Monday, May 15, 2023

(D&D 3e) Enemies and Allies

I'm going to try and make this brief, not just because if I finish this post in less than a half hour, I'll have managed to technically do two posts on consecutive days, but because Enemies and Allies (Bruce R. Cordell, Jeff Grubb, David Noonan, Skip Williams) is a short, 64-page booklet that is at least half-filled with dry, impenetrable stat blocks (read that 15th-level wizard's complete allotment of memorized spells, I dare you).

The most intriguing part of this book was a bit in the introduction: "In this book are some of the most helpful and notorious NPCs that we've created for our home campaigns." That's a really fun pitch, a chance to see how the pros do it. And some of the characters here really do feel like campaign in-jokes pulled from someone's home game. There's a djinn that's a "pacificist," but what that really means is that he relies on hirelings and summoned monsters to do his dirty work. Or "The Claw," a mercenary, but non-evil adventuring party made entirely of monsters (an ettercap, a phase spider, an umber hulk, a pseudodragon, and a troll who rides an elephant). There were times when I really felt the touch of a designer at work - a sense that you could use the published material for more than what was strictly written on the page (we even get a Dwarf Necromancer, in blatant defiance of The Hero Builder's Guidebook).

However, I think the overall project was undermined by being Enemies and Allies and not a chummy, informal zine where we get a peek behind the scenes to see snippets of the writers' home games. That's something that could have been a franchise. You could publish a book like that every year, and they'd all be great (though, maybe it's lucky for me that they didn't, because they'd also be a nightmare to try and collect, and you just know that there'd be one or two really wild ones that go for like a hundred dollars on the secondary market). What we got, instead, was something that was terribly constrained by a mandate to be functional. There's a chapter for criminals, a chapter for religion, a chapter for mages, and a chapter for law enforcement, and while the book is too short to have much cruft, there's also the sense that maybe some of these guys were being included purely for the sake of the theme.

Also, the rules stuff was kind of a drag. Every chapter starts with generic character stats, for people like town guards or back-alley muggers, and maybe that's helpful, but it's not particularly entertaining. And every single entry in the book is accompanied by a "Tactics" section, which sometimes offers a bit of auxiliary characterization, but mostly just tells you which spells they like to cast. The introduction explains it thus, "Enemies and Allies intentionally avoids long NPC histories and intricately detailed descriptions . . . We don't want to cramp your style."

Way to get the vibe exactly wrong, guys. This book would have been 1000% better if they'd just given each of the four authors 15 pages to obnoxiously tell us about their characters.

But the biggest disappointment was the D&D signature characters. I was so excited when I looked at the table of contents and saw an appendix titled "Iconic Characters." I thought I was finally going to see the canon histories of these guys who are always showing up in rules examples and character art. I thought I'd stumbled upon a real treasure - an overlooked supplement from early 3rd edition that would put almost every other book into a new context.

Sadly, what I got instead were three stat blocks each - at levels 5, 10, and 15. Because apparently the only thing these guys were used for was internal playtesting. No flavor text at all. I guess, if you're playing a preconstruct, you kind of want the freedom to create your own backstory and personality, but it still made me sad. I was hoping to get some material for exciting new fan-fiction.

With all that said, I still really enjoyed Enemies and Allies. Like Hero Builder's Guidebook, I only bought it because it was abnormally cheap (I actually got it for less than its year 2000 MSRP even when you factor in shipping), but unlike Hero Builder's Guidebook, when all was said and done, I felt like this was a book I might theoretically use (in the unlikely event that I ever ran a 3rd edition campaign).

Ukss Contribution: I really like The Claw, maybe more as an institution than a particular group of characters, but I think it's a concept that could definitely anchor a series of comic books or tie-in novels - a squad of monsters that decided to adopt the adventuring lifestyle, morally ambiguous, but only in the same way as a typical party of PCs. Also, anything that makes alignment less of a direct setting element is highly appreciated.

No comments:

Post a Comment