Review: Midgard Worldbook

RPG Publisher Kobold Press (née Open Design) is twelve years old, as is their campaign setting of Midgard. The campaign setting was created for 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons before elements of it were converted to 4th Edition then Pathfinder before being just recently updated to 5th Edition D&D.

The first full campaign setting book was released for Pathfinder back in 2012. Last year, Kobold Press Kickstarted an updated version of the book, revising the world for use with both 5e and Pathfinder. This is not just a reprint of the 2012 product, as it incorporates lore from the dozens of adventures published since that date, greatly expanding the world. A small portion of the Southlands hardcover  is also included, and the timeline of the world has advanced.

What It Is

The Midgard Worldbook is a 461-page full colour hardcover. Because it has the thick matte pages of other Kobold Products, the book is huge. Much, much thicker than the Player’s Handbook. This is not a book you want to be carrying to a game session in a backpack.

The vast majority of the book focuses on lore and the setting. The 40-page first chapter is an overview of the setting, and the next 292-pages are entirely focused on regions of the setting. Included are chapters on the following regions: Zobeck & Crossroads, Dark Kingdoms, Rothenian Plain, Dragon Empire, Southlands, Seven Cities, Wasted West, Grand Duchy of Dornig, Northlands, and the Shadow Realm.

The book also has a sizable chapter on various gods, a 36-page 5th Edition Appendix, and a 26-page Pathfinder Appendix. Both contain material deemed “GM material” opposed to the player focused products released separately. For 5e this includes antipaladin, oath of the giving grave, lust domain, serophage sorcerer origin, blood magic and void magic wizard traditions, some drugs, a few magic items, some variant magic rules, and a few spells. Pathfinder has the hunger domain, and alternate lust domain, a gnoll focused fighter and rogue archetypes, and void based archetypes for the wizard and occultist plus some feats, magic items, and spells.

An associated online tool is the interactive online map which is pretty darn slick.

What Midgard Is

It’s tricky to review a product like this. A review of Midgard Worldbook *should* focus on the presentation: how well the product presents the world, how it compares to prior campaign settings, and how usable it is as a setting book. Especially as the appeal of the world is deeply subjective and one of personal tastes: I can’t easily classify a particular region or aspect of the setting as either “good” or “bad” let alone “ugly”, because what I find “ugly” someone else might find “awesome”. However, someone who dislikes the foundation and assumptions of the setting will likely be inherently displeased with this book regardless of how well it does or does not present the setting. So some discussion of the setting is necessary.

Midgard is your standard European fantasy setting with a twist. In this instance, the twist is fairly minor compared to other worlds: locales have a Northern & Eastern European feel rather than Western. As the name suggests, there is a distinct Norse tone to much of the world, with Loki, Thor, and Woden/ Odin being influential gods. There’s several real world analogues, especially to the north and south. And the folkloric character Baba Yaga is an important figure throughout much of the eastern lands. It’s also a much darker setting than other worlds, with some pretty grim themes running throughout the book. This is demonstrated with how the Romania analogue is overtly ruled by a kingdom of vampires. But it’s a moderate level of dark, and the setting isn’t universally bleak or as grimdark as, say, Midnight or Ravenloft, and PC heroes won’t necessarily live short, pointless lives.

That said, there’s a lot of unique elements that don’t align analogously to Europe, such as the Magocracy of Allain or the Wasted West where Lovecraftian Great Old Ones were used as nukes in a magical war. This makes the setting as a whole significantly less generic.

Midgard is a little more focused and less of a kitchen sink than other fantasy worlds (while still accommodating all of the races from the Player’s Handbook), but there is no shortage of humanoid races and places to tuck new people and options. But this is mostly due to its size: each region could function as their own micro-setting with very different styles of campaign. It’s a half-dozen small campaign settings that all fit together.

The Good

The book starts with seven key facts of the world. These are presented as “secrets” but I think a few of them might be somewhat known or rumoured. Presenting how a campaign setting is different (how it varies from the baseline assumptions of fantasy gaming) is a good way to start.

Following the introduction is a timeline and history of the world. While the timeline has advanced since the previous product, there is no “Realms shaking event” or major reworking of the world. Time has passed and several of the adventure hooks built into the setting have assumed to have occured. I appreciate a reluctance to “blow up” the world or otherwise overhaul large sections to “fix” perceived problems.

