Last night was the finale to our 2.5-year, 20-level Norse D&D campaign. It came to a spectacular and fitting end. Over the coming weeks, I’ll take some time to collect my thoughts and hard-earned wisdom. There are lot of D&D tips out there, so my focus will be on running high-level (Tiers 3 & 4) play with some sprinkling of advice for maintaining a constant group. With the culmination of our campaign and a couple of writing projects – Devil’s Advocate: A Guide to Infernal Contracts is set to release next week – I finally have some breathing room to sit and enjoy the finer things.
Speaking of finer things, have you had a chance to check out MCDM’s Strongholds and Followers?
About Strongholds & Followers
If you’re not familiar with the book, Strongholds & Followers began as a Kickstarter by Matt Colville and his newly-formed company MCDM Productions. The goal of the Kickstarter was twofold: 1) fund a book surrounding rules for creating, managing, and upgrading strongholds, and 2) raise enough money for MCDM to start their very own D&D 5e stream. Long story short, the project blew it out of the water when it came to funding, raising over $2 million dollars and earning the title of one of the most successful TTRPG Kickstarters of all time.
Is this a review?
Yes and no. I understand that not everyone was able to participate in this Kickstarter. So I’d like to take the time to showcase this book and my thoughts as I read through it. Long story short, I think what Matt and his team have created is wonderful, and I’d like to share it with you.
If you’ve watched any of Matt’s “Running the Game” videos on Youtube, you have probably gleaned that he has a signature style as a GM. I have been following Matt for some time now, and I will continue to do so because he offers a unique perspective from other personalities at the forefront of this great hobby. While I haven’t incorporated all of his tips, Matt is an honest, bright, and experienced creator who has been a tremendous help to my growth as a Dungeon Master.
Just like any other TTRPG products, there are going to be things that resonate for you in this book and things that don’t. I wholeheartedly endorse this book regardless of the percentage of content I’ll be incorporating into my games. There is something in this book for everyone, even if you never intend to build a stronghold in your campaign – though if you feel that way, you really should reconsider!
The artwork is superb.
The first thing that is going to hit you is that this book is packed with absolutely stunning artwork. MCDM did not spare a penny when it came to hiring some of the best fantasy artists. There are very few pages in this book that do not have some piece of artwork somewhere on the page.
Each of the strongholds include breathtaking, full-page pieces that convey its personality. While all of them are beautiful, I especially enjoy the cleric’s church, the monk’s monastery, and the wizard’s library (which, to me, really evokes that classic 80’s D&D cover art).
Followers include grizzled warriors and friendly mages. Monsters range from the epic and powerful gemstone dragons to the hauntingly beautiful monarchon. Magic items, especially the codices, pair nicely with descriptions that manifest countless story hooks as I read.
But artwork goes beyond landscapes, creatures, and items. The layout for the book is beautiful and unique. While I am a great fan of D&D 5e, this supplement sets itself apart with colorful decorations that frame each page as if you were reading a hand-decorated Medieval manuscript. Maps are professional and come with their own charm. In particular, I was blown away by the stained glass look of the temple. The picture really just doesn’t do it justice. It’s so colorful!
Strongholds & Followers
Now that you’ve seen a sneak peak of what you’ll see in the book, lets talk about content. I’ll break this down by major sections. Today, we’re going to focus mainly on the first part of the book: strongholds.
Strongholds & Followers opens with the history of strongholds in D&D back in the early days of the hobby. It talks about giving mechanical reasons for your character to build a stronghold, such as demesne (which I learned is pronounced “deh-MAIN”) effects, attracting followers, and new abilities. The four types of strongholds are:
- Keeps – raising armies and fighting
- Temples – summoning extraplanar allies
- Towers – researching new spells (really cool)
- Establishments – gaining that sweet, sweet gold and learning secrets
I appreciate that Matt includes a note about approving this book with your GM. Running D&D is complicated enough by the time characters can have their own stronghold, though I’m sure many players are (hopefully) willing to be patient with their dungeon master if they’re cool enough to work in stronghold rules.
