What Do I Know About Reviews? Beowulf: Age of Heroes (5e OGL)

CoverThere has been a lot of talk about WOTC’s 5th Edition d20 OGL, and the suitability of the framework for various roleplaying games. Some of this revolves around the “d20 Glut” that happened around the time that Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 was released. If you weren’t around for that, or weren’t paying attention to RPG news, effectively, many, many games used the 3rd edition OGL for their rules structure, and in many cases, these were not well designed, nor were they particularly good at emulating the genre from which the game was derived.

I have never been someone that thinks a single game system is going to be the best platform to represent all roleplaying games, but as someone that reviews games, I’m also very interested in seeing how existing platforms are drifted and converted to do new things. While I’m not going to say that every new game that uses the 5e OGL as its base is perfectly implemented, I have seen a lot of design that seems to be more intentional, with an understanding of what 5e does well and what it doesn’t cover, than what often felt like a “copy and paste” approach in a lot of 3.5 era games.

That’s part of what caught my attention when I first saw Beowulf: Age of Heroes. As an influence on Tolkien, Beowulf itself is foundational to a lot of what we see in modern fantasy conventions, but at the same time, what we see now is the amalgamation of many different fantasy tropes. Beowulf may involve heroic individuals hunting monsters, but it doesn’t involve all of the other tropes inherited by D&D, such as late medieval knightly traditions, gritty urban adventuring, or battles between the literal manifestations of cosmic forces.

With all of that out of the way, I’d like to dive into Beowulf: Age of Heroes to see what the designers felt the 5e OGL could contribute to the feel of the setting, what got left behind, and what new systems needed to be incorporated into the game.

Translating the Classic

This review is based on the PDF version of Beowulf: Age of Heroes, which is 272 pages. Those 272 pages include a credits page, a single page table of contents, five pages of campaign worksheets and character sheets, a suggested reading list, a three-page index, and a full page OGL statement. Most of the book is formatted with a dual column layout, with headers, sidebars, and tables to summarize and highlight information.

The font used for the headers is evocative of the feel of the setting, and there is a grey, weathered background as the text of the individual pages, as well as knotwork border ornamentation. Much of the book is in full color, with several pages maintaining a “faded to the background” image for art, as well as full, half, and quarter page images. There are also some black and white sketch pieces of example individuals in the book. Each of the chapters begins with a poem in the style of the literature being emulated but written specifically for this project.

The book looks very nice and has the right kind of flourish for this genre. If you are familiar with the appearance of the Adventures in Middle-earth product line, or The One Ring, this has a similar feel to the appearance of those books.

Picture6Part 1: The World of Beowulf

The initial section of the book introduces not only the setting of the epic poem Beowulf, as well as the historical period that inspired it, but also the extrapolated elements that the designers want to capture for this game. They make it clear that the emphasis is on telling epic, monster hunting adventures, and not on “properly” representing history. There are sections that address the gender roles, actual religious practices, and the existence of slavery. It spends time differentiating how these details are used in this game, how they will be portrayed, and what can be left out, with the emphasis on the safety and engagement of people at the table.

The setting assumes that you are constructing tales told by a scop (bard, skald, etc.) around a fire, and thus may not be literal historical accounts. The setting is dotted with small kingdoms and settlements that are most easily accessed via the Whale Road, traveling the seas from place to place rather than overland. Monsters rise to threaten various communities, and heroes hear about these monsters, recruit followers, learn their secrets, and slay them or drive them off.

The people of the setting might follow either The Old Ways, a polytheistic belief system that assumes that monsters will rise, eventually cause the end of the world, and then the world will be reborn, or they will follow The Church, which sees monsters as the demonic antithesis of their own beliefs. While the wider philosophical world view is important and may cause some tension, the game doesn’t dwell on the details of theology. From the point of view of the story, the main differences tend to be the context of what monsters are and how they must be dealt with, as well as what kingdom likely follows older, more established paths, and what kingdoms follow newer traditions.

