Soldiers of Fortune is a new book from Author Matt James and Open Design (the people who bring us Kobold Quarterly). It’s designed for 4th Edition and features the Midgard Campaign Setting, though the mechanics really are not setting-dependent.
The book features rules and ideas for Ward-based Adventures and Campaigns. It provides new mechanics for player characters as well as some new tools, and a lot of ideas for DMs. Heroes of Battle did something similar for 3.5, and it was one of my favorite supplements, so I was very excited to review this book and test it out. Let’s take a look at my initial overview. I do not promise brevity.
Book Contents and Initial Impression
Section 1: Going to War (6 Pages)
Going to War is more DM-oriented than player-oriented. It breaks down the five main reasons a nation might go to war and provides essential story hooks for adventure building. The hooks are designed so that each reason gets enough to drive a campaign from 1-30. This is followed by ideas on how to incorporate other war games into your D&D campaign as well as many individual scenarios that could be used as one-shot adventures, or dropped into a campaign.
This is really a primer of ideas for those who have never managed a war-based campaign before. Some of the scenarios are classic, while others a bit more unique. A couple of scenarios that really stuck out for me were the Variable Power Drain, where the very sources of PCs’ power were in flux and needed to be fixed, as well as Counterfeiting Cascade, which sets up an adventure where the PCs would need to discover and foil a plot of money smugglers working for a rival nation.
Section 2: Warfare in Midgard (9 Pages)
Warfare in Midgard breaks down into two areas. The first section talks briefly about each of the major races in Midgard, gives their reasons for going to war, and a little bit about how they go to war. It’s interesting and flavorful, but very brief.
The second section is on skill challenges, which I know is often one of many people’s least favorite elements of 4th edition. However, when we’re talking about the larger scale of battle, directing large swaths of troops and managing resources over long periods of time, it can be an elegant solution. I think Matt James shines here. These three challenges can be used right away, but also provide excellent models for you to base other skill challenges off of. They range from taking place over a few days to possibly stretching over an entire tier. Each skill challenge is scalable to different levels, so you can place the war in a convenient place for your grander campaign (if war is only going to be one part of it).
Section 3: Midgard Stratagems (7 pages)
This was my least favorite section. It’s primarily flavor, based around Midgard’s version of the Art of War. Individual treatises break down basic strategies and pieces of war. You can use it for adventure ideas, or as more primer if you’re unfamiliar with war scenarios for play. The most stealable parts for me were the PC backgrounds that were slid behind each section. All in all, the theme of the writing (this fake Midgard war text) almost made it feel more like filler than content for me. I can’t imagine this was the intent, because there are plenty of sections that would have benefited from a few more pages. The two legendary generals at the end are useful leader monsters, but not that compelling.
Section 4: New Powers and Paragon Paths (12 Pages)
This section is almost entirely for the player. The beginning breaks down the mercenary theme which is interesting, but because there’s no other theme I would feel compelled to open it up to other character types. There’s a handful of feats, useful but small in number. That’s followed by few pages of powers, mixed among different power sources. It seems primarily martial, primal and arcane, but you’ll find divine and a couple of psionic and shadow. While some players might disagree, I like the low-ish numbers for these options. It’s difficult to get players using options that can’t be found on or easily added to the character builder. I’m glad that the feats didn’t take up much room for this reason. A couple of feats were circumstantial and thematic enough that they could be given as bonuses to players without worrying about balance issues. The powers are generally useful on or off the battlefield, but are certainly flavorful. They’ll probably be the most compelling reason to get players away from the DDI-only content.
The Paragon Paths are mixed. They each seem well-balanced, but they’re almost plain compared to some of the options players already have. They last two hold a bit more weight for me. The Spellscourge Mercenary is a spear-wielding arcanist who hunts others down, and the final payout on the Sacrosanct Legionnaire allows you to embody the Avatar of War.
Section 5: Spoils of War (9 Pages)
This section contains items, standards and rituals. Neither of these areas is particularly bloated, which is excellent since players already have an overwhelming number of equipment options. I found the items to be very creative. They’ll interest any players who love story, and I expect players to use them in very unique ways. The standards contain a lot of fluff, which is fine for what they are. The rituals are heavily war-themed, and generally useful in specific instances. They’re the kind of thing I’d expect a quartermaster to stock and give out for specific missions.
Section 6: The Battle of Sanguine-Crag Pass (8 Pages)
Short, sweet, and ready to get you moving. If you don’t have time to create something yourself using the other material in this book, then this can give you something to do in one night. It’s designed for 7th level characters, and the individual elements are very stealable. Otherwise, it’s not a great adventure, but certainly not a bad one.
The largest section of the book, because it’s chock full of stat blocks. The templates at the front were the most surprising to me. I do not like the templates presented in most books. I generally find templates to be a bit of work that does not pay in the end. A lot of templates from other sources are either not easily used or do not create balanced elites.
