D&D5 Review: Southland Heroes

Edit: Since the publication of this review, the offending aasimar and lizardfolk text has been removed. This leaves the aasimar entry shorter but workable but means the lizardfolk subclass is incomplete. No text was added other other changes made. So, this book is no longer has legal issues (to my knowledge) but its overall quality was not improved.

Second Edit: It’s been updated again. Changes I’ve noticed:
The aasimar had it’s lore increased (restoring the original pagination). More lore is always good, so this is a nice plus.
The minotaur Charge trait and tosculi Glide trait were rewritten and are much tighter improving the races. The arrangement of the minotaurs racial traits has been corrected.
The lizard archetype has been completely revised ,and while not great, it feels much improved.
The bookmarks are fixed (they might have been fixed last time but I honestly forgot to check)
Usage of square brackets “[” rather than parenthesis “(” in the backgrounds has been removed.
The Gygaxian rant on animal companions being “more than a weapon” was moved to a sidebar, which works so much better.

 

Kobold Press is a 3rd Party publishers, also known as Open Design and responsible for the defunct Kobold Quarterly magazine. They’re a non-monoGamist publisher that used to release content for 4th Edition and Pathfinder and was hired to do the premier 5th Edition storyline adventures Tyranny of Dragons. They also have their own campaign setting, Midgard, which includes a region known as the “Southlands”. Connecting the Southlands and 5th Edition D&D is the new book, Southland Heroes.

Photo 2015-07-31, 12 27 21 PMWhat Is It

A PDF-only product, it is written for the “5th edition of the world’s first roleplaying game”. Like Necromancer Games’ 5e offerings, this was written under the 3rd Edition Open Game Licence,, but is for 5th Edition.

The PDF is 26 pages and is full colour, with a fair amount of high quality art. The book is not a full conversion of the campaignsome setting, just a small infusion of crunch for players.

The PDF features 6 new player races: aasimar, gnoll, lizardfolk, minotair, tosculi (bug people), and werelion. There are also 7 new backgrounds: child of divine, temple slave, siwali traveler, desert runner, with three variant soldiers that are pretty much full backgrounds. There is also a rogue subclass, a sorcerer subclass, and three variant subclasses: two druid and one ranger.

The Good

The production is excellent. The page background is clean and inoffensive, and doesn’t detract from the text, and has a papyrus/egyption feel that matches the Southlands.

Several of the races are decent. The gnoll and lizardfolk are well designed and seem reasonably balanced, and are easy to include in any campaign. While more niche, the tosculi insect folk are also well balanced, but have an ability to fly/glide that some Dungeon Masters may be wary of. The werelions are a little on the funky side and I would need to see them in play to decide if they were balanced, but I want to believe they are. Close enough anyway.

The minotaur somewhat copies the playtest minotaur from the Unearthed Arcana article Waterborne Adventures, repeating Labyrinthine Recall. As I liked that minotaur, I approve. However, its ability scores are more in line with other PC races and the damage of its horns seems more balanced, which makes those aspects a distinct improvement.Photo 2015-07-31, 12 28 46 PM

All of the backgrounds seem excellent. The Child of the Divine is pretty specific and has a non-standard language as its choice, but the rest are campaign neutral, while still at home in the Southlands. This is a tricky feat to pull off, so kudos to the designer. The three soldier variants are not presented like the other variant backgrounds in the Player’s Handbook, but are full backgrounds, complete with personality traits. Uneeded, but I’m not going to complain.

The language of the races is often in line with the Player’s Handbook. Unlike Fifth Edition Foes, it goes for 5e terms like “advantage” and “proficiency bonus”. This makes it easier to use at your game without needed to “convert” the language. However, I’m unsure of the legality of this, as Necromancer Games used “tactical advantage” for a reason. But, at the risk of sounding insensitive, this isn’t my problem so I’m counting it as a plus.

The Bad

I’ll begin with the nitpicky. There’s some odd editing in background section. On page 15, one of the temple slave ideals is missing an alignment. Also, the punctuation around the alignments varies between parentheses “( and )” and brackets “[ and ]”. Oh, and the PDF bookmarks for the background section are not properly grouped under the chapter header. I did say nitpicky.

The werelion gets three times the flavour of the other races for no good reason. It’s good flavour and I approve, but I’d have rather seen all the races get that or all the races get the same. It’s odd, especially since the races that arguably needs the most advice and background lore is the tosculi, being unlike any other race.

The gnoll doesn’t try and emulate the rampage ability of the gnoll from the Monster Manual. A case could be made that this is a “Southland gnoll” and distinct from regular gnolls. It’s a small complaint as monsters use different rules and doesn’t really impact the quality of the gnoll.

The minotaur’s Charge feature is somewhat of a mess. It refers to “gore attack” and “charging gore”, which does not really exist. If the target is a creature you can shove it back, implying a charging minotaur can only move people but not tables, thrones, or other solid objects.

The arrangement of the minotaur’s racial features is also disorganized, with darkvision and its natural attacks in the wrong place. The minotaur also has has a “Backgrounds” entry in its racial write-up for no good reason.

