It’s a bit of a truism that d20 games don’t handle a swashbuckling campaign too well. Questions of setting aside, it tends to boil down to the mechanics – after all, an unarmored character wielding a lousy rapier and pistol tends to be worse off, all things being equal, than the guy in plate mail and swinging around a greataxe. However, those problems aren’t entirely insurmountable, something that Nobis: The City-States Player’s Guide, from Pantheon Press, attempts to showcase. Let’s see how it does.
A light 3.5 book at two dozen pages, the Player’s Guide straddles the line between being a primer to the Nobis campaign setting and a short rules supplement. The book is fairly lavish, particularly for its size, with each page having a light grey background and a dark brown border. There are several illustrations, all of them of good quality (especially the covers, which are gorgeous) and in full color. My only complaints, from a technical standpoint, were the lack of bookmarks or a printer-friendly version. There’s really no excuse for the lack of bookmarks – every PDF should have them. I suppose I can overlook not having a sans-artwork version for printing, however, given the PDF’s size.
The “inside cover” of the book has a table depicting the stats (that is, the name, alignment, portfolio, domains, and favored weapon) of the setting’s gods. Interestingly, each god has two listings, and each listing is given separate treatment. For example, the goddess Eun has one line for “The Sister” which is Chaotic Good, with her own portfolio, domains, etc. Below that is another line for her as “The Vile” where she’s Chaotic Evil and has completely separate portfolio, domains, et al. It’s a fascinating idea that, unfortunately, doesn’t get mentioned again in the product (save for a few cryptic hints in the description for clerics in the setting) – I found this rather irking, but also a good hook for trying to get someone to buy the campaign setting. Well played, Pantheon Press. This page ends with two new domains, Freedom and Nightmare, which are listed so quickly they seem like afterthoughts.
The book opens with a very brief overview of the setting’s history, segueing into current life in the City-States. Each race has some basic information about where they’ve been and how they’re coping now. There’s also a new race introduced: mongrels. In fact, these are gnolls by another name – outcasts who’re trying to make a life for themselves among the City-States alongside other races. This race isn’t static in its abilities the way most are, as you gain different racial abilities depending on your original tribe, and the reason you were cast out, which is an interesting way of setting up a character background – I personally got a kick out of tying the fluff to the crunch like this.
The eleven base classes are then given the same treatment, telling us how they live in the world of Nobis; there’s no new corresponding crunch here, but the world-specific information is still fairly interesting. It’s after this, however, that we move into the more crunch-heavy sections of the book.
Slightly over thirty new feats are presented. Most seem pretty innovative, though I found one or two slightly too powerful (Extra Domain is a standard feat here, compared to the SRD’s Bonus Domain epic feat). Several of these tie into some of the new sections presented afterwards. For example, several of the initial fencing feats are presented here.
Fencing itself could be called a series of feat trees, but that’s an oversimplification. Rather, you take a feat to represent training in one of the established fencing schools, each of which has specific weapons to which you gain a parry bonus to your AC when using – unfortunately, the listed parry bonus for weapons isn’t listed in here, basically making this rather integral part of the book useless – and you also gain a free fencing maneuver that the school is known for.
Fencing maneuvers are bought as feats, letting you use a special type of fencing move. Each of these moves falls into one of three categories – engagement (attack), recoup (recover), and technique (defense) – with each having a more specific application. Each fencing maneuver also has a special “maestro” ability which basically improves it, but which also requires another feat to unlock (or rather, taking Fencing Maestro unlocks two maneuvers’ maestro abilities).
Simplecraft is explained next, and much like the missing parry bonuses for fencing weapons, this section was a good idea that was undercut by what wasn’t here. Simplecraft is basically cut-rate one-shot magic items, from what I can tell. There’s a chance they’ll go off incorrectly, but most of the time they do whatever they do just fine. I say “whatever they do” because that’s not really expounded upon here – we’re told what simplecraft is, and how it can go wrong, but not really how it works, which really makes this section fairly useless.
The firearms section is thankfully free of these crippling omissions. While it only showcases two new kinds of guns – a pistol and a long-arm – the rules for them are pretty much what you’d expect, in that they need to be reloaded for a few rounds after using them, that they require a feat to use without penalty, etc. Nothing very innovative here, though it’s workable. I liked how it was standard that guns used exploding dice for their damage rolls; roll the highest number on a damage die roll, and you roll again, adding the new result to what you’d gotten previously.
Finally, the book presents its new reputation system. This is based around accumulating reputation points, but in what’s now a running problem, it doesn’t describe how you earn them, or at what rate. From what I can divine, you should get around two or three reputation points per level, but this is just a best guess.
The good news is that the rest of the system looks pretty cool. Basically, you pick one archetype you want to be known for (and meet a few easy prerequisites for) such as scholar or statesman, etc., and as you gain reputation points, you slowly build up more abilities in that area. Most of these abilities are standard regardless of which archetype you choose, but each has one unique ability, such as how the Clergy archetype lets you call on some NPCs (half your level) to come aid you for a while. Nothing game-breaking here, but very flavorful.
After a brief sign-off welcoming you to the City-States, and a color map of the region, the book closes. And for me, it left me with two minds. On the one hand, I liked a lot of what was presented, here, but on the other it really irked me how stuff kept being omitted from the new rules it was presenting. It wasn’t until I looked at the main Nobis campaign setting that I understood why: everything present in this Player’s Guide is from that book. Quite literally, sections of that book have been cut and pasted over here, and apparently a few pieces got lost in the shuffle – that’s a real shame, and is the only reason I’m giving this three stars instead of four. What’s left is still mostly usable, and even quite good, but you may want to invest in the full campaign book instead.