I love pirates and swashbuckling. I spent a large chunk of last year finishing up on 7th Sea campaign and starting another one. Since I’m a fan of 5th edition D&D, and swashbuckling, I was an easy mark for the Seas of Vodari Kickstarter.
If you didn’t catch it while it was on Kickstarter, Seas of Vodari is a setting for 5e that is based around sea travel and swashbuckling, taking place in a setting that is largely comprised of the island remains of a shattered continent. In addition to ships and swords, the setting also has cannons and muskets, to complete the swashbuckling feel.
While I don’t often dive into advance material from Kickstarters, I’m enough of a 5e and pirate nerd that I couldn’t help but look through the book, especially since there is a mix of setting information and broader rules that can be introduced into other games.
Disclaimer—this is a quickstart, and not the final rules. I’m giving my own opinions on this, but this isn’t a review, just my first impressions.
Unfurl the Sails
The quickstart is 63 pages long, and the artwork and formatting already look impressive. I don’t have any concerns that this will be an attractive final product based on the quickstart. The pieces showing ships and locations have an almost impressionist look to them, and the characters have more of a comic book feel to them.
Lots of headers and clear formatting makes the document easy to navigate. Which is good, because navigation is important for stories about sailing. Okay, I’ll stop.
There is a one-page pitch for what the setting is all about that summarizes it in seven broad points. I’ve seen similar things done in the Primeval Thule and Midgard Campaign settings, and I like the concept. Broadly, it sets up that there was an ancient world long gone, the gods cause some ongoing issues, the setting is more scientifically advanced than most D&D worlds, and there are large portions of the campaign set to exist under the seas as well as above it.
Skipping ahead a little, we do get two aquatic PC species, but other than the ancient societies that were lost in ages past, we don’t get much information on the undersea civilizations of the setting in this primer. I know, it’s 63 pages. I'm just pointing this out.
Essentially, there was a very ancient empire that disappeared, modern humanoid species started to develop their own cultures, with the dwarves and elves isolated with their own issues, and humans and orcs enslaved by dragonborn. I like that space that dragonborn have as an important culture, and I like the potential kinship between humans and orcs—but that doesn’t get developed much in this document.
All the cultures that emerge from the overthrow of the Dragonborn are effectively shattered when the gods go to war and break the continent into island chains.
After the humanoid species recover, we’re told that all kinds of cultures intermingle, especially among the humans. But there is also a note on goblins and kobolds being excluded, and orcs are only mentioned as raiders. I’m a little disappointed, as this feels like a setting where you could have easily played against type with traditional humanoid races much like Eberron and Midgard do.
There are vague analogs for France, Italy, and maybe Spain for some of the nations. There are also some that have fewer direct parallels, such as a nation of scientists and engineers, and one run by various criminal organizations. While some of the giants are specifically noted as being willing to trade and communicate with the smaller races, orcs don’t get the same consideration.
The center of the island chain includes a massive continual storm, which can ebb and flow in size and effect, and I’m all for that detail in a campaign like this.
While I tend to default to terms like species or people or ancestries these days, I’m using this term so that it’s clear that the book is using the standard D&D terminology. The new races included are:
- Aurirn (a subrace of aquatic dwarves)
- Cursed Souls (think of playing someone from Barbossa’s crew in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but less obviously undead)
- Mechasouls (machines that came to life and mutated to humanoids when inhabited by gnome and elf souls)
- Vodas (shapeshifting aquatic humanoids)
Dwarves don’t often get pegged for an aquatic variant, and I like the idea that even though they are aquatic, they are still undersea miners. I really like the idea of the cursed soul, and its probably the race I most want to play of all of these. The vodas look like a lot of fun, and I have a feeling that the species could easily become the signature for what is unique about the setting.
I’m having a harder time warming up to the mechasouls. I have two issues, and one is more superficial than the other. I may just need more setting details, but spontaneously generated humanoids because the soulwood in their construction pulled souls in is weird, but with just that level of detail, I’m not sure if it's compelling. And “mecha” feels too high tech, even in a setting that is floating the idea that steam power and guns are available in a D&D setting. That may just be my preference.
There is a new gunslinger in town, and I’m not going to go into too much detail on it, especially since this isn’t final material, but I really like it. I think part of why I like it is that the subclasses feel like the kind of subclasses a gunslinger should have in D&D 5e, and they echo features of other classes while also doing their own thing. Not to go too far afield, but the other widely available gunslinger has a lot of specialized rules that work in 5e, but don’t feel native to it.
In this case, you get subclasses that are good with a sword while also shooting (musketeer), a subclass that’s really good and just leaning all the way into using guns (pistolero), and a class that is also a partial spellcaster along with their gunplay, much like the options that rogues and fighters also get.
This feels like the kind of class that makes sense for high fantasy heroic gunslingers across the board, but I haven’t done a deep dissection of individual abilities.
