MCDM’s D&D 5e supplement ‘Strongholds and Followers’ review.

In the past, I have rarely backed projects on Kickstarter. Despite the overwhelming success of a majority of projects, it’s far too often that I hear word of underwhelming entries and unsatisfying products, which dissuades me from ever venturing into the realm of online independent backing. Even with good products from strong developers, there can be still be other issues that hinder the experience, such as a lack of communication between backers and the producers in question and elaborate scams designed to con people out of their money.

Kickstarter, in a way, is a world of virtual risk, relying on an unspoken trust and the credibility of a brand in order to deliver a worthwhile experience, with far too many Mighty No. 9’s to its name than Exploding Kittens.

It was a world, I had concluded, that I wanted no part of.

That all changed on the 9th of February 2018, following a notification in my Youtube subscription box of a new video from Youtube channel Matthew Colville.

I had been watching Colville’s videos since I finished my University master’s course last year, diving through his campaign diaries and his excellent Running The Game series, all of it a phenomenal example of online content for aspiring DMs. However, the video in question was about something else: an announcement for a Kickstarter campaign to produce a book, a supplement to D&D 5e. Considering the hours of entertainment the Matthew Colville brand had provided me over the weeks and months and considering Colville himself seemed to be a veteran within the game making industry, I decided to wade into the murky waters of Kickstarter and make my pledge.

Now, nine months later, I can honestly say that backing the project has been an incredible experience as a consumer. The Kickstarter campaign smashed its goal by the end of its month long run, gaining forty two times the expected goal and officially raising over two million for the freshly founded Colville’s MCDM productions. Unlike other projects that squandered their potential or vanished with the revenue, MCDM stood strong and began backing up all of their promises. With weekly or bi-weekly videos on Colville’s Youtube channel, frequent text updates on the Kickstarter as to the process of making the book and recent stream tests for Colville’s next live-stream D&D campaign, MCDM has shown itself to be a company that cares about keeping an open relationship with its audience and providing expertly crafted content for the consumer. Each video and each post was filled with a respect and repeated a promise so often given and yet rarely fulfilled.

We know this is a lot of money, and a lot of trust put in us. We won’t let you down.

And now, around nine months later after I first pledged to support the campaign, I am relieved and ecstatic to confirm that MCDM have completely kept their promise, delivering to us a brilliant new PDF of their supplement for D&D 5e: Strongholds and Followers.

 

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The Warlock’s Fane, one of the many class specific strongholds available within the supplement. Image used from Strongholds and Streaming Kickstarter page and is property of MCDM productions.

Strongholds and Followers is a two hundred and sixty five page document devoted to, as the name suggests, giving rules for players to build strongholds and recruit followers within D&D. Now, as one might guess from my flowery compliments to Matthew Colville and his team, I am probably biased as a fan of Colville’s series so keep this in mind as I delve deeper into the review. Hopefully, I’ll be able to cut through any of my lingering loyalties to one of the most popular DMs of our favourite past-time and look at the book as a piece of its own merit to see if Strongholds and Followers is an impressive feat of engineering, or whether or not its still under construction.

 

Right off the bat, I will say that content wise the supplement is simply massive. As well as including an explanation of the Stronghold rules and mechanics for recruiting followers (each of these sections coming with its own comprehensive list of tables and rulings), there’s an original adventure written by James J. Haeck to incorporate the keep into a campaign and an appendices that doubles both as a monster manual for all the original creatures in the supplement (there are quite a few) and a basic set of rules for Colville’s Warfare system, which is set to make its advanced debut in the company’s next product: Kingdoms and Warfare. It only takes a glance at the page number to know that MCDM have spared no expense on the detailed content of the module and that Colville has spent these past nine months tirelessly working on making this book as good as it can be. In order to give this supplement the focused review it requires, I’m going to be breaking up the pieces and look at the details that make up the book before combining it into a cohesive finale verdict.

