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Once again, an issue filled with Epic WinCharles Carrier —
This issue of Kobold Quarterly has a distinct slant toward demons and devils, which is quite fitting for a Halloween issue. However, if fiends from the lower planes aren’t your thing, don’t despair – this issue also has over a dozen articles covering a wide variety of non-infernal topics. Let’s look at a few of them first.
What does your older brother plus a water balloon have in common with spreading dread amongst your players? More than you might think. The connection is explained, very eloquently and entertainingly, by Steve Winter in his Howling Tower article, “Real Scares, 11 Techniques for Creating a Strong Horror Atmosphere at the Table.” And no, absolutely none of the techniques involve hiring your older brother to ambush your players with water balloons.
James Thomas brings us “A Few Suggestions, 8 Ways to Influence Weak Minds.” With humor, concise examples, and even a Star Wars reference, Mr. Thomas shows that the humble suggestion spell is unfairly neglected by GM and players alike. And of course, he also shows how to easily remedy that neglect.
“Slithering in Moonlight” by Marc Radle is a guide to using Lamia Commoners as player characters. In addition, he also explores lamias in a way that recalls the excellent “Ecology Of…” articles from back in the print-edition days of Dragon Magazine. Whether as prospective PC’s or just as better-developed foes, this article improves the usefulness of lamias. Also, I thought the story fragment used to introduce this article was particularly effective.
“The Gauntlet Witch” by Morgan Boehringer and Jim Wettstein is an archetype that lets characters mix martial and magical arts. This is the most well-developed archetype description I’ve ever seen. Most archetypes are described in a couple of short paragraphs which say “swap this power for that power.” That’s not the case here. Brace yourself for a detailed, in-depth discussion.
This issue includes two adventures: The first adventure, “Devil’s Food” by Michael Lane, is suitable for a 6th level group. It involves autumn festivals, chocolate, and some wonderfully nasty gnomes. This adventure is set in the world of Midgard, but as with all good adventure modules, some careful name changes will let you securely place it in your own world.
The second adventure, “The Urge to Evolve” by Adam Daigle is a Pathfinder Society Quest. It is nicely compact, should be playable in the course of a single game session, and even includes a sidebar suggesting how to scale it for your group.
I do have one nit to pick with both these adventures. Both use the “I have a job for you” setup, which is one of my least-favorite ways to start an adventure. However, this complaint reflects my personal prejudice rather than any flaw in the adventures themselves, both of which looks like they will be properly entertaining.
Now let’s look at a sampling of the Fiendish Articles:
“Dispater” by Wes Schneider provides everything you need to bring this Arch-Fiend to life in your campaign. Giving major foes a real personality and complex, understandable motives can be quite a challenge … for me, anyway, but apparently not for Mr. Schneider. He shows exactly how to do it for this iconic arch-devil. He has even included a sidebar on the real-world history of Dispater.
Ed Greenwood gives us “Pages from Asmodeus”, a book unlike any I have ever heard of before. This evil object is more imaginative and intriguing than any of the Artifacts from back in 1st Edition days, yet it is suitable for use with a group of almost any level.
“Selling Your Soul” by Rodrigo García Carmona presents a detailed and excellent set of rules to guide both GM’s and players in striking a Fiendish Bargain. I am not familiar with the Age system for which this article was written, but that doesn’t matter. The information in this article is so clearly and logically presented that I know I’ll have no trouble at all adjusting it for use in my 3E/PF game.
Please be assured, I enjoyed all the articles in this issue, even the ones I didn’t choose to mention here. Every article had something interesting, useful, or entertaining to say.
I'll still be using this years from now!Charles Carrier —
The first thing to notice about this book is its beautiful cover art. The next thing to notice is it size - it is just shy of three hundred pages. Even though I received a reviewer’s copy a few days ago, it is so massive that I’m still just scratching the surface. It is also staggeringly imaginative - not surprising, as there were a hundred or more people contributing ideas for Midgard’s editors to pick through and use.