There are subclasses for just about every standard class, and just taking a quick glance over them, I like the adherence to theme, while also creating a lot of variations on what has been done with existing game design in D&D 5e. In some cases, this is hybridizing things, like the battlemaster and swashbuckler being melded for the corsair archetype.
There are only four feats, but that’s okay—I like feats to be a little on the rare side. In this case, we get a feat that makes a character better on the deck of a ship (initiative bonus, no penalties to speed when climbing), better at diving (bonus to holding your breath), better at using guns (something that would have been nice in the DMG to accompany the firearms presented), and a feat for those that don’t like to wear armor.
Armor and Weapons
Armor and Weapons
A lot of items that are common in the setting get restated on these charts, but honestly, I like that naval uniforms are a form of light armor, to encourage PCs using them. Heck, I’d definitely hand out magical uniforms to reward the behavior. We also get more detail on guns in this section.
There are optional rules for dealing with firearms to make them slightly less desirable. What I like is that guns will jam, but they don’t blow up on a bad roll, so you can’t expect 5% of a formation of gunners to kill themselves firing their weapons, the way other rules on the subject would lead you to believe.
There are a number of nautical, swashbuckling themed items, but I think one of my favorites is the Ship in a Bottle, because it allows for PCs to have nautical adventures, but maybe to step away from that for a while, carry their ship with them for a while and do more standard adventuring, and come back to the sea later on.
There are seven new spells included, most of which have a nautical theme. Major Mending is a utilitarian spell for helping to keep your ship up and running once it takes (massive) damage from something like a cannon (detailed later on). There is a cantrip that does thunder damage by mimicking a siren’s cry, waves and tidal spells, and one that turns you into a helpful lighthouse for your friends.
One mechanic that I don’t think I’ve seen before is a spell that, on a failed save, makes the target vulnerable to that particular spell, not the wider damage type that the spell is doing. Maybe I’ve missed a similar spell in the rules. Not saying I dislike it, I just can’t recall seeing something similar.
Most of the ships listed in this section are specifically noted as not currently having stats, which makes sense for a quickstart preview. The ship that is included, the sloop, has a format that matches the ship stats that you see in Ghosts of Saltmarsh (and I suspect for the vehicles that will appear in Descent to Avernus).
This section also has the stats for cannons. There are various sizes and even a few different types of ammunition. The biggest cannonball, the 32-pounder, does 8d10 bludgeoning damage.
I can’t find anywhere in the rules where it is harder to target individual creatures, or creatures of a specific size, versus ships or structures. The main reason I’m wondering about this is that a well-armed ship with a few cannons might be able take on a dragon with a few good rolls, and without a penalty for creatures or smaller targets, I’m wondering how long it will be before your undead captains get shot, sniper-like, as soon as they show up on the decks of their ships.
There is a sample adventure included which is a solid “follow the treasure map” adventure, with a few nice twists when it comes to the actual location of the island (I really like where one of the keys is located . . . eventually).
I think everything that is included is exactly what needs to be in the setting to evoke the swashbuckling, seafaring adventures that the setting draws on. I think for this particular setting, the focused, closed pantheon works really well. While I haven’t done any deep number crunching, I think the mechanical options all feel well thought out and logical in light of current design, while doing a few new things. I’m excited to have a chance to read more about this setting, and I think it would be easy to think of a campaign’s worth of adventures within it.
My first concerns are things I kind of understand, but I don’t think are as necessary as they may seem. The quick inclusion of the standard “drow turn bad and get banished” story seems unneeded in a nautical campaign and repeats some of the things I really wish we could get away from in D&D history. Similarly, I can understand creating a history of animosity between orcs and goblins and humans, but in the new status quo after the god’s war, I would love to see an actual nation of orcs and goblins, possibly more in like with Vikings, willing to raid and fight, but also willing to take shipping contracts or work as bodyguards if people are willing to actually bargain with them.
I’m also concerned that, while the setting seems to be inclusive of a variety of humans in every nation, when humans lose their old empires and reform new nations “regardless of past nations,” those multi-cultural nations are either unique to the setting or look firmly European. It reminds me of a lot of comments I have been reading recently about how Whiteness is something that erases other cultures while it includes them.
In addition to this, while the interior art has a variety of human skin tones, the cover is less diverse, and the only characters that don’t appear to be wearing more European themed clothing are non-human characters.
At this point, it may be too late to hope for, but I would love to see a few more nations that are more like Manden or Maghreb from the 7th Sea book Lands of Gold and Fire (Maghreb, for example, draws inspiration from the Barbary Pirates for their corsairs).
I’m looking forward to this. It’s doing a lot right. It’s polished and it is hitting the right notes to resonate with the kinds of adventures that it is trying to inspire. The mechanics look good. I just wish that it could have gone just a little bit further to avoid reinforcing some of the defaults that exist both in fantasy settings in general and D&D material specifically.