What Do I Know About Reviews? Southlands Players Guide (5e OGL)

Picture12Last year was a huge year for Kobold Press Kickstarters, so this year is a huge year for Kobold Press Kickstarter fulfillment. In this case, I’m looking at one of the items from the Southlands 5e Kickstarter. This is a refresh and update of the Pathfinder era Southlands campaign book for Kobold Press’ Midgard setting. From this Kickstarter, I received the Southlands Worldbook, City of Cats, and the product I’m looking at today, The Southland Player’s Guide.

Because this is essentially a supplemental book, there are a lot of references that aren’t fully defined in the book. While we receive some broad discussion of cultures in the Southlands, it’s generally not enough context to understand how those descriptions look in the context of the setting. That means a lot of what we’re looking at here is going to be in the context of game content used to emulate the Mediterranean, Arabian Peninsula, and Northern African fantasy tropes.

Options of the South

This review is based on the PDF of this product. I’m patiently waiting for the physical copy, and honestly, in the current state of shipping, I’m not going to get too upset if it takes a while. The PDF is 82 pages long, which includes a credits page, a table of contents, two pages of ads for other Kobold Press items, and a full-page OGL Statement.

There are many pieces of artwork in this book, all full color. If you’ve not familiar with Kobold Press products, that means getting some of the best fantasy artists in the RPG industry. It looks great. If you picked up the Southland Heroes 5e book, released earlier in D&D 5e’s lifespan, some of the art may be familiar, but a lot of it will be new (but may show up in the other Southlands products from this Kickstarter).

This is relatively new to me, but I’ve also got this content in Roll20 format as well and have used the resource to play around with making a few character options from this book.

Echoes from the Southlands

Many of the races (the official term from 5e, which hasn’t been changed to anything else at the moment) and a few of the subclasses come from other sources. The races can be found in Southland Heroes 5e, Unlikely Heroes 5e, and the Midgard Heroes Handbook. A few of the magic subclasses come from the 5e version of Deep Magic.

For those of you keeping score, here are the returning favorites in this volume:

  • Gnolls (unchanged, but with two new subraces)
  • Jinnborn (with one key weakness changed)
  • Minotaurs (from the Midgard Heroes Handbook)
  • Tosculi (Southland Heroes, largely unchanged)
  • Heru (Ravenfolk, from the Midgard Heroes Handbook)
  • Lizardfolk (from Unlikely Heroes, with some significant changes)
  • Ramag (from Unlikely Heroes)
  • Trollkin (from Midgard Heroes Handbook, with no reprinted subraces and a new subrace presented)
  • Cleric Subclasses (Cat, Speed Domains, Midgard Heroes Handbook)
  • Druid (Circle of the Hive, modified, from Southland Heroes)
  • Sorcerer (Farseer, Deep Magic)
  • Backgrounds (Southland Heroes 5e)

Chapter 1: Races

This section includes a variety of new and familiar races, not only from other 5e products, but from the previous Pathfinder RPG releases for the Southlands. These include the following:

  • Catfolk
    • Basteti
    • Nkosi
  • Gnolls
    • Civilized
    • Savage
    • Desert
    • Necropolis
  • Jinnborn
    • Speaker
    • Shaper
  • Minotaur
  • Tosculi
  • Heru
  • Lizardfolk
    • Murkscale
    • Velesborn
  • Ramag
  • Subek
  • Trollkin
    • Southern Trollkin

Picture5In addition to all the above, which have the full statistics for playing characters of those races, we also get expanded descriptions for Southland dwarves and various human people of the Southlands. As an old gamer who spent a long time in the Forgotten Realms, I’m going to have a hard time separating “Tethyrian” and “Tethyians” when I read products going forward.

Catfolk statistics won’t surprise anyone too much, I would assume. Basteti are probably more like what D&D players would envision as “Tabaxi,” while in “official” D&D parlance, the Nkosi are more like Leonin, except they can turn into a lion form. Basteti get the ability to speak with cats instead. The Nkosi ability has changed quite a bit from the Southland Heroes treatment, which gave them a version of Druid’s Wildshape. This just allows the Nkosi to move faster on four legs, merge their gear into their form, and get a more impressive bit. As a fan of inspirational tables, there is a catfolk eccentricity table which I appreciate.

