Sometimes, I just like to do a review because I’m interested in diving into a product. My take on Princes of the Apocalypse or Storm King’s Thunder probably aren’t going to make a dent in how anyone views these products, or move them up or down on anyone’s priority list of RPG purchases. Despite that, occasionally, I like to dive into those better know, higher profile products.
Note: I don’t really have a lot of evidence that my take on anything has ever affected anyone’s purchasing patterns, so there is that.
This time around I’m looking at something that is part of a Kickstarter that made $2,121,465 dollars and is one of the top 100 Kickstarters of all time. I’m going to dive into Strongholds and Followers, the “product” side of Matt Colville’s Strongholds and Streaming Kickstarter from last year.
The crux of this product is to provide rules for fortresses, followers, and mass combat rules, creating for 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons what various earlier editions of the game had available, but in a manner consistent with the current edition of the rules, and with mechanics that are friendly and intuitive to use at the table.
This review is based on the most recent PDF of the product. The PDF is 269 pages, including the OGL page, and a few pages of example units for the mass combat rules. Each chapter has a full page, full color introductory page, and the book mimics an illuminated medieval script, with flourishing borders throughout.
While some RPG books will have side margins or boxed text to call out extra information or explanations, this is one of the few that I can think of that include footnotes. In addition to the footnotes, it does have the traditional sidebars for various displays of ancillary information.
Many of the big players in the RPG industry make attractive books. It becomes difficult to call out how attractive a book is, because it has almost become assumed that professional releases with have a certain look. Given that this is the first MCDM book, or even comparing it to larger company releases, this book looks amazing, and it does so in a way that is in keeping with the topic of the book. It also does this while maintain the kind of formatting that makes it easier to follow the material presented in the book.
Now We See the Violence Inherent in the System
Before we dive into the meat of the book, I wanted to address an overall issue that weaves in and out of the rules. With the shifting of most Dungeons and Dragons products to using the Forgotten Realms as a baseline, and with the Sword Coast being the main stomping grounds, it feels like a lot of D&D “flavor” has moved more towards late Medieval/Early Renaissance in tone, with less of an emphasis on a hierarchy of nobility, land grants, rights tied to titles, or the divine right of rulers. Its not that those things are entirely absent, but when you play up city states and magical cultures, these elements are less dominant.
Reintroducing an emphasis on establishing a fortress and attracting followers brings some of these elements back into the game. Adding an element of “the ruler is the land” to the game also emphasizes older fantasy traditions of who “deserves” to oversee a tract of land. Reintroducing these elements to the game in a mechanized and important fashion can underline some issues that D&D has had for a while. Namely that some species are okay to wipe out, especially if they don’t willingly allow themselves to be subjugated. There can be an element of “the goodly people” are the only thinking folk that matter, and other thinking, communicating, sapient folk still don’t count as real people, especially if they keep you from land and treasure.
While the topic of being granted land by “rightful” rulers, attracting followers, gaining power from being the true master of the land, and defending a stronghold can bring up all the above, the book doesn’t wallow in these topics. The sample adventure and some of the attracted followers leans into a least a little more nuanced approach to someone holding a fortress and their relationship with their neighbors, and this is a good thing. It’s just worth keeping in mind some of the baggage that this topic brings with it.
The introduction is a brief affair that touches on some of the terms that will be used a lot in the text, and broadly outlines the concept of why characters would want a stronghold and how it works. It then dives into the idea that the GM has a lot to do in the game, so anything in the book should be considered optional, and then briefly touches on the idea that the book defaults to a more traditional “alignment is important and may have mechanical effects” approach, compared to a lot of elements in 5e.
The strongholds section introduces several concepts, from how characters establish a stronghold, what the benefits for a type of stronghold are, and then moves on into some of the class specific benefits that certain fortresses might provide. In addition, there is discussion on elements that aren’t heavily mechanized, but should be introduced into a campaign where strongholds are important (such as introducing rivals, allies, and neutral powers with their own bases of operation).