This book has all the things you expect and need from a campaign setting: Regions, races, geography, culture, gods and pantheons, customs, trade, technology, maps, new feats and regional traits, new magic items, new spells, political intrigue, wars… The list of things that need to be discussed to do justice to Midgard seems endless. However, the time and space to discuss them aren’t. So, to keep this review manageable, here are my three favorite discoveries so far:
Ley Lines: Mythology and literature often describe certain “places of power”, where magic is stronger or stranger then elsewhere. While there has never been anything stopping DM’s from creating such locations, early FRPG’s offered little to no support for this idea. Current editions do noticeably better, but still leave most of the details up to individual GM’s, offering encouragement but scant guidance. The Midgard Campaign Setting has richly developed the idea of ley lines. Descriptions, tables, and imagination positively drip from the pages. Want to surprise your players with some locations where magic takes on a life of its own? Here it is, all laid out and ready for you to use.
Divine Masks: Sometimes, the gods are not who they seem to be. I’m particularly happy with this idea for three reasons: First, it’s historically accurate. The Romans used a concept very similar to this when they wanted to reconcile their ideas of how the gods worked with their neighbors’ ideas of how the gods worked. (“Minerva? Sure the Egyptians worship her just like we do, but they call her Isis.”) Second, I’ve never seen it used, mentioned, or even hinted at in any FRPG until now. In other words, from a gaming perspective, this idea is 100% novel and new! Third, masks help restore a sense of mystery, power, and grandeur to the gods; something they’ve struggled to maintain ever since the first printing of “Deities Demigods and Heroes” rolled off the presses almost forty years ago. I think this idea is going to help GM’s make the religions of their world more vibrant, interesting, and meaningful.
Portability: Since Midgard is an integrated, self-contained campaign setting, I wasn’t really sure at first how much of it could be harvested for use in my own world. To my great delight I have found that most, maybe all, of the basic ideas in this book are portable. As I already mentioned, Ley Lines and Divine Masks can easily be used in anyone’s current game world. Even entire regions can be transplanted if you so desire. Portability is important to me because that’s how I use almost all gaming supplements: I extract the ideas and fit them into my already-existing campaign. Portability means the Midgard Campaign Setting is valuable to me even though I’m not planning to give up my own homebrew world. I can use the vast amount of information and ideas in this book to make my own world better.
I leave you with three conclusions I’ve come to regarding Midgard.
Conclusion #1: Everything I’ve read adheres to the exceptional quality I’ve come to expect from Kobold Quarterly’s Open Design process.
Conclusion #2: This book will provide many weeks of enjoyment simply from reading it to discover all its secrets.
Conclusion #3: Once you begin actually using its secrets in your game, it will provide many years of additional enjoyment.
Another Excellent IssueCharles Carrier —
I think you'll like it; I certainly did! Here's why:
KQ 22 starts off with the most magnificent devil article I’ve read in a very long time. Although described as an arch-devil for Pathfinder’s Golarion setting, the description of Barbatos is wonderfully portable to any other FRPG setting. For those of you running a non-PF game there are a couple of stat blocks to convert if you want Barbatos or his special minions to make a personal appearance for your players, but any good DM (uh, sorry, I mean GM) can handle that task without batting an eye.
One of the things I like most about this article is that it explains, in detail, how devils manage to lure in followers. Unlike in the real world, in a fantasy world the horrible consequence of following evil are obvious. So why would anyone but the most insane or depraved ever turn to evil? This article explicitly describes how and why that happens. Do you want the diabolic servants opposing your players to have some variety, rather than being just another set of crazed cultists? Do you want your villains to have easily-understandable (and often tragic) back-stories? Do you want them to feel real, and be believable? Then this article is for you!
Next is an article on Dragonkin, written for 4th Edition D&D. This is a rules-heavy article so if you want to use it in a non-4E game there will be a lot of conversion work, but if you like Dragonkin it will be worthwhile. Brian A. Liberge, the author, has given us a variety of interesting and flavorful Dragonkin powers that are useful without being overpowered. (To be fair, I don’t know enough about 4E rules to be absolutely sure they aren’t overpowered in their native system. However, the few I’ve converted so far look pretty safe in my 3.5 game.)