The final section mentions that while this game is inspired by the folklore of northern Europe, travel between various locations wasn’t as rare as some seem to think, so that people of a wide variety of nationalities and backgrounds can be found in this setting, and it’s never “wrong” to want to use characters from outside of the region to interact with it.

Conceits of the Game

The summary at the end of the first section touches on what all of those story elements mean for the rules implementation. The biggest conceit, of course, is that this game is designed for a game master and a single player. There are concessions for playing a more traditional game, but most of the rules assume you are a party of one. The following concepts are introduced and summarized:

  • The Portent (Generating keywords that might interact with how the story plays out)
  • The Inspiration Pool (The amount of inspiration tokens available to the GM, player, and followers)
  • Voyages (The trip between adventures that might have short, quickly resolved scenes that provide benefits or setbacks)
  • Social Stat Block (A list of what NPCs will react positively or negatively to, as well as if they are available as followers)
  • The Defeated Condition (Conditions under which something may be taken out beyond reducing their hit points to zero)
  • Monsters and monsters (The difference between the unique monsters at the heart of a story and the strange creatures that complicate an adventure)
  • Undefeatable (The condition that makes the Monster almost impossible to dispatch until its weakness has been determined)
  • Achievement XP (The XP awards for performing different parts of a standard adventure)
  • Treasure (The assumptions around how much treasure is awarded, the concept that it is mainly used to upkeep your ship, sailors, and followers)
  • Journaling (The ability to provide additional advancement to follower characters by telling stories from their point of view between adventures

Part 2: Creating a Hero

There are no races, ancestries, or lineages in the setting. There is a single character class, The Hero, with subclasses that revolve around one of the six ability scores in the game. Backgrounds are broad rather than focused on a particular region, and the optional rules for feats are standard for this game.

As we are seeing more and more in 5e OGL design, characters just have the option of adding +2 to one ability score and +1 to another. In addition, they pick a starting feat, their class and subclass, their background, and they gain a Quirk from the Quirks table. There are twelve different options, which provide an ability that is similar to what some traditional lineages provide in D&D 5e. For example, you might be resistant to cold or fire, get double proficiency bonus on some topics, or get advantage to some saving throws.

The backgrounds provided in the setting include the following:

  • Adrift
  • Avenger
  • Chosen One
  • Noble’s Blood
  • The Foundling
  • The Believer
  • Former Follower
  • Exile

These include the standard 5e Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws (which will likely get even less direct play given the inspiration rules, but we’ll come back around to that), but the features of these backgrounds tend to be a more defined “once per long rest” effect over some of the broader benefits of the core game’s backgrounds. These can be benefits like returning to 1 hit point after dropping to zero once per day, rousing a spent follower once per day, or gaining advantage on initiative once per day.

The core hero class assumes you know how to use all the armor, shields, and weapons in the game. You end up with two proficient saves, and several skills that you can select for yourself. Since you are going to be the primary hero doing the fighting, this is a class that gets multiple attacks and a fighting style, and those fighting styles include fighting unarmed as well as fighting with a spear and shield. Instead of gaining a set number of hit points plus your constitution bonus, you instead gain a set number plus your constitution score, although from 2nd level on up, it goes back to a more standard hit point progression.

A lot of this class’s features revolve around giving yourself hit points in battle, getting extra attacks as reactions, and succeeding on saving throws. Action economy and not being locked down in combat are very important with the core concession being that there is one player character managing all the action. While these give you a lot of extra options for staying alive and unencumbered with conditions, it’s also worth noting that there is a lot of competition for your bonus actions and reactions, between your core class features, your subclass, and the options your followers provide.

Because Wyrd (fate or destiny) is an important concept in the game, characters have a special ability they can use whenever they roll with advantage. Whenever rolling with advantage, a character can roll two different color dice, and designate one as their Wyrd die. If they chose to use the Wyrd die, they gain inspiration, because the course of action they are taking is part of their destiny.

