Hello, everyone! Like I hinted before, I’m going to be changing my review process for larger books to make it a bit less daunting for me to write these reviews. For the next couple weeks(or at least until it’s done), I’ll be reviewing Kobold Press’s Midgard Heroes Handbook.
Heroes Handbook, released in March this year, was crowdfunded as part of the Midgard Campaign Setting Kickstarter in February 2017. This player-centric supplement features the playable races of Midgard, from the new ratfolk and ravenfolk to Midgard’s humans, dwarves, and elves, subclasses for almost every class, feats, backgrounds for the setting, new spellcasting rules, spells, and new equipment.
Interestingly, this book is the compilation of existing material from the Deep Magic series, so I’ll be repeating myself a little as I go through this book, and hopefully assessing what changed or stayed the same between the previous reviews and this one. If you’ve already read the Deep Magic series or kept up with Kobold Press’s other works, you’ll likely recognize a lot of the visuals from this book. This isn’t necessarily a negative to the book, but if you’re looking at it hoping for new fantasy art inspiration, you’re likely to be disappointed. Some of the art has been modified for its debut in print, but these changes have largely been for the better.
(I mean seriously, a dress that covers nothing but your ribs and hips?)
Editing-wise, the book keeps stylistic consistency throughout, with almost no typos, but from time to time the formatting leaves a little be desired, breaking grouped information across multiple page spreads or overcrowding important game information. With print or PDF copies, be prepared to flip back and forth when referring to subclass features.
Also unusual for the book is the distinct lack of Monk subclasses, which seems to have been an oversight when drafting the book rather than a deliberate decision to exclude one of the twelve core classes. The breakdown of subclasses is as follows:
Additionally, from time to time, the phrasing of subclass information is inconsistent(for instance, wizard subclasses are referred to as both “Schools” and “Arcane Traditions”).
The 15 races introduced in the setting are presented alphabetically. Though the book states that there are indeed major and minor races (by population count or prominence), it only does so as an aside at the beginning of the chapter – no distinction is made like the PHB’s division of major and minor races, making it difficult to note which races are uncommon without referring to this small descriptive text.
Bearfolk, as their name implies, are large bearlike humanoids whose culture revolves around a quiet sense of respect for their ancestors and overwhelming strength. They gain a strong unarmed strike from biting their foes, and a powerful natural armor. The two subraces are Grizzlehide, who can grapple a target as a bonus action, and Purifiers, who gain an extra druid cantrip and can add a d4 to any of its mental saves(Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma).
Centaurs, unlike the recent Unearthed Arcana release, are Large creatures with the standard humanoid torso and horse legs. These centaurs gain the ability to deal extra damage when charging with a pike, a much easier feat for them with a nimble 40 foot speed, and can make an unarmed attack with their hooves to deal 2d6 damage. Interestingly, it’s difficult to tell if this feature is incompatible with a monk’s martial arts feature or other extra attack features since the feature has unusual wording. My own interpretation of the text would lead me to believe that a centaur cannot make multiple hoof attacks in a turn, but see no evidence one way or the other.
Dhampirs, children of vampires and human mothers, boast darkvision within 60 feet and gain the ability to bite a grappled target as an unarmed strike, dealing a small amount of damage and allowing you to regain expended hit dice. By this point, you may have noticed that a lot of races in this supplement have alternative abilities for unarmed attacks. I’d attribute this to the fact that these races are from a consolidated body of work. While a single race with an enhanced unarmed attack can be interesting, having so many (coincidentally grouped when alphabetized) kind of highlights the popular mechanics that different designers at Kobold Press enjoy. A quick editing pass might have determined that these three races were working with the mechanical space and allowed the designers involved to develop new ideas off one another.
Gearforged are members of other races who have undergone a ritual transformation into mechanical humanoids. The soulforging ritual is incredibly expensive, but allows for a destroyed gearforged character to be brought back to life for significantly cheaper than other humanoids, at the cost of being unable to be resurrected or subject to raise dead.
Midgard’s gnolls gain a speed boost while disengaging from a fight and a slew of weapon proficiencies which you’ll likely already have from any class which would want them for combat. Oddly, the racial trait for weapon proficiency also offers you proficiency with a spear, a simple weapon which any character should already have. This decision seems to stem from a mental picture that the developers already have for a given race/class combo, and feels more limiting to not be playing how a designer intended the race to be used.
Kobolds in Midgard gain proficiency with artisans’ tools and a mitigated form of the standard Pack Tactics monster ability. Because of this ability, they’re well-suited to work as rogues or as wizards using their racial modifiers and abilities to protect themselves from close-quarters combat.
Minotaurs get natural weapons in the form of their horns and increased damage while charging with it, much like Centaurs without the speed boost or weapon proficiencies.
Ratfolk introduce a -2 penalty to their strength attribute(unprecedented in 5e), but otherwise out-Kobold the Kobolds of Midgard – they explicitly gain the Pack Tactics trait, as well as a swim speed, darkvision, and the ability to dart through Medium or larger creatures.
Ravenfolk are pretty much the Assassin rogue archetype given a race – they don’t have much mechanical nuance, gaining advantage to attack rolls against surprised creatures, proficiency in Deception and Stealth, and the standard mimicry ability for any bird-human hybrid. Their entry in the book is woefully short, and not much different from any other attempt at statting out a Kenku that you might find in your 5E library already.
