Should You Buy It? – Kobold Guide to Plots & Campaigns

Product reviews are something I’ve never really done on the site before, but I’ve decided to dip the toe and see how the water feels. I think the title I’ve chosen for these reviews gets to the heart of what I’ll be evaluating. My reviews are going to be very much about the usefulness of the items I review and which type of gamer they’d appeal to, if any. I don’t think every gaming product is going to suit every gamer, and money can be tight these days, so I’d rather steer my readers towards products of actual use. I’m not a mouth-piece for any company, and on that far-off day when I might get review copies given to me, I still promise to give my honest opinion of the product in question (and I’ll always tell you if I was given a review copy, because that’s just good manners). With that said, let’s jump to the meat of the post.

If I were going to offer a university degree in tabletop games, the Kobold Guides would be the text books for an entire stream of courses. Each volume contains a number of essays from experts and veterans in the field, writing about the things they love and know. Besides doing the thing, I can’t think of a better way of learning about a subject than to absorb the words of people who are better at it than you.

The Kobold Guide to Plots & Campaigns, the sixth book in this series, is like taking a master-class in designing a role-playing campaign. The essays collected here are by some true masters of the craft: Zeb Cook, Jeff Grubb, James Jacobs, Amber E. Scott, and Margaret Weis just to name a few. All are names I’ve encountered in any number of my favourite Dragon Magazine articles, gaming sourcebooks, and adventures over the years (and in one case, at the gaming table a few time, much to my continued delight), so I know there is a wealth of experience in the pages of this book. And they deliver that experience to you in nineteen essays covering a wide variety of campaign design topics, curated and edited by Michele Carter. The essays cover everything from how to start a campaign and how you might incorporate published adventures into your campaign world, to slightly more esoteric subjects like running an evil campaign successfully, or running a campaign which spans generations of characters.

If I gushed about every essay this post would get stupid long, so I will limit my gushing to just two, hard as that is. “Choosing an Ending First”, by Wolfgang Baur, is a great look at how to design your campaign around the climactic end-scene you envision for the characters. On the surface it sounds very rail-roady to reverse engineer your campaign based on how you want it to end. But Wolfgang does an excellent job of explaining how your ending can inform your campaign design without stamping train tickets for your players. It was a way of looking at campaign creation I had never considered before; usually I figure out how I want to start things, and the end-game is nebulous. His suggestions and ideas gave me a lot to think about, and have already influenced two of my campaigns.

I’d been lucky enough to actually meet and somehow befriend Amber E. Scott a number of years ago. We’ve gamed together a few times, and I always enjoy speaking with her and hearing her on panels. You know how, when you have a smart friend, you think you know how smart they are? And then they do something, and you realize you only thought you knew? That was my experience reading Amber’s essay “Using Cliffhangers Effectively”. I’d been using cliffhangers in my campaigns for years, (I thought) properly and successfully. Amber’s essay corrected my thinking on that, and I realized I’d been using them like a cudgel when they could really be more of a rapier. A stand-out moment for me, and one of the reasons I love reading collections like this.

So who would I recommend buy this book? Any game master who wants to get better at running their campaigns should read Plots & Campaigns at least once, and ideally enough times for it to get dog eared.  If you are a new game master this book will serve as an invaluable toolbox for years to come. Heck, Richard Pett’s “Crooked Characters” is going to keep you hip-deep in NPCs for the foreseeable future. If you’re a veteran, you’ll discover things you never knew as well as refinements of topics you thought you understood fully. And “Crooked Characters” is also going to serve you well.

If you’re a player but not yet a GM, I’d say it’s worth it to borrow a copy if you want to get a peek behind the GM screen. The book is definitely not written with the player in mind, and that’s okay. But as a way to get insight into what your GM is doing for you every week, it’s a good read.

Since scoring systems seem to be popular, I’ll give the Kobold Guide to Plots & Campaigns four frothy mugs of ale out of five, and drink the fifth one myself while re-reading the book.

Have you read the book? What did you think? Drop a comment to let me know.

Returning to the Shire

I’ve read The Lord of the Rings annually for the past 27 years, and usually The Hobbit along with it.  I’m one of those guys who liked The Silmarillion, though I agree it is a dry read for the most part.  I’ve read Tolkien’s essays on the books, I’ve read other people’s essays on the books, heck, I’ve read Tolkien’s letters, most of which had little to do with anything he wrote.  This is all to say I’m a pretty dedicated Tolkien bibliophile.

That said, I loved Peter Jackson’s movies.  Were there things I wish he’d kept in? Of course.  I won’t bore you with the list, but there were definitely parts I wished had stayed from earlier in the book, especially in light of the drawn-out ending to the third movie.  But unlike many of my fellow bibliophiles, I understand a faithful adaptation would have been much too long and, well, boring.  Some things needed to be cut, some things needed to be shown and not talked about, and bits had to be added because folks want to see some awesome in their fantasy action movie.

I’m seeing the first Hobbit film in about ten days.  I’m taking someone to it on a date, and I want to see it for the first time with her.  So I am subjecting myself to a very specific flavour of internet black-out; basically, any review that contains spoilers will be ignored between now and then.  Not that I’m not familiar with the story, but I’d rather see it fresh, without anyone’s voice in my head while I’m watching.

In some of the non-spoiler reviews I’ve read, though, I hear some criticism of additions Peter Jackson made to the story.  Many folks assume The Hobbit was written to tie in with The Lord of the Rings.  Actually, edits to The Hobbit to bind the two stories more closely came later, and only a few similar characters offered a connection.  In reviews I’ve read it seems that Mr. Jackson has woven elements from The Silmarillion into the film, in order to tie the story closely with LotR.  Most of those reviews have expressed varying levels of disapproval, with a few coming out cautiously in favour.

Obviously I don’t want to sound off too strongly before I’ve seen the film.  But I will make two points.  First, based on LotR I think Peter Jackson has earned a fair amount of latitude from fans.  I could understand some of these issues being raised if this was his first kick at the material, but I’m fairly certain he has shown he has the chops to present Middle Earth by now.  Second, I’m actually glad to hear that some Silmarillion is making it into the movies. I was a bit leery when I heard The Hobbit was being stretched to three films.  I trusted Mr. Jackson to make the call, but given the relative lengths of the books I did worry that a Hobbit trilogy would be, as Bilbo says, “Sort of stretched, like… butter scraped over too much bread.”  So I’m glad to hear additional material was added, and I look forward to seeing how the back-story was woven into the main.

Of course I reserve the right to take all that back once I see the film.  As I also reserve the right to crow about how right I was.  I guess what I’m saying is, I’ll write a review once I’ve seen it, so that is one future post in the bag.

What about you?  Have you seen The Hobbit yet?  What did you (spoiler-free) think?  Feel free to leave comments about the film and/or books in the comments below.  Always happy to talk Tolkien.