Review: MCDM's Strongholds and Followers for 5E

Credits

Writer: Matt Colville
Art: Justin Cherry, Nick De Spain, Jason Hasenauer, Zachary Madere, Stephen Oakley, Anthony Sixto, Conceptopolis, VOLTA.
Design: Thomas Deeny, Mary McLain
Editor: Joshua Yearsley
Publisher: MCDM
Length: Approx. 265pp
SKU: Unknown
First Edition, First Printing 2018


This is going to be a long one. I'm not sure why, but I wrote a lot of words, which in turn actually caused me to write a lot of words in subsequent articles of tangential relation. As such, I've split this by section more blatantly than usual to make it easy to pick up where you left off or skip to whatever you care about. 

Strap in. 



Let's talk about the big Kickstarter-funded release from the popular Youtube personality, Matt Colville.

"But Possum," I hear you ask, "why would you do that on a blog ostensibly talking mostly about old school stuff?"

Well, friend, I'll tell you. It's not just because the top corner of the blog mentions 5th Edition. It's because I own AD&D 2E's Castles book, and I spent my early childhood obsessed with books like these DK Eyewitness books (or their 80s and 90s editions, anyway). I'm sure many of you read the same things and scoured every page for details about castle life and ancient history; my imagination for about a decade was booked solid with images of a perfect castle, with my perfect complement of trusty knights, and my stewards and cooks and castellans, my perfect surrounding township and so on down the list. It's very safe to say that castle and fort construction and management is extremely my shit. Like, this is my jam. This, and unnecessarily detailed inventory lists full of specific equipment and minutiae and polearms (a topic for another day, but no less deeply rooted in my psyche).

I am a dude who is all about this sort of thing, and I am a dude who is all about the old school D&D flavor, and when you mix those two elements together, you end up with a dude who is going to look through some old school lenses when he reads this newfangled castle book. Take that as something of a caveat: if you're interested in how this stacks up to someone with that history, you're in luck; if you're brand new to 5E and this is the first you've heard of domain play, some of the comparisons I make in this (and subsequent articles) will not be as relevant to your experience. Anyway, with my old school rose-tinted lenses firmly in place, let's get on with the show!

General Stuff


As is my habit, we begin with a look at the art and the layout of the book. In a sentence I can sum it up thusly: I wish 5E looked like this instead. I love the floral border, which feels like an illuminated manuscript or a book of eastern European fairy tales. I love that they put the 5E parchment background in the trash and stuck with a much clearer natural paper look - and made the stat boxes an even sharper white to ensure readability. I love the little decorative touches, like the patterned backdrops behind some of the boxes (even though sometimes these look a little half-finished due to box placement leaving gaps on some pages; this would probably be the weakest element of formatting in this book, but the characteristics of 5E-style stat blocks makes it hard to avoid and lay a page out with several such varying-size boxes). On the whole, the art is more inspired than a lot of the WotC material. More memorable, with a few exceptions. The architectural splashes showing a thematic example of each type of stronghold are easily some of my favorite such artwork in a game book. Generally, many pieces are really cool, such as the angelic and demonic figures on pages 152 and 154, respectively. The monster and NPC sections are of high quality nearly all the way through. Few pieces of art stand out as bad at all, though the dragon attacking the wizard tower sort of looks like 90s CGI.


For general criticism before I launch into the sections individually, the writing style at times leans heavily towards Matt's own voice, by which I mean the snappy format and the implicit ellipses of his style of speech on Youtube. The explicit ellipses and smiley face emoticons in the body text of parts of this work seem decidedly amateur surrounded by the sharp production otherwise, and some pages have several footnotes that read like your buddy apologizing for word choice (literally) which seem out of place. As much as I enjoy Matt's amiable, personable style of speech in videos, his voice could have been reined in a little bit for the sake of the book - some sections could have been rephrased, and in dampening that voice, would have wound up shorter or a little cleaner. Personal choice, of course. I can see why Matt would want to keep his voice present, since it's sort of his brand and he's never really stood on formality in the first place. Not sure I would have made the same call, though. Also on the subject of editing, some typos exist (p. 69 says "a pain the butt", p. 99 calls magical items "creatures" in a sentence I presume was missed in proofreading, for example), but perfection eludes us all, yuo know what I maen?