Your capstone 20th level ability is Hero’s Doom, which allows you to just remove a monster’s undefeatable condition, but at the cost of dropping you down to 25% of your total hit points. Almost as if the end of the story might be angled towards mutually assured destruction . . .

Your subclasses are called Heroic Tales, because they describe the approaches that you will be taking towards action in the story. These are all based on an ability score, and include the following:

  • Bench Breaker (Strength)
  • Swift-Blessed (Dexterity)
  • Ox-Spirited (Constitution)
  • Riddle-Reaver (Intelligence)
  • Council-Caller (Wisdom)
  • Honey-Tonged (Charisma)

These all include some ability score appropriate bonuses, such as gaining resistance to poison for the Ox-Spirited, getting evasion abilities for the Swift-Blessed, or getting an ability similar to the Diviner for the Council-Caller, where they can eventually roll additional d20 to represent knowing the best course of action and allowing for a substitute of those rolls.

Each of these subclasses also gets a capstone ability that lets you remove the undefeatable condition of a Monster by showcasing your mastery of the ability score at the heart of your subclass. For example, if you and the Monster are both subjected to the same effect, and you save and the Monster doesn’t, the Ox-Spirited removes the undefeatable condition from the Monster. The Honey-Tongued and undermine the Monster’s confidence and make a charisma check to convince it of its own weakness and do the same.

Many of the feats include ability score boosts, and some require a specific alignment, either to The Old Ways or to The Church. While there are some abilities similar to the core class abilities rolled into the subclasses, a few more can be found in these feats. For example, some of The Church aligned feats allow for smiting certain types of enemies or turning the undead, Foe Mockery allows you to spend points from a pool to lower an opponent’s attack rolls, and Ragebearer gives you a barbarian rage-like ability.

There are rules at the end of the chapter that discuss using this setting and its rules with more than one player, which largely revolve around changing starting hit points, and removing followers from the game. It also says you may try using standard classes in the setting instead of the hero class.

It’s a shame to see the advice for multiple players to cut out followers entirely, as it’s such a core concept to the game. I also don’t think the setting would play well with standard character classes. There are enough abilities across multiple classes, subclasses, and spells that I’m pretty sure something would break the very good gaming technology of “undefeatable” Monsters. Even if it doesn’t, it feels like you would be telling your players that a lot of what makes the core classes cool just doesn’t work until you say it does.

Hero’s Gear

After character creation, we move into a section on how gear works in the game, including weapons, armor, ships, crew, and what it costs to do things in a community, up to and including a wergild on people that you may have led to their deaths.

Because the game is still working with the same number range and bounded accuracy assumptions as D&D 5e, armor, helmets, and shields work a little different in the game. Helmets provide extra AC, since plate armors don’t exist in the setting, and different shields and helmets have rules around the special circumstances around which they might be ignored. Most of these special rules are included in weapon traits, which usually trigger on a critical. For example, if you have a weapon that can hook a shield, you can forgo extra damage on a critical to pull the shield out of place, making it easier for you to land more blows.

Every hero has access to a ship. If they lose their ship, they can assume another one will be available for them, but any customization they put into the previous ship will be lost. Ships basically have a speed and a range stat, which may be important in specific adventures where the action takes place at sea, but otherwise doesn’t affect the overall course of the story. Ship combat is all about who pulls up next to the other ship first and can start dislodging troops.

Gear can be modified with Gifts and Burdens. This system is used in several places in the rules, but effectively they are like conditions, some beneficial, and some baneful, which trigger under certain conditions. A master craftsperson can add a gift to a weapon, and a legendary weapon may have several gifts, but also a burden due to its history. A ship can be improved by with gifts by a master shipwright, but if its not properly maintained or looses a fight, it might pick up a burden.

I’m a fan of more “active” background features, and I like the subtle flavor differences in how The Church and The Old Ways feats interact with the supernatural. The Wyrd die is a fun way to express the divergent points in a character’s “destiny” in a manner that is similar to some of the “divination tricks” that 5e has created.

