Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Augury - Kobold Quarterly #20

A new year, a new summer (remember, I live in the south hemisphere) and a new Kobold Quarterly review copy at my (electronic) door… what can I say? It’s the perfect excuse for reopening this small tower. Let’s see this Winter Issue (#20) contents:

The Elven Archer brings a new base class to Pathfinder, one with lots of design elements that I’ve become quite found of late – to begin with, it’s a racial class and it breaks with the HD/BAB combinations common to Pathfinder (it has good BAB, but uses d8s as HD). Mechanically (and conceptually) speaking, the Elven Archer is very traditional class. It gains a precision damage bonus when targets are denied their Dexterity bonus, besides special knacks with bows (like close combat and flanking abilities). Like all classic elven classes, the Archer is also a spellcaster (although it uses the Ranger spell list). Overall, it’s a solid and easy-to-use class, good for practically all Pathfinder campaigns. After reading it I was tempted to change its spell list to the wizard/sorcerer (or maybe magus), as a homage to the famous Elf class from BECMI D&D.

Keeping with the pointy-eared flavor, Arrows of Arbonesse has 9 new types of magic arrows common to the elves of the Midgard campaign setting.

The next article is a combo breaker. Derro Ooze Magic presents a new bloodline, an arcane school, a familiar and a few spells, all about ooze. Definitely disgusting but also insightfully useful, specially the new spells.  It’s another article marked by great mechanics (the only odd part is the item’s blurb, which alludes to “New Discoveries and Archetypes for Alchemists”… probably a typo).

Servants from Beyond brings more cool stuff from inexhaustible author Mario Podeschi. We’re given full stats and background for the three lesser planar allies, together with flavorful and simple negotiation rules that will surely enrich any game.

Night Terrors is a small bestiary of the macabre, with four new and disturbing critters that will surely surprise even more jaded groups.

Putting the Band Back Together is one of my all-time favorite articles of Kobold Quarterly (and DRAGON, and White Dwarf etc.). It deals with a rare, but nonetheless fascinating topic – old adventurer groups that, years later, return to the field. I managed to do this theme only once, with a 9-year old Legend of the Five Rings campaign and it was a blast. The article provides classic examples and a short justification for the benefits of such games, together with new feats for “veterans” PCs. The feats are not always balanced (for example, Honed Skull let you ignore skill rank limitations) and require age categories as requisites, but they have such great names and flavor that it really becomes a minor point. I also declare that Ornery is the coolest feat ever! Putting the Band Back Together ends with a new quick template (Wizened Creature).

Fey Hunters and Shadow Hounds is a Pathfinder article providing Shadow Fey (from Midgard) tactics for hunting hapless adventurers. However, the first half of material is complete systemless which make it equally useful for groups using AGE or D&D 4th. The mechanical part is easy to convert (and the information boxes are very interesting). The fey hunting hounds template is a good departure from traditional Pathfinder templates, with a semblance of 4th Edition design.

AGE Specializations provides (duh!) 5 new specializations for the Dragon Age RPG system.

Kobold Quarterly #20 has a small Pathfinder adventurer located in Zobeck’s famous Cartways (for a 5th level group).

The Bardic Arts is the first 4th Edition article and presents a new (and additional) class feature for the bard. These extra abilities are quite small in scope (as far as a combat-centered game goes), but add a funny layer of flavor to the game, very faithful to the class’ concept (Carousing is a good example, especially if the DM likes to create clever complications to tavern brawls). Bardic Arts are as strong as backgrounds, requiring a little of DM’s adjudication (Carousing is again a good example). They may give the bard too much “social power”, although it’s important to point out that the author does provide an alternative to rebalance the class. Bardic Arts is a perfect example of a design niche neglected by the (now temporary) latest edition of D&D.

Small Spirits is an article with new primal material for D&D 4th Edition (there’re also Pathfinder rules, but they seem like a late add-on). Small Spirits details 5 primal entities, each one followed by background, adventure hooks and a boon. For those that play both games, the article may be of interest as a way to compare mechanics.

Unearthed Ancestry introduces new racial powers to minotaurs, gnomes and tieflings in D&D 4th.

Make Haste! introduces a neutral mechanic (usable for any game) to simulate the drama of character running against time to save the day. It’s, basically a tracking system, where the PCs accumulate haste points for succeeding at the various encounters of an adventure. Thus, the more haste points the better. For no clear reason, I find it a little counter-intuitive. It seems easier to give haste points for failing. That way after a certain number of haste points – 3, 6, 9 etc – the party would trigger detrimental effects.

Fish of Legend is a clever Pathfinder article about magic items “reskinned” as seafood. It shows an easy way to make a game more interesting without resorting to new powers or items.

Monte Cook’s Game Theories is about GM power and reads more like a small manifesto than an actual article. Lately Monte has been criticized for “lack of substance” and of 4E mechanics in his Legends & Lore columns at Wizards. Unfortunately The Power of the Game Master is not an exception to this trend. The result is that this article reads more like an introduction on GM power than on how actually handling the subject.

This issue’s interview with Christina Stiles is a refreshing reading because it doubles as a “how to get in the industry” article. Christina Stiles’s view of the hobby and her personal history of becoming a game writer are not only entertaining but inspiring (she also wrote Captured in the Cartways, the aforementioned adventure of this issue).

The last pages of each Kobold Quarterly bring a systemless article on the campaign setting of Midgard. This time we’re (finally!) presented a few details about the midgardian elves and their fallen realm of Arbonesse. Like many other aspects of Midgard, it’s the blend of classic high fantasy with more mature and darker themes that give the Arbonesse its freshness and originality (Midgard has teeth so to speak). Although small, it gives plenty of food for thought (dwarven slaves, otherworldly domains, a great twist to Tolkien’s “elves in exile” are just a few of Arbonesse’s traits).

I’m not going to waste words recommending this magazine to you. Actually, I believe these reviews do a better service describing each issue’s content. Kobold Quarterly is the de facto leader magazine for all things D&D/Pathfinder and fantasy, with the right mix of originality and tradition that made DRAGON and DUNGEON (prior to 4th-era) such great products.