What Do I Know About Reviews? Seas of Vodari (5e OGL)
I am a simple creature, and certain combinations of elements trigger my Pavlovian responses, like “D&D Campaign setting” + “pirates.” Given that I actually have two Kickstarters from last year that I backed for which this description applies, I’ll elaborate and say that the one I’m referring to this time is Seas of Vodari.
I did a first look based on the quick start for the setting, but now I’ve got the final PDF, so I’m really interested to revisit the setting now with all of the pieces in place. I’m always interested to see the balance that third party publishers strike between setting material and mechanical information, as well as how the project, as a whole, turned out.
This review is based on the final PDF. I backed for a hardcover copy as well, but let’s face it, we live in strange times, and I wanted to look at this now, instead of waiting for the world to be less chaotic.
The PDF is 270 pages long, with full-color illustrations. There is a a two-page spread of continental maps, and full-page pieces proceeding all of the chapter breaks. There is a light parchment style background color to the pages, and formatting similar to the 5e books with the headers, sidebars, and section breaks, but with different font.
There are several full-body shots of characters from the setting, with titles that introduce where the character is from and what archetype they embody, and these characters are used as the iconic adventurers for many of the full page chapter breaks.
There are a wide range of skin tones and features on the characters in the setting, which is both diverse, and also highlights that many of the regions of the setting, despite drawing a bit from history and historical fiction for inspiration, don’t conform to any 1/1 comparison from the real world.
Chapter I: Welcome to Vodari and Chapter II: A World to Explore
Chapter one serves as a broad overview of the setting. It provides a description of what is coming up in the following chapters, as well as a “Six Things You Should Know About Vodari” opening pitch. This includes some paragraph-long summaries of key setting concepts, like the disposition of the gods, exploration as a focus, and a higher focus on technology.
The gods are grouped into three related pantheons that include the Creators, Preservers, and Destroyers. The overall grouping of pantheons based on philosophical roles brings to mind Dragonlance, but the personality of the gods is less “embodiment of cosmic forces,” and closer to the Greek pantheon’s collection of powerful humans with really big feelings.
One element of settings that often doesn’t get addressed when cosmological elements are introduced are psychopomps, and I love that there are three distinct ships that ferry the souls of the dead to the afterlife in this setting. Not only does it introduce the passage of the dead as a setting element, it also lets you play with some Davey Jones-style Pirates of the Caribbeanstyle storylines as well.
Other high-level setting elements are addressed as well, like calendars, currency, languages, and the existence of an Arcane Council. It’s not universally illegal to practice magic without the approval of the Council, but they do expend a lot of effort to cast doubt on the credentials of those not aligned with their organization.
The next chapter goes into detail on various individual nations in the setting, including capitals, populations, rulers, exports, and languages. Most of these cultures are present on a particular island, and separated from their neighbors by the seas (of Vodari). The continent itself was shattered centuries ago during a conflict between the gods, meaning that every nation that becomes a power must become a naval power. At the end of each location overview is a section of adventure hooks. The number varies, but is usually around three or four, one of which usually draws in the PCs to a major political happening for that culture.
The setting itself has lots of archetypical nations, from the nation on the verge of revolt, to the religious zealots, to the crime-infested society run by syndicates. There are pirate isles ruled by a vaguely honorable pirate council, and other, much more reprehensible pirate havens. There is a society pushing the edge of technological advancement.
There are elves that have always kept to themselves, and elves that have spent most of their time associating with other cultures. The mountain dwarves serve as the defenders of the surface world from underground abominations, which has caused some conflict with hill dwarves and other species as they conscript others to help them fight what they see as the only fight worth engaging in. In a bit of a twist, there is conflict between rock gnomes and forest gnomes because of the rock gnome culture of exploiting nature for technological advancement.
In addition to homes for the “traditional” D&D ancestries, Vodari has its own goblin nation, which is fighting to be taken seriously and included in the trade and political considerations of the other nations. Minotaurs have their own culture where they seek to become the greatest at their own personal projects in life, and while there is an orcish land of violent and dangerous orcs, there are also orc exiles living with stone giants and creating a less violent way of living. I would be remiss in not mentioning the frost giant raiders that not only build really big boats, but who make their armor out of ships that they have destroyed in their raids. I love that detail so much.
In addition to the more settled islands, there are many more locations detailed that house lost magic of the Ancients (a culture that once dominated Vodari, but disappeared ages ago), lost treasure on islands from before the shattering of the continent, and multiple undersea cultures that are touched on lightly, with a sidebar noting that another sourcebook will detail what lies under the Seas of Vodari in the future.
