Review – Strongholds & Followers

Strongholds & Followers is a supplement by MCDM Productions.

It is the result of a 2018 Kickstarter project that featured this book, as well as new dragon miniatures and funding for livestreaming Matt Colvile’s campaign.

I need to mention that we also made a video version of the review. It’s audio-only and about an hour long. So, if you are into having background noise while working, it may interest you.

In case you go through it, any feedback is more than welcome. And also let me know if you want to see more content of this kind. I promise, in the next one I won’t be bumping on the table the microphone is on that much.

The Kickstarter

Before we move to reviewing the book and its contents, we would like to mention a few things about the Kickstarter itself. It was the second Kickstarter we have ever backed, so we can’t say we have a lot of experience with them. However, the whole project was very well organized, and the team kept releasing regular updates on the progress of the book, minis, streaming, and shipping. Even when there were some roadblocks, they were handled very well without any burdens being placed on the backers. As a side note, this was one of the most successful kickstarters concerning TTRPGs, if not in general.

However, we should mention that there was an almost 1-year delay in the arrival of the books. While this is not ideal, there were frequent updates about the issue, which alleviated any significant concerns.

The Book

Book Quality

To get the negatives out of the way first, the book arrived with its cover significantly bowed and has remained that way regardless of being pressed by a great load of other DnD books. This is also a complaint echoed by others online, so it seems it’s not an isolated incident. We have no further negative comments about the physical copy.

On a lighter note, the book quality is excellent. The cover material feels very sturdy, and the pages are glossy and don’t feel flimsy. Moreover, there were no pages stuck together or otherwise misprinted, something which we have experienced even with WotC publications.

Content

Strongholds

About ¼ of the book (60 pages) is dedicated to Strongholds. There are 4 base types of Strongholds; the Keep, the Tower, the Temple, and the Establishment, each with unique traits. Each class has no restriction on the type of Stronghold they can own, but there are certainly better synergies for most Class-Stronghold combinations.

Each Stronghold has a single owner who benefits from its effects. This means that not every member of the party is going to enjoy those benefits. The solution provided in the book is a Castle, a sort of Stronghold Megazord that can combine several different types in one location. However, it is restricted in the way that only one Stronghold of each type can be constructed in a single castle, potentially leaving party members to find alternative locations for their own bases. This seems a bit unfair, when it could have been easily resolved by allowing multiple owners dependent on the Stronghold level, perhaps with an extra cost involved as well.

The whole process is streamlined and straightforward; there is only the question of cost and time. The DM can add extra complications, either political in nature with local lords, or economic with the absence of resources or workforce. There are some examples provided, and while there are no explicit instructions on how to translate it into mechanics, there is also no need for it, since it is heavily dependent on the individual DM and campaign.

While the 4 types of Strongholds appear generic at a first glance, some of them also have variants catering to a specific class. For example, the Keep of a barbarian can be a Barbarian Camp, which has some marked differences from the normal one, chief among them that it is mobile. Speaking of mobile, the Keep has a second variant: the Pirate Ship. To be honest, this was a quite disappointing part of the book. This was a kickstarter stretch goal, which added a 2-page spread, mostly dominated by art. The actual rules concerning the ship take up at most ⅓ of a page, a quarter of which is a subnote about the history of sailing.

Beyond the two variants mentioned above, there are no generic rules for mobile strongholds. This is a missed opportunity, since we felt the book gave only a small tease about them. There are several ideas that could be used as mobile Establishments (a traveling circus or troupe, a merchant convoy, et cetera) or even mobile Towers and Temples. Players can come up with great ideas, and the absence of rules can leave the DM scrambling to come up with their own system.

Moving on to the individual class benefits. Each class gets 3 different effects that follow mostly the same pattern. First are the Demesne Effects. These are mostly fluff, passive effects that stretch over the entire area your Stronghold has under its influence (a 24-mile-wide hexagon). However, some of them are quite powerful mechanically, while others are insignificant. For example, the Bard’s Theater has purely fluff effects, like music playing as the wind blows. On the other hand, the Cleric’s Church grants immunity to disease to everyone living in the demesne, while the Barbarian’s Camp neutralizes poisons. This could have been more evenly designed: either each class getting only fluff, or an even spread of fluff and minor mechanical effects.