Acquiring a Stronghold
The book then breaks down ways to obtain a stronghold, of which there are three. Just like any old house here in the real world, you can construct your own, be awarded one, or fix one up. Though since the 1890s or so it’s become much more difficult to storm a stranger’s home with weapons, clear the place out, and make it your own. As someone who went through the lengthy process of buying a house last May and still doesn’t understand what exactly escrow is, I’m honestly not sure which method is more difficult.
There are some very helpful tables detailing the cost, time, and bonuses that come with building the four types of strongholds. There are similar rules and costs for upgrading your strong hold once built, giving you greater capabilities which are detailed later on in the text.
Castles allow you to incorporate more than one function at once. I think this section could have been broken down a bit better. The example for cost increases for incorporating three strongholds in one is helpful, but I could see GMs missing some important information if they haven’t read the section below in a while. For example, it seems rather important that a stronghold’s benefit only applies to one character at a time!
I appreciate that Matt’s voice comes through in his writing. In this section, he mentions how when he has run strongholds, usually a couple characters don’t care. He incorporates GM tips throughout the book. It’s very Matt (or at least my perception of who Matt is).
The following sections on Repairing a Ruin and Awarding a Stronghold are concise and easy to digest. There’s some great sections on political complications that come from creating a stronghold, such as how the nobility reacts to the construction of your 10,000gp keep just outside the city!
We then get start to get into the meat of the strongholds, which boils down to powers that recharge on an extended rest, which requires spending a week at your stronghold doing various errands and upkeep. Matt gives some advice on balancing the game – though a big part of the fun of strongholds is that they unbalance the game – and we get a bit more on politics, including saving you time by focusing on three types of local lord. Then we get to see what the four types of strongholds actually do!
Keeps are used to build, train, and maintain an army. You attract units unique to your class. Later in the book, each class gets its own stronghold section. While a wizard can technically make a keep, a fighter’s going to benefit more from constructing one because their class followers chart is better-suited to attracting military units. However, every class has the chance of attracting martial units as followers.
The keep also gives you training benefits, which are super cool. I’m guessing that these last indefinitely. You can change which one you use on an extended rest. For example, after training a bunch of mercenaries to dodge dragon’s breath, you take Light Armor Training, giving you advantage on Dexterity checks while wearing light armor. I think this is a great detail and builds on the existing abilities of some classic weapons proficiencies to really make you feel like a badass.
Barbarian Camps are a mobile alternative to the immense, immobilized keep on the cover. I appreciate that Matt gives hooks and advice for playing against type. He gives an example of a “barbarian camp” in the form of a war-hungry druid with awakened trees. I love that he mentions Joan of Arc basically leading a barbarian horde.
The rules for barbarian camps are true to history. They have limited units, and they are slower the larger they get. But they can also cause unrest in a province!
The Pirate Ship is another mobile variant on the keep, and comes with a huge, gorgeous ship with several masts. I also love that there are footnotes in this book talking about sales and the development of the galleon. You can tell Matt loves history. With Saltmarsh out, this could be a favorite stronghold for many parties.
Organizational Aside. I hope that future MCDM books contain an index (unless I missed it) or some other type of page references for material contained inside the book. In the stronghold tables on page 10, there’s one that simply reads “Size.” At this point, I assume that means units. This chart states D6 for a 1st level keep. However, in the text for raising units in the Keep section, it states newly raised units start at a D4. It isn’t until page 236 that I find out that fortifications, including Keeps, have a size of their own.
This book will benefit from some good tabbing (like many other D&D books). I wish it had broken down the tables on page 10, because not all of them were self explanatory, and it would have reinforced knowledge as I was exposed to it a second time. I was confused when first reading this, and then perplexed that there wasn’t an index! I would love to have seen on page 10, “Fortification size is used in warfare. See Sample Warfare on page 236 for more details.”
Towers are all about spell research. As a huge fan of wizards, I alternated between drooling and giggling with excitement as I read this section. In our campaign, there were two homebrew spells, both of which occurred in Tier 4 with the wizard Mordenkainen.
