Dragon Magazine #364

You will have noticed that I’m running a little behind on my reviews of fourth edition products. I think it’s obvious that I’m not going to go into everything in as great a depth as I currently am with Player’s Handbook 1. However, I do want to take a look at all the releases, even if I can only spend a small amount of time to write something about them.

Which brings me to Dragon magazine. I last looked at this magazine in the hey-day of second edition, when I obsessively sought out Darksun articles from any source. I largely ignored it throughout third edition, have decided that I already had about a 1000% more material than I could possibly used in the printed books I had bought, without opening another can of worms. Plus there was always the nagging opinion that Dragon didn’t really matter as much as the books; that the material inside it was somehow less worthy of attention or incorporation in the unending game.

Fourth edition has changed all that. Dragon (and Dungeon) are now electronic journals. New material is added on a weekly basis over at the Wizard’s website, which is then drawn together into a single PDF at the end of the month. All the material is scrutinised to the same level as material that finds its way into the printed books (whether you find that reassuring or laughable is up to you). All the articles expand upon things that the printed works don’t have the time or the page count for. They present new options, new powers. In short, they do matter. And I will be making full use of them.

As I type this, the magazines are free – but this will not be the case for very much longer. Even though the more technical applications of DDI (the Gaming Table, the Character Creator and so on) are not ready, Wizards will start charging for their e-journals very soon. My guess is that they will start charging for content from #368. If you pony up the cash for a whole year’s subscription then it’ll cost $4.95 per month. That’s £2.50 at the current exchange rate. Considering both Dragon and Dungeon magazines were retailing at about £7.00 each in the UK when they printed, I consider this something of a bargain.

What I would like you all to realise is that because Dragon and Dungeon aren’t working toward a specific page count, they can afford to be slightly more indulgent regarding both the material that appears, and the length of time they spend on it. This has led to the articles in the magazines being really rather good. I’ve been impressed with almost everything I’ve read so far, which is saying a lot considering the miserable old curmudgeon that I have become.

So, let’s look at issue #364. I won’t dwell on everything in insane detail, just the highlights. Although, in this issue of Dragon there are a lot of highlights:

Yeenoghu, Demon Prince of Gnolls

Always good to start with a tongue-twister. Yeenoghu has a pretty impressive pedigree in D&D. He’s been around for a long time, and has popped up in every incarnation of the game. His power and importance has waxed and waned, and there’s a nice section at the beginning of the article on the history of Yeenoghu.

Fourth edition views gods, demon lords and archdevils as sets of stats for PCs to carve into. After all, Orcus has a stat block in the new Monster Manual. He is intended to be a credible opponent for a party of five 30th level PCs. Yeenoghu isn’t quite as powerful as Orcus. The hyena-headed god is listed as 28th level, and his Aspect (what we might have called an avatar in second edition) is 22nd level. Still fairly respectable. Although I don’t really see the need for either his stats or his combat tactics, I suppose I’ll forgive D&D this little extravagance.

Once we’re past the number crunching there’s a very nice and informative article of Yeenoghu’s primary minions, his ambitions, his cult and his extraplanar realm. There are even instructions on how servants of Yeenoghu sacrifice their victims. Marvellous! This is just the sort of detail I want to see. The rest of the article is stat-light, and information-heavy. There’s enough material to see me through a good sized campaign.

This is exactly the sort of material that we should have for Orcus, but this runs for twelve pages and there is no way that one entry could command that much space in a fourth edition monster manual. This is why Dragon magazine serves such an exalted purpose. If I want to use clerics or servants of Yeenoghu then I now know exactly where to come for their goals and their practices. Nicely done.

Vor Kragal, City of Ash

Vor Kragal was once a tiefling city, ruined in their long war against the dragonborn. Even if you don’t subscribe to that history (and I don’t) this article still provides a great deal of food for thought. The article describes the city at the height of its power, and delves into the wasted ruin that it has become. There are some very nice ideas here.

