Image Copyright by Matt Colville
The Base Builder 5e Needs or Needless Complication?
Strongholds and Followers from the upstart MCDM productions has the honor of being one of the top 100 Kickstarter projects of all time. It’s a callback to Kingmaker and other attempts throughout roleplaying history to integrate keeps, castles, and marshalled military forces into the player’s domain. Did it succeed? Is this 5e’s best answer for large-scale warfare and cohesive home bases? Muster your forces and man the castle walls as we go through everything you need to know.
Where can I get Strongholds and Followers?
Before we get into the meat and potatoes of the book’s content, I feel like I should mention that there’s only one place (that I could find) that currently carries it. Strongholds and Followers started as a Kickstarter campaign, and if you’re looking to buy it now you’ll need to go to their specific website that you can find here. I spent a while looking for it on places like DriveThruRPG and DM’s Guild where I’d expect to find homebrew D&D content, but it looks like MCDM wants to maintain it as an exclusive to their online store.
What’s in the Book?
Strongholds and Followers clocks in at is 272 pages which is respectable for a $50 dollar book. This makes it even more impressive that it sells for $30, or $20 for the PDF. The art seems like frontrunning triple ‘A’ quality stuff as well. About half the content is spent outlining the mechanics of the titular strongholds and followers, with the remaining half dedicated to an adventure path and a surprisingly large bestiary. All told, it contains:
- Rules for Building and Maintaining Strongholds.
- Rules for Recruiting and Using Followers.
- A 5th Level Adventure Path “The Siege of Castle Rend”.
- 56 New Monsters Including Lore, Stat Blocks, and Spectacular Art.
- 28 New Magic Items and Installations (More on that Later).
- Rules for Mass Combat and Mustering Armies.
If you’ve been playing D&D and similar games for a long time, chances are you’ve had at least one situation where your party tries to build up a home base. Throughout roleplaying history we’ve had quite a few attempts at this concept, with mixed results. Keeps, castles, and other big installations can be an end goal for a party, or even a driving force as the campaign centers around your ever-growing fortress.
Fundamentally I think they did a solid job working this classical mentality into 5e, not perfect, but solid. The rules for establishing your strongholds are straightforward and seem actually achievable in most campaigns. I’ve seen some versions of this concept that make them so incredibly expensive or time consuming that they’re virtual impossibilities, here they seem not only achievable but are genuinely good investments.
I also appreciate the variety. In addition to the archetypes like Keeps, Wizard’s Towers, and Temples, each class has their own variation of a stronghold that flavorfully matches their aesthetic and grants the owner unique bonuses. Sadly, this is where I start to have complaints about the system.
Having a stronghold doesn’t just give you a base of operations, or a “home”. Strongholds grant their owners extremely powerful buffs, and even attract entire armies to fight by your side.
Mechanically, the strongholds make sense, work well, and do a great job of uniting early edition concepts with modern D&D. Integrating them will mean playing a very different sort of game though. Players with a functioning stronghold will be significantly more powerful. Your players will have access to a large number of loyal NPCs, and if the players fight nearby to even a low level stronghold, they’ll have a massive advantage.
I’d equate it to the “Mythic Levels” from Pathfinder, yes, they’re very fun to play around with, but kiss your CR and balancing equations goodbye. That’s not a bad thing exactly, but I can’t realistically grant my players a stronghold without severely ramping up the difficulty I’d planned. These feel like they’re best suited to campaigns built specifically around them, rather than additions that could be made to any game.
The followers here are divided into two main groups, your “retainers” and your “units”.
The retainers are the most straightforward of the two and are fundamentally the same as your normal NPCs. You’ll get more of these guys as your stronghold gets bigger, and they follow your orders, fight on your behalf, grant specific bonuses to your strongholds and can watch the place while you’re gone.
