What Do I Know About Reviews? Kingdoms and Warfare (5e OGL)

Picture1Matt Colville has worked with tabletop and video games for quite a while, but he’s probably best known in RPG circles for his YouTube channel. His first videos were 10 years ago, discussing D&D 4th edition, but his video content really picked up five years ago, when he began his Running the Game series. He was an enthusiastic ambassador for the game, and an engaging speaker.

In 2018, Colville launched a Kickstarter to do two things: pay for a more comprehensive streaming setup for content and fund a project that would detail an aspect of D&D that had not been featured in the current edition of the game: building strongholds, managing holdings, and acquiring followers. As part of that project, Strongholds and Followers, Colville also introduced mass combat rules. The Strongholds and Streaming Kickstarter raised over two million dollars and is one of the top 100 Kickstarters of all time.

Since that time, Colville has started MCDM, a company expressly to produce both online content and D&D material. Pre-COVID, the MCDM team started a streaming show highlighting Colville’s D&D campaign, and Colville regularly streams board games and video games, as well as continuing to produce Running the Game videos. MCDM also hired full time employees, launched Arcadia magazine, began planning for a guide to his campaign’s capitol city, and began working on a follow up to Strongholds and Followers that would provide more details and options for mass combat, as well as formalizing organizational developments.

Disclaimer

I was provided with a review copy of the PDF for this product from MCDM.

Preface

One thing to discuss, up front, is that Matt Colville is not interested in adhering to design trends in 5e. That’s not meant as a condemnation, but he has an idiosyncratic style which is more concerned with working with the 5e rules to produce an effect, but not necessarily creating rules that are structured similarly to standard 5e rules. In fact, I suspect he would rather his rules additions are distinct and not “invisible” in its design.

What this means is that if you like the flourishes and style that Colville favors, and you want to use the material, you may have a better experience than if you want something that feels like other aspects of the 5e ruleset. One of the noteworthy aspects of this project is that Matt Colville’s style comes through very strongly, but several 5e talents working in Colville’s language sand the rough edges off an idea.

The Book of War

This review is based on the PDF version of the product. This document is 328 pages, including a credits page, a two-page table of contents, a page of blank unit cards, a blank party sheet, four pages of maps for the included adventure, and a full page OGL statement. If you have read any of my other MCDM reviews, you know it would be noteworthy if it wasn’t an attractive book. This book upholds the tradition of beautiful appearance, with decorative borders, colorful art, and easy to parse formatting.

The introduction contains about two pages of fiction, a brief explanation of the goals of the book, and a glossary of terms. Even if the full rules aren’t explained, I appreciate an appendix appearing up front, so I’m not left hanging, trying to determine if a word is being used as a matter of standard communication, or as game terminology.

Domains & Intrigue

The first section in this book is “Domains & Intrigue,” the section of the book that presents the rules for organizations and introduces the concept of domain turns. To be an organization, an adventuring party needs a headquarters and some people that work with them. At the lowest tiers, this doesn’t require a huge staff of devoted specialists, just a handful of people beyond the adventuring party that can do things beneficial to the team while they are performing other duties.

The assumed cycle of play is that the domain–the sphere of influence of the player characters–takes domain turns, often gathering information or subverting opposed organizations. After a certain number of domain turns (usually taking about a week to perform), both organizations have taken their turns. At this point they have built up their resources or undercut the power of the other organization, then, they clash in a conflict that likely uses the warfare rules.

The adventuring company chooses what kind of organization they are. The examples include the following:

  • Adventuring Party
  • Martial Regiment
  • Mercantile Guild
  • Mystic Circle
  • Nature Pact
  • Noble Court
  • Religious Order
  • Underworld Syndicate

An organization gains a number of development points, which can be used to buy organizational skills and defenses. The skills are used when the organization takes a domain turn to accomplish a goal, and the defenses are used when another organization acts against the PCs’ organization. One of the actions that can be taken during an intrigue is to lower the defenses of an organization, or to upgrade the defenses of your own, making it harder for them to act against you.

