Review – Strongholds & Followers
In the long distant history of February (2018 for you strange future-people) one of my favourite personalities in role-playing games released a kickstarter, Matthew Colville’s Strongholds & Streaming. Begun with the simple intent of getting a Critical Role style D&D twitch game underway, offered with a physical product so that people were not simply funding an ephemeral and conceptual project, a Dungeons & Dragons supplement for 5th edition, Strongholds and Followers. Oh, and dragon minis too!
As weeks rolled by, Matt’s videos were often started or closed with an awed thank you, as the campaign not only obliterated goals, but is the current record holder for most funded roleplaying book, and remains in the top 100 Kickstarters of all time. We’ve seen work unfold on a studio space, designs emerge for the miniatures, and even had insights into the design process of the book, and finally, we have a finished product in our hands…
Assuming you have removed your harddrive and are currently sat holding it. I got the pdf the other day, is what I’m saying. Here’s what I thought.
Do You Want To Build A Stronghold?
This is a coffee book table, assuming you play D&D on a coffee table. The notion is not that you buy the book with the very specific intent that your players build a fortress as an integral narrative component of the campaign, but to seed the idea that they could, and to gain some idea of the perks they might reap by doing so.
As a Dungeon Master, it’s a book worth digesting thoroughly, because you may find yourself preparing for a party of powerful players. The owner of a tower will be able to shape and craft spells, or at least try to, masters of a keep will gain permanent rewards in combat for having trained military units, establishments can garner pretty potent information, and temples can put divine characters directly in touch with their gods – for better or worse. These powers may appeal to a player, and will be worth the massive gold investment that they pour into the building’s construction.
As a DM, this can be as power-shifting as overdosing on magic items or other perks, but there are ample ways and means to pull the teeth out a group’s stronghold, and Matt kindly delivers. There are always those seeking to de-claw the new power in town, some other military force, or another nearby fort competing for space and workforce. Or there are always dragons.
To more directly appeal to each player, there are class-specific stronghold options as well as the generalised categories, there are racial benefits to being of one race or another when it comes to inciting followers to approach. There are a handful of simple customisation options, but it cracks open a world of potential for homebrew content and players bringing their own ideas to the party. Anyone who’s played Heroes of Might & Magic can have real fun getting creative with this one. Or just make a carbon copy of the Necropolis from HoMM 3, we all know you want to.
It Doesn’t Have To Be A Stronghold
A rather hefty chunk of the book is also given over to extra content tangentially related to the stronghold building rules:
A collection of magic items, some relatively simple, some usable with strongholds, some that may be rather familiar to anyone who has been watching Matt Colville’s videos for a while. There are others, in particular the codices, which verge on utterly game-breaking, but in the most incredible fashion. There are a few little ambiguities in the rules, many of the abilities of the codices expend hit dice as fuel, but at times may be unclear as to how effects are ended (i.e. The Vile Form ability granted by the Codex Umbra, to read implies that the form can only end when you die, but whether it is suggested it ends as a bonus or regular action may change things).
There are a host of creatures that present incredible reimaginings on the concept of law, chaos, good and evil. The Inexorables are entities immune to certain reality altering effects of magic, devoted to upholding the order of abstracts such as time and space. You’ll also find a complete set of gemstone dragons, psychic creatures with questionable motives, and their own collection of psychic powers and a Dragonborn subtype. Followers of the kickstarter knew to expect the dragons, miniatures are still – I believe – under production, but that Dragonborn is a lovely surprise.
You will also find a miniature adventure, The Siege of Castle Rend, a full write-up of the siege that is still available to watch on YouTube.
Oh, and one other major piece of content worth mentioning:
If you’re accustomed to the pseudo-academic form of standard D&D books then you’re going to find something different in Strongholds and followers. If you’re a fan of Matt’s channel, his voice rings out of the page, absent only his signature sign off (peace -pause- out!) anywhere throughout the book, but you’ll find little supportive commentary:
“This book references alignment a lot—don’t freak out. It’s merely deployed as an organizational tool.”
or Pratchettesque footnotes supplying little insights into his own thought process, be it wholly relevant to the content, or:
1 – There’s a great, by which I mean deeply weird, movie from Michael Mann called The Keep about a bunch of Nazis accidently letting
a demon lose in Transylvania while an Eternal Man tries to stop them. This doesn’t have anything to do with these rules, but it’s my
book, you get my weirdness.
So when the book plunges into its own design philosophy, lending rationalisation and reason behind the content, you feel oddly involved in the creation process, and while the maths have been been taken care of for the most part, that slight pulling back of the curtain grants the reader – explicitly in places – permission to tinker with the leavers and wheels to fit their own needs.
For example, the warfare and army rules are a heavily optional element of gameplay, forming an element of the building of a stronghold, but far from the only perk, perhaps not even the best perk. You have the power to run warfare entirely independently as the DM, and allow your players to view and sway the actions of the battlefield, or even a long-term conflict, from a personal level, allowing your party to directly engage with power-players, or view the battlefield from the perspective of a general or soldier, not as an all powerful RTS player, martialing entire forces with a click.
The book is peppered with pieces of narrative, short explanatory sections of prose that expose Matt’s skills as a novel writer, and offer up some flavour that may serve to inspire, or simply provide depth to the cold, hard rules content. I have yet to buy copies of Priest and Thief, the start of Matt’s novel series, but suddenly I find myself tempted.
I glossed over this briefly earlier, but the book is not without issues. This is a first draft, subject to a battery of playtesting from backers and new players, and the pdf copy specifically stipulates that it will be regularly updated to reflect the truest and most accurate version of the rules.
This means that those ambiguities in the codices should eventually be caught and corrected, one or two typos where rules have been incompletely edited (if you’re reading this MCDM, check “Attuning to a Codex”, p. 245) should eventually be put right.
But considering the size and scope of the project, all of the other plates that have been set to spinning by this ambitious project, a perfect product at shipping this soon after the campaign wrapped up is a tall ask, and the content we have is comprehensive, profoundly deep, and useful in any campaign. You can dip into a chapter and inevitably find something to drive a concept or bulk out a narrative. If you’re struggling for an NPC, looking for a monster outside the norm, or even a magic item that most of your players couldn’t possibly expect, this book is worth investing in.
It has, I think, the potential to enter into common circulation in the vein of Deities and Demigods, a book which begins life as a minor supplement or unofficial contribution that ends up becoming an essential part of future editions. I don’t necessarily anticipate that it will change the way campaigns are played in the future, but I can clearly envision Colvillian fingerprints appearing in Dungeon Master’s Guides and Unearthed Arcana in the future. Strongholds and Followers is already part of D&D history for the record breaking kickstarter campaign, and I sincerely believe that 5th edition is better for this book being added to your collection.