The Devil's in the Details
First in a series by Kesher
The first article in the magazine is "The Devil's in the Details", by Kesher. Two interesting points right off - this is the first in a series, and Kesher uses his forum handle. The use of forum handles vs real names caused quite some heated debate after the magazine was released. I support the use of forum handles if that is what people want, but there was such a backlash that in future issues, rather than stand on principal and irritate a lot of people, I used my real name. My real thought was "Fuck all you assholes, it is the content that is important, not the name". It reminds me of the fate of Michael Haydn's 25th symphony. The symphony was originally thought to be by Mozart (and was numbered No. 37 in his catalogue). It was performed quite often. Once scholarship discovered that it was in fact written by Haydn, public performances decreased dramatically. A sad commentary on humans - if the work was worth listening to when it was thought to be by Mozart, changing the name on the page does not change the intrinsic worth of the piece.
On the subject of the other point, "the first in a series", this always makes me happy. Part of the joy of a magazine is the serial nature of the publication, and thus continuing links from magazine to magazine provide an extra anticipation and excitement to the reader. Of course, if the series is bad, then you are stuck with something lame for a long time, but it is usually just a small piece of the magazine and can be easily endured. I guess this says something about me - I will wade through trash to find one or two spectacular gems, and that redeems the collection, whether it is a record album or an anthology or a menu. There's nothing wrong with good, consistent, meat-and-potatoes fare, but the gems are where it's at. If the only thing that Springsteen had written was "Incident on 57th Street", his career would still have been justified.
Back to the content! Kesher writes some unimportant babble to start, then gets into the gist of his article - tables to generate character background in his campaign. This issue deals with dwarves. He then provides some nice mood-setting prose: "Their thick beards are tangled with secrets. They kindle light in darkness, their songs echoing down straight paths tunneled through silent stone". Even Zak probably wouldn't object to that.
There are three tables - a MANY DWARVES..., a SOME DWARVES..., and SOME COMMON TRAVELLING GEAR. The idea is to roll 3 times on the first table, once on the second, and 1-3 times on the third. And then to choose a custom trait for your particular dwarf. I entered the tables into TABLESMITH and generated three examples to give you an idea:
Many dwarves will keep their word unto death, are capable of killing for a cause they believe in and with appropriate materials, can build an ad hoc object to accomplish a simple purpose.
Some dwarves are deadly philosophers.
Your dwarf owns a carved wooden box containing essential tools.
Many dwarves learn to play a musical instrument from a very young age, claim dwarves invented books and refuse to discuss whether or not dwarven women exist.
Some dwarves search for dark secrets in silent, lost places.
Your dwarf owns a steel-frame travel pack, a well-used bear grooming kit, an exquisite lamp, oil and a tinderbox.
Many dwarves are bemused by elves and therefore keep their distance, wear jewelry and finely-crafted clothing and abhor spontaneous displays of emotion.
Some dwarves can learn a new language in just a few hours, from an able teacher.
Your dwarf owns a shortcloak and long-piped hat in clan colors, a crossbow or throwing axe.
There is also a very nice quarter-page illustration of a dwarf embedded in the article. This is a good use of graphics for two reasons: it helps the reader focus on the thrust of the article (dwarves), and since the illustration is by the author, it shows us his vision of his dwarves. At the end of the article we are urged to make our own tables, and promised "Elves" in the next edition, plus there is a short Q&A to convey a bit more color, which wouldn't have been missed if it had been clipped.
My reaction to this article was very positive. It is simple to understand, easy to use, and evocative. Would I use it in my games? Probably not. I am currently running four D&D campaigns, and I can't see any of my current players being interested in generating a background like this (most of them just name their character Bob or Fred and grab some dice!). However, with the right group of people, I would definitely offer it to them as a possibility. I am thinking of also using it to flesh out any dwarf NPC's that my characters meet.
The other main use for it is simply the ideas it invokes. My favourite entry is "Many dwarves are morbidly embarrassed by their curse-deformed feet, wearing stone shoes to hide them." Or maybe the simple "Can kindle a light if they need one". I think most of us mine articles for ideas, and this one has many. I really look forward to the issue with "Elves"