I appreciate the level of detail that cultures that usually aren’t given much thought get in this section, such as the goblins and minotaurs. I like that the traditionally monstrous species of D&D aren’t cast as universally evil, although I wish the orcs got a little more slack in their section. It’s also interesting to see rivalries and enmities cast in a new light, such as the mountain dwarf need to conscript others for their wars underground, the clash between gnomish cultures, and even the idea that the drow aren’t so much evil demonic underground dwellers, so much as they are political maneuverers that wanted the elves to become more expansionist, and fought a losing war for that opinion.
When it comes to characters and diversity in the setting, one of the setting’s queens is married to another woman, at least one character is noted as non-binary, and the general feel isn’t that any of this is abnormal to the setting. It’s a minor ding, then, that I’ll point out that several of the adventure hooks seem to default back to a young woman in love with a young man that she shouldn’t be involved with, which causes complications. A little more variety on this theme might have been nice.
Chapter III: The People of Vodari and Chapter IV: Character Options
The People of Vodari chapter includes both a discussion of how various ancestries native to D&D in general have slightly different assumptions in the setting, as well as providing mechanical statistics for new character race options (which are, sadly, referred to as race, in keeping with 5e OGL norms).
The new ancestries include the following:
- Cursed Soul (Characters that are essentially living undead)
- Sea Dwarf (Magically mutated undersea dwarves)
- Siren (With two subraces, one of which can grow a merfolk tail)
- Voda (Shapeshifting sea humanoids)
Cursed souls are interesting, especially when comparing them to either the original revenant in Unearthed Arcana, or the recent Supernatural Gift: Hollow One in Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount. Instead of carving this out as a subrace, which limits what kind of revenant/cursed soul you can have, there is a list of traits that get carried over on a case by case basis. That means this option isn’t just limited to races that have subraces, but it also means that any races not covered in this document (which includes base D&D 5e races as well as the new races introduced in Seas of Vodari) will have to be converted as a house rule.
Some of the touches that I like for cursed souls include a “reason for curse” table, in case you can’t come up with a good idea on your own, and the roleplaying hooks that they may forget aspects of their life or remember them as a fact instead of as an experienced memory.
For anyone keeping track of myriad minotaurs at home, looking at both Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica and the Midgard Heroes Handbook versions, Vodari minotaurs get the seam statistic bonuses as both of those minotaur varieties, but they don’t get the charge feature of either. Ravnica doesn’t give them powerful build, which Vodari does, and in addition, they gain weapon training with some big, intimidating weapons. Not charging doesn’t particularly bother me in a primarily nautical campaign setting.
While some of the other options in this chapter are derived from external inspiration or extrapolated subraces (like the Sea Dwarf), Vodas are unique to the setting. They are a hidden people, that, due to their shapeshifting ability, can easily stay hidden. Living in remote locations, they venture out in disguise to learn about the rest of the world. That’s a great character hook.
Moving on to the Character Options chapter, we’ve got one new class, and a whole slew of subclasses introduced in this book:
- Gunslinger (with Arcane Gunmaster, Musketeer, Pistolero, and Sniper subclasses)
- Path of the Buccaneer (Barbarian subclass, a boarding party specialist)
- College of Nature (Bard subclass, with special abilities based on favored terrain)
- College of Shanties (Bard subclass, with coordination abilities)
- Spirit Domain (Cleric domain representing polytheist abilities, with a spirit buddy to help)
- Circle of the Deeps (Druid subclass, with the ability to crush and overwhelm foes)
- Cannoneer (Fighter subclass, get your own personal cannon to carry around)
- Corsair (Fighter subclass based on luck and the four winds)
- Way of the Wild (Monk subclass, with animal-based stances)
- Oath of Discovery (Paladin subclass, explorers that want to share new knowledge)
- Stormcloak (Ranger subclass, which gets lightning powers from their closeness to storms)
- Mask (Rogue subclass, all about being a masked vigilante, complete with sidekick)
- Scoundrel (Rogue subclass, with special mechanical implementations for dirty tricks)
- The Council (Warlock patron, representing a supernatural conglomeration that recruits the warlock as an agent)
- School of Mistwalking (Wizard subclass, specializing in illusions and enchantments, as well as shifting around vision effects and changing form into mist)
In addition to the above, warlocks also get a new Pact Boon, the Pact of Ink, which lets them store a spell in a tattoo, and additional Invocations, which give the Warlock some benefits while they have particular types of spells stored in that tattoo.