Strongholds


But what about the systems provided? The contents, specifically?


First up is the Strongholds section. The stronghold construction rules could be more granular to satisfy my incredible desire for castle and settlement building, but I realize most people, including myself most of the time, will probably never actually play a tremendously specific, extensive castle construction minigame in the midst of a D&D campaign. Matt instead chooses to stick to what the vast majority of people will actually use - here's the kinds of keeps common in the world; here's the costs and times required to construct one; here's some mitigating factors and options to modify those things; here's the new powers and responsibilities you acquire when you have your stronghold. For most of us, that's really what we're after at the table. I think it's safe to say that is especially true of 5th Edition D&D, since in those games the story is often less emergent than in many OSR games that err towards strict randomization being the decider of fates. It's less consequential to the story-driven game to have intricate details and differences between granite and limestone.

The upgrades for the various strongholds are very straightforward and simple. They feel almost linear, and herein lay my only(!) real complaint, I think. Sit down before you read the rest of this line, and promise me you won't overreact immediately: it feels video gamey. Let me explain. Matt has made this easy to follow and understand for player and DM alike, and offers a pretty straightforward roadmap to get from A to B with regard to stronghold improvements. This reminds me, in a way, of video games, because video games are inherently limited by their art resources. Skyrim, for example, had several player homes, but they were only to be located at specific spots, and only contained specific upgrades in specific places. Choices exist, but they are limited by the art assets. The game needs to have a 3D modeler produce the exterior and interior designs of the home for the home to exist, and in order to budget time and memory usage and all other manner of factors, the game can only afford so much of that. So there's only so many homes, and so many customizations. This isn't a problem, because we know video games are not limitless. But with role-playing games in the traditional, tabletop medium, that's not the case; yet, here we have a very simplified system that sort of gives that same sensation of limits.

Now, Matt isn't shy about the fact that the sky's the limit for imagining your own keeps, but I feel like he provides scant few explicit instructions for what sorts of things go where, or how to determine their costs or requirements. The strongholds can be upgraded to higher levels, which increases their toughness, but again, in my view, too few details emerge as to what else comes about or comes available with these various structure levels. Numerous options are described in the book, but they're not organized in a terribly effective way, and it necessitates reading closely throughout disparate sections. For example, many of the various amenities you might avail yourself of with your stronghold - such as a mine, or a smithy - are buried as subsections of the various follower examples. This is not a great design choice. There's no reference table listing all of these various options at a glance with their various values (such as income generated, for example, or abilities afforded the keep and its master). You find yourself reading through, and these things appear before your eyes without a cogent gameplan for making the information immediately available.

For example:
  1. You've read through the Strongholds section and arrive on p. 68 to read the Followers section. 
  2. You read the preamble and then skip nine(!) whole pages of (useful, but not right now) class-based retainer stat blocks.
  3. Now you're at a section titled Artisans on p. 82 and you see a table that explains the cost of improving artisan shops within your keep, but you're not sure what that means specifically yet. 
  4. So you keep reading and arrive on p. 85 where a cool blacksmith hammers away on some steel. Here, you learn that you can attract a blacksmith, and then under that heading you find a subheading that says your blacksmith can establish a smithy that allows your keep to produce magic armor faster and cheaper than smiths outside of your keep could manage.
You had no way of knowing this when you set out to read the Stronghold section and wanted to find options for your castle. Nothing guides you explicitly to this. You had no way of knowing, for sure, that this was a fact tucked away in a paragraph under a given a follower, either, because intuitively this seems like a structure, not an NPC quality. You later want to reference this, but you have no clear table for doing so, so you have to head back to p. 82 then flip back and forth to p.85 in order to get the info you need.

I feel like this is the weakest point of the book, and in a book called Strongholds & Followers, that's sort of a bummer. But, it's worth pointing out at this point: even this pretty big unfortunate thing is still far more organized than the AD&D sections (and many other such stronghold sections) which preceded it.