The skills for an organization include the following:

  • Diplomacy
  • Espionage
  • Lore
  • Operations

These skills can be used for open ended purposes, but there are also specific tasks, that relate directly to the warfare rules, associated with these skills. This often revolves around finding allies, raising special units, finding out an enemy’s strengths, and providing material support to the organization or expanding its holdings.

Defenses include the following:

  • Communications
  • Resolve
  • Resources

In addition to providing a difficulty against which other organizations test their skills, each of these defenses has a level, representing the structure of an organization. Communications represents how obvious the organizations actions are, resolve is the level of loyalty of the group’s troops, and resources are how much operational funding the group has.

Beyond recruiting troops, gaining allies, and improving the organization, having an organization also grants the group domain powers native to that type of organization. In addition, they gain a domain feature, often the ability to recruit a specific type of special unit. Each organization has a number of domain titles, usually five. Each of these organization titles grants an additional power, like different class or subclass abilities, related to that title. For example, you might gain a reaction that lets you add a d4 to an ally’s roll, and proficiency in a skill.

Each organization has a number of power dice, and each organization has a specialization. These specializations give members of the group a special power that allows them to spend power dice to perform special maneuvers. For example, one power might let you spend the power die, roll it, and add that number to your armor class, with the bonus diminishing each round of combat.

NPC Realms have similar statistics, but aren’t quite as granular when it comes to building them. There are broader templates provided for these realms that form the basis of how these operate. The sample NPC realms include the following:

  • Despotic Regime
  • Draconic Empire
  • Dwarven Thanedom
  • Fey Court
  • Giant Jarldom
  • Gnomish Kingdom
  • Goblinoid Coalition
  • Hag Coven
  • Infernal Echelon
  • Medusean Tyranny
  • Orc Clan
  • Planar Invaders
  • Reptilian Band
  • Undead Dominion
  • Undersea Colony
  • World Below City-State

These realms have simplified titles and domain features, and each one provided has a specialized unit that they can recruit. The size of the domain affects how many turns happen before the end of an Intrigue, and when an intrigue ends, the two organizations end up resolving their conflict. This back and forth with a specific confrontation almost reminds me of professional wrestling storytelling, where a feud builds up over time, before a final culminating match that ends the feud.

I really like the idea of having a separate character sheet for the adventuring party, and I like the meta-concept of having organizational turns in addition to what the player characters might be doing while adventuring or taking their own personal downtime. I also like the idea that you can use organizational skills to frame situations like your opponents finding out where the PCs are going and sending an ambush to head them off, if they manage to make an espionage roll against the group’s communication.

That said, the organizational turns have the most detail when applied to actions that provide benefits for the warfare portion of the rules. While there are some general, freeform examples of using organizational skills to do broader tasks, that’s not where the heart of the system lies. I understand, this book is about the mass combat side of things, but I would have enjoyed a few more non-warfare applications.

The additional title powers, and the specialization abilities have some interesting mechanical benefits and interactions, but it’s also adding a lot for the players to track. In addition, if you also throw in the abilities that characters may gain from strongholds if the group is also using Strongholds and Followers, it feels like there might be a few unexpected rules interactions, and possibly some option paralysis as abilities pile up.

I would be really interested to see expanded NPC realms, to see how similar organizations or realms might be presented with a little more room to develop them with more granular details. For example, what does a World Below City-State that is somehow a mixed underground metropolis of drow, duergar, and deep gnomes, versus what a city entirely made up of one of those cultures looks like. This isn’t a criticism, it’s a wishlist, and I like the additional design space this could open.

Picture2Warfare

For anyone that was familiar with the warfare rules introduced in Strongholds and Followers, I wanted to take a moment to summarize the differences. Instead of the more nebulous positioning, there is a specific grid for each side with rules for how those different ranks work. Units attack and resist in a similar manner to the previous version, but now any hit inflicts one damage, and a successful power roll against toughness inflicts additional damage determined by the unit.