They did something with their stat blocks though that I rather appreciated. Often, when you start dealing with hirelings, summons, or other such NPCs, you basically double up on what you need to know and keep track of. If each follower has a full character sheet, a player character with two followers has triple the amount of bookkeeping to do. This book gives followers a stripped-down stat block that’s far easier to keep track of. I thought this was an incredibly smart move and it’s one of the aspects I’ll probably use in my own games.
Units are the other type of followers, and they’re a bit tougher to explain. Basically, they’re a way to simplify mass combat. Your strongholds will attract armies, and each “unit” describes a group of infantrymen, or a group of cavalrymen. They did a good job of varying these units up and the book provides creative options for creating your own units.
In a lot of ways, the units are very similar to the “mob” rules that have already been employed for mass combat in 5e, just tailored for fighting against other mobs rather than fighting the players. They further reinforce a very different form of 5e adventuring, which will be good or bad depending on what you’re looking for.
The Siege of Castle Rend
This 5th level adventure primarily serves as an introduction to stronghold mechanics, as the PCs clear out an orc infested castle part-way through and then must defend it from an impending siege. I can’t say I was terribly impressed with this adventure, fighting a band of orcs to rescue a kidnapped damsel is about as stock plot as it gets and there isn’t much in the way of twists and turns. It serves as a good introduction to the mechanics, but not much else.
56 New Monsters
Note that I didn’t include any of the “units” or “followers” in this count (of which there are a ton). The 56 here is the number of straight up, marvelously designed and beautifully illustrated monsters. These really impressed me, largely because I wasn’t expecting them in a book about strongholds. They mainly consist of biblically inspired (and therefore bizarre) angels, truly grotesque fiends, and otherworldly mechanized beings of pure law. I’m definitely using some of these in my next game, and without hyperbole they have some of the greatest artworks I’ve ever seen in a 3rd party book.
28 New Magic Items / Installations
Some of these are more traditional items, but quite a few are “installations” which are basically magic items that need to be installed into your strongholds like you’d personally attune to a magic item. It’s a cool concept, and I wish it included more to further customize your strongholds. Strangely though a large swath of them are devoted to some artifact-level magic tomes called “codices”. Most of these were way too strong to give to players in most cases, though they could each be used as campaign-long plot points and McGuffins.
Mass Combat and Mustering Armies
After going through it I’m reminded of games like “total war” or even tabletop games like “warhammer”. Where most other takes on mass combat focus on the characters and their role in mass combats, here it feels “zoomed out” into a full-on strategy game of troop movement and rallied forces. Overall, I think it pulls off mass combat in 5e rather well, just be aware that it’ll feel like a completely different game.
What’s Good About the Book?
The core of the book which is the stronghold and follower mechanics are rock solid. They’re not overly complex but maintain the flexibility and variety that will allow each adventure’s keep to feel unique. The simplified follower rules help to limit bookkeeping as the character count grows, and it transitions into large-scale warfare naturally and without too much fuss. I could also spend hours praising the artworks and the completely unexpected bestiary filled with cool creations that I can’t wait to use in my next adventures.
What’s Bad About the Book?
My biggest complaint is the massive power boost that strongholds grant. I’m not able to add a stronghold as a reward to my existing campaigns without completely rethinking the threats they’ll face, and I expect that including this content will require planning an entire adventure around it. I also found the adventure path lacking, not terrible, but the bland setting and trope filled plot made me completely uninterested in running it.
I love a lot of what this book has to offer. I almost want to recommend it on the included bestiary alone, but it has its problems. This isn’t an expansion that you can sprinkle into your existing games, you’re going to need to plan around it. But it’s also very cheap by most standards, so even if you don’t plan on using the stronghold and army rules themselves you can still get quite a bit of content for a mere $20. Overall, it’s not a perfect purchase that I’d recommend to absolutely everybody, but it does a great job of scratching that “empire builder” itch that has been missing from 5e. If you’ve been wanting to run a campaign centered around conquest, one that involves armies clashing against each other and the fates of thousands, this book has all the tools you’ll need.
Final Score: 7.5 out of 10
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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