Saturday, February 28, 2009

REVIEW: Daemonic & Arcane

"... 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

6 comments:

  1. Funny, but so far there has been little treasure and only a single magical item in my current game. Two that players missed. Main rreasure in the Dungeon was missed. Most of the wealth the party has found has been recovered from slain opponents - coppers, silvers, some well crafted camp life items. I gave the witch a wand of magic missiles and the priest innumerable cure light wounds spells so as to prop the 1st level novice party against a three level dungeon.

    It worked in the sense that instead of buyng plate mail armor for their fighters (The Baron on whose behalf they are fighting has given them his standard chain mail and field plate for the cleric), the playesr will have to decide if they ant to send their witch to a magical college to learn more spells or send the thief to the guild to upgrade his skills and get better bows for the two archers in the party. Economy of reward.

    On the side note, reading Steinbeck's King Arthur, I am working ona large section containing Steinbeck's correspondence with his editor and his co-author at the time he wa working on the project. And he said something mighty interesting, to nswer the sentiment of another comment about the ridiculousness of the PC notion that killing orcs is racist: Steinbeck wrote that modern man, unless very familiar with the historic period, will be so different from the thinking of the 15th Century man, as to make understandig impossible, to wit: People in 15t cetury, not to mention 8th and the 12th, were so ingrained in clas structure, that they considered clergy, noble born, and common man to be different species of being, as cows and horses, to the effect of believing that King is infallible, and any of King's shortcomings are a fault of his advisors. By the same token, medieval authors had no empathy whatsoever for the suffering of commoners vis a vie knights and ladies of the court, since commoners were considered to be a different species. This gave me insight into the D&D mythology -To a medieval person, there may be a cultured knight, a Welsh miner, a rotunf inn-keeper, his family fat off the cuttings in the tavern kitchen, and a peasant family with little ones crawling in a dugout hut with the wife slaving at the cauldron. To the medieval mind the effect would be the same as for the D&D player encounering a slender Elf, a jolly Dwarf, a prosperous Halfling/Hobbit, and a family of dirty Orcs living in a pig-sty. And while a modern player of D&D might look with disapproval as a robber-knight walks into the peasant hut, cuts down the wife and starts rummaging through the family belongings looking for treasure, this same player of D&D would not display similar sentiment about walking into a cave of Orcs, cutting down the adult defending its young, and then searcing the cave for treasure.

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  2. @ Brooze: Fascinating, please continue.

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  3. So in general I'm getting the sense that these products are very good but pricey for what you get - I mean all of them, not just Demonic & Arcane.

    RJK has in general done a pretty good job of recognizing that he's got two markets - collectors and history buffs on one hand, and then gamers on the other. It sounds like you're saying that by trying to catch both groups with one project he's come close to (or actually has) priced the gamers out of the market?

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  4. Kent,
    not much to say in this particular vein. When I was first starting my game world, I wanted to make it without demi-humans or humanoids, since I thought that they gamers created Orgs and Goblins as a way to dehumanize the enemy cannon fodder and make a game more of a guiltless pleasure. Then, as I immersed myself in Greyhawk, and somehow I prefer it to Forgotten Realms, I decided to introduce the humanoids as the foot soldiers in the border skirmishes that fuel combat in my game, but to give them a third dimension. There are very few demi-humans though, largely because a 900 year life span of the elves and 300 year spans of the Dwarves would make them D&D equivalents of the Prince Sauds and Astors, and my adventurers haven't reached a point, where the world would take notice of them, yet.

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  5. Hi James.

    This is in response to the supposed cost issue that has been raised regarding Pied Piper Publshing's products. Let us clarify several points here.

    First, we are a small publisher. We rarely print more than 500 imprints of any one issue, and then have only done that twice (CotSK & Bottle City). Most runs are between 300-400. Perforce we pay more per book than higher print runs. We use offset, professional printing, not POD digital, that I quote hard, and this to maintain quality throughout. We pay professional artists good rates, layout people, editors and graphics people. No one goes unpaid or works on a volunteer basis, except for Grodog as he is associated with the company and my personal friend.

    To top this off, paper costs have been rising, and sharply so, since we started publishing in 2006, and projected increases are for the next year aimed at some astronomical figure varying between
    8-27%. We have some real, and extremely volatile, costs here, which we juggle as we can.

    Further, most of our products are signed and numbered limited editions which automatically increase in value the day they are bought. We produce what has been reviewed as great content, we replace damaged and missing shipments without question, and need to maintain me at a subsistence wage in order to do so.

    When we launched the LGC&C™ line of products it was made known that all of these, unless specifically noted as was the case with Bottle City, would be loose-leaf editions which we could readily produce and save on conventional costs and art, layout and such. We will be moving to a bound format with these, and had had this in mind some time before Jame's views became known. Unfortunately, however, that will raise the costs again and thus the product pricing will go up.

    We offset rising costs to us as much as we can. For instance, we offered a sizable discount to those folks who bought our Fan Appreciation Packs which allowed the savvy buyer to save more by combining shipping, as well, rather than buying these titles separately.
    Many smart folks networked with other purchasers to get the discount and shipping savings.

    Our products are selling well across all demographics and we gained a 15%-20% rise in new customers this last drive and all of these were gamers, not collectors. We are sold out of 2 products and are fast approaching 2 more (Living Room and Bottle City).

    PPP publishes unique content, maintains a very high quality standard and employs and works with the best folks we can find at reasonable prices in the industry. I hope that this has clarified our position on this and do be looking forward to more excellent products from us.

    Rob Kuntz
    President, PPP

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  6. Rob,

    Thanks for the clarifications on these points. I do appreciate the situation a small press company finds itself in, so I'm glad to hear that your recent products sold better than expected and that future releases will be more like Bottle City in terms of their presentation.

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