D&D 5E [Let's Read] Keep of the Kobold Queen, a JRPG-inspired adventure

Libertad

Adventurer
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Hello everyone! It’s been a while since I’ve done a Let’s Read, and that’s for several reasons. Beyond just IRL stuff, I have found out that writing the larger sourcebooks as I am wont to do takes a lot out of me and requires me to commit to a schedule I cannot always have. So for a while I figured that doing reviews of smaller and more manageable sourcebooks will be helpful in testing the waters, with an emphasis on more obscure titles given that publicity for them matters exponentially more than doing ones for more popular products. I may still review a well-known book here or there, but it’s more a set of priorities than set in stone.

The good news is that I found a rather interesting 36 page adventure for 5th Edition D&D. Keep of the Kobold Queen is a throwback to the classic era of RPGs. Not the 70s, but rather the late 80s and early 90s of console JRPGs and with pixel art to go with it! The author calls out Final Fantasy, Bravely Default, and Octopath Traveler as specific influences, and also recommends using soundtracks from those games for a more retro feel.

Keep of the Kobold Queen is optimized for 2nd level PCs* and is ostensibly setting neutral, but it has a campaign-altering background story where a solar eclipse last year caused a dramatic uprise in monster attacks across the world. Militaries are overwhelmed, forcing wealthy people to hire adventuring groups to deal with smaller problems. And wouldn’t you know it, our PCs are being hired by a priest of the god of trade to look into kobold attacks disrupting a nearby trade route. But these aren’t just any kobolds, but kobolds rumored to possess a variety of magical powers!

*Doesn’t say the number but presumed 4-5.

The adventure begins proper with the PCs traveling to the town of Coneria, running across a wagon under assault by five highwaymen. The criminals have been driven out of their stomping grounds by the kobolds and if captured alive can direct the party to the lair if promised to be released. The besieged travelers were headed to Coneria as well, and will gratefully reward the party with information and to pay for their food and lodging. PCs can also gain a new magic item from the bandit’s possession, a Crystallia, which is part of a new sub-system introduced in this book. The gist of it is that they are crystals which can be set into special items with the Crystalkeep property, bestowing a different power depending on whether the item it’s set in is a weapon, armor, or accessory.

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Coneria is a small walled village where the PCs can gather information about the kobolds as well as the overall region. There’s a potion shop which sells potions at vastly cheap prices albeit with the drawback that they expire within 1d6+1 days; a restaurant whose unique dishes grant 24-hour duration benefits to those who consume them (gain resistance to fire damage, gain temporary hit points if you haven’t taken damage for 10 minutes, and advantage on initiative checks), and a Red Wings smithy who can bestow the Crystalkeep property on nonmagical equipment for 500 gp and will initially do so free of charge for up to 3 such items for the PCs.

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The Keep of the Kobold Queen is located within the ruins of Cerulia, an old city-state famed for creating a form of magic that allows people to gain the abilities of monsters. The Keep is an 8 room dungeon with a minimalist map but neat-looking sprite art for the monsters within. Five of the rooms have enemies and 2 have a falling stone trap and pit trap respectively. Of the combat rooms, the entrance has a manageable six kobolds, although one of the more difficult rooms is a lab presided over by a kobold and kobold alchemist, who in a fight are quickly joined by 2 boomers. Boomers are mechanical constructs who are basically Bob-Ombs who gain resistance to all damage at low HP and deal damage equal to 1d6 + their remaining hit points when they self-destruct. With a maximum of 16 HP, this encounter can be pretty deadly, although the boomer’s stats give some outs, like advantage on the save if the boomer is at half HP and they only explode on the start of their next turn. There’s also the fire resistance-granting stew back in town to ease the burden. PCs who defeat the monsters in the lab room can gain access to Crystalkeep items in a treasure vault, which is opened via special coins with monster emblems (found in the same room) based on a puzzle saying “when breathing fire alone isn’t enough, mimic a key and self-destruct.” The combination is a dragon, mimic, and boomer coin placed into a slot for the vault in that order.

The other major optional find in this dungeon is the skeleton of Pakhangba, a gold dragon whose soul lives on as a shadow of her former self who attacks the party. The dragon ghost is a CR 3 foe and pretty tough, including a radiant damage breath weapon and a wing flap that damages all nearby enemies. PCs reduced to 0 HP don’t die but gain the benefits of having finished a long rest if the rest of the party also drops or flees the room. But if the party overcomes the dragon ghost, she will surrender and explain that the kobolds killed her via an explosive cave-in and stole her egg. If the party promises to kill the kobold leader and ensure the safety of her unhatched progeny, she will offer herself as a summonable monster to the party.