If there is anything that is a little more bothersome in this section, its that a few ideas are understandable, but could have been defined slightly better. I get why the Wyrd die would provide inspiration, but I don’t really understand what the procedure has to do with alignment.

Picture4Part 3: Followers

Followers are one of the aspects of this game that make this what it is. As a legendary hero, you have people following you around, supporting you, making sure you don’t get killed, so that you can do the deeds that get all the glory. Characters have a set number of followers they can have based on their proficiency bonus and their charisma bonus. In combat, there is a follower turn, and many follower abilities can be triggered with a bonus action or a reaction, meaning you might activate up to three of your followers in each turn (which doesn’t mean the others aren’t doing something during that time).

Whenever a character shows up at the local ruler’s place, there will generally be several Assistants equal to the total number of followers the player character can have. They aren’t automatically followers, but they function that way for the purposes of the adventure. If the player wants to recruit some of them, they can make an offer and make a charisma (persuasion) check, and if it works out, you have a new follower.

If too many of your followers get killed, you may end up with the remainder of your followers possessing a burden that makes them less likely to respond to your orders. If you can’t pay them what they are owed at the end of an adventure, they might be harder to order around, or they may cut out on you.

Most followers start with gifts that allow them to keep opponents busy for a few rounds, and another gift that either lets them take a hit for your, or that lets them drag you out of danger after you’ve gotten in too deep. If you have your followers take a hit for your, save you, or keep opponents tied up for too long, they must make death saves, and if they fail, you’re out a follower.

Dying while fighting the Monster, or due to you triggering an effect that calls for their heroic sacrifice doesn’t count as a usual death, because, well . . . it’s heroic.

Whenever followers make checks, either ability checks, saves, or attack rolls, it’s a straight d20 roll, although some gifts or burdens may provide advantage or disadvantage on those rolls under certain circumstances. Followers can also spend Inspiration from their pool to grant themselves inspiration, and in addition to rolling with advantage, Inspiration can sometimes be spent in conjunction with some gifts to trigger a certain effect.

While some gifts are obviously combat oriented, others make a follower useful to have around in non-combat situations, providing bonuses to ability checks to certain skills, or allowing for out of combat healing or recouperation. There are also some gifts like Weapon-bearer that allow them to actually make attacks rather than just keeping opponents busy.

In general, you aren’t tracking hit points for followers, their stats don’t matter, and you don’t worry about their armor class or anything else. If they roll, they roll, either a standard roll or with advantage or disadvantage. It’s a pretty simple system to keep track of, and the main complexity is remembering what the different gifts and burdens mean.

The PC can advance followers at the end of an adventure, and if a player journals for a character, they may pick up another advancement. Advancement works this way: something temporary can be made permanent, a temporary gift can be given, or a burden can be made temporary. Something temporary only lasts for the next adventure, so to permanently give a new gift to a follower, you would have to give it to them temporarily, then make it permanent. If you want to remove a burden, you would make it temporary, and after the next adventure, it fades.

If a follower doesn’t die heroically, the family may demand a wergild, and if they have a burden, you can ask for a discount. Not only will this go over poorly if you fail, but I also have to say . . . that feels a little icky on your part. You should feel bad for even considering it. No, really. This person died on your payroll, just shell out the wergild.

I really like these rules. They are less complicated than the Stronghold’s and Followers implementation, and while they seek to do different things, they don’t require as much math as running them as a full sidekick from the rules presented in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. There are a few places where I wish the explanations were a bit more robust, however. For example, we don’t get a contextual explanation for death saves. The definition in the 5e core rules is that you hit 0 hit points, then start making death saves until you collect three of a kind and either die or stabilize. But from the context of the rules, this doesn’t make sense for followers, and I’m inclined to think that it’s more of a “one strike and your out” implementation of death saves. This is one of those instances where context and the negative afterimage of other rules are being relied upon to present the system.

