays and legends, and even a few new spells or magic items (and who doesn’t need more of those?).

This month, Sean K Reynolds gets an A+ for his biography on Pelor, god of the sun. Of special interest is information on how Pelor’s portfolio has evolved in recent years, which is a fluffy way of saying “clerics aren’t just combat medics anymore so the god of healing needed a facelift too.” The only complaint one might lodge against Reynolds is that the article is very skimpy on crunchy bits this month. A sample planar ally and two new cleric spells may not be enough to satisfy those who want to give their Pelorian faithful a little extra “oomph.” Regardless, if you run a game using the core deities in the PHB and would like to flesh them out a little, “Core Beliefs” is where it’s at and August’s piece is no exception.

Ok, if you’re reading this I assume you have had a debate of “Rolling vs. Point Buy” at least once in your gaming career. For those who don’t know, the jury is still out on whether you should be able to choose your character’s ability scores or if the random element of rolling dice is more organic (here, I think “organic” means “a crapshoot but realistic”). For those who fall somewhere in the middle on this issue, the next article is for you! Craig Shackleton offers up “Three Dragon Readings: Character Generation Through Fortune Telling.” Three Dragon Ante, a cardgame associated with D&D released earlier this year, is fun, fast and very easy to learn. And now, with Shackleton’s article, you can spend about five minutes with a deck to determine your character’s stats. You only get so many points, so everyone in the group will get roughly equivalent results; but the cards are literally the luck of the draw, which is the reason people like rolling dice.

One complaint, of course, is that the article requires you to purchase a stand-alone product which has almost nothing to do with D&D. The author does explain how to simulate the Three Dragon deck using normal playing cards, but admittedly the effect isn’t quite the same. Also, some of the rules of this “tarot reading” are a little ambiguous, and different interpretations lead to completely different stat arrays. Still, it’s an interesting idea and if you happen to have a deck lying around (I actually picked one up for this article alone, which I don’t regret now because it looks like a pretty fun game in itself), give it a try.

How timely! This month, the topic of what sorts of tavern games adventurers might find themselves playing came up here in the Archive and Aladdar actually posted an article on the subject, entitled “Rattle of Dice.” And now, Seth Irvin Williams brings us “Games of Chance,” which is pretty self explanatory: with some poker chips, dice and playing cards you can really get into character while the heroes gamble their hard earned coin away. If you’ve ever asked your DM what kinds of card games your character learned growing up and he drew a blank, this article is perfect for you.

If, on the other hand, you prefer actually completing quests, spending loot and saving the world when you play D&D, maybe you’ve never wanted to play a game within a game. Another fair observation against this article is that a lot of the games are games people in the real world played, but with a hint of D&D flavor thrown in. What, poker doesn’t exist in D&D but something called “wyrm poker” does? That said, a little extra flavor never hurt anyone and if you’ve ever found yourself saying, “I go to the bar and play some cards” but actually wanted to play some cards, you’ll agree this piece was a nice effort.

Next we have “Supporting Cast,” courtesy of Michael Trice. This article assumes you use the optional Leadership feat from the DMG, but even if you don’t the advice on what sorts of henchmen a leader needs might prove useful. This is especially true of DMs who agonize over the variety of lackeys a particular villain will need. The core assumption of the article is a fair analysis: a hero or villain needs followers who complement or emphasize his own strengths. From barbarian to wizard, Williams explains the type of people who will not only be drawn to a charismatic individual of a particular class but also the skills they must have to really get the most out of Leadership.

Not only that, but those looking for a little extra crunch are treated to a variety of feats that tweak the way Leadership works to your advantage. For instance, one lets you avoid the unfortunate penalty to your score if a cohort bites the big one in your service, and another lets you attract way more 1st level followers than your score would normally allow. Unfortunately, many feel that D&D v3.5 is specially suited for skirmish combat and a bunch of henchmen following the party along not only complicates the DM’s job of number crunching but also violates the spirit of the game. If you share this attitude, steer clear of “Supporting Cast.”

George Krashos brings us “Impiltur: The Forgotten Kingdom.” It’s a little known slice of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, and according to the article that is largely due to Impiltur’s foreign policy of distrust and xenophobia. This article has just about everything you need to plug the region into your game: imports, exports, geography, a sidebar on Impiltur’s names for various coinage, a detailed map and about 1,500 years of political history.

Of course, if you play in Forgotten Realms you may already have access to some of this information. In fact, Krashos explains that if you want to learn more you can consult no less than five FR sourcebooks. On the other hand, if you don’t play in FR it may not be likely that you have an empty corner in your setting ready for Impiltur to call home (and if you did, good luck on adapting what you find in this article to a homebrew). I imagine the target audience here is anyone thinking of starting up a new FR campaign but who doesn’t quite know where to begin. Otherwise I don’t suppose you’ll get much mileage out of this article.