“Dwarven Magical Rings” by John E. Ling, Jr. provides fifteen new magical rings to enrich your game. They have a wide and imaginative range of powers, for both combat and non-combat uses. In my opinion this article ties with “Barbatos” for best article in this issue. Because the meat of this article is rife with Pathfinder magic item stat blocks, you’ll need to do some conversion if you want to use this article in a non-PF game. However, I think you’ll find all of these items are worth the effort
One of the things I really appreciated about Dragon Magazine back in its heyday was that it covered every RPG system out there. Dragon belonged to TSR, but the editors were perfectly happy to publish articles on other company’s games - even games that were in direct competition with D&D. I was able to extract ideas from Castles & Crusades, Runequest, Divine Right, Empire of the Petal Throne, and many more whose names I no longer remember, but whose influence helped make me a better Dungeon Master. It was useful then, and it is useful today, to see the approaches taken by other game systems.
I mention this because KQ22 has articles for several game systems beyond the “standard” 4E and PF. “Monsters of Morphoi” is written about an adventure currently being developed for Pathfinder, but this article presents the stat blocks that you would need for Castles & Crusades. Rob Heinsoo’s article “The Escalation Die” is written for 13th Age rules, but is so portable to other systems that its article tag lists 4E and PF in addition to 13th AGE. Rodrigo Garcia Carmona uses the Dragon Age system to give us “Weapons for a New AGE”, discussing the always-controversial mixing of gunpowder with Sword and Sorcery. However, I think the controversy over this article will be low, because Mr. Carmona does such a good job of introducing the new material.
Of course there are also plenty of system-neutral articles, useful to all RPG players and game masters. “The GM’s Influence on Character”, by Monte Cook, discusses an all-pervasive but rarely considered aspect of interaction between PC’s and the game world. Steve Winter’s Howling Tower article “Total Party Kill” talks about what to do when you see the dreaded TPK looming on the horizon. True, some weenie GM’s rejoice at the thought of “winning” by killing all the PC’s, but real GM’s dread this event as much as the players do.
P.S. There are a number of articles I didn’t mention in this review. Just because I skipped an article doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. For example, I am intensely pleased to see Elven Archer Magic in print, but I didn’t think it would be fair for me to review that particular article.
Most valuable game aid yetCharles Carrier —
One of the best web columns I’ve ever encountered is Richard Pett’s “Your Whispering Homunculus” on the Kobold Quarterly website. Up until now it has had only one drawback: Being a web column, it is darn hard to keep track of the individual articles. That problem has now been solved. Herein nearly three dozen articles have been assembled, so I can have them all in one place at last.
Why is “Whispering Homunculus” so valuable to me? Because it is a shortcut to adding a rich, verdant third dimension to my campaign world. Do you remember that section of the 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide called “Dungeon Dressing”? It was a long list of random stuff, odds and ends that could be expected to litter the floors of a dungeon. Instead of empty rooms being sterile, barren, and uninteresting, a bit of leftover flotsam and jetsam gave a sense that the room had history. It added depth and interest to the corners of the dungeon.
“Your Whispering Homunculus” does exactly the same thing, not just for a paltry few dungeon rooms but for the whole game world! In a well-written novel, not every character is concerned with the success or failure of the protagonist, and not ever bump in the road is a clue to solving the mystery. These lists give you, the Game Master, hundreds of wonderfully diverse ways to round out your world just like a well-written novel.
Of course, these lists contain more than just ways to dress up the corners of your campaign world. They also contain things that can be used to consternate your players. Especially if any of your players are particularly paranoid. Naturally, those are among my favorite items.