After the timeline is a summary of how the various player races fit into the world, with most being given a solid role. There’s not a lot of information against playing against type for some races (like non-Winter halflings or non-Cursed gnomes) but I imagine that’s intentional and part of the thematic aspects of the world.

Unsurprising for such a massive book, but there is a tonne or lore here. So much lore. Almost an overwhelming amount of lore, especially as so many pages are unbroken walls of text.

The book is organized in the least offensive way: by large regions. There’s no perfect way to organize a campaign setting. Alphabetical can work, but that gets lengthy with lots of small kingdoms and city-states, and often means associated kingdoms are seperated. It helps that several of the regions are used in-world, such as “the Crossroads”, making it feel less arbitrary. This method works better with settings divided into large fantasy kingdoms, like Greyhawk or Dragonlance. Each region is fairly easily identified. Mostly.

There’s a fair amount of art throughout the book. Less than one might wish for, but honestly more than I was expecting. (Art is expensive.) There’s a few recycled pieces from past Midgard books—especially the Heroes Handbook—but that’s to be expected. Each nation or kingdom is also given a crest: a little emblematic shield with the symbols of the nation. These are cool, and decorate the summarizing sidebars of each nation allowing quick details of that land to quickly stand out. It also adds some instant depth to the setting, emphasising each nation feels the need to formalize their iconography.

In addition to the summarizing sidebars, there are quite a few other sidebars in the book. Most detailing little notes, potentially describing magic in the area or the role of certain races or classes. Additionally, each region gets a sidebar describing adventuring in that region, giving the assumed tone of adventures as well as some hooks. There are great little additions that give you a quick and useful description of what the land is like and the type of stories you’re expected to be telling.  

I quite like the status rules included in the book. They’re fairly simple but a nice way to represent how well known the characters and an adventuring party are.

While the vast majority of the book concerns itself with the moral world, it does provide a description of the larger cosmology, with some descriptions of the planes. The Shadow Plane gets the most attention, being a full region with its own character. There’s some great stuff on the Plane of Shadows and those aspects would be pretty useful in many different campaigns. I plan on stealing some elements for my homebrew campaign setting.

(I also plan on stealing ley lines, which are a big part of Midgard. I’ve had ley lines in my world for years, but it’s nice to have rules and more details to be inspired by. I quite like how ley lines are important enough to warrant a place on the map.)

A note should be made about the map. The book comes with a gorgeous poster map that is included in the book as  a two-page spread. It’s a lovely naturalistic map with some great attention to detail. (If you plan on running Midgard, I would recommend just tucking away the poster map that comes with the book and getting the rolled version Because why not spoil yourself?

The Bad

I love the map. But there’s no separate map PDF included with the digital copy of the book. I like having a seperate file so I can just swap tabs while reading. And it’s useful when running to zoom in on regions and areas, or use for reference.

After the introduction the book jumps into a history followed by description of the races. There’s no introduction to the regions and places in the world, so newcomers have a place to start or idea of what might appeal to them. (Thankfully, this is in the player’s books. Look there.)

While having each region have its own chapter works most of the time, some of the smaller kingdoms are a little fuzzier in placement, possibly fitting into a couple different chapters—such as the Mageocracy of Allain, the isle of Kyprion. And finding specific cities in the book can be tricky at times. Often a keyword search through the PDF is the easiest method.

There’s an absence of NPC statblocks. In the national summaries, important NPCs are given a name, class, level, and alignment. But that’s not a lot to go on. And also means there’s no unique little traits or powers included.

There’s no index at the back of the book. The table of contents is pretty expansive, but a good index can direct you to particular NPCs or cities. And there’s no glossary either. While non-standard, I’ve always thought a glossary of world terms and locations would be nice.

The Ugly

The big complaint with the book is that it contains crunch for both Pathfinder and 5th Edition. Regardless of whom buys the book there’s 20+ pages of superfluous material.

Curiously, the gnoll caravan raider background is reprinted, being both here and in the Heroes Handbook. Odd… And a waste of precious page real estate.

