Game: Noble’s Handbook
Publisher: Green Ronin
Review Dated: 18th, December 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 6
Average Score: 6.00
I like the regal side to fantasy. Give me courtly intrigue. Give me terse diplomatic relations with the Dwarf Mountain Kingdom and a cold war style standoff with barely secretive cross-border raids with the Hobgoblin Empire to the West. For this sort of game you need nobles; these “nobles” might be those people born into the position or they might be the elected officials, town mayors, or headsmen. This is the point that Green Ronin’s Noble’s Handbook makes and that makes for a great start. It is this reviewer’s option that great starts are a good thing ™ for a book to manage. Unfortunately the Noble’s Handbook promptly forgets this and concentrates on nobles as, almost exclusively, as the feudal elite.
If you think there’s anything like a class ethos for D&D and if it’s important to maintain it then the Noble class presents something of a challenge. The other classes, fighers, rangers, druids, etc, are all defined by what they do and how they do it. The Noble class, on the other hand, is defined by who the character is, not what the character does or how they do it. Can you have a poor and outcast wizard? Yup. A poor and outcast ranger? Sure. A poor and outcast noble? Um. Dunno… If you see a noble as someone who might be a good figher, for example, and in a position of power and influence then that’s a prestige class situation. I’m not making a case as to why I believe the noble class is impossible. I’m listing the problems that I’d want the Noble’s Handbook to solve for me. It doesn’t really succeed here. However, the Noble’s Handbook does provide a playable and mechanically balanced set of rules for noble characters if you decide to suspend those concerns. And why not? I think d20 is at its best when it is nice and abstract.
The noble class makes use of “Breeding” as a class feature. This is an excellent touch for the feudal noble idea and along with the “Noble House” ability gained at level one pretty much kills off alternative noble concepts. In the last multi-year long fantasy game I played the nobles of the land competed in fencing tournaments to prove their worth and so I’d have taken the “Martial Training” sub-option for Breeding, the ladies of court were the shadowy, diplomatic powers behind the scenes, so they would have taken the “Diplomacy” sub-option from Breeding and there was even one noble house in our game which rejected all that as nonsense and concentrated on magic – they would have taken the “Arcane Training” sub-option. So although it might look like there aren’t many options for Breeding, especially as the special re-occurs at later levels the noble can take a different option, there’s probably enough to go round. The other class specials to watch are the Noble’s habit of collecting and organising groups of followers. After all – this is what the noble does. Nevertheless it might prove to be troublesome if the plot doesn’t suit a whole bunch of lackies hanging around. I have to say, though, I’d quite like to watch the dynamics of power among the PCs if one PC has loads more cash and a bunch of NPC support. Either the noble PC becomes their de-facto leader of the group, is a total walk over or, more likely, there’s some nice tension there.
We quickly get on to prestige classes. Wheel in the Commander, the Master Diplomat, the Impersonator (who looks a lot like Henry VIII), the Lord Knight and Mastermind prestige classes. Most, but not all, of these prestige classes are good through 10 levels. I tend to see the 10 level prestige class as a lifetime occupation-cum-lifestyle and that’s what I want for noble based prestige classes.
Sometimes you get a good look into the mindset of the book’s author (in this case Rodney Thompson of SWRPGNetwork fame) when you see the subject matter they place under the one heading. There’s a fairly significant entry on forgery in the skills chapter. Forgery? I might have come up with rules for subtle poisons or even fantasy (magical even) heraldry. Thompson must think of the money and paper power inherent in a feudal noble system – and then of ways to exploit and cheat it.
I like the feats. You can have the Bloodline feat without being a Noble and you can be a Noble without having the Bloodline feat. That sort of nitpicking does fade in the face of the charmingly non-dungeon feats like Disarming Demeanor, Discreet Reputation, Instill Etiquette or Ruling Family. A rare collection of feats indeed! Oh – and there’s a good collection of melee friendly feats too.
The Handbook provides optional rules for duels. Magic. Perfect. Nearly a reason to go buy the book. I want my d20 combat fast and abstract but sometimes when a PC pairs off again the nemesis NPC in a court duel I need the system to scale in closer, to bring tactics into the melee rounds, to bring in the tension and simply to make a meal of the whole encounter. That’s what we’ve got here. Lunge, Lock, Parry, Riposte!
Noble equipment. Jewellery, portraits and furniture. Sadly there is more than just the suspicion of filler material in this brief chapter. Mind you some people will leap at the magic armour and weapons – again.
Chapter Four is all about playing the noble and it’s over ten pages long. This is more than a token offer and that’s a good thing. I do honestly think many gamers might pause in thought before trying to roleplay the noble (partly due to the class problems mentioned at the stop of the review) and it’ll be good to help them. The roleplaying advice is tried and tested. I don’t think almost surreal jaunts into conceptual or method roleplaying would be anything other than terribly inappropriate for a d20 supplement and so the solid ground rules we get instead can’t be sniffed at. Combine this advice with the fact that the noble class encourages roleplaying with NPCs (and not just different dragon slaying techniques) and the Noble’s Handbook becomes a very good book for flowering groups of new gamers who might just be looking to escape the dungeon. There’s advice for the GM too.
The book begins to draw to a close as it lists and provides a blend of flavour and mechanics for sample noble houses. This is the sort of supplementary material I would have predicted the Noble’s Handbook would have padded up with. It’s not padding though, there are just a few pages of some illustrative houses and I think this is pretty much the right amount. There’s enough to see what can be done, there’s enough to use if you’re busy and need to use pre-written material but there’s not enough to get bored with or feel it’s eating too much into your US $14.95 64-paged book.
The last page of content is a collection of some photocopy ready cards (back and front) for a duelling variant. On my first few flicks through the book I dismissed the page as filler but I’ve changed my mind. The cards don’t take up too much room, they would work and they are different. I’m all for trying something different.
The Noble’s Handbook sits in the middle. There’s probably something in it for almost everyone’s idea of how a d20 noble class might work and how it might be used. I’d stop short of describing this as a lazy position to take because it probably took a great deal of effort to get the balance right. I’d have preferred it if the book took a chance and gone for gold on one particular approach and accepted that it would alienate gamers on the other side of the scale.