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Friday, 1 April 2011

Fortune On Open Design's Fifth

Let it be known that for whatever reasons, Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition is far from my favourite iteration of the classic fantasy roleplaying game. Which begs the question, what I am doing reviewing a book that is expressly written with that game system in mind when my target audience are not necessarily fans of that game either? The answer is simple. Soldiers of Fortune is from a publisher that I like – Open Design; which publishes a magazine that I like – Kobold Quarterly; which publishes supplements that I like, from the Zobeck Gazetteer: An Introduction to the Free City to Sunken Empires: Treasures and Terrors of the Deep; and because Open Design is celebrating its fifth birthday last week. So think of this, if you will, as a birthday present for all concerned at Open Design. A late birthday present I will admit, but a birthday present all of the very same.

Soldiers of Fortune is the latest sourcebook from Open Design, an examination of the mercenary and the sellsword, of the reasons that he fights, of the ways in which this can be introduced to a campaign, and of the ways in which his wars, battles, and campaigns can involve the player characters. Ostensibly, it is written for use with Open Design’s house setting of Midgard, which the publisher began describing with the Zobeck Gazetteer: An Introduction to the Free City, but much of the contents of Soldiers of Fortune applies to any fantasy medieval setting as much as it does to Midgard.

The book opens with a discussion of the most obvious question when it comes to war – why? The five reasons given – Conquest, Defence, Necessity, Patriotism, and Religion are not examined to any great depth, and nor need they be, since that will come with whatever flavour and detail that the DM wants to add. Each reason though is supported by a trio of adventure hooks, one for each of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition’s character tiers. There are also suggestions on how to run a multi-system campaign, for example, using Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battles to handle the broader combat whilst still using Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition for the character involvement.

As its title suggests, “Warfare in Midgard,” the second chapter is perhaps the most specific to Open Design’s home setting. It examines how each of the major races in Midgard approaches and handles warfare, so providing background material that works well with the five reasons for war mentioned above. The more generic part of the chapter provides three extended skill challenges – Besieged, Command the legion, and Defend the Kingdom, that each in their way map out a whole military campaign. Again, they require fleshing out with flavour and detail, but are easily adapted to other settings.

The third chapter, “Midgard Stratagems,” devotes itself to the most highly regarded treatise on strategy in Midgard, “The Midgard Stratagems.” Written by the near mythical heroic knight, Sir Yaran the Even-Handed, it lays out and discusses the seven edicts or principles of strategic warfare – the Calculations of War, The Challenge of War, Positioning, Engaging the Force, The Army on the March, Areas of Resistance, and The Five Situations of War. Heavily influenced by Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War, these pieces of advice are not really that specific to Midgard such is the aphorism-like nature of each. What this means is that they can easily be slipped into the setting of the DM’s choice. Now while the advice is good, it is almost a pity that the seven edicts were presented separately so that a player could have them for his character to read in-game independent of the rest of Soldiers of Fortune. Perhaps they could be made available as a download for that purpose. A nice touch is that each edict is supported with an associated background, representing a character’s mastery of said edict. For example, the associated background for the fifth edict, The Army on the March is “Field Medicine,” which grants bonuses that enable an army to march effectively without succumbing to the effects of terrain, weather, and disease.

Mechanically, mercenary characters are supported with just the single new Theme, that of Mercenary, but a host of new Feats; At-Will, Encounter, Daily, and Utility Powers of levels one through twenty-nine; and Paragon Paths. The Powers, some of which work with the use of siege engines, are drawn from a variety of sources, enabling Arcane, Divine, Martial, and other Powers to select them instead of the standards given for their associated classes. Which means that it is possible to build mercenary style characters that are not just Fighters, Paladins, and Rangers, but also Mages, Priests, Warlocks, and so on. This aspect is also carried into the four Paragon Paths. While “Soldier of Fortune” and “Veteran of War” are what more or less what you would expect, the author gives two other interesting Paragon Paths. The first is the “Sacrosanct Legionnaire,” which is for the mercenary who fights with the conviction of his faith, while the “Spellscourge Mercenary” actively hunts down spellcasters for coin and country. Certainly the latter lends itself to interesting possibilities away from the battlefield as the potential enemy of a player character spellcaster.

One issue that the author raises with these new options is that of party optimisation. The inference is that this an important aspect of the game and of the mercenary campaign, but none of these aspects, important or otherwise are really ever discussed. Except that is, in the author’s note that character optimisation should never come at the expense of character, and though good advice, seems at odds with his intent. We shall never know, for the matter is left un-discussed.

Every Dungeons & Dragons supplement has to have its selection of magical items of course, and fortunately, those in Soldiers of War are appropriate, well thought out, and amusing in places. Of the latter, the Deserter’s Boots stand out, preventing as they acts of cowardice by making harder to run away from battle. In fact, Soldiers of War contains few personal magical items, listing instead the Battle Standards carried by various forces in Midgard along with the abilities they grant to their units, as well as several common rituals and martial practices. The given Battle Standards can easily be adjusted to most fantasy settings, or at the very least serve as inspiration for both DM and players to create their own. In general, the rituals and practices, such as Forced March, Inspiring Speech, and Supplies Divination are more utilitarian than combative in nature.

To get a mercenary campaign started, Soldiers of Fortune includes a short battle scenario designed for five characters of seventh level. “The Battle of Sanguine-Crag Pass” is again nominally set in the world of Midgard, but is easily located elsewhere. The scenario opens with the player characters hired to take a mountain pass at all costs, and is presented not just as a series of encounter to be overcome, but also as a series of skill challenges that replicate the guidelines given earlier in the book. As with much of the rest of the book, this is another example that can be fitted to suit other campaigns and settings.

Rounding out Soldiers of Fortune is an extensive bestiary of “Monsters, Minions, and Templates.” The templates, such as Bold Commander, Inspiring Sergeant, Jittery Conscript, and Reckless Commander allow a DM to add detail and differentiate between the NPCs in his military campaign, whilst minion hordes get new powers for on the battlefield that avoids the DM having to roll for every single one. The new monsters range from the generic archetypes for the major races and mercenary types to be found in Midgard right up to Perun, God of War and Lightning! The last three entries – the ballista, the cannon, and the trebuchet – will invariably end up on the battlefield and tie into the feats and Powers given earlier.

Physically, Soldiers of Fortune is a nice looking book, though you getting the feeling that both the artwork and the cartography would have looked better had both been presented in colour. Although it needs an edit in places, the book is well written.

If Soldiers of Fortune has a problem, it lies in the balance between the generic content and that relevant to Midgard. The likelihood is that the reader is going to want more of either, if not both. So there is a certain lack of depth to the book for that reason, just as there is a certain lack depth in the book because the book never examines the place of the mercenary beyond the battlefield. It is almost as if they have no interior life. Neither problem as such is down to the author. The first comes of his remit from the publisher, as does the second, but the second also comes from the choice of game system which does not always lend itself towards play away from the skirmish style play mandated by the Encounters format.

Nevertheless, this is far from being a poor book. Soldiers of Fortune provides an excellent set of tools if the DM wants to run a more military orientated campaign in his Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition game and the book is full of details, large and small, that the DM can bring to his wars.