Strongholds

The first thing I realised upon opening the PDF is that the supplement reads, for the most part, like you are listening to another episode of Colville’s Running the Game series. On the one hand, it’s brilliant that Colville was able to inject so much of what makes his videos so entertaining into his written work, but it also strikes a harsh contrast between other writing styles from other D&D supplements. Unlike the cut and dry commentary of the core rule-books, Colville’s supplement includes flair and character right from the start. I can imagine this being a deal breaker for some more hardcore D&D fans, but for myself, it was just a little odd and took a moment or two of reading to fully get used to. It helps that I enjoy Running the Game videos and therefore enjoy a lot of the personality Colville injects into the book, but others might find the unique use of writer’s voice a little off putting.

 

 

However, when it comes to detailing the actual rulings, Colville’s natural charm gives way to a clear set of concise instructions more in line with those of the regular rulebooks. Reading the rules for the Strongholds, I hardly found myself confused and was easily able to follow each type of Stronghold presented. It’s here that Colville showcases his previous skill on designing RPGs with Last Unicorn Games. The strongholds are developed in a manner that perfectly reflects the 5e system, not just in that they are catered to the system’s requirements but that they embrace and reflect the flexible mantra of 5e as a whole.

There are four types of Strongholds: Keeps, Towers, Temples and Establishments, each with their own unique abilities. Players can build any of these types of strongholds, even combining their efforts into a castle, but can also compliment these base strongholds with their own unique class customisation options. These bonuses are easily mixed and though not completely compatible (it’s hard to imagine a Barbarian getting much use out of a Tower used to research spells), the individual pieces fit well enough together in a manner that encourages exploration of the mechanics and flexibility on the DM’s part.

The individual stronghold mechanics work together well with Keeps providing military support for the Warfare system, Towers magically reinforcement via a process that allows players to upgrade and personalise their spells, Temples that allow patrons and gods to provide support and the Establishment acting as a source of gold revenue, information and a jack of all trades. The four individual strongholds all have solid inbuilt mechanics and the option to fuse them all together into a castle is intriguing but self-regulated by the supplement to ensure too much power is not abused.

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The Temple, one of the four types of main Strongholds in the book. Image used from Strongholds and Streaming Kickstarter page and is property of MCDM productions.

A nice point to make is that Colville makes the concession that strongholds do unbalance the basic game of D&D. He provides no solid answer to this, however, but a vague encouragement to be throw greater challenge at the players reflects his own views on combat. It is most definitely true that the strongholds do mess up the finely tuned mathematical formulas of D&D. The class stronghold abilities are designed to make players feel more powerful and, ultimately, prove as welcomed additions to a player’s arsenal and a DM’s woes. Sadly, they also provide a great amount of unbalanced abilities when compared to each other. The personalised abilities of a class stronghold are grouped into three effects: demense effects (passive buffs mostly for fluff but honestly my favourite part of the effects), stronghold actions (new lair actions players can use) and an improved class feature (inherently altering one of the player’s prime abilities).

For the most part, these are suitable and really help make the stronghold feel important and give the players a true feeling of power. It’s actually amazing that Colville was able to come up with so much flavour and so many cool abilities and yet still make each of the class stronghold abilities so unique. That being said, however, some abilities need a slight shift in balance to properly repair. A Barbarian’s improved ability of getting an extra attack and free movement upon killing an enemy pales into comparison to a Fighter’s Fighting Surge, allowing a Fighter to automatically crit with every attack in their action surge for a number equal to their stronghold level.

On the one hand, D&D isn’t a game that is supposed to be balanced, but considering how well the rest of the book is equalised, it’s strange to see instances like this where a simple change in wording or retooling could make abilities balanced with ease. Another example is Sorcerers getting a stronghold action to cast three spells at once, where a Wizard can cast only one with their stronghold action. The two have the same amount of spell slots and matching the two abilities easily fixes any imbalance.