On the lack of super-nerd attention to granular details of castle construction: To be perfectly honest, it's kind of a solo minigame by itself to plan out the perfect this or that for your character, but it's almost never that exact experience when you're actually at a table. I know from experience that reading the AD&D 2E Castles Guide cover-to-cover and handing a DM a note with your planned purchases is fine and dandy, but the consequences of those perfect choices almost never actually come up again or are challenged - and probably, when your keep is attacked eventually, half of it is handwaved anyway, because no one is trying to do geometry at the table to see if the octagonal keep sheds missiles better than the round towers when a Dragon King's army is finally launching the climactic finish to the campaign. I want the rules to be there, so I can play that minigame, but realistically no one needs the rules to be there.

A thing to keep in mind, which I had to remind myself when I began reading this book, is that the rules we have in the old books - they're fun tinkering and fidgeting with, but they often weren't actually as fun as our nostalgia tells us they were. They were disorganized and contradictory at times, and in much the same way as many of us played B/X with AD&D stuff bolted on, half of our stronghold projects were made by approximating bits of several books. Much of what we actually used at my tables (playing or DMing) ended up chopped for parts because the rest frankly wasn't fun for most people, and was a lot of work even for those of us who liked them. What we got here in Matt's book suffices for actual table play for about 90% of groups, I'd imagine, and for the other 10% who crave disorganized, deeply granular systems - my lost brothers and sisters, surely - well, we still have AD&D 2E's Castles, and we have Birthright, and we have BECMI and AD&D, and we can scavenge them for parts just the same today as we always could. This doesn't have to replace them in our collections.

Followers


As you'd expect with a book titled Strongholds & Followers, the section dedicated to the Followers is extensive. It's also excellent. It is detailed, with simple character stat blocks (for 5E, naturally) for all manner of followers which may be attracted to a stronghold, from the mundane to the skilled to the deadly. It includes copious art for many of them, much like a Monster Manual would, and provides in-depth information about the services and gifts they bring to the table once they're settled in your character's domain. Several of the various occupations you might find your castle inhabited with come with characterized examples perfect for lifting wholesale in your game; when Redcloak the Fighter takes over a ruined keep on the frontier of the orc lands and attracts a mason, turn to page 90 and unflinchingly steal Galder of Chalk from the sidebar, including the mannerisms and key phrases Matt has helpfully included for you.

This section is just terrific, and other than the unfortunate decision to inadvertently hide details about keep upgrades behind the various follower archetypes with no indication that they're tucked away in there and no indexed table defining these at a glance elsewhere in the book, I find no criticism to levy here. It's just a tremendously useful part of the book, as both a key component of Matt's system and as a gallery of NPCs, some complete with stats, that we can borrow to suit any purpose at all. There's not much more to say; the art is good, the stats are good, the snippets of characterization are good, the bits of castle customization here are good, but the organization of that key info could have been better.

Adventure: The Siege of Castle Rend


Beyond the Strongholds and the Followers, there is an adventure designed to show off what the book has got for us, based on parts of Matt Colville's home campaign and titled The Siege of Castle Rend. This is written by James J. Haeck, who works primarily on WotC stuff nowadays as a contractor. If I am being honest, this is one of the least interesting and least satisfying parts of the book to me. The writing takes a distinct left turn in tone and style at this point, which is jarring. The adventure is split into five chapters and is distinctly "fifth edition" in terms of structure. The introductory elements of the adventure are somewhat challenging to make use of quickly and absolutely require full attention to read and absorb completely; some odd choices in formatting of text in this section makes it all the more difficult to prepare quickly. Many other modern adventure modules and toolkits in the OSR space do this much better, so it is very difficult not to be disappointed in the effort put forth in this introductory section of the adventure.

The actual adventure is about 40 pages long and involves a party of five 5th-level characters breaking an orc siege to rescue a witch and a noble (in the process, thwarting the agent of a despotic human) and seizing a keep for themselves near a small town called Gravesford. It is straightforward and has elements of negotiation and role-playing, plenty of combat, and likely rewards a stronghold and follower(s) which must be defended in accordance with Matt Colville's soft rule that a keep is only truly yours once you've defended it. The writing throughout is far too verbose at times, and there is a lot of boxed text dialogue. Despite there being an entire bestiary in this book right after this adventure section, for some reason the monsters and NPCs of the adventure are appended in the format of a Monster Manual in this adventure section, which feels like a confusing layout decision. In all, this adventure section is the part of the book I felt the least interested in; unlike how B1, B2, or X1 came with the various Basic and Expert sets back in the day, this is not up to the standard of the rest of the book it accompanies - and for some reason it's smack-dab in the middle of the book instead of being a supplemental document or the very end of the book.