I’m not always a fan of introducing new classes to 5e, even though every time I say this, I find another one that I want to include in my campaigns. That’s essentially the case here as well, as I like the ability to introduce subclasses to the gunslinger by making it its own class. The caster combo class is one that I think a lot of gunslingers in a fantasy setting are going to want to try out, just by virtue of “magic + guns.” The pistolero isn’t just good at using smaller firearms, but this is the subclass that gets access to experimental weapons at higher levels. Snipers are good at range, and then there is the musketeer.
I really like the musketeer, and if it wasn’t for the heavy reliance on firearms, I would love to try and convert this as a general “agent of the crown” subclass. All of the gunslinger subclasses get access to a resource called bravado, but the musketeer can spend this in social situations, and I love the idea of either using this to get out of trouble when undercover, or demanding that miscreants stand down in the name of the queen!
I can’t think of any of these subclasses I would have a hard time introducing into one of my games, as most of them fit some pretty traditional D&D themes that haven’t been fully addressed yet with official options. If I had this available when the campaign started, I may have even tried to talk my Eberron DM into allowing my orc bard to become a College of Nature bard.
A few of my favorites that I’d like to call out:
- I enjoy the Spirit Domain, because it immediately puts me in mind of dwarves from both Dragon Age and Shadow of the Demon Lord, and their religion of ancestor worship (although the stated concept is more about polytheism than ancestor worship).
- The idea of a council of supernatural beings choosing a warlock as an agent and champion strikes home really hard with me. That is, again, some really strong story flavor for a character right out of the gate.
- I really like that the Oath of Discovery for paladins is framed as an oath with potential downsides, and a belief system attached to it. It would be very easy in a setting like Vodari to say, “I swear an oath to explore,” and that oath isn’t all that demanding. Adding the kicker that, “I’m going to share that knowledge, and lying is antithetical to exploring for new knowledge” is a great angle.
The only subclass that gives me any kind of hesitation, and this is more based on the story ramifications than the mechanical ramifications, is the cannoneer fighter. It doesn’t bother me to think of adventurers delving into an ancient ruin with rifles or pistols, but something seems very strange about dungeoneering with a portable cannon.
The next part of the chapter introduces new backgrounds, and new variant backgrounds for the setting. While these aren’t quite as revolutionary as the Epic Paths in Odyssey of the Dragonlords, they do a nice job of adding in more story depth with features that largely conform to the 5e standard. For example, Castaways and Revolutionaries can survive on less food than other characters, and there are variant sailors covering different positions or styles of sailors, like navigators, ship’s surgeons, and privateers. In addition, there are substitute bonds that are flavored for the campaign setting, providing 12 setting specific bonds. I would love to see more content like this in published settings, to help jump-start a connection between the character and the setting, I just wish there were more than 12 of them listed.
There are four new feats, all of which feel in line with 5e standards, usually offering a situational bonus and a small stat boost, flavored for nautical situations like fighting on a deck, diving, or being lightly armored. Additionally, there is a Firearms Expert feat that makes it easier to reload and shoot at short range.
Chapter V: Equipment, Chapter VI: Ships & Cannons, and Chapter VII: Magic Items and Spells
The equipment chapter reprints some weapons and armor from the core books, and adds a few specific items suited to the setting, such as uniforms, leather coats, or bucklers in the armor section, and grenades and simple and martial firearms in the weapon section. There is also a section that expands on what classes have proficiency in either simple or martial firearms in the setting.
Adventuring gear, tools, and trade goods that make sense for the nautical theme are added as well, but my favorite part of this section is the list of Seas of Vodari specific trinkets that are included.
Nine ships and six types of cannons are added in the next chapter. The ships are detailed in a manner that will look very familiar if you have seen the ship section of Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Ships have a size, crew and cargo capacity, travel pace, statistics, actions, and an armor class and hit point entry for each distinct section of the ship (in this case, with the individual cannons getting their own sections of the stat block).
Cannons work like other 5e siege weapons, with their own bonus to hit. Damage can range from 2d6 for the smallest cannons, to 10d10 for fortress mounted defensive cannons. Most cannons take three actions to load, aim, and fire, with their accuracy coming in at +6 to hit.