 

Despite small stumbling blocks in the middle of this segment, Strongholds finishes strong with a vast list of followers tables, each including interesting unique allies that the players can gain and really making the player feel powerful whilst not hindering the entire experience by still placing the allies in the control of the campaign’s DM. Overall, the rules in Strongholds are well-balanced and well implemented with a great emphasis on customisation and coolness winning out over a few minor hiccups of balancing issues.

Followers

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Artisans such as Arranel the Woodwright, pictured above, can be recruited as a follower for your stronghold. Image used from Strongholds and Streaming Kickstarter and is property of MCDM productions.

Whereas the stronghold rules are a hefty fraction of the book, the rules for recruiting followers are somewhat smaller. There’s a basic set of rules for followers, including an example of some bare-bone stats and clever rules about tracking follower hit points, finaly concluding with a list of artisan followers and the effects they have on your keep. All in all, though, this section of the book is simple. What the followers section lacks in detail, however, it makes up for in personality.

 

Each detailed artisan as well as their mechanical purpose is accompanied with a detailed profile from Colville, including suggested NPCs for the role of each artisan follower. Whilst I, personally, would have liked to have some sort of table to roll on to help determine the personality of my followers, or the like, Colville really sells the concept alone in his writing. The expanded pieces of fiction that accompany each new NPC also help make each feel more real, grounded and accessible for DMs. I doubt that no matter how hard I try I’m never going to make a NPC spy as cool as Colville’s suggestion of Pick. The actual game mechanics for the follower system are solid: focusing on aiding the PCs rather than taking over from them and the artisans having a list of specialised but useful abilities.

The followers section is more vague than the Stronghold aspect but makes up for it with a large variety of simplified stat blocks and a splash of Colville’s imagination that helps make the ideas feel real and tangible. I would have loved to see some tables to help construct each artisan NPC, though I suppose the issue with that is that it would have taken up a lot of space and been a lot of extra fiddly work for an already long project.

The Adventure: Siege of Castle Rend

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The White Tusk Orcs, a main enemy faction within the Siege of Castle Rend adventure module. Image used from Strongholds and Streaming Kickstarter page and is property of MCDM productions.

If there is one takeaway I have from The Siege of Castle Rend, it’s that I much prefer this kind of compact adventure module storytelling to the large sprawling epics that Wizards of the Coast have been releasing over the past few years. As useful as it is to have an entire sprawling campaign to explore, Siege of Castle Rend proves that small scale focused products ultimately help provide a bigger bang for their buck.

The pitch of Castle Rend is a simple one. Based on Colville’s own campaign setting, the adventure sees the players visiting the town of Gravesford and having to rescue a kidnapped wizard before plunged into a battle for their own castle and the political conflict between Bonebreaker Dorokor and Sir Pelliton, the Star Knight of the Three Roses. In the hands of a lesser writer, this module might have ended up as a simple railroad. However, the marriage of Colville’s DMing principles and James J. Haeck’s direct descriptions prove to be a match that fully fleshes out this small scale adventure into something truly special.

A timeline of events helps push the plot along despite the players actions (or inaction) and all facets of the adventure are well fleshed out, including segments that offer advice for certain actions the players might take. These segments better prepare the DM for running the module than most recent adventure modules, in my honest opinion, and highlight the flexible nature of not just the module, but D&D 5e as a whole.

The Siege of Castle Rend is well paced and detailed as well. The first segment, focusing on the village of Gravesford, is developed just enough to seem real but not lingered upon or exaggerated to the point where it is overbearing. The third segment is equally well-handled, providing a framework of the events and the setting of the castle itself but leaving things open to DM interpretation with some critical parts giving advice. Segments two and four of the adventure, however, present the only real weaknesses of the module for me. Whilst the framework of the module is solid, the bare-bones nature that encourages experimentation and creativity also lacks proper direction in the narrative. Whilst the second section of the module is primarily filler and, if possible, can be completely ignored by the DM, the fourth segment hosts the main crux of the module, a siege of the player’s new stronghold, but remains muddled on the build up to such a battle.