Gnolls, as presented in other Kobold Press products, have an ability that, at least to me is a little awkward. The two previously presented subraces have an ability that gives them proficiency and then double that proficiency. Those subraces get reprinted pretty much wholesale, but the two new gnoll subraces, desert and necropolis, both gain resistances, which I like much better than the previous gnoll subraces.

Jinnborn are “kind of” the Kobold Press/Midgard equivalent of the Genasi. Unlike the four different types of Genasi in “official” D&D, Jinnborn have two subraces that aren’t dependent on elements. Instead, each Jinnborn picks their elemental affinity, regardless of subrace. Speaker Jinnborn have a deeper connection to their Jinn patrons, and get advantage under certain circumstances a set number of times per long rest. Shaper more directly manifest elements, and have direct resistance to their elemental affinity.

The previous version of Jinnborn interacted with the madness tables in the DMG when the Jinnborn don’t spend enough time in their deserts. The new version uses more D&D specific terms, requiring a Jinnborn to meditate for an hour or gain a vulnerability to some form of damage based on their elemental affinity. I like this not only because it gets away from the madness tables and feels more rooted in D&D rules, but because it makes the elemental affinity matter more to the Speaker Jinnborn.

This version of the Tosculi are specifically the Hiveless Tosculi, as the species is normally part of a hive mind. PC Tosculi have been broken away from their collective. They gain two ability bonuses and an ability penalty that is specifically called out as being able to be used to cancel out the floating bonuses. Tosculi have natural armor, gliding wings, a natural attack, and a few proficiencies related to hunting.

Tosculi also have four different alternate racial traits that characters can give up their standard abilities to gain. This just strikes me as a very strangely designed race. It feels weird to give a race +2/+2/-2 all floating, and then a list of ability to swap out. I kind of feel like this should have been handled a little more like the Kobolds we saw in recent Unearthed Arcana, where they get one base ability, and then two more traits from a list.

Picture2Lizardfolk got a heavy redesign from their appearance in Unlikely Heroes. The previous version of the lizardfolk was pretty similar to the official D&D version of the race, however, there were also a list of “swap out your core abilities for alternate ability” abilities. Instead of this, we get two Lizardfolk subraces, one suited to swamps, and another suited to jungles. Murkscales gain a swim speed and advantage in their home terrain when hunting, while the Velesborn gain bonus hit points and acrobatics proficiency.

Ramag are people associated with Titans, who maintained magical locations. They gain advantage versus spells in some circumstances, have proficiency with knowledge of magical practice, and can ignore magic item class restrictions when attuning to items. This is an interesting take on people accustomed to maintaining magical sites. These are some interesting features, although I’m not sure how often attuning to non-class items is going to come up, or what that might change long term in a party.

Subek are crocodile people, who suffer from flood fever for three months out of the year. During this time, you lose the advantage you gain on certain intelligence-based skills, and you get really focused on opponents that damage you. This is an interesting take on imposing a mechanical bonus to reflect a behavioral change, and I like that the flood fever has some specific circumstances but doesn’t completely remove previous personalities or motivations.

The Southland subrace of Trollkin is simple. It has a trait in common with one of the other subraces, plus the ability to have advantage on saves versus poison. I’m not wowed by this subclass, but one thing I appreciate is that it reprints the core Trollkin race. In the Heroes Handbook, there was at least a bit of confusion among my players when Shadow Fey were presented without “Elf” as a core race being presented.

Overall, pretty happy with these, especially the ones that got an update from their original appearances. I wish the Tosculi had gotten a bit more of a reworking, and I still really want to see a desert based lizardfolk subclass. It’s also worth noting that the race side of the book doesn’t push into the “X per Proficiency Bonus” territory, nor does it mention decoupling ability score boosts from race (at least two already have floating bonuses as a default, however). That decoupling doesn’t appear to hurt anything, however, and in Roll20, if you have access to Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, it provides the override even for 3rd party material on the D&D character sheet.

Picture4Chapter 2: Backgrounds

I’m not going to spend too much time on backgrounds, because backgrounds follow a specific pattern, and because most of these backgrounds are reprints from previous products. Most of the special features are “you have an absolute ability to expect this very specific thing in a very specific circumstance” rather than mechanical bonuses.