Firing cannons is going to get expensive, with individual cannon balls costing from 5 silver pieces up to 8 gold pieces, and also requiring anywhere from ½ pound to 8 pounds of gunpowder, sold in 100-pound barrels of 100 gold pieces a barrel. There are also specialized forms of ammunition, like grapeshot or bar and chain shot, for when you really want to mess with enemy crews or their masts.
There are hull, movement, weapon, figurehead, and miscellaneous upgrades for ships. Many of these imply magical modifications, such as sails that allow the captain to invoke seaborne ghosts to allow the ship to become incorporeal, or figureheads that can turn enemy crews to stone. The entries for these upgrades list a cost in gold pieces and several weeks for installation. The costs range from 5,000 gold to 25,000 gold. Ships are a great way to answer people asking what you use gold for in 5th edition D&D.
There are two kinds of example ships included in this section as well. There is a 12 entry chart providing a paragraph-long description of various ships giving a quick name, captain, and general goal for ships, and four more ships that have upwards of a half-page of description, giving multiple crew members, short histories, and ongoing goals for the ship and it’s crew.
The next chapter includes sample magic items for the setting, including magical firearms, pocket watches, compasses, bags of wind, goggles, sashes, lanterns, spyglasses, and other nautically themed magic items. Several of these magic items have thematic ways of recharging them instead of regaining their abilities at the dawn of the next day, such as soaking an item in alcohol for the night. Several legendary items represent the last remaining works of the Ancients, which involve various crowns, orbs, and one particularly sinister trinket that binds the user to an entity of the depths.
The last chapter in this section wraps up with new spells for Bards, Clerics, Druids, Rangers, Sorcerers, and Warlocks (sorry Paladins). The theme of most of these spells involve songs, mist, and water, with a few more that involve ghostly powers, magic guns, and the utilitarian Major Mending, for when you need to get your ship back in shape quickly.
Chapter VIII: Gamemaster Tools and Chapter IX: Allies and Adversaries
The first section in Gamemaster Tools involves duels, and providing extra support for running them. This includes establishing what dueling codes might look like in various regions, as well as how to mechanically model duels. The text specifically points out that this section doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel, so for the most part, duels work like regular D&D combat, except that a condition is set for the end of the duel.
In addition, this section introduces the concept of Duel Points, which are points that essentially act as a buffer to make sure that the duel isn’t over before everyone can attempt to do something cool. Duel points can be expended for advantage or a bonus to initiative, but until duel points are gone, hits remove duel points first before resolving regular combat.
This section also introduces new actions for combat, including Bind Weapon, Give Ground, Tackle, Tag, and Toss Debris. Binding a weapon is essentially a grapple to keep a weapon from being used, give ground allows a character to lower damage against them in exchange for backing up, and tackle is pretty much what it sounds like, you and/or an opponent are going to end up down in the dirt. Tag is a maneuver that does something intimidating to an opponent to make them more susceptible to being frightened, and toss debris lets you blind an opponent with pocket sand or whatever else you want to throw, but can only be used once per rest.
I like Bind Weapon, Give Ground, and Tackle, but I’m less sure about Tag and Toss Debris, mainly because they feel a little cumbersome. I get that the action described in the Tag option is very thematic for the genre, but not many martial classes get to do anything with a fear effect, so it feels weird to mark someone with a “Z” so your cleric or wizard can actually scare them. Toss debris just feels kind of weird because it’s limited per rest. I get that’s to keep it from being spammed, but it still feels strange in this context.
There are several forms of gambling outlined, including how to figure the payout for various games, which I appreciate, because I hate trying to figure out odds for gambling payouts on the fly, and it makes me much more likely to abstract gambling. Even if you do abstract things, this gives you a few setting specific games that characters are likely to indulge in.
There are random charts with paragraph-long descriptions for Inns and Taverns, Shops, Docks, Rumors, Weather, Sailing Encounters, Plunder, Captain’s Quarters, and Chase Complications. I really like the utility of these lists, although I have a few minor nits to pick. I have no idea how to use wind direction with wind speed to do anything useful in the game. There are mechanical effects listed for speed, but not direction, and I don’t know enough to wing it on my own. Also, in the copy of the PDF I’m working from, the captain’s quarter chart is switched with the chase complications chart, which means you can find a small whirlpool or an aquatic monster when you open the door to the captain’s cabin. Surprise!
The next chapter has stats for Allies and Adversaries, which means lots of stat blocks for monsters and NPCs. In fact, there are 36 pages of stat blocks in this section.
