Magazine Review: Kobold Quarterly, Spring 2011 Issue 17

When I received the latest Kobold Quarterly, I have to say I had to take a good hard look at the cover. There’s a lot going on in this painting by Allison Theus. The first question that came to mind was “What the heck *IS* that thing?” It’s impossible not to notice that the warrior woman with the spear seems to be traveling straight into an open maw with far too many teeth. But perhaps she’s just going to be doing some dental services, offering the spear as a toothpick? The kobold carrying the lantern is providing some illumination on any cavities found and the pick-wielding dwarf might be ready to chisel out any cavities found… Somehow I doubt that’s the case, but you never know!

After that I dove into the content… Wolfgang’s editorial about Villainy kicks off the issue with a bang. Who doesn’t love a good bad guy? As a GM, I was aways fascinated with the “other side” of the gaming equation. Behind the scenes of every campaign, the world should be alive with NPCs. Sure, the PCs should be at the center of the storm, but who’s manipulating the storm? Dark forces need a face, a name, a voice… As Wolfgang says, “the bad guys are the selfish, narcissistic, greedy, power-hungry, controlling NPCs — and the best ones don’t know they’re evil.” These are the villains you love to play because they’re not cut and dried, black-and-white guys in black hats. Who’s your favorite bad guy?

The theme continues with Michael Kortes’ article – “So we meet again!” Memorable, recurring villains. These are the guys who love to stick it to the PCs. Sherlock Holmes had Moriarty. James Bond had Dr. No (and many others). And the best villains always have a back-up plan to escape certain doom at the last possible moment. Adding an “Adversary” mechanic enables the PCs and the GMs, after a slimy villain has escaped the PCs’ clutches, to designate that NPC as a nemesis. Then, if the PCs encounter the nemesis again, each side of the equation has a new ability they can use.

I love this idea, as it reinforces the shared storytelling aspect of a good campaign. For example, if the players are dealing with a minor adversary, they can choose abilities such as “Ears to the Ground,” which grants the PCs a bonus when gathering information about their nemesis. Or “Fool Me Once,” which gives them a better chance of sensing when one side of the equation is trying to manipulate a situation. The GM will choose the ability for the nemesis (and doesn’t have to tell the players) and the players collectively choose an ability for the group. Not every foe faced should be given this treatment, but it would certainly beef up some of the “bad guy cred” and keep things interesting for recurring foes!

With “The Right Way to Do Wrong” by Brandon Hodge, we learn a few classic swindles for GMs and PCs to try in-game. The entire article made me think of Leverage on TNT when the characters mention a classic con. Grifters (con-men and women) have always existed in human history. People willing to prey on the weak minded to get what they want, from money and goods to fame and power. Can you imagine stealing a bard’s instrument from right under their nose? Or cheating some hard working blacksmith out of hard earned gold pieces? These are well documented and would drive me nuts at a gaming table, so I expect them to be used soon…

In “The Scourges of Vael Turog” by Stefen Styrsky, we learn of some ugly contagions used to kill arcane spellcasters. These diseases cause warped things to occur during casting. For example, “Mage’s Bane” causes psychic damage whenever he casts a spell. Imagine the headache that would cause during a battle… Or a trap that seeps damage from anyone carrying magic items. But my favorites are the “sentient diseases” like the “Black Phage,” which seems nearly impossible to combat. Or the “Death Phage” which can spread clouds of necrotic damage to anyone in range. Long story short, you might want to keep an eye out for ugly things wanting to consume more than your flesh…

I love learning what makes some of the people tick who work in RPGs… Jeremy L. C. Jones managed to interview Origins-award winner Jeff Tidball in “Know Why You Play.” Though I’m not familiar with Tidball’s work he seems to have nearly boundless energy, working on things from card games and video games to more traditional RPGs with multimedia elements. A degree on screenwriting seems to have served him well on games like Trail of Cthulhu, Dragon Age 2, and much more. Jones covered a wide range of topics including advice for freelancers, tools and techniques, and the importance of collaboration (with his Gameplaywright partner Will Hindmarch).