That said, two of the new (I think) backgrounds I wanted to comment on:

I really expected the scoundrel’s traits to all be lyrics from Aladdin. You even get a monkey wearing a fez. Seriously. Also, it gets a feature that interacts with the chase complications from the DMG, which you don’t see very often.

I also wanted to touch on the Servant of the Jinn background. Unlike the other backgrounds, it does give you advantage in certain circumstances. While this is discouraged by the background building advice in the DMG, I think this is a better way to go. Servant of the Jinn also has a fun inspirational table that determines what skill and tool proficiency you gain based on what you did at court.

This is as good as any other place to throw in that the lore around Jinn in the Southlands of Midgard frames them as being like genies, but above them. This is like what Kobold Press did with the Jotun, who are basically giant giants. It’s a way to hew closer to folklore while retaining some of the more familiar D&D trappings.

Player Options

I really love breaking down subclasses, but with 30+ subclasses, I’m not going to be able to do much more than mention the subclasses and address some notable aspects of that subclass. With that said, let’s look at the list:

  • Barbarian
    • Path of the Ankole
    • Path of the Inner Eye
    • Path of the Soul Eater
  • Bard
    • College of the Cat
    • College of the Sky
  • Cleric
  • Cat Domain
    • Perfume Domain
    • Serpent Domain
    • Speed Domain
    • Vermin Domain
    • Wind Domain
  • Druid
    • Circle of the Desert
    • Circle of the Hive
    • Circle of the Jungle
    • Circle of the Wind
  • Fighter
    • Havoc Runner
    • Holy Trampler
    • Sword-Dancer
    • Talon of Horus
    • Tunnel Watcher
  • Paladin
    • Oath of Ancestors
    • Oath of the Chosen
    • Oath of the Elements
  • Ranger
    • Jungle Warden
    • Snake Speaker
  • Rogue
    • Caravan Raider
    • Grudge Bearer
    • Servant of Nakresh
  • Sorcerer
    • Ankole Bloodline
    • Farseer
    • Windspeaker
  • Wizard
    • School of Aeromancy
    • School of Desiderites
    • School of Labyrinth Magic
    • Scribe of Thoth-Hermes

Picture9Barbarians–Path of the Ankole hits some of the same notes as the Path of the Beast, but with a narrower theme, and I think it works well, although the 14th level ability to knock creatures prone feels a little soft. Especially with alignments opening in 5e, I have wondered what a “not rage, but hyper instinctual” barbarian would look like, and that’s the Path of the Inner Eye, and I like the dodging, extra movement, and imposed disadvantage. Path of the Soul Eater is an almost necromantic theme you don’t often see with Barbarians, gaining a greater range of souls you can eat as you level, and eventually picking up traits from those souls.

Bards are weird for me, because bardic colleges feel like they should either revolve around what kind of stories the bard tells, or what kind of means they use to communicate their stories. There are some fuzzy ones in there, but I think most of them fit these categories. I like College of the Cat, and it does some neat “cat related” things when you have given your inspiration dice, but its more about emulating a cat than it is telling cat stories. Inspired pounce is one of my favorites, letting you get the jump on someone when an ally uses your inspiration die. College of the Sky lets you use winds to do things like moving allies with inspiration dice, pushing back attackers, and crushing the air out of opponents. I like that both play with rewards for handing out your inspiration dice, not just giving you alternate uses for them.

Cleric domains always feel a bit more constrained in what they do versus other subclass designs. That said, I like the variety of divine strike options that are thematically flavored for some of these. A few of these play with granting lycanthropy (that you can’t spread) in the 17th level slot. I’d like to see how that works, but I’d also like to see how 17th level works. The Serpent Domain’s Transformative Molt is one of my favorites, allowing you to change your appearance, and then shed your skin to heal.

Druid subclasses can be hit or miss for me. A lot of them work fine, but don’t hook me. Others really nail their aesthetic. I like that the Circle of the Desert isn’t afraid to let your druid actually help you survive in the desert with its 2nd level ability. Circle of the Hive is interesting, because it is “kind of” a reprint of the previous version of the circle, but when first presented, it was an alternate “Circle of the Land” for Tosculi. Now it’s more of a general circle, although its strongly canted towards being a Tosculi subclass. Circle of the Jungle allows for some fun with plant shapechanging instead of animals, as well as playing with spores at high level. Circle of the Wind provides early access to flying forms, healing winds, limited flight without shapechanging, the ability to speak with the wind, and the ability to heal from lightning attacks. Of all of these, I think the Circle of the Wind is my favorite.

