Review: Midgard Heroes Handbook

Kobold Press, the midsized RPG publisher, is famous for several things: crowdsourcing before it was cool, a fascination with Kobolds, being run by a guy legitimately named “Wolfgang”, and their campaign setting of “Midgard.” (Which has lots of kobolds. Because of course it does.)

The Midgard setting was originally created as a city to serve as a backdrop for adventures being published by the company (then known as “Open Design”), which soon expanded from a city into a region that grew into a subcontinent that became a world. Midgard is heavily inspired by Norse Mythology but has a wealth of other inspirations, both real and fantastic.

A version of the setting was originally compiled for Pathfinder in 2012, but in early 2017 Kobold Press Kickstarted an update of this campaign setting, raising funds for an expanded and updated campaign book along with PC focused accessories: one for Pathfinder (The Midgard Player’s Guide) and one for 5th Edition D&D.

This review focuses on the latter, the player splatbook Midgard Heroes Handbook for 5e.
(A blog reviewing the Worldbook will come later, when I’ve had more time to digest that massive freakin’ book.)

What It Is

The book is a 211-page hardcover with full colour art and coloured page backgrounds, and also available as a PDF on the Kobold Press site.

Included in the book are eleven new races (bearfolk, centaur, dhampir, gearforged, gnoll, Midgard kobold, minotaur, ratfolk, ravenfolk, shadow fey, and trollkin). Also included is the winter folk halfling subrace and a variant ethnicity for humans. The book has a wealth of new subclasses (1 barbarian path, 2 bard colleges, 17 cleric domains, 1 druid circle, 6 fighter archetypes, 2 paladin oaths, 2 ranger conclaves, 3 rogue archetypes, 2 sorcerer bloodlines, 3 warlock pacts, and 11 wizard traditions). In total, there’s a staggering fifty new player options!

The book also includes 16 feats, 19 backgrounds, and weapon combat styles. There’s several new spellcasting rules and variant forms of magic (including ring magic, key lines, and runes) and well over a couple hundred new spells.

Heroes Handbook is a giant book of crunch. It’s basically what would have been considered a “Players Handbook 2” in earlier editions.

The Good

After the Kickstarter, the content of the book was divvied up and released to backers of the Kickstarter for playtesting, concept testing, and general review. A lot of the more problematic or egregious mechanics were quickly caught, leaving this product fairly well balanced. There are a few warts here and there, but in general the balance of 5e leans to “close enough” that nothing I saw in the book would break a game. I’ve seen more egregious elements in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.

Several of the archetypes seem surprisingly generic for a book ostensibly aimed at being a guide to a particular setting. To call out a few, there’s the the shieldbearer fighter, duelist and whisper rogues, elementalist wizard, shadow and genie bloodlines, and the great machine and light eater pacts. All could easily fit into the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, or even Greyhawk with minimal work. And several of the new clerical domains also have a generic feel, such as the apocalypse, darkness, dragon, hunting, justice, prophecy, and travel. There’s a lot of gaps filled in this book, making it useful to players in a homebrewed campaign setting or even running through one of the published adventures set in the Realms.

Even a few of the races are generic. The Midgard kobold is a nice alternative for someone not wanting to use the version in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and absence of the gnoll in that book was frequently commented on. The gearforged will do nicely until an official warforged can be released. And quite a few settings make use of minotaurs, such as Dragonlance. And more esoteric races like the dhampir, shadowfey, and trollkin wouldn’t be too hard to work into a setting. The ratfolk and bearfolk are more of an exception, but they’re both pretty cool. I’m surprised I never realized how much I dug the idea of a humanoid bear person.

Early in the book is a sizable table with the random ages, heights, and weights of the various species covered in the book. Very often this is forgotten, so kodos for Kobold Press for remembering!
The table of contents is fully hyperlinked. Handy.

At the start of the “Divine Characters” chapter, there’s a table with a brief summary of gods. This is a big chart that quickly tells you who worships which gods and their primary domain. This is always handy for clerics (and paladins).

The Bad

There’s no index. Sadness. But, as there’s a solid table of contents, which covers pretty much all the bits you’ll want to find, so this is an exceedingly trivial complaint.

While the book is a lovely source of player crunch for Midgard, it doesn’t function very well as a player’s guide to the setting. For example, while a chart for the gods is included, there’s no details and expansion of the gods and their churches.

I’m not sold on the arrangement of the classes. The book divides the classes into “Martial and Roguish”, “Divine” and “Arcane”. It works, but it feels odd that the classes aren’t alphabetical. And someone looking for the bard might end up looking in the wrong section (they’re roguish not arcane) or wonder where the “rune magic” is located. This formatting also places various side elements, such as magical options and new weapons, in the relevant class sections.

Several of the subclasses are a little more complex and fiddly than some players might be used to. These are not always “newbie” classes. I’m not always convinced the payoff of the subclass is worth the added complexity. But for someone who wants a rogue with some more moving parts then the Duelist might appeal to them.