It’s always interesting to look at total populations of species in a product like this, which gives full demographics for each region. It seems like there’s less than 6,000 hugin/ ravenfolk across Midgard. (A small number to be sure, but technically sustainable without genetic drift.) Medieval populations were pretty small, so the numbers in the book probably aren’t unreasonable, especially in the northern reaches. But damn does it feel sparsely populated…

The book describes how the various races fit into the setting but doesn’t do the same for classes. It’d be nice to know the place of sorcerers vs wizards, notable bardic colleges, or how monks work (if at all).

One thing I like to see explained in a book is where dungeons come from. It’s nice to have some common default explanation for who or what created the many myriad implausible dungeons and/or filled them with ancient magical items that can’t be easily replicated. The book hints at this in a couple places (especially in the Wasted West, which is pretty much “dungeonland”) but it’s not quite as firmly stated as I would like.

The Awesome

I adore that there’s a chart with travel times between locations. That’s fantastic, and something more campaign setting books should do. Idea stolen.

There’s also a list of famous mage colleges across the land, with descriptions. This is gold. I love this idea and it reinforces schools of magic are an important aspect of the world.

As someone who likes his dark worlds, I like the Blood Kingdom ruled by vampires. It has a fun Ravenloft/ Castlevania vibe. But I was surprised to enjoy the Empire of the Ghouls even more. Ghouls are intelligent undead but are often relegated to being mindless scavengers barely more than animals, which feels like a missed opportunity. The Empire somewhat brings ghouls back to their Lovecraftian roots.

I do love that the large island in the middle of the token central sea—the Crete analogue in the Mediteranean—is the heart of a minotaur society. That’s fun. Plus it associates minotaurs with navies, which is something I enjoy; sailor minotaurs are a big part of Dragonlance, which helped get me into D&D.

Oh, and in one of the sections there’s a page on acquiring a barony in Dornig. Additions like that are why I like having an “awesome” section in my reviews.

Final Thoughts

As a campaign setting, Midgard is a little awkward. It’s not quite thematic and distinct enough to completely different from other kitchen sink fantasy worlds. But neither is it generic enough for published adventures to be dropped in without modification or used without explanation. It’s a dark setting, but not so dark as to be bleak & morally grey enough to appeal to fans of grim-and-gritty worlds. It almost feels like a stepping stone between a generic heroic fantasy setting and other more distant worlds.

However, a middle ground world could have some strong appeal for people looking to move away from the Realms or Greyhawk (or even Golarion) but not ready to go “full Dark Sun” or entirely abandon the conventions of D&D. It’s not a world that only reluctantly uses the tropes of D&D, or remakes the game. In this regard, the setting is just right (like bear-made oatmeal); Midgard is a large world with room for many, many different campaigns, each with a distinct tone. It easily matches the Realms in baseline scope and variety, and far surpasses the Tal’dorei Campaign Setting in pretty much every metric. It’s also a solid world that feels internally consistent without random additions that feel tacked-on or even illogical placement of nations, cities, rivers, and the like.

In terms of presentation, the Midgard Worldbook falls a little short of the highest bar set by previous campaign settings. It’s not going to dislodge Ptolus from its long-held spot at the top of the ranking. And while it’s easier to navigate than the 3e Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, it lacks that book’s inclusion of key NPCs. But, in exchange, it’s more comprehensive and detailed than the FRCS and much less cookie-cutter. And there’s more than enough lore to run a campaign in every nation in the book. While you sometimes long for more, that’s a common complaint that would be hard to avoid even for a book twice the size of this one. The largest problem is the book itself: there’s so much information, reading through the book and parsing all its details is a daunting task. 

Having looked through quite a few campaign settings over the years, Midgard holds up fairly well in comparison. It’s a deep and engaging world that should more than satisfy Dungeon Masters looking for a campaign setting to make their own. It has enough generic regions that most published adventures can fit in the world with minimal modification. Meanwhile, a few hundred miles away, there are other lands wholly different in tone. A DM that gets bored with their current campaign can send their party to the north or south, dramatically changing the feel of the story without having to restart with new characters.

Anyone complaining about the absence of published campaign settings from Wizards of the Coast should look no further than this book. As should anyone who thinks WotC should publish a brand new setting. If either of the previous statements describes you, then this is the product you’ve been asking for. 

 

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