Well, it’s a good thing the editor decided to end on a strong note! Nicholas Hudson and Nicolas Logue knock it out of the park with “The Ecology of the Rust Monster!” Last month I explained the hallmarks of a great “Ecology” article and this month does not disappoint. With theories on the monster’s origins, results for Knowledge (dungeoneering) checks, mating habits and an example of a rust monster advanced to Large size, this puppy is five pages of smokin’ success. What really seals the deal, though, are testimonials from gaming juggernauts like Gary Gygax and Wolfgang Baur, both on DMing these baddies and playing against them. If you’ve ever wondered what inspired Gygax to create such a funky monster or if, like me, you just get a kick out of folks taking a trip down D&D Memory Lane, these sidebars are great. Finally, check out a recent installment of “Design Development” on the official D&D website by Mike Mearls, in which he describes how he would give the rust monster a makeover if its stats were up to him.

In closing, I have to say this issue was a little disappointing. The theme was “Adventuring,” and I think perhaps that’s a little too broad a topic to tackle in less than 100 pages. Furthermore, the same epidemic still festers in the heart of Dragon: having established it is impossible to satisfy everyone all the time, Paizo apparently thinks ideas like “Games that resemble games we all play but aren’t” or “an obscure part of a single campaign setting that not everyone likes and, in fact, many people hate” are subscriber gold. Maybe the answer lies in tried and true features like “Ecology” or “Core Beliefs,” which produce quality material every time they grace these pages. Anyway, this month Dragon scores a tentative 1d10: if I picked up a copy at my favorite local gaming store I wouldn’t be sorry for buying it, but I probably wouldn’t purchase a subscription based on this issue alone.

The Burning Plague

The Burning Plague

Author: Miguel Duran
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Level: 4-6/ 1st level PCs
ISBN: N/A
Pages: 11
Rating: 9 out of 10
Retail Price: Free

The Burning Plague is a free adventure available from the Wizards of the Coast website. It is suitable for a party of 1st level PCs and seems to be written with a new DM in mind. The basic premise of the adventure is that a small town has begun feeling the effects of a strange disease, which is killing off some of the weak and young. All signs point to a nearby mine, from which the miners haven’t returned. Obviously, the miners are all dead, killed at the hands of a band of kobold raiders, who have also begun dying from this strange sickness. The sickness is being spread by an orc cleric with a beef against the town. In a perfect world, the PCs show up, eliminate the kobold threat and kill the orc cleric, thus dispelling the effects of the magical disease he was spreading.

I have run The Burning Plague twice, for two separate groups of players. Both times, the group really seemed to enjoy the adventure. One of the two times, I used the adventure as a backdrop for bringing the party together, which was done by having two of the PCs hired to help, one of the PCs as a friend to a lost miner and one of the PCs as a town local. This helped the story along in quite a few ways.

The adventure was written for version 3.0, though requires little to no addition to make it playable under 3.5. In fact, the few tiny errors in the writing lead me to believe that the adventure may have been at least partially written before the release of 3.0 entirely. For example, the open lock skill is referred to as “Open Locks” and the mayor of the town is listed as being a “Nob5” instead of “Ari5.” It seems a safe bet to assume that these are no errors so much as things that were changed prior to the system release.

On the whole, the adventure is pretty good. There are few plot holes that a good DM couldn’t cover up and the story is fairly believable. The only real issue I take with the adventure is that the disease is extremely easy for a PC with a low Fortitude save to contract, and difficult for them to throw off. At 1d4 Con damage per day, it can be a potential killer for 1st level PCs that are forced to rest between encounters.

Still, I’d wholeheartedly recommend The Burning Plague for any DM. The obvious benefit is that it’s a free download, so the group has more money to spend on snacks. A secondary benefit is that it is short enough that the group is not likely to gain a level during the adventure, so it makes for a good means for the party to gain a little bit of XP before they move on to a bigger, tougher adventure. Another benefit is that it’s written with a new DM in mind, as it constantly points things out and gives the DM reminders that generally aren’t present in higher-level adventures. Lastly, it’s just a well-written story that has the potential to spawn several dozen plot hooks.

The Sunless Citadel

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The Sunless Citadel

Author: Bruce R. Cordell
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Level: 4 1st level PCs
ISBN: 0-7869-1640-0
Pages: 32
Rating: 8 out of 10
Retail Price: $14.95

The Sunless Citadel is the first in a series of adventures designed to take an average party from 1st level to 20th level. It was released almost simultaneously with the release of 3.0 D&D. As such, it’s written for version 3.0, and requires a few minor changes to make it compatible with version 3.5. The adventure is suitable for four characters of 1st level, and should advance such a party to 2nd or even 3rd level before the adventure’s end.

The rundown is that the town of Oakhurst lies within a short distance of an old castle. This castle used to be home to an ancient dragon cult, but sank into a ravine that opened in the earth beneath it. Goblin banditry in the area has grown so bad that the old road that used to pass by the castle has fallen into disuse. A number of plot hooks are offered, but the one most likely to used for parties not native to Oakhurst is that two teenage children from an important merchant family decided to try their hand at adventuring and took off for the citadel. They have not returned, and their mother offers the PCs a reward for finding them (or bringing back their rings so she has the peace of mind to know they’re dead). The search is complicated due to the fact that a tribe of kobolds has made the citadel their residence, resulting in a guerrilla war between the kobold tribe and a tribe of goblins. To make matters worse, an evil druid inhabits a cavern beneath the citadel, breeding strange plant creatures. If things go smoothly, the PCs ally with the kobold tribe and receive information and a measure of assistance to help them defeat or bypass the goblin tribe. After this, they confront the druid and destroy his local power source.