The book is missing some character. As much as I disliked Xanathar’s meta jokes and modern commentary in Xanathar’s Guide to Monsters, having in-character sidebars makes for a more enjoyable read. This book could use a little more in-world touches and personality.

The big problem with this book is that it’s reprinting a lot of content previously put out by Kobold Press. If you’ve already purchased several of the racial PDFs, like Unlikely Heroes, then seven of the nine presented races are reprinted. Several options for the Deep Magic series of PDFs have been partially or almost completely reprinted. And a large percentage of the Beyond Damage Dice PDF has been copied as well. (But if you haven’t purchased those products, or don’t have hard copies, then this probably isn’t a big issue.)

There’s a fair amount of recycled art, which is shared with the Worldbook. And the aforementioned PDFs. This isn’t unusually with smaller publishers, as good art is expensive. What art is in the book tends to be the generic quarter-page figure shots with larger half-page scenes at the start of chapters. There’s few pictures of gear or locations. And the pages don’t have little artistic flourishes, like items or bloodstains or inkblots (or the national crests that fill the Worldbook). This is especially noteworthy in the magic section with its many pages of straight text.

The Ugly

The absence of a map at the beginning is problematic. There little bits of world lore slipped here and there, but there’s no context for what is where or the scale.

(There is a lovely minimalist map in the ley line section on page 129, but this might not be the first place you check, and a lot of the detail is covered by the red ley lines; I’d love if the book had a cleaner version of this as a map the players/DM could print and cover in notes.)

There’s a heading for “Elemental Magic Feats” but none exist. Instead it goes to “Negotiator”. Similarly, a few feats in the “Dragon Magic” heading are only tangentially related to dragons (specifically Fortifying Healing and Unthreatening).

I’m still not a fan of how the trollkin is designed. It can use a bonus action to spend Hit Dice. I dislike this design. How fast you can spend Hit Dice is meant to be variable so you can have faster or slower healing (heroic games or gritty realistic games). Plus, being able to spend HD in combat doesn’t increase your overall health or extend your adventuring day. The trollkin doesn’t end up feeling like it heals more.

The feats section in general feels pretty anemic and heavily focused on magic.

There’s an uneven number of options in the book. Before this, the cleric was already well served, while the barbarian, bard, and druid had few options. After this book, the barbarian, bard, and druid are still under supported.

The Awesome

The book starts with brief explanation of the setting, and there’s a little description of how each race fits into the world. So this serves as a player’s guide to Midgard. (Except, sadly, certain PC races aren’t mentioned, like dragonborn, tieflings, and half-orcs.)

The Martial chapter includes variant options for using weapon, effectively giving fighters different abilities based on what weapon they’re currently wielding. This is pretty darn awesome. It *might* make said characters a little more powerful by giving them more options to use each round, but the effects in play should be minor.

There’s a lot of awesome subclasses that just bring me joy. The Vampire Slayer ranger is probably a little too focused to be a “good” subclass, but dammit I love the idea. (It’s also not *really* a full subclass being a variation of the Hunter, adding more options to that subclass.) And the Beer domain just lends itself to fun character concepts. Who doesn’t want to play a high cleric of hooch? (Or the priest of the oh God of Hangovers?) The bardic College of Entropy is luck stealers. That’s cool. The Clanking Mercenary option for fighters are effectively gearforged cyborgs, which is messed up but fun. Half-warforged. And, lastly, the Ghost Knight fighter is a dash of Ghost Rider (or the Headless Horseman), which is enjoyable.

The haunted villager, miner, and prophet backgrounds are fun and should fit most worlds. The rest of the backgrounds are much more world specific, which is an excellent way of making your character fit the setting.

There’s not many new monsters in the book, but there are some variant horses for famous breeds in the world with neat new traits. I like the idea of being able to “reward” a player with a unique horse. Similarly, there are mounts for kobolds, which would also serve as faithful steeds for other Small sized PCs.

Final Thoughts

A lot of gamers have been anxious for more character options for 5th Edition, with the official releases just whetting the appetite. Even Xanathar’s Guide to Everything barely quenched the continual desire for splat. The Heroes Handbook should help alleviate that, providing a wealth of balanced options for the game. A couple year back, when I was looking at the couple racial PDFs from Kobold Press and wishing they’d do more rules options… well, they delivered what I was hoping and more. Oh so much more.

This book isn’t perfect and there are some small quirks and imperfect rules. A few bits of awkward design. But it’s close enough and nothing should break your game. And if anything proves to be a tad imbalanced, it should be easy enough to tweak at the table.

This is simply a must have book for any 5th Edition table. (Excluding those running Adventurer’s League.) It’s great if you’re running Midgard, but there’s also more than enough to make it a solid purchase for games using other setting. And, for DMs, the options here can enrich your world with new people and factions. You might buy it and decide to add ley lines to your world. Or gearforged and related cyborg mercenaries.
Or a god of alcoholic drink. Because every setting with an adventurers needs a deity of beer and spirits.

 

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