There is something very classic about creating your own spells. Here’s a video of Gary Gygax’s son, Luke Gygax, talking about inventing Melf’s Acid Arrow and Melf’s Minute Meteors with his dad. Matt gets this. While I’m only 26, Matt and his pals were there when famous wizard PCs like Melf and Elminster were crafting these iconic spells. Now, Matt brings some of that magic to your table.
Spell research is fun and unpredictable. We get some of that 80s randomness in the tables Spell Research Tables. There’s different tables depending on who the target is. For example, you might buff yourself with levitation, or buff an ally with your spell modifier. I think this section is really thoughtful and, well, magical. It’s great that Matt and the gang found a way to bring that excitement to 5th Edition. I can already see the look on my players’ faces at the prospect of naming their very own spell.
There are rules for modifying spells, and a really cool little section on what happens after you’ve cast your signature spell in the wild a few times. There’s then an alternative rule section on Towers By School, where you can basically amplify spells in your area of expertise.
Temples are geared towards priests, warlocks, and druids. While a druid might have a grove, it may mechanically fall under the temple. This is one of the more flexible strongholds, the other being the establishment. It covers a lot of ground with its main feature, which is concordance. Basically, the more pleased your deity is with you, the better your results are when you petition your deity for aid. Matt makes the distinction that concordance is basically a lower version of divine intervention.
Petitioning your deity can have negative effects, such as being cursed. Anyone can call on a deity for aid, but those who own a temple are far more likely to succeed. They’re granted a +30 to the percentile dice rolled (similar to divine intervention, but higher is better in this case). If you roll really low (though it’s basically impossible if you own a temple unless you’ve been bad), you could become cursed, and if you roll average nothing happens.
Well, not nothing. There’s a cool mechanic built into this stronghold power. When you petition, you gain a penalty for your next one – regardless of whether or not you succeed. The circumstance chart lists ways to change this penalty by doing things like spreading the good word, whereas failing to uphold your deity’s tenants results in a worse penalty. Once you’ve reduced the penalty, or you’re ambitious enough to roll despite a hefty negative modifier, you can petition your deity once again.
If you roll high, however, you get a servitor. The higher you roll, the better the servitor you get. Servitors are other-worldly allies that come from a source, such as The Court of Arcadia for fey or The Elemental Templars for elementals. The majority of servitors are actually original monsters! They are also very interesting. The only category that does not include original monsters is undead; 5e already contains an abundance of them. Later, when I talk about the new monsters, we can look at a couple of these.
There’s a section on using your servitor, which remains for a number of rounds dependent on your stronghold. As someone who had to do something like this for the Infernal Ally offer in my upcoming product, I appreciate the flexibility of time depending on the effort you put into your stronghold. One round can make a hell of a difference in 5e, especially considering the action economy of adding someone to your side.
Druid Groves, like barbarian camps, are an alternative option for this type of stronghold. It allows you to basically install a spell, such as reincarnate that can be cast within the grove every so often, depending on the spell itself.
No, this isn’t the man oppressing you. This version of the establishment is everything you dreamed it would be! The establishment’s primary goals are generating revenue and rumors. This includes taverns, theatres, blacksmiths, basically anything that could get you coin and introduce you to new patrons.
There’s a cool DM note on the seasonal revenue generated by your establishment. It’s designed to be roughly even with what your character would be exposed to through adventuring, though this varies from campaign to campaign.
Rumors allow you to learn secrets about traps, puzzles, items, organizations – you name it – with a successful Gather Intel check. Your establishment has a range limited by its level. I love the cute little blacksmith map as an example of a small establishment. I bet there’s somewhere you could print these maps out (such as an artist’s page or through MCDM), laminate them, and use them at your table.
Lastly, you can use the establishment to get favors! If you’re rolling in dough, why wouldn’t you be able to pay another stronghold to do something for you? Makes sense, though I wouldn’t have thought of it. It’s a really cool detail. I also love the three-story theatre artwork on the last page.
I hope you enjoyed this look at the first two sections of Strongholds and Followers. It’s the first time I’ve read them, so I might come back and amend some things later on.
So far, I think this book is fantastic. The amount of work put into it shows. It’s a pleasure to read, has a distinct tone, and is filled with beautiful artwork.