Each type of stronghold is given a cost and amount of time to build. There are also charts for upgrading strongholds, and each stronghold will have a level between 1 to 5. There are some notes on morale for troops, size, and toughness for the stronghold, which tie into the mass combat rules presented in the book, although it is also noted that the mass combat rules in this book are a stripped-down version of what will appear in a later supplement.
Level also affects some of the more “encounter level” powers provided by each stronghold.
The types of strongholds outlined are:
There are also some simple rules on how to consolidate multiple strongholds into a single castle, in case all your adventures want to have a keep the incorporates a wizard’s tower, a fortified abbey, and an inn for travelers all into the same structure.
Strongholds provide the character that built them with more abilities than they normally have, usually based on spending an extended rest at the stronghold (1 week). This means that even if you don’t do a lot with the mechanics of the stronghold itself, there are still everyday adventuring benefits to owning the stronghold.
The keep makes it cheaper to pay for military units and can provide its master with specific combat training by drilling with the troops. Towers allow spellcasters access to battle magic (which is barely touched on in this volume) and allows the spellcaster to do spell research, which allows the spellcaster to roll on a chart to see what kind of special “kicker” ability they can add to a specific spell when they use it. The temple tracks concordance, which allows the character that founded the temple to potentially petition divine intervention in the form of a servitor. The establishment allows the owner to generate a profit, hear rumors and gather intelligence, and ask for favors (borrowing the ability of another form of stronghold from an ally).
The keep also has a barbarian camp and pirate ship variant, explaining how these versions of the keep function differently. The tower has a few notes on specializing a tower to a specific school of magic, such as necromancy, and the temple has alternate rules for groves, which provide special seasonal castings of spells.
While the base version of the stronghold has set abilities, the other “half” of the benefits gained by a stronghold are based on the character’s class. For example, a druid can build a barbarian camp instead of a grove, but the followers they attract and the special actions they get will be based on their druid class.
Most of the classes grant a demesne effect, a stronghold action, and a class feature improvement, in addition to having a unique chart for attracted followers. Demesne effects are “true” of the area where the stronghold is if it is maintained. Stronghold actions are like lair actions that take effect whenever the person in charge of the stronghold is within the demesne and is in combat, although some of the effects can only be used once per short or long rest before accessed again. The class feature improvement is often something that the character can do which can be used, and then is replenished once the character has spent an extended rest at their stronghold.
It’s worth noting that a PC with a stronghold, fighting within their fortress, is going to have a heavy boost to their abilities. For example, the cleric can call down light from the sky as a stronghold action that causes undead, demons, or devils to make a wisdom save or be annihilated. This is intentional, as the text notes that fights on the PCs home territory should be less common and epic when they happen.
In addition to the stronghold abilities that PCs gain, there is also a section on villain strongholds, where different types of villains grant their minions special traits if the fight happens in an establish fortress with a specific master. This section is interesting, but its not definitive, with just a few sample abilities for necromancer, shaman, and warlord masters and mindless, savage, or tactical minions.
A Note on Followers: One thing that jumped out at me is that several charts have options on them for the PCs to attract ambassadors from various local creatures, including goblins, orcs, or gnolls, for example. This isn’t based on alignment and sets up the idea that these species aren’t always something you need to kill or drive off, and I really like that idea.
I really wish the villain stronghold section was a little more exhaustive, instead of just giving some examples to build from, and I’m always a little dubious of spending time introducing mechanics that won’t fully be addressed until a later product is available. Even with that in mind, I really like the idea that all the strongholds have mechanical “weight” even if you never get into any kind of mass combat with them. If they only ever exist as something the player characters visit during downtime, they still have a reason for existing.
If the PCs are relaxing at home and an assassin attacks them, the stronghold actions can still come up without an extended siege. That’s the kind of utility that a lot of older stronghold rules seem to lack, as the stats provided for the domain and the fortress only come up if you start playing a whole other kind of game that involves politics and mass combat.