Now, for anyone that wasn’t on board for Strongholds and Followers, each unit has a size, which is represented with a die that is initially turned to its highest face. A unit has a tier, which can be improved over time, and upgrades the stats of the unit. Each unit has a listed amount of damage, and each unit has the following stats:

  • Attack
  • Defense
  • Power
  • Toughness
  • Morale
  • Command

Attack is what you add to your attack roll to see if you hit a unit. Power is what you roll to overcome toughness to do additional damage. Morale is what you add to a roll to reform a unit that has encountered some adversity, and command is what you add to roll to see if you can pull off special maneuvers.

Units have movement, an action, a bonus action, and a reaction. Just like in personal scale D&D, you may not have an option that you can use in your current circumstance for a bonus action. Whenever a unit takes damage, you move the die down a step, and if the attacking unit overcomes the toughness check, it does additional damage. The unit’s defense score works essentially like armor class in personal scale.

Troops are aerial, artillery, siege, cavalry, infantry, levies, or special units. This determines what units a unit can attack, how the unit moves, and what ranks they can occupy on the battlefield. For example, infantry can’t attack cavalry, but it can use its reaction to do damage to cavalry that attacks them.

While there are some special battle configurations shown later in the book, the default is that both sides of a battle will have the following ranks:

  • Vanguard
  • Reserve
  • Center
  • Rear

Player characters will usually be controlling a specific unit in battle, although they may be “commanding” actively, or by trusting them to perform actions that were predetermined. Each class has a Martial Advantage based on the domain size of the organization, which may provide their unit with special abilities. For example, units commanded by a barbarian can do additional damage in combat beyond the unit’s normal damage.

If a unit is reduced beyond its lowest number, it is possible to rally that unit, but only once per battle. Each round of battle the sides compare the ranks of the remaining units, and if one side has over a certain amount compared to the other army, the battle is lost, and the other side can mount a retreat.

In addition to these basic rules, there are various traits added to different units. For example, undead units cause living units to test if they are brave enough to attack the undead. There are almost six pages of traits. Some of these are intrinsic to species or monster types.

There are six pages of example basic units, in addition to the special units already presented in the previous section, which were attached to specific organizations. This section also mentions that MCDM will be producing a special unit deck that will have additional special units that can be used in a game.

As part of taking notes on this section, I ran a small battle between human units and undead. The harrowing trait (what forces the living to check to see if they can attack the dead) slowed down the human units, and they took early losses. This swung rapidly the other direction once the humans overcame this trait, as many of the skeletal units are only size 4, versus the regular human units being size 6, and they got whittled away quickly by cavalry and archers. I was doing a bit of flipping to look up traits at the beginning of the fight, and I missed the section of the rules that explains that some ranks on the battle grid disappear once they are unoccupied.

Monsters & Magic Items

Despite the theme of this product, this is the section that I was probably the most curious about, because I had heard some discussion of Matt Colville’s “Action-Oriented” ideas about monster and NPC design. As presented, there are a few pieces to this school of thought. To make important encounters feel more like “boss fights,” these monsters and NPCs are designed with bonus actions and reactions to maximize their ability to affect the player characters, and instead of legendary actions, they receive Villain Actions.

The best way to explain this is to say that if you took some of the standard (3 Legendary Action) abilities from existing monsters, made three of them, and had each one build upon the last, you would have something like Villain Actions. They are designed to have an opener, a crowd control ability, and an ultimate move, and it is suggested that the villain uses them in a particular order.

I’m interested in this because in several Legendary monsters I’ve run, a lot of the Legendary actions are somewhat related to the nature of the monster, but they aren’t widely useful. That means often if a monster has a “take an extra attack with X” it becomes the best option to use. This concept provides more variety.