Picture3Part 4: The Adventure

There is a very specific structure to adventures assumed in Beowulf: Age of Heroes. This structure is largely informed by the epic poem itself, but it is also a structure found in many other epic folktales, especially when monster slaying is involved. The structure as presented includes the following steps:

  • Preparation and Portent
  • Sail and Surf
  • Meadhall and Mystery
  • The Monster
  • Rest and Rewards

Preparation and Portent is a stage where you roll for two halves of a portent. This will give you a combination of Adjectives and Nouns that relate to the unfolding adventure. Each word is keyed to a certain color, which indicates which pool you should place Inspiration tokens in. There is a follower, monster, and hero pool.

Inspiration still technically works the way it does in D&D 5e, where you either have it or you don’t. However, if you can cite how the portion of the adventure you are in relates to the portent for this adventure, you can claim one of these inspiration tokens, and then either the monster, hero, or follower has inspiration until they spend it. Because of the dice rolls, you may not always have an even spread between them. When I randomly generated a portent, for example, I didn’t end up with any tokens in the monster pool.

Sail and Surf involves rolling for three events that happen on the way to the adventure. Each plays out in a quick scene, often resolved with a few die rolls, and they may end up adding burdens or gifts to you, your followers, your crew, or your ship. You may end up having fewer followers available for the next adventure, for example, if they get injured on the way to your destination.

Meadhall and Mystery involves interacting with the locals, finding out more about their problems, and how to research the weakness of the monster. In this phase, you may pick up some Assistants that you can recruit long term, and you may need to talk people into sharing information about the Monster and what has been going on. The Meadhall and Mystery step is where Social Stat Blocks come into play because NPCs that have valuable information may have specific actions that grant the hero advantage or disadvantage when dealing with them, they may be called out as being recruitable as a follower, and they may have specific desires that need to be met before they can help.

The Monster stage involves tracking it down to its lair or catching it when it is out and about, doing the action that needs to be done to remove its undefeatable condition, then taking steps to neutralize its threats.

Rest and Rewards involves determining how long you will stay at the local ruler’s place, if you need to pay to add gifts to gear or remove burdens, and paying out wages and upkeep for your crew, followers, and ship.

There can be all kinds of variations and extra details. Some of the locals may not like you and attempt to drive you off. You may meet the Monster early, before it can be defeated and before you can research it. The Monster may have a lot of little “m” monsters out doing its dirty work, and you may want to deal with those before venturing into the Monster’s lair. But overall, this is the assumed framework on which other details are placed.

I really like the idea of the Challenges on the way to the adventure, and quickly resolving the trip in a way that makes it feel substantive, without rolling for random encounters or weather and engaging the full rules for “pre-adventure” combats.

There are charts that determine how much treasure different monster types (as in roles, rather than zoological familiar types) will have, as well as what rewards different rulers will offer a hero based on their skill. There is also a chance for the hero to acquire some kind of magic item, which are rarer and more specific in this setting.

One thing I wanted to call out about this, beyond a very workable and thematic adventure structure. The Social Stat block sounds like a radical departure but it’s just a list of things the NPC knows or can provide, what it will take to get them to provide those things, what makes them easier or harder to deal with, and if they can turn into a long-term character. That’s something that’s pretty easy to add into any game, especially if you want to add NPCs with more intentionality as to their purpose in an ongoing narrative.

Picture8Part 5: Treasure

This section provides descriptions for treasure found, if you want that level of detail, but it also provides magic items and other rewards that can be gained as part of an adventure. The opening page is all about what type of item you can find under different categories like Jewelry or Ritual Objects, and there is another page about Materials and Decorations that you can use to boost your descriptions of items.

Talismans are very simple magic items, trinkets that do something simple once per day under a special circumstance. For example, a blessed cross may allow a character to gain Inspiration once per day when they say a prayer while holding it, while another talisman may allow for advantage on stealth checks ten minutes per day.

Amulets are more substantial, ongoing magic items that do things like granting immunity to disease, or continual advantage on saves versus poison while wearing it. Some more powerful Amulets might have charges that allow for healing effects or allow for invisibility. In general, they are more overtly magical.