Yes, this too is a new sub-system, albeit more barebones than the other post-adventure content.

The second to last room includes 3 kobolds, one of which is a Draketamer, and two gold pseudodrakes. The pseudodrakes are CR 1 monsters with a pounce attack that can knock enemies prone on a hit with their claw, while the Kobold Draketamer can deal bludgeoning damage by throwing food at enemies, which in turn grants one pseudodrake advantage on the first attack made against that target.

The final room’s the throne room, inhabited by Yas the Kobold Queen and three normal kobolds. Yas tries to parley with the PCs, offering any loot they found in the lair so far if she cannot intimidate them, but refuses to part with the dragon egg for it’s her prized possession. Yas is the boss of the module, possessing a host of abilities including gaining temporary hit points for every kobold killed within 30 feet of her, a variety of Cerulean magic spells (detailed later), and Legendary Actions which can let her attack or cast a spell. The spells she has can grant her the ability to attack twice instead of once, grow in size and gain advantage on Strength checks and saves, the ability to “split” and divide remaining hit points between herself and a duplicate, the ability to be reduced to 1 HP on a killing blow if she succeeds a CON save, a breath weapon which imposes disadvantage on Strength attacks/saves/checks, and even gaining a flight speed. Barring the Split spell, none of her Cerulean spells have concentration, which means that with judicious use of Legendary Actions she can continually buff herself through combat.

The dragon egg is thankfully undamaged, and skill checks can determine both its safety and that it will hatch in about another year. Among the Kobold Queen’s treasure is a treatise on Cerulean magic written in Draconic, and those who read it can gain access to the Cerulean Sage class for multiclassing.

Post-adventure the PCs will be paid for taking care of the problem, and back in Coneria one of the smithy workers reveals herself to be a Dragonsworn Knight and offers to train the party in her organization’s martial arts if they managed to save the dragon egg.

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Interestingly the adventure proper only covers a third of the book’s page count, with the remaining pages appendices for new content. Appendix A covers stat blocks for six New Monsters complete with sprite art for 5 of them (the pseudodrake is a printable paper mini in back). I already did the skinny on most of them, although I will mention that the kobold alchemist here is weaker than the monster of the more popular Tome of Beasts. This one’s a CR ½ monster who can deliver a random alchemical effect via sling which is determined via a 1d6 roll. The possibilities range from energy damage to conditions such as blinded, random movement, disadvantage on attack rolls, or halved speed.

Appendix B introduces New Magic Items, all of which can be obtained in the adventure proper save for the Rare and Very Rare Crystalkeep equivalents. Crystallia are magic gemstones which are naturally occurring and more likely to grow within monster lairs. They do nothing on their own, but their properties awake when embedded in specially-prepared magical objects, and the specific abilities differ depending on whether the object is a weapon, armor, or accessory. Only Crystalkeep items can do this, and while Crystallia don’t require attunement, the Crystalkeep items which they are embedded in do. Such items can hold anywhere from one to three Crystallia depending on their rarity, and Accessories by default don’t do anything on their own (armor and weapons are self-explanatory). We have four sample Crystallia to start things off: Faded Aurea Draconic which grants dragon-related abilities (breath weapon, flight, energy resistance, bonus energy damage for weapon, all fire), a Knave Crystallia which grants roguish abilities (improved speed, bonus action Dash, 1d6 sneak attack), Kobenholt which grants kobold-like qualities (Enlarge/Reduce but reduce only plus darkvision, Disengage as bonus action, and the equivalent of Pack Tactics but must spend a reaction to do so), and Patet Gelat which grants ghostly features (Increased size plus greater invisibility, +1 AC, or bonus acid damage on weapon attacks). A few of the more powerful abilities, such as spell equivalents, can only be used once or twice per day.

Appendix C provides 2 new Advanced Classes, the Cerulean Sage and Dragonsworn Knight. Advanced Classes differ from their core counterparts in that they cannot be gained at 1st level and must be multiclassed into after unlocking special story rewards. As such, they only go up to 10th and 5th level respectively, and the only proficiencies they grant when multiclassing into them are weapon and armor proficiencies.