I have participated in The Sunless Citadel both as a player and as a DM. It’s an extremely easy adventure to run as a DM because it was designed to aid a new DM and help teach him the rules of the game. As a player, it can be somewhat of a challenge, if not handled with the utmost care, but there is plenty of reward to justify the challenge.

I’d definitely recommend The Sunless Citadel to any DM, especially one new to the game. It requires a little bit of updating to make it compatible with version 3.5, but such work is worth it for the adventure that would result. Players new to the game should also get a real benefit from the adventure, since it provides a good mix of challenges that compliment the abilities of just about every character class. Additionally, if they look closely, the PCs might find a built-in lead to the next adventure in the series, The Forge of Fury.

The Ruins of Rackfall

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The Ruins of Rackfall

Author: Jarad Fennell
Publisher: Monkeygod Enterprises
Level: 4 7th level PCs
ISBN: 0-9708094-8-4
Pages: 36
Rating: 3 out of 10
Retail Price: $9.95

The Ruins of Rackfall is an adventure written for D&D version 3.0 by Monkeygod Enterprises. It is suitable for a party of 7th level characters. The basic premise of the adventure is that a woman named Alistene Krineweld has disappeared under obviously bad circumstances. The city she lived in is extremely xenophobic to anyone except humans, so her husband, being an elf, has been tried and convicted of her murder. Unfortunately for him, he’s innocent, though no one except his personal assistant believes him. The truth of the matter is that Alistene has been kidnapped by a barghest with a small army of goblins under his control. Upset over her husband’s constant infidelity, she has allowed herself to be seduced by the creature and has no desire to return home.

Should things go their way, the PCs should become involved and after a bit of investigation, be put on the trail of the real kidnapper, who currently resides in an ancient dwarven stronghold a week away from town in the mountains. After making it through the trials posed by their journey, they will have to sneak into the fortress without giving their presence away, locate Alistene and somehow convince her to sneak away with them to liberate her husband from the hangman’s noose.

This adventure was written for version 3.0, so will require some degree of work to update it to version 3.5. Unfortunately, an interested DM will also have his work cut out for him figuring out fixes for some of the bad mechanics the adventure includes. For example, at one point, the adventure calls for a “speak goblin language skill check, DC 12.” Additionally, there are areas of the adventure that show an ineptitude on the author’s part. There are places in the flavor text that tell the players how their PCs are supposed to feel and in one place, the PCs’ guide tells them he’s “never been this far upriver,” yet a few days further up the river, he’s able to lead them to their destination flawlessly.

I think the adventure might be worth the work for a DM that is confident enough with his knowledge of the rules to both update the adventure and correct the errors. For anyone that is looking for an easy, “plug and play” adventure, though, I’d suggest skipping The Ruins of Rackfall.

A Lion In The Ropes

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A Lion In The Ropes

Author: Stephen Chenault
Publisher: Troll Lord Games
Level: 4-8/ 2-4 level PCs
ISBN: 0-9702397-5-0
Pages: 22
Rating: 8 out of 10
Retail Price: $6.00

A Lion In The Ropes is an adventure written shortly after the release of D&D version 3.0 and published by Troll Lord Games. It is set in a specific campaign world, called Erde, though there was little campaign-specific material, and nothing that couldn’t be easily changed. The adventure is suitable for 4-8 characters of 2nd to 4th level.

The adventure takes place within an area roughly five miles square that contains three neighboring villages. Within recent months, people have come up missing, only to have their mutilated bodies found later, washed up on the bank of a local river. The villagers have found large feline footprints in the area and have reason to believe that a cat-like demon is stalking the area. At the same time, unquiet spirits begin manifesting themselves at a local cathedral, unbeknownst to the villagers. Finally, a bandit lord and his followers have recently moved into the area and are terrorizing the local roads. The only source of security the three village have is their protector lord, who is protector in name only, since he is now at the venerable age of 101. Clearly, brave heroes are needed in the area.

This adventure was interesting to me because unlike the average adventure, there is more than one issue happening simultaneously. These issues confuse and blend with each other, making the situation seem a bit more real and less scripted. I had few negative issues with the adventure, with the only one of note being the inclusion of a non-core race called ungern, which I imagine must be specific to the setting this adventure was written for. If it bothers the DM as it bothers me, it would be a simple matter to replace the ungern bandits with orcs.

All in all, I’d say that A Lion In The Ropes is a pretty complete adventure. It might be a little bit tough for the minimum given party structure (four 2nd level PCs), but such a party is almost guaranteed to advance in level by the end of the adventure. With a minimal amount of work, A Lion In The Ropes could be suited to just about any gaming group, and I would definitely consider running it in my own game.

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