Strongholds and Followers Review

The Fifth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons represented a return to form in many ways over the Fourth, and the merits of that from a rules perspective can be debated. What is not debatable, though, is that the closed-off approach to third-party material which Wizards of the Coast used in response to the d20 debacle of the 2000s went too far, and the return of the Open Gaming License for Fifth Edition is a good thing. Coming out of 2018, the largest tabletop RPG Kickstarter in terms of money raised was one of these third-party products, a supplement called Strongholds and Followers. Strongholds and Followers is the brainchild of Matt Colville, a designer with over two decades of experience in both the tabletop and digital realms. Strongholds and Followers is exactly what it says on the tin: rules for creating Strongholds and having Followers in your Fifth Edition D&D game. Colville’s rules are detailed and comprehensive, but the book harbors no illusions that, when implemented, the expansions from Strongholds and Followers will completely alter the power level of your game. There’s also more coming from Colville, a fact which can’t help but make its way into the book’s presentation and design.

Strongholds and Followers consists of two major new rules blocks, the eponymous Strongholds and Followers. In addition to these new rules are a demo adventure, some new monsters, and an updated mass combat system which, in addition to tweaking and supplementing the system from Unearthed Arcana, also serves as a preview for Colville’s next book, Kingdoms and Warfare. While the book clocks in at around 260 pages, the title material only forms the first 100. I wouldn’t necessarily say the other material is filler (the adventure in particular is quite comprehensive), but if the mass combat rules are to be reprinted in the next book it does make me question the logic of the length somewhat. Fortunately the core material is strong, enough so that I will be acquiring the next book in the series.

Strongholds in this book are divided into four core types, with slightly different functionality. The Keep is primarily geared toward raising a standing army, The Tower is geared towards researching and learning spells, The Temple is geared towards communing with the divine, and The Establishment is geared towards illicit commerce and secrets. There are rules for combining stronghold types into a Castle, as well as class-specific abilities which characters gain from having a stronghold. Interestingly, only one character gains a benefit from a given stronghold at a time…meaning that, unless your party is building a particularly complicated castle, there is no incentive (and perhaps a disincentive) to have a stronghold be your party’s “home base”. While the book mentions (correctly) that many groups will have diverging opinions about whether or not they want a home base, the fact is that creating the party’s home will either require a very expensive stronghold or a willingness to share the benefits. It’s balanced, and it’s logical, but it’s likely not what players of earlier editions of D&D with stronghold building supplements were imagining.

The Followers rules cover a range of possible followers, which lend several new sets of rules to the game: The units rules got some overview in the Strongholds section, and are the building blocks of a standing army. The retainer rules are for more traditional ‘followers’ as would be understood by veterans of both digital and analog RPGs; retainers are NPCs which supplement your abilities with their own versions of class abilities. The rules around retainers are relatively simple, but the section gives you stat blocks for one or two retainer types per PC class, and goes into a variant health system called ‘Health Levels’ which I quite like. Retainers have Health Levels instead of HP. Each attack that succeeds forces the Retainer to make a saving throw; DC is the damage of the attack. If they succeed, nothing happens. If they fail, they lose a health level. Lose every health level and the Retainer is dying as per normal rules. This rule tends to make the character a lot tougher, which is intentional; retainers are lower level than the PCs who attract them, but should be able to accompany them without facing certain death.

The next type of follower is the Artisan. Artisans grant benefits which either improve the character who owns the Stronghold, or the Stronghold itself. These vary widely, from the blacksmith who helps you craft items and the carpenter who helps you build siege engines, to the farmer who attracts a market and begins turning your stronghold into a more full-fledged village. In addition to these basic descriptors, in the Artisans section are rules for harvesting organs off of monsters. This may seem weird, until you see that several of the Artisans are able to craft specific magic items using these rules. It’s a neat expansion, though like many of the other rules it grants characters a whole lot of power. The last section of the Followers chapter covers Allies and Ambassadors. These are different ways to get new units for your standing army; Allies are powerful creatures interested in helping you, while Ambassadors are sent from nearby kingdoms to help you.

At the end of these supplementary rules, it’s somewhat clear that the groundwork being laid here is incomplete. This isn’t a surprise; Matt Colville is in the process of preparing a second Kickstarter for a second book, Kingdoms and Warfare. Kingdoms and Warfare is designed to cover more fully domain-based play, including kingdom management, diplomacy, and mass combat. Recognizing that the rules in Strongholds and Followers required it, Colville did include the complete mass combat system as an appendix to Strongholds and Followers. While it’s built on the scaffold of the Unearthed Arcana rules, this system goes into much more detail regarding battlefield maneuvers, unit types, morale, and other key concepts. Even with this inclusion, though, the book still feels somewhat incomplete. All the rules here are workable and usable (and fairly well done in my opinion), but it’s clear there are places which are left open. As an example, there are multiple places where spies and information networks come into play, but the rules for these are sketchy. The Establishment has a section for gathering intel, where “the DC is set by the DM” and the bonus is +1 per level of the Establishment. Now, further rules aren’t necessarily needed, per se, but knowing that there’s a book on the way with detailed organization rules…it kind of paints the picture of what’s going to happen in the second book. I don’t mean in any way to say Strongholds and Followers isn’t useful or usable. That said, seeing what’s on the horizon makes me understand the book better. This is one half of a domain-based play supplement, rather than a single book on building PC strongholds.

So how does this impact a D&D game? The biggest impact that integrating Strongholds and Followers will have on your game is that it’ll give your characters an easier way to spend their gold. To be fair, the rules for building a castle existed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but what Strongholds and Followers provides is a ‘why’. That ‘why’, though, comes with the consequence of upping the power level of the game, possibly significantly. A DM should be able to appreciate the balance implications of their characters being able to raise an army, but the class abilities which can be associated with strongholds are also quite potent and shouldn’t be ignored. While the book includes a set of powerful monsters, likely as an inspiration point for your newly powerful PCs, fighting other armies should be an obvious use case for your characters’ newly found power. And this brings us back around to the noticeable shadow cast by the upcoming book, Kingdoms and Warfare.

I enjoyed Strongholds and Followers, and found the rules expansions interesting and useful. That said, this really is one half of an empire-building supplement, not a spiritual sequel to something like the Stronghold Builder’s Guidebook from Third Edition. If you’re looking for specific rules around followers or buildings which provide character benefits, this book will definitely work. If you’re looking for something more complete, though, I’d suggest you wait. The rules here are clearly meant to work in a broader whole, and their breadth shows this. The Kingdoms and Warfare Kickstarter will be for the second half of this work, and I’m willing to bet that if you haven’t purchased Strongholds and Followers already, there will be a tier in the upcoming Kickstarter which will easily let you get both. That’s how you’re going to get the most mileage out of either supplement.

Strongholds and Followers is available at the MCDM Productions shop in PDF form, along with a pre-order for the hardcover. There’s also a sign-up for the Kingdoms and Warfare mailing list…and I’m just going to go ahead and say that if you’re interested in this book, that’s probably the way to go.

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