There is some interesting work being done with the fighter subclasses in this book. Two of them are at least tangentially tied to divine powers, one grants spellcasting, and another reminds me a bit of an old prestige class.

Havoc Runners are kind of like Battlemasters, except instead of strategies, they have improvisation. Specifically, they get havoc dice that can be spent to modify rolls to hit and damage in certain circumstances. Holy tramplers take on traits from either a bull, an elephant, or a rhinoceros, and eventually can shapechange into those creatures and borrow other traits. Sword dancers are lightly armored fighters that need charisma to maximize their abilities and are rewarded for movement in combat. Talons of Horus gain a cleric spell progression similar the Eldritch Knight’s wizard progression, as well as gaining protection dice that can be spent to boost other rolls. Tunnel Watchers are a little bit like the old school Dwarven Defenders, guarding passages with limited access. They can limit enemy mobility, are good at surviving traps and natural hazards, become resistant to effects that would move you, cause targeted cave ins, and you get chain shoving abilities.

I really like Havoc Runners as a concept. I wonder if the actual uses you can pull off for your havoc dice will feel limited until you get your 7th level ability to make your own advantage, especially if you DM never has opponents trigger attacks of opportunity. I like the concept of a “Eldritch Knight, but make it cleric,” but I wish it were less directly tied to a specific god.
Paladins are where I sometimes get quibbly. Like Bards, above, I’ve got an idea of what a paladin oath should look like. It should be a call to action that is inconvenient sometimes, but not impossible, and is aspirational, not sedentary. The Oath of Ancestors calls on protecting settled lands, especially from the Void, and using magic to do so. The Oath of the Chosen is about both protecting Nuria Natal, but also making Aten (and yourself) look good. The Oath of the Elements is where we trip over things a bit. Paladins of Boreas are mentioned, who are described as “nearly always evil,” but the oath itself is about holding nature sacred, being a beacon of hope, and making wise decisions, which don’t feel equally applicable to Boreas’ followers.

The Oath of the Ancestors has lots of fun detect, transfer, and dispel magic effects, that work well with the theme. Oath of the Chosen has effects that can heal and make flashy weapons, which also make sense for being a paragon of Aten’s chosen. Oath of the Elements gives you the ability to turn elementals and fiends, do extra elemental damage, gain resistance, and summon elemental friends. These all play into the name, but not as much into defending the natural world or offering wise counsel. Elements are a rough philosophical framework.

Both ranger archetypes (sigh, not lodges) are based on learning and emulating animals, one more narrowly than the other. Jungle Warden offers you a choice like the Hunter subclass, but in this case, you are picking from Jaguar, Mountain Gorilla, or Poison Frog themed abilities. This choice gives you more abilities at 7th level. You get some instances of extra damage, and at 15th level, you get necrotic negation abilities. Snake speakers are more specialized, getting various snake-like traits, shapeshifting, and decoy abilities. I like both, and I can’t help but think the Jungle Warden would be fun to have along in a Tomb of Annihilation game, but I think the Snake Speaker is my favorite of these options.

Rogues have some very specific feeling subclasses, the Caravan Raider, the Grudge Bearer, and the Servant of Nakresh. The early levels of Caravan Raider are about mobility and throwing, but the higher-level abilities all revolve around a semi-alchemical ability, throwing the mojo bag, which can have a range of effects. Grudge Bearers are rogues haunted by a dwarf spirit that makes them better at wearing heavier armors, making retaliatory attacks, scouting with your ghost, resisting mental damage, and doing extra damage when hunting down your enemies. Servants of Nakresh are vaguely associated with a god of thieves, but since the god has multiple arms, these rogues are better at grappling. The Grudge Bearer is my favorite of all of these. I would have a lot of fun making the moment the rogue found their ghost happen. The other two work for me mechanically, but they have very specific stories that feel a little hyper-focused.