I won’t go into too much detail, as there is much of Vor Kragal that is worth pillaging for Iourn. I will say that this article is good example of the things the new Dragon magazine is trying to achieve. It takes something from the 4e game that is a generally unknown quantity, in this case the new tiefling race, and fleshes it out in rich and satisfying fashion. There are few game mechanics here (a couple of new artefacts, though), it’s all about the history and the hooks for adventure.

Playing Warforged

The jewel in the crown of Dragon #364? It has been said, often by me, that we don’t have enough races or classes to choose from in fourth edition. Presented over ten pages, are all the rules you need for playing a warforged PC in fourth edition. There is a detailed description of the race, lists of racial feats for the heroic, paragon and epic tiers (which is one up on any race from PHB1), a detailed look at the warforged origins, racial paragon paths and a whole host of new equipment designed for your warforged PC.

For those of you not in the know, the warforged is a product of the Eberron campaign setting. They are living constructs – magical androids if you will. They were built to fight in a great war, but somehow gained sentience. On Eberron they have only been emancipated from enforced servitude in the last human generation. They are new race, one that is extremely curious about the wholly alien world of the living. They cannot reproduce, they can only experience and they live in fear of an end to that experience.

The background history of the race presented in Dragon is a ‘genericised’ version of the Eberron history, edited and adapted to fit into the assumed setting. This seeks to point out how easy it is to use warforged in most settings, and they will certainly be making an appearance on Iourn very soon. I have resisted the tempatation to use them up until now.

In third edition, the warforged suffered from having an enormous laundry list of abilities and resistances that stemmed from their nature as semi-constructs. They were immune to poison and mind-affecting magic to name but two. Fourth edition levels the playing field between the warforged and other races. Few races have that level of immunity any more, and the 4e warforged succeeds in retaining the flavour of the original without sacrifcing what makes the race unique.

Well, that’s what I think anyway. As I never saw a third edition warforged in play, I have nothing but the naked stats to compare the two. Maybe this is for the best. The warforged are a very interesting race, and I can think of some of my players that were born to play warforged. Of maybe they were just born warforged, which would actually explain a good many things come to think about it.

The availability of another player character race is something to celebrate. I suspect the warforged will eventually appear in the Eberron Player’s Handbook – but as that isn’t out until at least July 2009 I think we should be glad to have the stats for it now. Of course, the warforged did appear as one of the playable races from the back of the Monster Manual but it was in nothing approaching this depth. The text of the racial power has also been changed between the two sources. I would favour the Dragon one, given the choice.

Alchemical Imbalance

But I save the best until last. What, the best – better than the article on the Warforged? You betcha. Alchemical Imbalance is a wonderful article by Bruce Cordell and Chris Sims about a tribe of goblins who are using alchemy and alchemically changed allies to conquer the world. Well, that’s their ultimate goal – they’re starting small.

I won’t go into too much detail about the content as I love it too much not to use it, but I will mention the presentation and approach of the article. This text introduces numerous new monsters and aberrations, but doesn’t bother to give them stats, it merely gives the GM a nice long list of monsters and advice on now to modify their appearances but keep their abilities and role intact. I’ve used this tactic as a GM for a while: take the stats from monster, change the description and the players suddenly don’t have a clue what they’re fighting. It’s good advice, and very timely at the beginning of a new edition where there simply isn’t the weath of resources to draw upon.

Secondly, and importantly the mini-adventure that accompanies the description of the tribe can be completed from start to finish without once engaging in combat. Certainly it’s a dangerous adventure, but the PCs don’t have to fight. After a succession of terrible adventures that would have seemed hackneyed 20 years ago, it’s such a relief to see something more sophisticated.

And the rest…

Well, there’s a suitably creepy Eberron article, some illusion spells for wizards (these were largely absent from PHB1) and even an article set in the Darksun campaign setting. This bodes well for Darksun being the campaign setting released in 2010. I was looking forward to the article, but it was just a few pages on some killer Athasian cacti. Useful, but I wanted more.

Anyway, that is Dragon #364. Much better than anything WIzards has so far released for 4e in a print. You’d be crazy not to download these issues while they’re still free.

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