Second are Stronghold Actions, which act as Lair Actions for PCs. Overall, there are no significant complaints here, although again there is a slight power discrepancy among classes. Finally, there are Class Feature Improvements. As the name implies, these are upgrades to a key feature of the class in question. These can be used a limited amount of times before needing an extended rest, meaning you need to spend a week at your stronghold. This is where the biggest power difference among classes exists. Some of them are incredibly strong, while others are laughable, a concern that has been repeatedly raised by others as well.

After PC Strongholds, there is an additional page about Villain Strongholds. There are some instructions on how they work, as well as a few examples. However, there could be some more material there, for example a larger selection of special abilities.

Followers

The followers section is about 30 pages. There are several types of followers, including retainers that assist in combat, artisans that improve your stronghold and craft items, ambassadors from other groups in the area, or special allies. 

Starting with retainers, their mechanics are pretty streamlined, which is something that we welcome since this aspect of the game could increase the complexity by a lot. However, a single point of contention in these mechanics is the use of health levels, instead of hitpoints. In our opinion, rather than simplifying the use of followers, it instead increases the complexity. Every time a retainer is hit, they must make a saving throw with a varying DC, then lose a number of health levels equal to the number of damage dice. This seems needlessly complicated compared to a simple subtraction, as it would be if HP was used. The main reason for this system according to Matt is to make retainers tougher, allowing them to stick by your side for longer even though they are of a lower level. However, even so, they don’t seem to be particularly tougher than a PC of their respective level using HP. Finally, there is a bit of an oversight; followers take damage from spells equal to the spell level, but there are no explicit rules for cantrips. Do retainers lose no health levels from them (considered 0 level spells), or is there some other way of calculating it? Admittedly, most offensive cantrips require spell attack rolls so they are covered under the attack rules, but there are some like Sacred Flame or Vicious Mockery that require saving throws. Besides that however, the rest of the rules are quite easy to understand and use. There is a significant collection of retainers available, and it is not that hard for DMs to create their own either.

After retainers, we have artisans. They are highly skilled workers that can either improve your stronghold, or grant you a service. There are 11 artisans, each of them with their own abilities, and a corresponding shop which can be upgraded. Along with the artisans, there are also some simple guidelines on how to harvest specific creature parts. This seems weird at first glance, but they are used to create some new magic items. These items are all specific to the monster the part originated from, such as arrows of slaying, potions of protection and more. These magic items also work only for the specific type of monster – e.g. black dragons, not all dragons or all chromatic dragons. Some artisans can also know recipes for other magic items. Artisans can also improve your stronghold through various effects, from simply generating gold to training and equipping your army. And of course, there are plenty of opportunities for roleplaying, either with the artisans themselves or by exploring the results of their presence – for example, how would guilds react to all these trained workers gathering at your keep?

Ambassadors and allies are a bit more fluid, without many rules. Ambassadors are from nearby societies – there could be an orc tribe, a city-state, or anything else, and they allow you to buy units from them for a lower cost (more on units later). As mentioned in the book, they are not spies or saboteurs – they are supposed to be a reward, and they can be a great tool for the DM to open up more political options for the players. As for special allies, there are creatures often stronger than the players, such as dragons, giants, devils, et cetera, whose interests align with the players’. As such, they are not subordinates, but they will assist and advise the party – however they can of course expect the party to help them in return.

Overall, followers are well made, and they feel like a good fit with the rest of the content. Still, for a supplement called Strongholds and Followers, you would expect a bit more of the contents allocated to them than 30 pages.

Adventure – Siege of Castle Rend

We do not want to make an extensive review of the adventure since the article will be long enough even without it. Our overall opinion on the adventure itself is positive. It is an adventure that you will enjoy playing, or running, and it is an interesting way to introduce elements of the book in your game. It covers all three pillars of adventure, and is very well written. 

The adventure is 50 pages long. This is good and bad. It’s good because it provides a lot of content for the DM and the players. We will discuss the bad part later.

