"... what is the purpose of playing fantasy role-playing games if not, or eventually, to find and gently -- or sometimes joltingly -- continue pulling back its many-colored curtain to discover those areas moving behind it otherwise unplumbed and which temptingly beckon us to taste of their equally rich enchantments as we have done with their other flavorful parts?So begins Daemonic & Arcane, another new product released by Rob Kuntz's Pied Piper Publishing this month and one that comes much closer to meeting my idiosyncratic expectations. Like The Stalk, it's not a bound book, but a collection of 15 loose pages, plus a cover sheet with some very evocative art by Eric Bergeron. Of those 15 pages, one is the Open Game License, one is an introduction by Kuntz, and two are reproductions of his original notes. That leaves 11 pages devoted to describing over two dozen magic items from what is termed throughout the text as "the Original Campaign," meaning the Greyhawk campaign of which Kuntz was co-DM with Gary Gygax. The product sells for $10.95, which, again, I think is a bit high when one considers that it's not even staple-bound. The price will almost certainly ensure that its buyers are primarily a small group of devoted gamers interested in the history of the hobby.
That's a shame, because its content is excellent. The magic items included in this product are interesting on numerous levels, first and foremost because they're artifacts of the years between 1973 and 1983, which correspond very closely to the Golden Age of D&D. These are items rich in history and long-time fans of the game will be fascinated by items like the Iron Bands of N'Closur, the Scepter of King Robert I, and the Steps of Zayene, among many others. Even better, Kuntz includes asides -- "Author's Historical Commentary" -- and endnotes for many of the items, so as to share bits of information and trivia that pertain to the how and why of an item's creation and, in some cases, which player's character first obtained it.
The items themselves are extremely clever and are evidence of a type of game design one doesn't see very often anymore. They're are quirky, mysterious, and often dangerous. That is, these aren't "assembly line" magic items; they possess a uniqueness to them that recalls the artifacts and relics of Eldritch Wizardry and the Dungeon Masters Guide, even if their potency is (generally) not on par with those famed works of magic (although a few possess a similar degree of customization). Many of the items function somewhat randomly or have hidden abilities whose functioning is not immediately apparent. Indeed, Kuntz notes that the aforementioned Iron Bands of N'Closur, for example, possessed abilities never discovered in the Original Campaign. I can't help but find this endearing, as I've often remarked in this blog how much I like magic that defies easy categorization and shows signs of having "a life of its own."
Daemonic & Arcane is a very good product. Its primary weakness is its presentation, which is very rough and not at all what I would have expected after the amazing presentation of The Original Bottle City last year. Nevertheless, it does provide a number of useful insights into the early days of the hobby and one of its earliest campaigns, for which I am grateful. Likewise, the magic items Kuntz presents here should serve as great examples for old school referees everywhere. They're novel, puzzling, and, above all, magical. They're more than mere loot; many have the potential to inspire adventures of their own and keep the characters -- and their players -- guessing for some time to come. To my mind, that's just what magic items should do in D&D and something they haven't in a long time. I only wish either the pricing or the presentation of this excellent product could be changed so as to make it more appealing to a wider audience. Goodness knows fantasy RPGs could do with more ideas like the ones contained in Daemonic & Arcane.
Final Score: 4½ out of 5 polearms