Thursday, December 27, 2018

Reviewing Strongholds & Followers


 I have been a little busy with real world stuff these past couple of months—the kind of things that are health-related—and so I have not been as active on the blog as I would like. Sorry about that. But I am still working, writing, and thinking about gaming and Dungeons & Dragons in particular. To that end, I will point you to Matt Colville’s YouTube channel, because he eats, sleeps, and breathes this stuff and I find myself in agreement with him, like, 98% of the time, when it comes to running D&D games. This is very likely because we are about the same age and have experienced many of the same things, and also we have very similar tastes regarding First Edition Stuff (such as Appendix N) and how we use it in gaming.

Colville is also very sincere and genuine in his discussions (really a monograph) of running and playing D&D. It shows, and it’s one of the things that makes him so likeable. It almost makes me forgive him for mispronouncing “archetype” every single time he says it.

Colville was so popular on YouTube that he launched a Kickstarter for a supplement he wanted to write, called Strongholds & Followers, and also Live Streaming equipment and studio space. You know. For the kids. Maybe you backed it. You and roughly 30,000 other people. It blew every other game Kickstarter out of the water. Crazy. And Colville has dutifully followed through with everything he’s promised, including the thing I’m going to talk about below.

Strongholds and Followers is ostensibly a set of rules and guidelines for attracting followers and building a base of operations, much like what was found in the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide, spread throughout the book in several sections like Expert Hirelings, Henchmen, Construction Times, etc. That’s not a bad thing, by the way. There is a lot of cool stuff in prior versions of Dungeons & Dragons that are not currently represented in the current version.

Also, I think this is one of the two best reasons for creating material for D&D from scratch—new rules should either plug a hole missing in the initial release, such as with this, or answer a specific need in your particular campaign. Anything else is academic, or, not, depending on how cool it ends up being.

 I find that a lot of the “home brew” material out there, both free and nominally-priced, is not well-thought out with an eye toward answering the question, “what does this bring to the game,” and instead is presented as the means to its own end. It reminds me a lot of that scene from the movie The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy:


I told you all of that to tell you this: I really like what Colville did with his initial offering. I’ll break it down for you.

The Good: this is a solid set of rules that covers a wide spectrum of possible needs, but it’s not anything that gets in the way of what else your campaign covers. What I mean by that is, if none of your players want to create a stronghold, this whole unit of rules never really comes up. That is, not unless you want to make a stronghold for the villain in the campaign. And then it’s quite useful, especially for evil clerics. There’s not a lot of crunch here: you pay the amount, you want a certain amount of time, and viola! Stronghold. Any half-way competent DM would break up the wait with some great one night adventures, like bandits stealing supplies, or running into a monster lair that needs to be cleaned out before work can proceed. But if you don’t want to do that, you can just jump-cut to the keep being finished and get on with the collecting of taxes and protecting of the people.

Colvillle has already announced the follow-up, Kingdoms & Warfare, and explained that it will dovetail into the stronghold rules, as you would expect. I suspect that his system for mass battles will be similarly easy to deploy. It may even have roots in the Birthright game or the BattleSystem rules of old. Who knows? But I’m in, whenever he gets it done, because I don’t have to do it myself, and I’m rather looking forward to more heroic-fantasy-flavored D&D than what we currently have now.

The other thing that I think is brilliant on Colville’s part is his voice. The book is written like an extended set of transcripts from his YouTube channel. His examples, his syntax, all of it, has that conversational and informative style that helped make him a modern-day Pretty Big Deal. If you like his videos, you’re going to love reading the book. His side-eye monster commentary (on his own monsters, no less) is a hoot.

The Bad: This is minor stuff, here. Nit-picky, even. But I want to list it on the off-chance that it matters to you or someone else. I would say that 90% of the layout is great and the text is clear and readable. But the fonts used for the headings are thick and in a couple of places really muddy up. It looks like the same fonts used to make the company logo, so there may be an attempt at branding here. I didn’t like it; it seemed like a poor design choice. I know, I know, I told you, this is nit-picky stuff.

Also, the flow of how the rules for Strongholds are presented is…okay. But it could be better. There are three pieces to making strongholds and attracting followers and units, and due to the way the book is laid out, those sections aren’t together in one place. An easy fix might be to do a simple summary at the beginning of the process; i.e. what do you do, in what order, and what does it generate? Page numbers for each thing would make it even clearer. This is not a deal-breaker; it only gave me a slight pause my first read-through, and after that, it clicked nicely. The biggest stumbling block for me was the usage of the word “demesne” to refer to the area your stronghold affects. This is a word I’ve never seen before in my life, and when the pronunciation was offered right after it (“deh-MAYNE”), my thought was immediately, “Why the hell didn’t you just use the word “domain?” There’s flavor text, and then there’s showing off, and this seemed like a waste of ink.

The Ugly: Colville also included monsters and treasure in the book. I had, initially, zero interest in the monsters, as they were three things that I really don’t do a lot with in my games: Demons, Devils, and Dragons. But they look absolutely fantastic and seem to be well-received. I just know that I will end up using maybe one demon and one member of the Celestial Court out of the book in my lifetime. Thus, that’s a lot of real estate that is wasted on me, and I know this is armchair quarterbacking, but a MCDM Bestiary would probably sell like hotcakes and I certainly would have bought that, as well, so for my cash outlay, these monsters are a little out of place. I am well aware that I may be the only person out of 30,000 that feels this way, and so I don’t think this should count as a negative for the book.

My recommendation: It’s simple—do you anticipate needing these rules? Then get ‘em and be glad you did. The monsters, particularly the gemstone dragons, may also be of interest to you if you are old school and remember the extra dragons that were routinely published in the Dragon magazine. I’m eager to see what Colville comes up with next, and further down the road, as well. He’s set a nice high bar with Strongholds and Followers. You can get the PDF now or pre-order the book on the MCDMwebsite. 

I can’t wait to see what the physical book looks like. MCDM spent some dough on the artwork and it looks really nice and professional without looking anything like what Wizards of the Coast is doing—also a good thing. With the seemingly-infinite plethora of mediocre home-brew material out there right now sitting under the DMsGuild logo, publishers with their own trade dress will stand out even more in the crowd. And, in Colville’s case, a clearly delineated point-of-view, tone, and overall aesthetic approach to the game.

Let’s see, what else? Oh, right, a number review: 5/5. I told you my negatives were nitpicks.


Appendix N: Happy Birthday, Robert E. Howard!

Hey, look! A book! I wrote this! If you have a first edition, please buy this one, too. It's better. I think we're going to just...