Creatures

The bestiary in this supplement contains about 50 entries. It is a collection of demons, devils, celestials, fey, aberrations, elementals, dragons and constructs. Their majority come from Matt’s own setting and are definitely unique. This means they come with some very interesting lore about them but it’s probably going to be used as inspiration instead of being directly referenced in your games. Some of them would benefit from having a higher CR version, since the entries range from CR 5 to CR 9, while they are being referred to as Fey Lords or manifestations of a god’s will. The only outliers are the gemstone dragons who follow similar CR conventions as the rest of the dragons. Again, the writing is quite good and the monsters will provide a lot of inspiration for your games. We just aren’t sure the very setting specific lore is going to be used.

Warfare

The warfare rules are simple, as mentioned in the book itself. They provide a very straightforward way to resolve battles that involve more people than just the player characters. Mass combat rules can spark a ton of conversation and the level of preferred complexity differs from person to person. For example, I’m content with the level of abstraction, while Anastasios provides some strong arguments about how it could use a bit more complexity. Still, they are much better than the Unearthed Arcana attempts, even though this isn’t a very fair comparison.

Warfare using these rules doesn’t require a grid. There is a card that corresponds to each unit, detailing its stats and special abilities. The units have a gold cost depending on their stats, which are attack, defense, power, toughness, morale, and size. 

There are a few more characteristics that don’t affect their gold value, such as ancestry. This one signifies the race or place of origin of the soldiers composing the unit. This affects the composition of the army, which is something that we like a lot. Depending on the relationships between different ancestries, units may be more expensive to buy and maintain or even impossible to integrate into your army.

There is an attitude chart detailing the relationships between several ancestries. Of course, these can vary in each setting, or even regions of the same world, but it’s a really good idea.

New Items

The supplement also includes 28 new magic items. These can generally be divided in three categories: First, there are stronghold items that provide a relatively minor bonus to your strongholds or demesnes. Some of them require installation, meaning they must be permanently affixed to your stronghold. Second, we have the Codices.  These are artifact-level items, with very, very strong abilities such as turning into a huge phoenix with particle cannons (an attack that is a beam 1000 feet long) and traveling in time. However, some of them require a price to be paid. The codices have some very interesting effects and abilities, and while their lore is tied to Matt’s setting, you can use them as inspiration for your own artifacts. It goes without saying that items of this power level are not simple rewards, but rather the focus of entire campaigns. Finally, we have alignment-specific weapons. These are items that can only be attuned by creatures of a specific alignment (good-neutral-evil, lawful-chaotic). An ability they all have in common is that on a critical strike, they summon  servitor from their respective plane (Fey creatures for chaotic good, aberrations for chaotic evil, celestials for good, et cetera). Their abilities are generally not very exciting, but they are an interesting concept in and of themselves.

Art and Layout

The art of the book is exceptional. All the illustrations are very beautiful and complement very well the chapters they’re found in. The creatures have some amazing art, with the celestials being especially notable. There are multiple maps present as well, both for the adventure and for example stronghold layouts. These are also very good, with a possible exception found in the Temple maps, whose intense coloring might make it a bit difficult to discern details. However, this color scheme makes the Temples look like a vitro, which kinda fits their flavor, so it’s up to you to decide.

Layout is mostly fine. There is however an element we have found mildly annoying. In pages containing statblocks, the empty space is filled with colorful banners. Depending on how much space is left at the bottom of the page, these banners begin to take up more space than is aesthetically pleasing. This is exacerbated by their bright, contrasting colors as well.

Final Words

Overall, Strongholds and Followers is a book that contains some really good ideas. The vast majority of them have also been implemented quite well. However, sometimes it feels like the first half of a book whose second part, Kingdoms and Warfare, hasn’t been published yet. There were multiple references to rules that would be clarified or mechanics that would be implemented in K&W, which didn’t sit right with many people. Furthermore, the writing style sometimes feels like one of Matt’s videos. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it again doesn’t feel like the appropriate tone for a supplement. 

In conclusion, while it may look like we complained about a lot of things, we did enjoy the ideas presented and look forward to the next installment.

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