The tosculi flight ability is interesting (and more limited than the aarakocra’s)  but has an odd rule quirk. “If you have not landed at the end of any turn in which you use your fly speed, you must have descended at least one-quarter of the distance you traveled or you fall 40 feet, taking damage normally if you hit the ground.” So… they fall 40 feet even if they were 30 feet or 50 feet from the ground?

Subraces are not always handled like 5th Edition subraces. The aasimar, lizardfolk, tosculi are treated more like Pathfinder’s variant races, with base abilities swapped out for alternate features, allowing you to mix-and-match racial powers. This can work, but doesn’t match the design of the ruleset, so I consider it a flaw, despite not necessarily being broken.

The class options are hidden in the racial entries, rather than being given their own section. They’re not even called out in the table of contents. The ambush predator rogue subclass is in lizardfolk entry, the lycanthropic sorcerous origin is in the werelion, and three class variants are in the tosculi section. This is not unlike how class-based archetypes were handled in Pathfinder’s Advanced Race Guide. The rogue subclass is anemic, repeating the thief subclass’ 9th level and 17th level feature, while the 13th level feature overlaps with the Skulker feat (and works on the presumption that taking any action while hidden reveals your location). It’s pretty terrible. Especially since the tosculi entry varies subclasses, so there’s no reason the lizardfolk entry couldn’t have done the exact same thing for the thief subclass.

The Ugly

Photo 2015-07-31, 12 28 13 PMThe biggest strike against the book is the aasimar. Not that it’s bad, the entry is right out of the racial example found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Like, word-for-word. This is fine as it matches, but it is full on plagiarism. Without an OGL permitting direct copying, this is a pretty damn massive problem. If you’re interested in this book, get it now before the WotC lawyers notice.

The background section begins with an explanation of what backgrounds are and what mechanical elements they include. If someone is buying a 3rd Party 5th Edition book, I think they’re likely to know what a background is and don’t need a lesson, let alone a full third of a page.

The race entries have very, very limited flavour compared to the 5e race standard. I adore the extra attention 5th Edition put into the fluff of its classes, races, and monsters and I’m always super disappointed when a 3rd Party releases a product that only updates the crunch and doesn’t put the extra effort of writing flavour.

The formatting of the book also feels more Pathfinder than 5e. Not just the lack of ink splots behind the art, but the formatting of the racial text: the first line in the rules sections is not indented and instead all the following lines being inset slightly. If you squint or replaced all the non-headers with Lorem Ipsum you’d swear this was a Pathfinder book.

The book also contains a one-column “rant” on the beastmaster ranger, on DMing and making the beastmaster’s pet more of an NPC and enabling non-combat usage. Appropriateness aside, it should have been separated as a sidebar. It’s really jarring.

The Awesome

I want to repeat how excellent the artwork is. It’s very high quality. I imagine it’s recycled from other Midgard/Southland products, but that’s irrelevant since the quality is there.

The gnoll Bully ability is solid and super flavourful for gnolls. I like the inclusion of a slight disadvantage in non-standard PC races.

As mentioned above, the tosculi race entry includes three variant subclasses. These are not new but modify the ranger and druid. It’s a very Pathfinder idea, but it works in this situation as tosculi have a bond with insectoid life, and not other beasts. It would be awkward to have a tosculi ranger with a badger, and it’s more efficient than making three new subclasses that only apply to the one race. And it would probably work for non-tosculi vermin druids as well.

The werelion entry has the lycanthropic sorerous origin, which is pretty rocking. I’m not sure why being descended from a werebeast made you a sorcerer or gives you magical powers, but it’s pretty darn cool and seems balanced. More sorcerer love is always appreciated.

Final Thoughts

I wanted to like this product. Most 3rd Party Products that have dipped their toe into the 5th Edition pool are adventures with a few campaign settings and books of spells and monsters. There haven’t been a lot of new classes, subclasses, and races. With limited crunch coming from WotC, this a void I’d really like to see filled. Especially by an established publisher that could be used as a template for how to release the content under the OGL for smaller publishers and fans.

Southland Heroes isn’t a bad book, but it’s not the book I wanted. How safe the product is under the OGL is questionable and it commits the sin of directly copy text from a non-SRD sources, and uses terms right from the 5e rules.

Aside from that gripe, the content is uneven and not always the best example of designing content for 5th Edition. There’s a “new” subclass that offers nothing new, races designed in the Pathfinder style, and poorly phrased mechanics. Given how much Kobold Press disappointed 5e fans with Tyranny of Dragons, this is NOT the follow-up 5e product they needed to release.

If you really want a gnoll race, a new sorcerer bloodline, crave new backgrounds, and want a good template for a lycanthropic race then this PDF *might* be worth the $5. But it’s a steep price for those scant pages of content.

 

Shameless Plug

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If you liked this review, you can support me and encourage future reviews. My book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding, is available for purchase. The electronic copy is available on Kindle, and DriveThurRPG. The PoD copy is available on Createspace and Amazon. Purchases from DriveThru especially allow me to purchase new PDFs for review purposes.

The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, and all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded. The final book features almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.