The Cerulean Sage is a D&D version of the Blue Mage and were once part of a grand city-state that housed a zoo where its mages could study and learn magic from various creatures. But after their civilization’s fall the survivors need to travel the world to improve their abilities. They are a bit sturdier than your average mage, being closer to clerics with d8 Hit Die and proficient in longswords, medium armor, and shields. But their spellcasting only goes up to 5th level spells, all of which are new class-specific spells, and they use their Constitution score as their spellcasting ability modifier. At 1st level the Sage can place an Azure Eye upon a creature which allows them to learn an appropriate spell from a monster if it possesses an ability of the same name, and at higher levels they deal bonus damage whenever they hit the monster with a weapon. At higher levels the Sage can choose a limited number of creature types every so often, gaining advantage on Insight and knowledge-related checks to ascertain information about such monsters when encountered, can recover a limited number of spell slots once per day on a short rest, and can understand and be understood by creatures they have advantage on knowledge/Insight against.

There’s 26 new spells unique to the Cerulean Sage. They begin play with the Self-Destruct spell and two 1st-level class spells of their choice, with the former reducing them to 0 HP once cast but deals fire damage equal to the HP they lost plus 1d6 per slot level expended. The other 25 can only be learned from monsters in play, and include features from the broad to the specific: they include such features as blindsight 60 feet when not deafened, burrow/fly speeds, Multiattack, the ability to transform into a similar-sized nonmagical object, spores that inflict the Stunned condition, an Eye Ray roulette like that of a Beholder’s but randomly determined, a healing touch that can restore hit points and end the effects of poison and diseases, and the ability to use Legendary Resistance and a limited set of Legendary Actions via a reaction (and the appropriate 5th level spell slot). And only four of them require concentration duration, meaning that the Cerulean Sage is a very useful class for buffing/debuffing purposes.

The Cerulean Sage’s power is rather controllable, given that the spells learned are pretty dependent on what the DM deigns to throw at you, although they can learn one new spell they are capable of casting per level meaning that it’s not entirely up to chance. However, there is a way to cheese the system via RAW. For clarity’s sake, I will copy-paste the Azure Eye’s ability below:

Also starting at 1st level, you can use a bonus action on your turn to open your azure eye and fixate it upon a chosen creature you can see within 120 feet. When you do, an iconic blue eye appears on your forehead. If the chosen creature is reduced to 0 hit points within the next minute and it has a trait, action, or other quality that serves as the prerequisite for a cerulean spell, and the spell is of a level for which you have spell slots, you learn the cerulean spell. This effect ends early on the creature if you use this ability again.

At 5th level, while your azure eye is fixated on a creature you deal an additional 1d8 damage to the creature the first time you hit it with a weapon attack each turn. If the creature has a trait, action, or other quality that serves as the prerequisite for a cerulean spell, the additional damage increases to 1d12. This damage increases again at 10th level, to 2d8 or 2d12 if the creature has a trait, action, or other quality that serves as the prerequisite for a cerulean spell.

If your party includes a character who can summon or transform into an appropriate monster, the party can wail on their allies to gain the appropriate spells, or gain it when the party’s polymorphing wizard/wildshaping druid gets KO’d in battle. It’s likely that this may go against the spirit of the rules, but I would like to point out that such a tactic is possible in the actual Final Fantasy games. Notably, Strago (blue mage) can learn magic by watching Gau (who has a Wild Shape equivalent) take on the forms of monsters rather than having to actually fight those monsters in combat. It also raises the thorny question of torture and animal cruelty in the case of nonintelligent and summoned monsters. So of course, this rules loophole is something you should clear by the DM first or be aware of if you’re the DM.

The other Advanced Class is the Dragonsworn Knight, who are divided into two groups based upon their oaths: to either defend dragons from harm or eliminate the threat they pose to humanoids. Naturally the two sides don’t see eye to eye. They are a 5-level class with more Fighteresque features such as a d10 hit die and are proficient in heavy armor, shields, and various polearm weapons. At first level they learn Draconic if they didn’t already know it and gain double proficiency to Intimidate checks. They can also treat every polearm-style weapon as having the reach property, triple the throwing distance with them, and crit with them on a 19-20. Their signature feature is the High Jump, where they can not only leap much greater distances based upon their level, they can deal additional damage with a single weapon attack at the conclusion of the jump. At higher levels they gain a draconic breath weapon that deals a certain type of energy damage chosen upon gaining it, negate a certain amount of falling damage based on their level, can gain short-term resistance to the same energy type as their breath weapon, deliver an AoE roar that imposes the Frightened condition, and become immune to the Frightened condition as their 5th level capstone ability.

The Dragonsworn Knight is cool in concept, although its execution has some weak points. For one, it’s a martial class that doesn’t have Extra Attack, which really reduces its offensive capability. There’s also the fact that by RAW jumping still deducts from your movement, meaning that the Dragonsworn Knight may not be able to jump as high as they can and make a regular attack unless they can Dash as a bonus action or have at least 50 foot speed. While the ability to leap several stories at will with no check necessary is pretty cool, it is quickly eclipsed by outright flight once the PCs gain such abilities by spell or by mount…or by race if your DM is very accepting of tieflings and bird-people in your party.