I also like the type of stronghold + class formula for defining what the characters get from establishing a stronghold.
The next section of the book defines different kinds of followers, which can include units, retainers, artisans, ambassadors, and allies.
Units are what they sound like, military units that mainly get used when engaging with the mass combat rules detailed later in the book (and in the upcoming expanded companion volume). Retainers are special NPCs that are like PCs, but with simplified abilities to use in encounters. Artisans are characters that can make buying certain things cheaper for the stronghold, and in some cases, allow for specialized magic item construction. Ambassadors are a touchstone with a neighboring group which also allows you to purchase military units to aid you. Allies are people friendly to you, but not under your command (like a friendly dragon that will likely help you, but only in their own way, not according to your orders).
Retainers introduce a whole other way of having “tagalong” NPCs. They are broadly arranged along what kind of followers a given class would attract, and they often represent a very narrow aspect of what one class might do. For example, rogue retainers include executioners (sneaky killers), guild adepts (sneaks that are good at avoiding attention and misdirecting attacks), and cutpurses (a sneak that can impose different conditions on their opponents).
Retainers don’t have full stats, they just have a primary ability, saves, and skills, which grant them a set bonus when rolling those checks. They have a signature attack or ability, and depending on level, at 3rd, 5th, or 7th level they get abilities that they can use anywhere from 1 to 3 times per day. Retainers start out two levels lower than the PCs that they work for and gain a level for every two levels the PCs gain. They don’t track hit points, but they make a save versus the damage they take, with a failure indicating that they lose 1 health level per hit dice of the attack that hit them.
Given that I’ve looked at a few “companion” options recently, I must admit, I’m the most intrigued by this option. Saving versus the damage taken adds an extra step to the character getting hit, but it also reduces the book keeping for specific hit points, and I love the idea of having one signature ability to summarize what they can do, coupled with per day limited abilities that tie into the theme.
The nifty psychological trick that retainer design uses is that, the retainer goes on the turn that the player acts on. If the PC hits with their attack or successfully uses an ability, the retainers signature ability happens automatically, which makes it feel like the PC is at least indirectly responsible for their retainer’s success, making them less of a spotlight hog. If there is anything I’m concerned about, it’s that in some cases the retainer may still have a good enough bonus in a skill that it becomes better to have the “help” do it instead of the PCs.
The Siege of Castle Rend
The Siege of Castle Rend is an adventure to introduce elements of rules introduced in this supplement, and it takes up 48 pages, so it is a good sized, solid adventure. I’m not going to delve too deeply into all the details, but there are a few elements worth noting. When I started reading it, my assumption was that it was going to be a very standard D&D style adventure that happened to end up with an encounter defending a fortress, but there were some nice, surprising swerves in the adventure.
Essentially, the PCs end up tracking down a kidnapped NPC, recovering them from orcs that have taken over an old fortress, which they can then claim, and then they must defend the reclaimed fortress from outside attackers. The twist is that the attackers are duplicitous local authorities that have been backstabbing local leaders to advance themselves, the orc’s leader is looking to negotiate, and one of the hostages has established a bond with the orc leader.
It’s entirely possible to play this very “traditionally,” and wipe out the orcs, then get surprised by the fact that the local human authorities aren’t the best people. However, there are so many more interesting options if the PCs do spend the time to discuss the situation, negotiations, and double crosses with the orc leader and end up getting the orc’s help in the final stretch, as they attempt to rally troops to defend the stronghold.
The appendices hit a lot of different topics, including new monsters, warfare, simple warfare, and new items.
New monsters introduced play into the kind of creatures that can be summoned in conjunction with the concordance rules for temples in the first chapter. If alignment becomes important, it is also important to have planar allies that are tied to alignment available for summoning.