Appendices: Monsters, Items, Warfare


Following the adventure, we get a big chunk of Appendices which contain several varied things.

First, monsters, for some reason. This feels very out of place, and I don't want to spend too much time on it. It's not that it's unwelcome, seems largely out of place, and a lot of it would fit better into a "Matt Colville's Campaign World" sort of book in the vein of Matt Mercer's Tal'Dorei book. I see where some of them tie in to some options for some structures and some followers for some characters, but that's a pretty tenuous thread to follow for an entire bestiary. The monsters and creatures vary from very up my alley to stuff I'd never use, but which are no less very competently designed and which have some very interesting art. There's some awesome art pieces here. More monsters are generally very good things to have in the RPG world, but I can't help but feel these deserved their own supplement, a "Matt Colville's Monster Compendium" or something, because a lot of them are good with great art but they just don't seem like they needed to be in this book given its purpose. It's hard to convey what I mean, exactly, but I hope you follow - Matt and the artists did a good job, it just seems like they did a good enough job to justify a second book instead of pasting somewhat awkwardly into the middle of this book - how do these not even constitute their own true section, at the very least, given that they're so clearly a high investment of art and words

Then we get an incredibly welcome section which makes me wonder why it wasn't a third "major" chapter like Strongholds and Followers were, instead of being a subsection of the appendices. This section is Warfare, and covers Matt's army resolution rules. This part I want to give some serious attention to, because it is, in my opinion, the best part of the entire book hands down.

Matt's army combat rules are a complete and discrete system unto themselves, mechanically unrelated to D&D. You could take this book and run a soft wargame without any difficulty. Knowing 5E inside and out will not help you much here. Matt Colville has produced a clear system which is nonetheless deep enough to please people like myself, who get a sick and twisted charge [Youtube link is NSFW for suggestive content] from imagining that their 12th level fighter has specific fantastic legions at his command who are realistically gaining expertise and veterancy over time. That's my thing, like I said - the nitty-gritty insanity of deeply specific laurels to drape my character in. Bit I digress. Matt's rules are much more abstracted than the warfare rules brought about in AD&D 2E's Castles book. In AD&D 2E's Castles supplement, TSR had rules for the thickness and substance of walls to determine how to break them down, and the speed at which various monstrous races could tunnel through stone to excavate new avenues of attack or to undermine a keep. Matt eschews that to focus on the army-on-army combat, and the stats of individual units engaging each other.

In fact, what Matt produced is not so much AD&D 2E's Castles simulationism, but a pen-and-paper version of an RTS game like Warcraft III or Starcraft - and I say this with a complimentary tone. This is a great choice for just about everyone on earth, including OSR players. Our ethos is usually that simple rulings are better than complicated rules. We avoid cruft wherever we can. All's the better, then, that Matt even offers an additional, simplified version of the system to resolve pitched army-on-army combat nearly instantly without the need for the individual unit management he offers with the full warfare system, so the game can progress when the details of the combat are not as interesting or necessary as the outcome is.

In Matt's system, without giving away the cow for free, units have their own stats. He (as far as 5E is concerned, anyway) reintroduces Morale, and makes it critically important. His 80s pedigree shows here! Units are given evocative names to reflect their parentage and descriptors to reflect their specialization, expertise, and equipment. Most of this has point costs; your army has a point value to be distributed accordingly. Positioning and range and such are abstracted, and dice make the determination in the end, modified by the above principles. A unit ends up with six stats, a cost, some keywords to signal at a glance what it does, and traits that modify play. All of this information fits in a tiny box very easily. If you're used to old school stat blocks for monsters, this will be extremely simple for you to pick up and run with.

Matt did really well here. Because it isn't intrinsically reliant on 5E rules (besides Advantage/Disadvantage), it costs literally zero effort to lift it wholesale and plunk it down amidst your ongoing B/X or AD&D campaign, and it's absolutely no more out of place than half the mechanical minigames-within-a-game that Gary concocted for every idea that crossed his table. These warfare rules are a great game addition for campaigns that have any desire to play about with domain levels.