In previous segments, the freedom of the module was liberating where as here, it feels like the DM and players have been left in the lurch slightly with few moments of real guidance or support. The set-up is clear for the final fight: Sir Pelliton is coming to take Castle Rend for his own and the players have a week to prepare to hold it, but not enough guidance is given for me in the module for how the PCs would go about such a task. Little work is done to invest the players to the castle within the narrative and even when the players do get their keep, there doesn’t appear to be an NPC helper to advise them on new mechanics in game. Plus, the sudden arrival of new NPC, Twobuckle, out of nowhere to establish the threat makes the whole preparation stage for the siege appear rushed in my opinion. I admit this factor might be up to personal taste on just how un-restrictive this adventure is on a whole. To some, the week long preparation for the siege might feel like the desperate dramatic struggle the players have been waiting for, a chance for the players to really think outside the box and have fun and for the DM to learn the system effectively. To me, however, it read like a muddled build up to the eager climactic payoff both parties wish to skip towards.

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Pinna The Wizard, one of the major NPCs of the Siege of Castle Rend. Image used from Strongholds and Streaming Kickstarter page and is property of MCDM productions.

Speaking of climactic payoff, the titular siege of titular Castle Rend itself is a brilliant capstone to the adventure. Once more, the stage is set within the module but left to the DM and players to decide the fate, with reasonable descriptions of tactics for both sides and alternate ending suggestions for whatever outcome befalls the players. Its here where the story is at its most bare-bones, fitting as this segment is the one to fully establish and describe the game mechanics of this supplement. Luckily, both mechanics are strong enough to carry the ending combat and interesting enough for me to make up for a lacklustre lead up.

 

A true strong highlight of the adventure as a whole is its intimate scope and detailed NPCs. Whilst Pinna didn’t do much for me despite being easily likeable (to be fair, that is her main purpose, or why else would adventurers want to help rescue her?), the other NPCs are well modelled and realised. Bonebreaker Dorokor and Edmund Bedigar are moulded into three dimensional and complex characters by the aid of Colville’s brilliant story-telling, whilst Sir Pelliton is despicable as only the truly iconic villains can be. These are people you want to interact with and want to defeat and the intimate scope of the whole adventure really gives these character’s a much needed tangibility for their crucial roles in the plot.

Despite my own complaints, The Siege of Castle Rend is a great adventure. It’s compact but packed with quality. The framework for the adventure provided is glorious detailed whilst still promoting player agency and DM experimentation above all. Any unsettling feelings I might have as towards the second act and the set up for the final battle melt away in the sight of Castle Rend’s detailed map and the thrilling climax that is sure to make players feel important. Props to James J Haeck for working on this segment and further praise to Colville for managing to create a generic version of his lore and setting to easily apply to this small module. Seriously though, when are we getting a setting guide?

Appendices

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The Thrones, one of the Servitors whose stats rest in the appendices. Image used from Strongholds and Streaming Kickstarter page and is property of MCDM productions.

Just when you think the PDF of Stronghold and Followers is over, even more content jumps out at you, like a goblin sneaking behind you in a cave. All of the Servitor creatures unique to the Temple stronghold are listed here: a whole host of new Celestials, Fiends, Elementals and Fey for the players to fight and or command. On top of that, there are the Gem-Stone Dragons, a welcome addition to the D&D pantheon that I hope most fans pick up, even if they leave the other details from this supplement well enough alone. Psionic dragons are just plain cool, but psionic dragons made of actual gem-stone might just be cooler. Not even getting into the Inexorables, there are a whole hosts of stats here coupled with more well-written fiction from Colville that completely boggles the mind. When I first backed Strongholds and Followers, I didn’t expect to receive a mini bestiary with my purchase. Reading through the sheer mass of stats hammered home in my head just how much work had done on the book. It was the moment when I again realised how much content was in this module and how excited I was to run all these monsters. I’m not sure how a lot of the monsters break down yet sadly, but the fact that I’m eager to try all of them marks this segment as a ultimate success in my mind.

