This is my first review, so I hope I do it justice. First, let me say that I tend to shy away from the modern idea of “humanized” animals as it sometimes leads down that slippery slope towards contemporary anthropomorphism (i.e. Furry Fandom). However, and thankfully, “Noble Wild” does not take that path. The concept is more akin to the noble animal folktales of yore such as those seen in Aesop's Fables.
Also, I would like to say that I'm a huge Forgotten Realms/Al-Qadim fan. Ever since reading about the Steaming Isles and the intelligent animals in Al-Qadim's Golden Voyages, I have always been intrigued by the idea of playing intellectual animals as characters. With just a few little adjustments, I believe that one could use Noble Wild in a 3.5 version of Al-Qadim (which I may do one day with my gaming group).
Now, on to the review. I'm going to do this by chapters starting with the Chapter 1: Species. Initially, this chapter does nice job of laying out the rules for playing an intelligent animal character. These rules easily build upon the existing d20 mechanics and original stats without bending or breaking anything. I especially like the section on size and how to adjust for an animal's growth and/or maturity. Next, chapter one lists the various animal species available as playable characters. There's a lot (65 total). While the author does an excellent job detailing each one, my only nitpick is the area could really benefit from a table that lists all the species (with maybe an attribute or two). This would make it easier for player's to choose without having to flip through all the pages.
Chapter 2 goes into Classes. The core classes are covered here. There have been some modifications in order to make them playable by animals. In addition there's a new base class called a “Greater Familiar” that is pretty intriguing. Finally, the chapter is rounded out with some prestige classes. Some of the PrCs are pretty generic and can be applied to most species while the rest tend to be specific species orientated.
Chapter 3 deals with Skills. As a GM, I think Skills are pretty vital to the game. As it applies to animals, this chapter handles the subject pretty nicely. Some skills are modified (like Sleight of Hand – well because not all animals have hands). And some new Skills have been introduced. In addition, the oft overlooked Synergy has been taken into account for these modifications and additions.
Chapter 4 talks about Feats. Now, I'm not a real big fan of Feats. In fact, in the d20 Market, I think there is a glutton in this area and it tends to overload players – especially when characters utilize very few at a time. However, if one is going to play an animal, they are going to need specific Feats that aren't available to humanoids. This chapter does a nice job of showcasing certain species attributes that can be specialized into Feats.
Chapter 5 illustrates a new mechanic called “Deeds.” Basically, these are similar to Feats, but are purchased with xp once certain requirements are met – making this also kinda similar to the concept of Magic Item Creation. Quick note – under Classes, animals don't get the Craft ability and they are pretty limited when it comes to equipment and magic items (again the “hands” issue). Deeds (along with Boons – see below) add a new way of balancing this out.
Chapter 6 delves into Magic & Spells. Again, new magical information is introduced that is specific to animals. An interesting portion of this chapter is the section under “Blood Components.” Basically, since animal spellcasters don't use material components, when called for, they have to sacrifice a little blood. Certain rules are applied.
Magic items are highlighted in Chapter 7. Animals don't really have a need for treasure. Therefore, a set of rules have been developed that acts as a substitute. Without giving too much away, we have something called “Boons” which are similar to magic gifts that correspond to the magic items in the SRD.
Chapter 8 delved into areas mainly covered by the GM – Campaigns. It's a really helpful section on how to create adventures with animal characters in mind. The chapter lists a number of mini-scenarios. In addition, it offers helpful adventure seed and NPCs. There's some nice fiction describing how intelligent animals behave in a magical world. The chapter also lists some helpful movies and books to assist the GM.
Finally, the book is rounded out with two appendices. The first appendix has stats for animals (and swarms) not listed in the SRD. Very handy for building a new Noble Wild character. The second appendix offers up mechanics and tips for using this book in a Modern setting. Again, very handy.
I'm going to start with the dislikes. As I mentioned above, I think the book could have benefited from a table listing all the species in Chapter 1. Better yet, with a book this size and as a pdf, it really needs the Bookmark function. This feature would have made it way easier to navigate the lengthy document.
My second criticism involves the artwork. While I like many of the illustrations and pictures used, I think there's too many. Personally, unless I'm having a hard time visualize an author's description, I don't like a lot of pictures taking up room in a book. Especially big ones.
My final criticism is a minor one. There's a lot of rules. I would not recommend this book for a novice group or even as a one-off adventure. They can get a little complex. Add that to the already complicated SRD, and it would simply overrun a group of newbies.
However, don't let my last critique stand in the way a group of rules-savvy grognards who might be ready for a change. Without actually play-testing the game, I believe the rules are pretty solid. The author did some really good research looking for ways to balance the many powers and weaknesses one might face as an animal character.
And while I stated it as a criticism above, I would like to point out that the book does a superb job of covering all aspects of the rules – from class and skills to feats and magic. Very thorough and detailed. I imagine it would become a little complex to play an animal character. By having this exhaustive set of rules, a group should be assured that all their gaming questions are covered.
Overall, I really like the product. It seems to cover an area in the d20 RPG field that is a little unique and hasn't been done to death. My current gaming group is about to end a 4 year campaign and start a new one. I don't know if we'd be interested in a full-on intelligent animal campaign. However, as a GM I might borrow certain elements. Hmmm... an evil conniving leopard sorcerer from the Steaming Isles might be an interesting advisory...