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Not technically an appendix, we have 5 pregenerated 2nd-level characters, with each statblock contained within a fancy-looking 90s era Status Menu page. I did notice that there’s a few mistakes in the stat blocks: the artificer’s spell save DC is 14 when it should be 12 (8 + 2 proficiency bonus + 2 INT modifier), the Fighter’s Intimidation is keyed off of Wisdom rather than Charisma (should be +3, not +1), and the Sorcerer’s Intelligence and Wisdom saving throws are misplaced (8 INT and 10 WIS should be -1 and 0 respectively, not 0 and -1). In two cases the pregens are using rules that aren’t in the default core rules, such as Nalsa who is of the grimalkin race, or Moccus of Morchroioch who uses the Pugilist class. While the bulk of the stat blocks are more or less correct, it could use a second editing pass.

I do like how some of the stat blocks have an easter egg reference for the card games of Final Fantasy 8 and 9 via a “triple tetra gaming set.” Triple Triad was the card game of the former, Tetra Master the card game of the latter.

While it was tucked away as a sidebar in the adventure proper, there were blueprints for a Summoning System via calling upon the aid of Pakhangba the gold dragon ghost. Basically, the party as a group gains the ability, and any one of them can summon her as an action. Pakhangba has 1 charge when initially gained, and gains a new charge every day at sunrise to a maximum of 5. When summoned she appears in an unoccupied space within 60 feet of the summoner’s choosing, exhaling a breath weapon cone dealing 2d8 radiant damage per charge and imposing the Frightened condition on a failed Dexterity save. Pakhangba has no stats and the attack is immediate, meaning that she can’t be summoned and choose to hold her ability until a more opportune time. Once summoned Pakhangba loses all charges.

As you can tell, summoning is a bit of a long term planning thing. At its base it’s little more than a moderately-powerful spell, but PCs that are patient can have a very powerful tactic to deploy as a nova ability. In cases of dungeon crawls and typical “multiple encounters between long rests” scenarios, summons aren’t a thing you can deploy regularly. But for overland travel and downtime, summons can really shine. I can guarantee you that at the start of new adventure players will be asking if 3-5 days have passed so they can deploy a damaging AoE effect…at 2nd-3rd level, no less!

Our book ends with paper minis for every enemy as well as cutout handouts for the Crystallia items and Pakhangba as a summonable monster.

Overall Thoughts: Although I haven’t properly playtested it, Keep of the Kobold Queen is an adventure brimming with imagination not often seen in 3rd party publishing. Its ode to retro-era JRPGs is a charming touch, and the Crystallia system for magic items is pretty cool and also encourages a measure of creative mix-and-matching for thematic abilities. The pixel artwork is detailed enough to be aesthetically pleasing and feel sleek and shiny without sacrificing the old-school feel. The Kobold Queen looks like she’d make a satisfying boss monster just from a read of her stat block. The book does have 22 playtesters listed for what it’s worth, so I’m sure this isn’t just white-room theorizing on my part.

Personally speaking I’m a bit mixed on the Advanced Classes and the pregens. I definitely get what the author’s going for in regards to the former, although personally I’d have liked to see them as base classes on their own. In several Final Fantasy games there are characters who start out as Blue Mages or Dragoons right off the bat,* although I know that designing 20-level classes is an order of labor larger than a single short adventure. They both have some weaknesses/loopholes that I highlighted above which I’d revise if they were to see actual play.

*Kain from Final Fantasy 4 and Kimahri from Final Fantasy 10 being two notable examples.

In the DM’s Guild comments the author mentioned that they planned to make Keep of the Kobold Queen the first of a series of JRPG-inspired adventures with new classes, Crystallia, summons, and monsters provided that there’s ongoing interest. It’s been about 2 years since this adventure was released, and it’s sitting at a mere Silver seller on the DM’s Guild.* So such a project may be on the backburner for now or not economically viable, which makes me a little sad, as I would’ve loved to see more adventures like this.

*For the non-publishers out there, a Copper seller is at least 50 sales, Silver at least 100, and further metals are exponentially higher.

Overall, I’d recommend Keep of the Kobold Queen as a purchase for an interesting one-off or as the seeds for a JRPG-inspired campaign. It is a bit pricey for the page count, but there’s quite a bit of content within those pages that can be extended beyond the adventure itself.
 

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