What even are Sorcerers? In this case, they are the Ankole Bloodline, the Farseer, and the Windspeaker. I know I just mentioned super specific themes for some rogue subclasses, but the Ankole Bloodline is all about manifesting aspects of the sacred animal of the goddess Enkai, which gives you the ability to grow force horns, increase your armor class, spend sorcery points on damage mitigation and SHOOT MAGICAL HORNS AT PEOPLE. I’m sorry, I love that concept. The visual this grips me. Farseers get the ability to dodge under certain circumstances, ask yes or no questions about the future, slip out of time briefly, and give others advantage on their rolls. Windspeakers aren’t dedicated to air, as might be assumed, but gain the ability to devote themselves to different elements at different times. This devotion manifests certain powers, which upgrade over time. Eventually they gain the ability to speak to powerful nature spirits.

Wizards gain Aeromancy, Desiderites, Labyrinth Magic, and Scribes of Thoth-Hermes as options. Aeromancers create a specific device that acts as a focus and a spellbook. It can create a consequence for people that break your concentration on certain spells, and you gain the ability to transport via lightning and have greater storm mastery. Desiderites are wizards that study the reality altering powers of wishes. At lower level, this gives you a bless like ability, the ability to detect desires, save dying characters, and duplicate spells to fulfill other’s wishes. Labyrinth Magic users can confuse others minds by showing them the Great Labyrinth, summon maze guardians, create difficult terrain, and create secret rooms.

Picture8Scribes of Thoth-Hermes are interesting, as they are wizards bound to a god’s order. They have a specific role in society, can learn cleric ritual spells, add cleric spells to their spellbooks, and cast multiple spells at once. You also gain a rod as a token of office eventually, with its own magical powers. Of all of these, Aeromancy and Desiderites are my favorites. Labyrinth could be fun, but it’s a very specific theme. Scribes of Thoth-Hermes feel like they would very specifically dictate aspects of the campaign.

Overall, I really like most of these subclasses, and the worst thing I can say that some of them have very specific themes that would cause some thoughts on what kind of campaign would best utililze their abilities. From a rules trend point of view, most of these classes retain the “early 5e” format of “abilities work ability score bonus number of times,” but several classes also incorporate the more recent trend of “spend another resource of this class (usually spell slots) to recharge the ability early.”

The chapter wraps up with Lotus Magic and Hieroglyph Magic. Lotus magic involves using consumable magic items to boost magical power, at the cost of potential addiction. Hieroglyphic magic was introduced in Deep Magic and involves using feats to learn specific symbols that can be infused with powers. This also presents the amulet crafter feat, giving you more options for using hieroglyphs. Between all the sticky things that come from mechanizing addiction, roleplaying addiction, and the weighing of risk versus reward, I’m not sure I would use the Lotus Infusions much in a campaign.

Chapter 4: Gear

New weapons! Elephant saddles! Sand skimmers!

Most of the weapons introduced in this section have additional rules. For example, bladed scarves interact with grabbling rules, club shields can shift between weapon and shield mode, khopesh can grapple, and stab axes can stab and axe.

Shroud strips are fun, because they are a means of preserving a corpse that removes its ability to rise as undead. Sand skimmers are fun, if only because they hint at the setting details that involve using ships to sail across the desert sands.

Appendix: Spells

This appendix focuses on spells used by catfolk, and divination spells that focus on combat. There are some that  involve squirming out of grapples, knocking things out of the air, pouncing, and picking up on danger. I can picture cats performing all these actions embodied with the cat spells, and the combat divination spells are a great way to show the utility of divination as a school, but picking these two themes out of all the potential spells to highlight feels a little odd.

Jewel of the South

There are lots of fun mechanics in this product, many that push into new design space while still feeling “grounded” in what 5e rules “expect.” I like the new expansions on existing designs, like the gnoll subclasses, as well as the updates items that have been around for a few years now (Jinnborn, for example). Some of these rules whisper to me to use them. I want to roll havoc dice and shoot magic horns out of my head. Well, I want my player character to shoot magic horns out of their head.

Bleached Bones

I really wish the Tosculi would have been a better example of a “buffet” style race. I wish some of the super specialized options were easier to envision in a campaign without knowing more about the Southlands World Book. There is also a bit of a confusing “mission statement” for this book, in that it’s not really a “one stop” repository of Southlands based options, but it does reprint some options, while adding other new options.

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.

This is a solid book has a lot of solid design work, but it also has a few concepts that don’t feel fully realized. The solid designs still outweigh the more nebulous concepts. While none of it is too hard to adapt, the assumptions of some of the specific gods and organizations present in the Southlands does make this slightly less plug and play that some other D&D 3rd party products.

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