Many of these monsters may be expected for a nautical setting, like new sharks and eels (with some nice magical twists), coral golems, carnivorous plants, sea dragons, sea monsters, undead pirates, weresharks and wereorcas, and enormous while whales. There are also stats for beasts that make sense for this setting as well, such as monkeys, parrots, and crabs.
Among the more unique monsters are the Glass Menagerie, glass representations of animals that gain special abilities when they start to break down or when they shatter, and fey creatures that resemble otters, that serve an archfey opposed to the master of the Glass Menagerie. And then there are the Kallidus. My sweet little kallidus.
Kallidus are magical fish that can mentally control unintelligent sea creatures to do their bidding, and have minor telekinetic abilities. They use these gifts to build mech suits to TRY TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD! I love evil mad scientist fish. I didn’t know it until I read this book.
The NPC stat blocks provided use the new subclasses introduced earlier in the book as their basis. Since NPCs don’t need to be built the same way as PCs, I am actually a big fan of seeing what an NPC version of the class looks like, without giving them all of the unnecessary bits that a PC build would have.
If there is any particular oddity in the stat blocks, I think it may be that the Glass Menagerie and the fey that oppose them take up a lot of room, and all of that is connected to about one paragraph of story in the earlier section of the book. I don’t mind, it just seems to give a lot of weight to that particular story hook out of so many others.
Chapter X: Starter Adventure
I have always found starting adventures to be a potentially very important inclusion in setting books, in that they can serve to show your audience what you expect them to do with the setting you have just introduced. They need to hit your themes hard and bring home the feel of the setting, as well as showing the game facilitator what they should be including to capture the feel.
The weird bit about this adventure is that it both does and doesn’t do that. Vodari is clearly a setting focused on pirates, freebooters, and privateers doing their thing in a world that has the same assumptions as the D&D baseline. In this adventure, the PCs find a treasure map, worry about the crew of a rival ship, find a magically disappearing island, and deal with cursed undead pirates barring them from the treasure they have been seeking.
All of that is very on-point for the setting being presented, but it lacked just a few more “personal” touches from the setting itself. As written, this could be an adventure that takes place on the Sea of Fallen Stars in Faerun, or on the outskirts of the Blood Sea in Krynn, and the main thing you would have to change is the proper name of the deity whose temple exists on the island.
This is not a bad starting adventure at all, but I wish there was just a little more about THIS setting throw into it, like mad scientist fish or even just some roleplaying with the unique races from the setting. I don’t want to sound overly harsh, because this is a solid kickoff adventure, I just wanted a little more of the elements that make this setting what it is.
Hoist the Sails
Going in to this, I was curious at how much this book would feel like a unique fantasy setting, and how much it would feel like a third party mechanical expansion of d20 rules. As it stands, it’s a pretty solid mix of both, with many of the added mechanical elements working both in this setting, and being expansions that would make sense in other D&D settings. I am very glad that the setting isn’t just a means of facilitating nautical fantasy, but also adds in its own personality, like conflicts between gnomish subgroups, mad scientist fish, established goblin culture, and magical ship modifications.
The story hooks, tailored bonds, and customized backgrounds are exactly what campaign setting books should be doing. The dueling rules, most of the new actions, and the new character options give you a wide range of modular items to try out even outside of this setting.
Orcs still feel like they got the short end of the stick, being “mostly evil,” except for those that get exiled from their homes, and I wish they had the same level of depth added to their culture as the goblins. There is a lot of conflict in the setting based on cultural divisions that are not unique to, but could be seen as an extension of, ethnicity. While I personally disagree with the idea that any setting drama based on racial divisions should be excised, I do think that it is important to make sure that it is handled in a very careful, thoughtful way, and to that end, I wish the book had a few more sidebars regarding this, and on safety in general.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
Early on, in reading through the setting material, I got it stuck in my brain that the setting was a mashup of Earthsea, Dragonlance, and 7th Sea, and while I was not disabused of this notion, I’m pretty happy that all of those elements were pretty evenly put into a blender to produce a unique concoction.
Generally speaking, this setting does a very good job of avoiding the pitfalls I’ve seen in other campaign setting books, where I have to dig to find out what the conflicts should be, and how much player characters are expected to engage with them.
If you are a 5th edition player or game facilitator that likes looking at well executed 3rd party mechanical options, there are so many in this book. If you are a 5th edition fan that just likes to see what you can do with a campaign setting that hasn’t been thematically explored in any of the existing WOTC material, I think you will likewise find information you will enjoy. It’s bright, colorful, fun, feels like D&D, while also feeling like a unique setting that has its own niche to carve out.