The articles collected herein are:
Sadly, nothing is perfect. One of the articles has a typo (it’s “ewe”, not “yew”). Also, there are some mysteriously blank pages. (I have the .pdf version, not the print version.) Don’t worry, nothing is missing; no information has been omitted. Looking at the page numbers I’m guessing that it was done so each article/chapter would start on the left-hand page in the print version. That’s fine, but it looks odd in a .pdf document. Despite the superfluous blank pages, the material presented here is grand.
This is certainly one of the most valuable game aids published in recent years – maybe even recent decades. I am already yearning for “Your Whispering Homunculus, volume II”.
Value on every pageCharles Carrier —
When I saw that the premier article in KQ #20 was “The Elven Archer” I was a bit disappointed. I’ve seen Elven Archer classes before and none of them ever really thrilled me. Still, KQ has always come through in the past, so I read on to see if the author (John E. Ling Jr.) had found some startlingly fresh approach.
Right on the first page Mr. Ling presents simple and quick ways to adapt this class into three excellent new variants: the Halfling Knife Thrower, the Human Archer, and the Crossbowman. Humans who are good with longbows? Who would have thought? Even though Robin Hood predates Legolas by about half a dozen centuries, it’s been way too many years since I’ve seen anyone writing about human longbowmen. As for crossbows, I can’t recall anyone ever paying any attention to this weapon before - even though it’s what brought fame to William Tell. (That’s right; William Tell used a crossbow, not a longbow! Google it if you have doubts.) As for the Halfling Knife Thrower, that one is going into my campaign right away.
Within the first dozen pages we get four articles for the price of one. Kobold Quarterly comes through again!
Dovetailing nicely with “The Elven Archer” is “Arrows of the Arbonesse”, which details nine new types of magical, mystical, and masterwork arrows. Now that “The Elven Archer” has gotten my creative juices flowing, it will be a snap to re-skin some of these arrows as throwing daggers for my new Halfling Knife Thrower.
The imagination level stays high with the next article, “Derro Ooze Magic”. This article gives us nine gooey new spells of levels 1 through 6. Oh, and it also delivers four types of slimy, blobby, mucus-covered familiars. I never would have thought of anything even remotely like this on my own. But now that someone else has thought of it for me, I know where I can use it in my game.
“Fey Hunters & Shadow Hounds” is possibly the most wicked article I have ever read! Author Christopher Bodan must truly be the Stephen King of dungeon masters. If you want to show your players what horror is really like, let them encounter this Shadow Fey wild hunt. Although written to match Open Design’s “Tales of the Old Margreve”, this adventure idea can be dropped into any deep mysterious forest you happen to have lying around. Run, little rabbit, run!
“Captured in the Cartways” is a great little adventure, set in the City of Zobeck but written in a general enough style that it would be equally at home in any fantasy city. It is a nice, compact, old-school dungeon crawl written by Christina Stiles, an experienced game designer. However, it has one serious flaw: It starts by requiring the entire party to be captured. In my experience, players will fight to the death rather than submit to a total-party-capture. So even though I like the main body of the adventure, I will have to totally replace the opening sequence before I can use it.
It also has one typo: The two undead kobolds in the crypt are described as wraiths on one page and as wights on the next page. This is not really a problem since context makes it obvious which they are supposed to be. Interestingly, this only adds to the old-school feel, since modules published by TSR often had similar little errors.
In “Putting the Party Back Together Again” Stefen Styrsky suggests a very unique approach to who the character are and how they know each other. While the theme explored in this article is common in adventure literature, I do not believe it has ever before been written about in connection with FRPG’s.
There are more than a dozen other articles, and they are all range from “very good” to “excellent”. Like “Small Spirits” by Matthew J. Hanson, one of my favorite articles in this issue. Why oh why didn’t I write about “Small Spirits” first, when I still had a whole blank page in front of me? It deserves so much more than a brief mention at the tail end of the review!
In short, there are no “skip over” articles in this issue. Even though not every article was 100% perfect, I found value on every page - either for use in my game or simply from the joy of reading about new ideas for my favorite hobby. This may be the best KQ yet. I can’t wait to see what the next issue is like.