Most of the monsters in this section are grouped by what location or affiliation the monster is associated with. These groups are as follows:

  • Court of Decay (Unique Undead bound to the Demon Prince of the Undead)
  • Court of the Deep (Demonic inhabitants of the Abyss)
  • Court of the Seven Cities (Devil inhabitants of Hell)
  • Gem Dragons (Specific, unique gem dragons)

To get an idea of how villain actions work, let’s look at the undead stone giant, because I’m not at all predisposed to immediately look for giant based content. Our undead Jarl’s villain actions allow him to read the future (characters subtract a die from the rolls because he knows what they are up to), he can project images of opponents deaths to frighten them, and finally, he sees his own doom, and can cast all of his spells from his staff until it is drained.

Other abilities might do things like attacking all opponents within a range, causing damage to people that move into or out of an area, or massive blasts of things like necrotic or psychic damage.

Another toy in the toybox, beyond the stat blocks and the examples of Action Oriented design, is the Soul-Fueled Powers of demons. This gives demons special additional abilities based on how many souls they have under their control, and how many they devour. This gives demons a nasty new ability, where characters that drop to zero hit points must make a save or have their soul ripped out of them. In addition to the soul-based abilities in the new monster stat blocks, there are some general soul-based powers that can be added to existing demon stat blocks. One of my favorites is Soul Rend, which allows a demon to burn souls to perform the equivalent of a paladin’s smite.

Colville’s campaign uses a different set of assumptions about how Hell works, but it’s still organized into hierarchies. In this case, the new devils introduced all have a singular, more powerful version of that type of devil that serves as the duke over that type of devil. Given that we’ve seen some named Pit Fiends or Ice Devils in the past that have special authority, I kind of like the idea of a “supersized” version of a standard devil as a duke of Hell.

Devil’s also have a new mechanic for named NPCs, where knowing their true name removes their magic resistance, damage immunity, and damage resistances for 24 hours. I like this twist, and I like that the example named devils have their true name included in their entry. Some of the true names act as puzzles or can only be pronounced with specific languages. I like the variety, even if I’m not wild about some of the puzzle like ways to piece together the true name for some of the creatures.

But let’s talk about Indix . . .

Indix is the duke of lore devils, which is a type of devil right up my alley. His ultimate villain action changes the ability scores of player characters. Another ability in the book causes characters to switch characters sheets with other players. I know these are some imaginative ideas in concept, but I think it may be pushing the boundaries of what most people will enjoy when engaging with the 5e ruleset.

Picture3And back to the monsters . . .

Colville’s gemstone dragons don’t line up perfectly with the Wizards of the Coast implementation of the creatures, although the idea that gemstone dragons have psionic abilities is part of both conceptualizations. This book gives several psionic manifestations for gemstone dragons and expands on the gemstone dragon lore in Strongholds and Followers. Like many of the other monsters in this book, the gemstone dragons presented are unique creatures instead of archetypal stat blocks, and they include Trudy, a friendly wyrmling trying to save the multiverse, and Cthrion Uroniziir, a CR 29 dragon that’s attempting to collapse all realities into a singular universe.

Here’s where the magic happens . . .

There are 22 pages of magic items to round out this section. The first half of these pages present various magic items that have more standard abilities, but also have abilities that interact with the Realm and Warfare rules. In a few cases, the magic items that several of the singular NPCs wield in their stat blocks are given a set of stats to use if the PCs defeat them and claim some of their unique gear.

The last magic items detailed are more of the codicies which first appeared in Strongholds and Followers. The codicies are artifact level items that often provide access to a new, unique unit type, but also potentially could greatly change the campaign world. In many ways they work well as something the villain is mastering, which gives them some unique troops and abilities, which should be taken away from them before they trigger the most powerful effects they have available.