 

Speaking of ultimate success, now feels like a good chance to talk about the beautiful artwork. There’s little more to say except that it is all gorgeous. Words cannot do this work justice. Justin Cherry, Nick De Spain, Jason Hasenauer, Zachery Madere, Steven Oakley, Anthony Sixto and VOLTA, give yourself all a massive pat on the backs.

Warfare

And even now, I’m still not done talking about how much this book has to offer. As well as the strongholds and followers that the book is named after featuring heavily, another mechanic introduced to 5e through this supplement is Colville’s Warfare rules. Since my first campaign, I have been trying to find a way to convincingly run epic scale battles and, finally, this supplement has provided not only a solid system for doing so, but an infinitely simple one that should appeal to most players. Coupled with this introduction to the warfare system, there is even a set of customisation options included, encouraging players to make their own units and a set of even simpler rules, should the game become too bogged down in the minutia of war. At this point, this system and the codices beyond it are simple icing on the cake. They are solid mechanics and additions to items in their own right, but also serve to confirm the main fact that’s been lingering in my mind whilst writing this review.

Strongholds and Followers really is a book that does have something for everyone.

The supplement markets itself as an introduction for building strongholds, recruiting followers and running battles. That is true but, even if you find out such a system isn’t worth it for you, there are still a whole host of worthwhile elements within this PDF that you might not expect: monster stats, magic items and a challenging adventure module. Whilst I’m not saying that you should buy the PDF if you’re not interested in the main pitch of the product, I do encourage you to at least investigate further and see if this supplement is worth your time because, honestly, I think it is something that ever player and DM could benefit by having in their repertoire.

Conclusion

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The beautiful cover to MCDM’s excellent D&D 5e Supplement. Image used from Strongholds and Streaming Kickstarter page and is property of MCDM productions.

Strongholds and Followers is, simply put, an enjoyable and well-crafted edition to the D&D 5E system. It’s framework is detailed and yet leaves room for further development, encouraging new DMs to experiment with the established rules and play the game their own way. It’s a well-written, exceptionally crafted piece of work that oozes a clear passion for the subject matter and reflects the credibility of a new and highly capable team dedicated to bringing excellent content to its supporters. Any flaws I have listed can’t detract from the simple herculean feat that this book is. Strongholds and Followers receives a hearty recommendation from myself. True, the stronghold mechanics might need retooling for some DMs for how madly overpowered it can seem and the warfare system might not be something that every player might enjoy, but there is so much extra content to justify any purchase of this supplement for me.

A quick personal message before we end: Matthew Colville was one of the main reasons I first started writing this blog. Seeing him talk so passionately about films and D&D made me want to do the same and though I lacked the confidence, aesthetic appeal and experience to make videos, I decided to dive straight into writing a blog again. Working on this review I reminded myself of how his videos inspired so much to try and share my own thoughts and experiences and build my own form of a writing portfolio and a writing identity online. True, it’s not a lot now but looking at Stronghold and Followers and how successful it is, I can’t help but feel inspired again, to push myself more and to test the limits of my written word. Maybe one day, I’ll have amassed the skill and writing experience to make something similar.

For now, Matt, if you are reading this, thank you so much and well done to everyone at MCDM. You should be proud of yourselves for such an excellent product, as I am proud to be one of its backers.

The PDF for Stronghold and Followers and a physical copy of the book can be purchased here and comes highly recommended from myself: https://shop.mcdmproductions.com/.

For further news from MCDM production, here is there website: https://www.mcdmproductions.com/. 

Thank you for reading this review and I hope you enjoyed. Please leave a comment, constructive criticism is always welcome.

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