The Pathfinder Society adventure – “Ambush in Absalom” by Mark Moreland – would fit with little modification into just about any city-based adventure. Sewers are always fun to traipse around in, especially when you’re on a rescue mission. A group of well organized kobolds defending a particular section of sewer should be enough to offer a bit of resistance to even the best adventurers on quest. This sort of brief adventure could be helpful to drop into a campaign if you need a minor dungeon crawl or if you’re part of the “Pathfinder Society Organized Play” campaign from Paizo. You can never have enough sewer maps as far as I’m concerned!

Along the same (but very different) lines, Quinn Murphy’s article “On the Streets and In the Books,” though based in the Dragon Age RPG, could be useful to just about any Pathfinder or D&D adventure as well. The idea of a “Chase scene” is one that comes up over and over in RPGs, whether you’re chasing a thug or critter through the woods, streets, or a spaceship. I like the idea of having a mechanic to help guide choices during one of these potentially prolonged scenarios. Just as important, PCs doing research can make or break an adventure. Though you want the PCs to find what they’re looking for, sometimes it helps to introduce a bit of randomness to see how long it takes. I seem to recall getting lost in a few collegiate libraries over the years, so I can only imagine doing the same in a campaign.

The rest of the magazine offers several other juicy tidbits:

  • Matthew J. Hanson’s “Elf Needs Food Badly” article about fantasy foods helps get beyond the “Waybread” I think most elves eat like Oreos. Magical creamed spinach? Electric eel sushi? Pickled aboleth? These aren’t things you find in your usual grocery store shelves!
  • Monks have always been a fascinating topic for me in D&D. I remember the various titles of monks in 1st edition AD&D being particularly intriguing – the idea that only one “Grand Master of Flowers” might exist at a given time offers an adventure path for all monks to aspire to. And in “Secrets of the Four Golden Gates,” David Adams offers details on a few new societies for 4e monks. From the Ascetics to the Path of Singing Sparrows, each of the three groups provides a bit of background and an item specific to their discipline. I think I need to learn how to play the Damru Drum now…
  • Monte Cook’s “The Value of the Monster” goes along with the villainy thread from earlier. Monsters definitely have a place in some stories. Sometimes the inhuman qualities of a creature are just as scary as a demented humanoid on the warpath, but I tend to think nothing is scarier than a character doing the wrong things for the right reasons. There may not always be Grendels in the world, but the concept of a Hitler will always give me the heeby-jeebies. But after thinking about it, maybe I prefer the horrific monsters to the real thing.
  • In “Magical Squibs, Crackers, and Fireworks,” Jonathan McAnulty offers some ideas for introducing magical fireworks into a game. I’m always leery of adding gunpowder to an already volatile mix, but the concept of a band of kobolds shooting a bunch of firecrackers into a group of PCs might be enough to make me change my mind. Do you think a few “Shrieking Rockets” fired directly at a PC might get their attention?
  • Tom Allman’s “Lackeys, Hirelings, and Henchmen” gave me a much better appreciation for all the little people who make life in a game campaign come to life. Now that I know the difference between the three types of workers,
    I may need to have my next character hire a lackey!
  • And Scott A. Murray’s “It’s Not Supposed to End This Way” provides six different answers for the age-old question – “What do I do when my character dies?” I’ve fought this more than I’m willing to admit, with a few characters exiting the world much quicker than I might have liked. I’d much rather had my wizard who was butchered by wolfen in a Palladium Fantasy campaign suffer a “Traumatic Memory” he had to get over rather than bleed to death on a high mountain pass…

Once again the kobolds have put together an amazing collection of useful tricks, tidbits, and food for thought in Kobold Quarterly, Spring 2011 Issue 17. Every time I get an issue, I learn something new. What more can you ask for from a magazine? Check out KQ17 at the KQ store, RPGNow, or DriveThruRPG today!

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