When it comes to the Action-Oriented design, since some of this can be modeled using current monster design, I would love this to serve as an example to designers to add in more useful bonus actions, reactions, and more powerful, status changing (3 action) Legendary abilities. I like that it pushes design in that direction.

I’m also interested to port the soul powered abilities to demons and see how it plays out. I like that it gives them a more unique trick that devils don’t have (devil’s corrupt over time, demons ingest and recycle souls a bit more traditionally).

While I may not use all the lore associated with the singular creatures, I’ve got a few monsters bookmarked to yoink for my own campaigns. One of them may be that undead stone giant ruler . . .

The Regent of Bedegar

This adventure can be played as the sequel to the adventure that appeared in Strongholds and Followers, and involves the same NPCs, including the villain that first appeared in that adventure. I like that one of the first things that appears in the adventure is a sidebar on safety tools, because I would love it if that just became standard, along with content warnings for what the adventure may contain.

In general, this adventure is about the player characters acting as the advisors to a young regent besieged by a rival noble. The castle and their surroundings are challenged by a few probing small attacks, and it becomes clear that the opposing noble is preparing for a major attack.

The rest of the adventure is timed, with a certain number of weeks before the final assault, limiting what the adventurers can accomplish on their own, and the number of domain turns that can be taken. Characters can open diplomatic ties with neighboring realms, which allows the PCs to start recruiting troops from their allies. They can also, if they want to take the time, thwart the necromancer providing undead troops to Lord Saxton, or they can attempt to sneak into a fortification and assassinate some of Lord Saxton’s officers.

In some cases, characters may be courting one ally, but another faction offers their fealty for abandoning the original potential ally, so the web of allies and units assembled at the end can vary when the final confrontation comes.

One part of this adventure I’m not sure I liked is that Lord Saxton takes turns just like the PCs. That means that his defenses and the troops assembled are based on the same rules. But going into the final battle, he is given a limit to how few troops he can have available. I kind of feel like if you make the NPCs go through the same hoops as the PCs, only to potentially override the results, maybe the turns that Lord Saxton takes shouldn’t be random and should just let the DM build the opposition based on a limited number of turns.

What I enjoy about this adventure is that it is one of my favorite adventure outlines. You know the beginning. You are building towards a specifically defined end. The PCs can fill that time with whatever they want, and you have the tools to address what good or bad things happen depending on where they spend that time, but otherwise, it’s all up to the PCs to decide where and when they want to act.

Raise the Standard

If you want mass combat rules that have a lot of engaging content, this book will accommodate you. I like how the Domains & Intrigue rules provide a structure for what organizations do and the timescale on which they might happen. There is a lot of strong design work to look at in the monster chapters that will be useful beyond “domain level” campaigns. I like the structure of the sample adventure, and the alternative paths to recruiting allies reminds me of games like Dragon Age: Origins with risk/reward analysis regarding making friends and potential enemies.

Sound the Retreat

I wish there was more structure provided for domain turns that aren’t directly tied to preparing for warfare. I would love more details about improving the lives of the people in the domain, potential boons from prosperity, maybe even having settlement or organizational goals for endeavors not centered around troops. There are a lot of the in-depth options in the Warfare section of the book that are easy to miss, and I would have liked a procedure summary in addition to descriptions and glossaries, and maybe a few more examples. Between potential stronghold associated powers, titles, and specialty abilities, it feels like PCs may get loaded down with a lot of extra abilities to track.

Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.

My biggest reservation about this book isn’t the quality, it’s that it spends a lot of its effort on a play cycle that may not be what most people will engage with. That said, you know what the product is from the title. If you do want mass combat rules, and you want some granular options, it provides what it says on the cover.

There are some fun elements even for those that aren’t fully focused on mass combat, but there may not be enough of those elements to recommend this product to someone only looking for the monsters, items, or organizational skills. I would love to see expanded realm actions and a bestiary full of Action-Oriented boss or sub-boss style stat blocks. I appreciate the number of items I would like to see expanded beyond the options in this book.

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