Not so with these templates. They make clear sense and can be dropped onto most humanoids to create specific types of warriors for combat. Many have flavor that easily inspire specific types of encounters built around them. For example, the Jittery Conscript does not change the role or xp worth of a creature at all, but instead adds bonuses and a drawback to represent troops forced into war. Counter to that, the Patrol Captain and Quartermaster each have subtle leadership abilities that might make their allies more dynamic, without using overly complicated abilities you must keep track of.
The monsters are broken down by region. Each section gives a lot of flavor text about each region, a little history and how they go to war, before presenting a couple of monsters. The monsters are alright, and could help you quickly fill out some encounters that are specific to one nation of Midgard. I was happy to see some of templates being used, but overall I did not find the monsters terribly dynamic. I don’t know that I would spend the time to copy over these stat blocks when I have a lot of base creatures easily copied from the Monster Builder. Big exception to this was the Goblin Bomber, which is a minion that literally blows itself up. Not a new concept, but very fun and well-executed.
The regional information was very interesting, though, and a good precursor to the Campaign Setting being worked on (for those interested in running Midgard).
At the very end is a short sampling of siege engines and how to use them. While the section was short I was excited for them because it’s something I know my players are interested in. The rules were clear, made sense and were easy to use. I wish that a few more examples were included, but what was presented was easily skin-able and scale-able.
Prepping the Playtest
I decided that I really wanted to use some of the Paragon Paths (so the characters would be level 20) in order to gain their final powers. I also decided that I would pre-generate the characters, in order to increase play time. I set the adventure as a flashback in my own world, in order to make it relevant to the current campaign (my playtesters are my players after all).
I almost immediately got frustrated. In 4th edition, by 20th level, you have a lot of powers. In order to keep play moving you really need to have powers written out, with the math. Plus, my players are used to this due to the Character Builder. I adapted the Google Spreadsheet Character Sheet I made for Living 4th edition on ENworld for this purpose. I had intended to make six characters in this way, four of which featuring the four Paragon Paths. I ended up only making two. Even with this tool, it takes a long time to make higher level characters when you need to write out all the powers and abilities.
I also discovered some typos in the powers, or missing information.
Next came the Adventure. The Seige skill challenge for the first encounter worked well and needed almost no adaptation. I just grabbed the skill DCs off the Sly Flourish Ultimate DM Chart. Most of the creatures in the book were for lower levels, but I grabbed the Peak Wizard (Elite 17, Controller) and the Enchanted Tatzlwurm (25, Skirmisher Swarm). I found issues in the stat block with both. The Peak Wizard was missing ranges on some of his powers, and the Tatzlwurm’s Noxious Breath power was oddly formatted. Looking back over other entries showed similar issues, and none of the powers have keywords. I can easily make them up as needed, but I’d rather have a complete monster.
The Playtest went quite well. The characters started with the Seige, and failed. I had two different encounters next, depending on Success or Failure. Because failure meant less active soldiers and holes in the cities defenses, they got ambushed by lurkers and the peak wizard during a late night planning session. The PCs were then drawn into the main battle that was overwhelming the city, until they met with Giant General and prime guard. They just happened to bring the Enchanted Tatzlwurm with them in a big magic pot on sticks (think Arc of the Covenant). We didn’t get all the way through the final encounter due to time.
I asked for feedback and the first thing the players told me is they wanted another shot. They wanted to play the encounter they would have faced if they had won the skill challenge, face the whole final encounter, and play with these characters again. That’s an excellent sign for the book. Some also asked for access to the spreadsheet I used so that they weren’t tied to the character builder and its limitations. Considering my main worry was players not wanting to do the work involved with using non-Wizards of the Coast material, this was my test of success.
Their favorite parts were the Paragon Paths, which they really enjoyed. The other powers were mixed between ‘Meh, it’s alright’ and ‘Awesome’. Do to my quick prep on some of the other characters, I think some of the powers tested just weren’t appropriate for the character it was given to. They thought the monsters used were balanced and interesting, but it wasn’t their highlight.
Let’s Wrap it Up
The Good: The Player Powers and Paragon Paths were big hits, as well as the idea of Siege Engines, even if they didn’t get much play yet. The templates and skill challenges were the best tools for me, the DM, and I don’t normally like templates. All of the crunch is easily transferable out of Midgard.
The Bad: I would be very happy to see this get another round of editing for a new pdf. There are just too many problems with the stat blocks for powers and monsters. In addition, I did not find much value in the Midgard Stratagem section.
The Meh: There’s a lot of fluff about Midgard in here. It’s interesting stuff, but until I have the Midgard Campaign Setting, which is going to take a little while, this is downgraded to being maybe stealable in bits and pieces.
Overall: This book gets a solid B+. Most of the things I had problems with were annoyances more than issues, and had easy fixes. A great bit of it is instantly useful in a fun and engaging way. My players liked it enough to do more work, which is saying a ton for the quality of the material. This will positively see good use in my campaign.
Now if you excuse me, I need to work on getting a few more pregens properly done, and rebalance the last fight a little bit. My players did demand more, and I’m itching to apply one of those templates.