There are lesser versions of some iconic demons and devils in this section, so if you want to summon a balor or a marilith that isn’t quite as nasty as the standard version, there are some options available. The Celestial Court provides some very lawful good, angelic creatures. The Court of All Flesh are weird, backstabbing, strange creatures that exemplify chaotic neutral (and aren’t all impregnating frog things). The Court of Arcadia are like the older version of eladrin, chaotic good planar creatures with a definite tie to fey creatures, although there is a variety of fey style creature, not just “super elf.” The Court of Elements is tied to the alternate cosmology of Colville’s world, where the City of Brass is the confluence of all the elemental realms, with various elemental creatures tied to functions in the city. There are also the inexorables—conceptual beings that enforce cosmic rules in broad terms and serving as the example of lawful neutral summons.
Also introduced in this section are the gemstone dragons. Unlike versions of gemstone dragons from previous D&D editions, these gemstone dragons lack breath weapons, but have specific psionic abilities. They also have very specific philosophies that each type of dragon follows (for example, sapphire dragons are interested in time). The broad psionic abilities tie into some of the magic items introduced later, but unlike the planar creatures in this chapter, the dragons don’t tie as much into the overall rules from the rest of the book.
Warfare details how to create units, how the unit costs translate into upkeep for hired units, and how mass combat works under these rules. Exact positions aren’t tracked, but different types of units are only allowed to attack certain other types of units. For example, levies are useless against flying units or cavalry, and they can only attack infantry if there aren’t levies on the other side of the fight.
Unit size is tracked with a die, and whenever is either harmed or suffers a loss to moral, the face of the die drops by one. If the die is already at 1, that unit is out of the fight. Because of how this is represented in the game, that means that failing a morale check is just as bad as taking damage, but it also means that morale failure doesn’t mean a unit falls back or fails to function in the fight.
One important aspect of this system is that player characters can’t really affect unit level combat. In other words, your fighter isn’t going to do anything to a unit, not even a unit of levies. The assumption is that the PCs are doing something else, light fighting the evil general and their bodyguards. If you are wondering what happens if the PCs fail to kill the villain’s pet dragon, well, part of what you do in this system is to define the win and loss conditions of the fight—you can establish if the dragon isn’t stopped, the fight is over and the troops scatter.
Simple warfare is a quick list of advantages and disadvantages that can be used to create a percentile-based chance to determine if one force or another wins a wider battle.
The new items include several magic items that can summon units or that play with some of the psionics rules introduced with the gemstone dragons. My favorites are the codices, super powerful magical books that require attunement, and introduce some crazy levels of power into the campaign. Designed to be “events” in the campaign rather than something the PCs carry with them for the rest of their careers, they also give some hints at the lore of Colville’s campaign world.
Calling the Banners
First off, Colville’s writing style is very conversational and entertaining. Even if you don’t use any of the rules presented, it’s enjoyable to just read his take on how a campaign using these rules should play out. The stronghold rules work on multiple levels, allowing a GM to engage with them in steps that may not require a major shift in how the campaign works. The implications on using simplified NPCs in the retainer’s section is great, and the various monsters and magic items are useful even outside the framework of the new rules. I’m very interested to see how the mass combat rules play out, and to play with creating individual units from existing monsters.
If you are like me, the same conversational tone that makes the book fun to read also means that you sometimes lose the thread of how a rule works, start to finish, or makes it harder to reference a rule later, as opposed to initially reading how it works. I feel like a few of the procedures for new rules could have used a summary page of some sort, for example, summarizing the bonuses of retainers or summarizing what units can attack other units in mass combat.
Recommended--If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
Even though the rules primarily lean towards, well, strongholds and followers, the new monsters and magic items may be worth a look even for GMs not looking to get into the domain game. Additionally, the book is an immensely enjoyable read when addressing why a domain style game might be fun, even if you ultimately don’t think it is for your and your campaign. The only thing that keeps me from recommending it more broadly is that it is very grounded in a style of fantasy that not everyone may be interested in.