Magical armor and weapons are somewhat familiar if you play D&D, but I like the twist they put on these. There are multiple ways to describe exceptionally well-made weapons provided, and in general, each descriptor indicates another “plus.” So, a Rune-Scribed, Dwarf-Made item might be +2. There are also names for wargear that is especially important, since such items will usually be known by their own unique identifiers.

A few pages are devoted to explaining the subtle differences in what kinds of items might be aligned to The Church as opposed to The Old Ways, and which one is appropriate for what kind of magic item. This also includes generating the story of how a magic item came to be. For example, it may have been an item that belonged to an old god that was dropped along the way, or it could be something that a saint carried with them on their travels.

The final section of this includes magical animals. In the followers section, there was a discussion of magical animals that could be recruited as followers if they were encountered, but here, these animals are functionally magic items that can provide a simple, once per day effect that makes sense for the animal in question. For example, it may provide advantage on a skill check, or provide a hero with inspiration.

Reading through this section, I honestly wish I would have had this when I was running my Tales of the Old Margreve game. That is definitely the kind of setting where “animals as once per day magic items” and minor talismans would have felt appropriate to the setting.

Part 6: The Three Ogre Brothers

This is the example adventure provided in the book. Unlike a lot of sample adventures, this one is a bit more involved than a standard adventure, as defined in the adventure section. In this case, the land is beset by three Ogres that have rule over the land. The monsters all have a connected weakness, but the player still needs to secure the weakness, and deal with all three brothers to complete the scenario.

In addition to having three brothers, there are distinct inhabitants of each of the brother’s lands that can tell them different useful things for approaching and defeating the brothers. There are also some NPCs that are doing better than others and are actively hostile to anyone attempting to remove the ogres as their rulers. On top of all of that, the brothers are plotting against one another, which the play may or may not want to attempt to manipulate as a means of dispatching them.

This adventure has more than one point where it suggests you may want the players to have the chance to check to see if they advanced to another level, since it has more components than a standard adventure. There are also pregenerated followers provided for the adventure that the player might recruit.

I really like this adventure, although it does feel a little strange that their example adventure deviates from the standard structure. It does so in a way that still works well with the kind of stories the game wants to facilitate, and it serves as a good example of how to vary those adventure elements to do something different, but it just surprised me a little that the example was an exception. It does point people to the quick start rules for a more standard adventures with a single Monster.

Picture5Part 7: Monsters

This section presents several broad categories of creatures, and adds in multiple names for them, from across different folklore sources. The overall monster types presented include:

  • Man-Like
  • Evil Spirits
  • Ogres and Trolls
  • Men
  • Giants
  • Evil Birds
  • Sea Monsters
  • Undead
  • Wild Beasts
  • Serpents
  • Dragons
  • Elves and Dwarfs

Men are noted as being the only category that you probably shouldn’t make into a Monster, as traditionally, evil humans transform into something else in these tales if they become undefeatable.

Each monster entry includes motivations, why the creature might be a Monster instead of a monster, example burdens and gifts that you might apply to the creature (which may affect it’s challenge rating), as well as suggested ways of removing it’s undefeatable feature if the creature is being used as a Monster.

Each of these stat blocks has a Defeatable section, which details a means of defeating the creature other than just dropping it to zero hit points. The rules stress that if something is Defeated, that has meaning. A Defeated creature will not cause harm any longer, even if it is defeated without dying. It surrenders, accepts exile, or loses its supernatural power. It’s an element of these kinds of mythic stories that the hero knows when something is defeated, so you have to play that concept straight for this to work.

As an example, there is a fury-based creature that, if it can’t harm someone for three rounds straight, can be defeated, because its rage is spent. Some simpler creatures are defeated if they take damage more than once in the same combat. Some creatures that attack as a group may become defeated if they lose their leader, or if they fail a save at the start of their turn after they are below a certain hit point total.