Lastly, we get a section titled New Items, which is simply treasure, much of it thematically linked to the various kinds of strongholds or followers. Welcome, useful, very table-ready. Far more appealing to me than the section of monsters.

Conclusions


Time for conclusions, I suppose. This book turned out to be nothing like what I expected when I went in mostly blind. I didn't keep up to date with the Kickstarter details or anything like that. I knew Matt from Youtube videos, he launched a big Kickstarter for a project he was passionate about producing, and I knew it would be interesting. I expected a book that was largely a treatise on specific elements of fortresses and castles; some kind of mechanic for assembling them like Lego and then disassembling them with goblin catapults. Something entirely in the vein of the AD&D 2E Castles book. I had no reason to expect this specifically, but also no reason not, to, either. Instead of that, I got what is a very different, but very neat, book. I got a terrific wargame system. Two, really. I got a large chunk of stat blocks and personalities for NPCs, I got a bunch of creatures for some reason, and I got a lot of magical items that are suitable for normal treasure even if I wasn't going to use the strongholds as-is otherwise. I also got an adventure that I won't remotely use as-is but might borrow elements from.

Rating System Changes:
Update 20 Mar 2019: A new n/10 rating system has been instituted to more clearly express my feelings. The legacy n/5 system was always supposed to represent the top half of the n/10 system as I really only review books I really enjoyed in the first place (so they'd all be 6/10 or better) but under that n/5 system, a 1/5 is actually still a very good book, but this is not clear to casual observers. For this reason, the new n/10 system is being used going forward, and is being ported backwards to old reviews. The corrected n/10 value for this review is immediately below this update text. Following that, the original review text is unaltered. A detailed post on this subject is forthcoming.


MCDM'S STRONGHOLDS & FOLLOWERS: 8/10
End New Rating; Original Rating Text Follows: 




On the possum scale, Strongholds & Followers gets four hissing backyard possums out of five. I wasn't sure if this was a 3/5 or a 4/5 because I genuinely have some questions about some of the choices (adventure, layout decisions) and the lack of depth to the construction rules, but the quality of everything surrounding those doubts pushed it across the line to 4/5.

As I've said above, the best parts of this book as an object make me hope Wizards of the Coast is paying attention and taking notes (though given 5E's muddled presentation as it is, I'm not holding my breath). Anna Coulter, Thomas Deeny, and Mary McLain did a great job on the visual presentation of so much of this book.

The worst parts of this book as an object, like the poor organization of some critical elements, the bizarre order of contents, and the outdated adventure style, make me hope that MCDM grows and learns and produces even better products in the future.

At the end of the day: The mechanics of what Matt ends up giving us, like the warfare rules especially, outweigh all of that. The warfare rules alone make me very glad I grabbed this. I have to offer my sincere congrats to the team who worked on this book with very lofty expectations from a zillion Kickstarter backers and Youtube viewers; for a first foray into a big mechanical supplement, this is a pretty good debut.
 

As always, hit me up in the comments below or over on Twitter @dungeonspossums and let me know what you think about this book, or to angrily shout at me for writing like 4,000 words about this book.
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7 comments:

  1. I have been wondering how this book would be received by the osr community. I agree with your criticisms, especially about formatting. It is a great book though, and like you said, the art is fucking great. The court of all flesh pieces are so tight.

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    Replies
    1. Well, I can't pretend to speak for the rest of the OSR nerd hovel, but I can say that I fervently agree about the Court of All Flesh. Those monsters are the high point of the entire bestiary! Way up my alley.

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  2. How does it compare to the faction play of SWN or Godbound? Would it work in conjunction with that, or separately?

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    Replies
    1. Afraid I don't have any real experience with those games to be able to compare that for you, sorry.

      Delete
  3. Hm, neat! I might give this a look. I always appreciate simple and quick mass combat rules (said the guy who religiously witnesses for Daniel Collin's Book of War for mass combat to seamlessly fit into an AD&D/1e session.)

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  4. Thanks for the review, I backed this kickstarter but I haven't had a chance to read through the pdf as of yet. About what I expected, but was hoping it would exceed my current expectations of a lot coming out of 5th edition.

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    ReplyDelete