Even creatures that feature in specific mythological stories aren’t entirely tied to a specific origin. For example, giants aren’t specifically tied to being children of Ymir or from Jotenheim, because in this era, supernatural stories are more nebulous, with more bleed between what The Church might think of their origins and what The Old Ways say about them. You might learn the way to defeat a Monster, but if you ask someone that follows The Church, they will have a different explanation for why it works than a follower of The Old Ways.

Picture7Part 8: Appendix

This gathers several utilitarian summaries into one place. Some of these are summations of previous sections, while others expand on concepts introduced in the rest of the book. This section has the following subsections:

  • Name Generator
  • Game Flow Chart
  • A Hall for a Hero
  • Monster Tables
  • Background NPC Generator
  • Foreground NPC Generator
  • Portent Tables
  • Sample Followers
  • Blank Follower Cards
  • Monster Worksheet
  • Social Encounter Sheet
  • Character Sheet
  • Reading List

The various tables give lots of options for randomly determining the details and environs of the local ruler’s hall, the traits of the local rulers and their important followers, secondary characters, and motivations, locations, and lairs for Monsters. These provide a lot of texture for the basic adventure structure outlined in the rules.

What’s interesting about the suggested reading material is that while it contains different sources discussing historical details, the epic poem itself, and various folk tales from the era and region, there are also sources discussing topics such as black people native to the region in this era, as well as Middle Eastern travelers that journeyed to northern Europe in the time period. I like that it’s providing support to the statement that the text makes early on about the diversity of people found in the region in this time.

A Note About Presentation

You wouldn’t be wrong to note that the book uses the older affectation of interchanging Men for “Humans,” which is definitely true to the era, but can feel exclusionary. As a counterpoint, not only does the text and the recommended reading point out that people of other races and nationalities could be found in the region during this era, but the artwork itself presents both male and female presenting characters, people with different body types, and characters that appear to be black or Middle Eastern in descent.

“That was a true trophy which the battle-brave Beowulf set down before them . . . “

The way this book presents its information sets the stage for creating the right atmosphere. The poetry and the artwork all lean into the tone. The system of gifts and burdens is a well realized way of creating simple, “condition like” rules that can be used to modify other elements of the game. The combination of gifts and burdens on followers can lead to distinct personalities, even without fully realized statistical tracking in the standard way proscribed by the rules. Undefeatable and the defeated conditions are great additions to the 5e toolbox, and the progression of adventures and social encounter sheet are great procedural resources for a game. There are a lot of great ideas, presented in a form that is easy to implement, in a manner that is engaging and thematic.

“It is better for each man that he avenge his friend than to mourn him much”

There are a few places where I wish the rules were just a little bit more explicit in what they intended to convey, rather than relying on context. For example, followers and death saves, and maybe making it a bit more explicit that claiming an Inspiration token is separate from claiming and using it at the same time. Because the follower rules are fun to interact with, and largely a part of the flavor of the game, I wish there were better guidelines for using them in a multi-player game. The included adventure is well done, but it’s a broad canvas for the sample adventure in a book.

Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase. 

If you happen to be the person this game was expressly written for, i.e., someone that likes the 5e ruleset, that enjoys epic heroic folklore, and is likely to play with a single GM and a single player, there is no way not to recommend this game. However, because this game is assuming a setup that isn’t standard for most gaming groups, its worth breaking down its appeal.

The conditions can be ported over to other D&D 5e games fairly easily. In fact, it might not be a bad “backup” idea to have tough monsters with “defeatable” conditions that the DM can drop on players when a fight is beating them up more than expected. The follower rules may not work as well for group play, but they give you some ideas of how to play with bonus actions and reactions stead of full stat blocks to represent additional help.

More broadly, I think people that are 5e fans will get value from this product, just from the intentionality with which it approaches adventure and NPC design, as well as the general ideas for how to add new rules widgets into the 5e ruleset that don’t over complicate the rules or feel too alien to how current rules are adjudicated.

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