The Shadow Fey, an enigmatic Fey native to Midgard, are a subrace of elves which largely mix the abilities of Eladrin, Drow, and High Elves into a single subrace with some Midgard-specific situational bonuses to learn about shadow roads and how they function.
The Trollkin get yet another natural weapon – fangs or claws – as well as the ability to expend hit dice during combat as a bonus action. Night Whisper Trollkin can gain advantage to an ability check or saving throw once per day, while Stonehide Trollkin gain a bonus to their AC.
Overall, the races presented in Midgard Heroes Handbook kind of step on each other’s toes thematically. Everyone and their cousin gets some form of natural attack, and several of them feel like they’re primarily designed with specific classes in mind. The culture write-ups presented for each race help to illustrate their various roles in the setting, but if you’re not playing in a Midgard game, these race options are likely not going to go over well at the gaming table without a compelling character to back up the choice.
Martial and Roguish Characters
The book is divided into chapters based on the “power source” of the various classes – Martial, Arcane, and Cleric Domains. While this would be a logical organization style for 4th edition, Midgard Heroes Handbook has to take some creative interpretations for what power sources rangers, druids, and paladins use. Since power sources and keywords are no longer a mechanic in 5E, this organization method doesn’t particularly effective.
The Martial and Roguish Characters chapter offers character options for barbarians, bards, fighters, paladins, rangers, and rogues.
Barbarians who follow the Path of the Ancestors gain the use of calm emotions and freedom of movement, as well as dealing additional psychic damage while raging. Honestly, the Path of the Ancestors and the Path of the Ancestral Guardian from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything fill roughly the same thematic niches. Your mileage may vary, but I’d be more inclined to use the Path of the Ancestral Guardian for an ancestor-worshipping barbarian as they use more thematically interesting mechanics, compared to spell effects with limited ties to ancestor worship.
The College of Entropy is an interesting bard who can use their Bardic Inspiration dice to penalize foes and get a later increase to their own attack rolls, using the ability to magically steal foes’ luck. At level 14, College of Entropy bards can also replace a known spell with anything of an equal or lower level from the bard spell list.
The Greenleaf College’s bards are bards who draw their powers from elven magic, gaining access to spells which would be normally associated with druids, and the ability to later use Bardic Inspiration to cure disease or conditions. Depending on the style of your GM, the 6th level feature for Greenleaf college bards might not seem particularly useful(though this is a good moment to plug my combat cartography articles, in which I discuss ways to improve your techniques for interesting combat maps and scenarios!).
The Clanking Mercenary fighter archetype gains the ability to upgrade armor with temporary buffs such as advantage on Constitution or Dexterity saving throws or adding your proficiency bonus to a damage roll. As they level up, the Clanking Mercenary can utilize this upgrade more times upon 7th and 15th levels, and later gains the ability to shrug off conditions and levels of exhaustion and upgrade multiple pieces of equipment. Overall, the Clanking Mercenary’s fluff could be repurposed fairly easily as a martial character oriented around improving their own equipment as a weaponsmith.
The Edjet archetype is a soldier from Midgard’s Dragon Empire, trained for formation fighting. While wielding a shield, they can use the two-handed damage dice of a versatile weapon and can chain uses of the Shove action to try and break enemies’ formations. Like the Clanking Mercenary, the Edget gains means of removing levels of exhaustion quickly. Later, the Edjet’s positioning becomes even more crucial, as they can impose advantage on Dexterity saving throws to avoid damage and shove creatures without sacrificing the opportunity to deal damage. The Edjet would be a well-suited archetype for just about any fighter with a history of tactical experience, and provides the straightforwardness of features to match the Champion and the tactical depth of the Battle Master, except dealing in less specific maneuvers.
The Ghost Knight gains a gaunt mount and can frighten creatures when moving 20 feet or more before attacking. As they continue to level up, they gain traits similar to other undead, beginning to eschew the need for food and drink and dealing necrotic damage on weapon attacks, and ultimately get the ability to move through objects and foes as though they were truly a ghost.
The Griffon Knight gains a companion griffon similarly to the Beastmaster ranger. It takes a much longer time to replace a fallen griffon, but its statistics should allow it to be more survival in head-on combat than a Beastmaster’s animal companion. Later on, the Griffon Knight learns aerial maneuvers which are named after their in-setting inventors. I’d recommend that GM’s allow this archetype with caution as it introduces fairly strong flight ability and can redefine the terms of just about any encounter.
The Shieldbearer uses a classic shield bash attack as an improvised weapon attack, later making the area around them more difficult to traverse. What really makes the Shieldbearer an interesting fighter archetype, though are its improved fighting styles, which offer passive bonuses based on the fighting styles you’ve selected previously.
The Sword-dancer archetype utilizes Charisma and light armor for their AC, making for a lighter, dual-wielding fighter. Their features encourage a fighter to move as often as possible, allowing them to avoid provoking attacks of opportunity, dealing extra damage after moving at least 10 feet, and reacting to taking damage within your melee reach with extra attacks. Overall the archetype feels like a fairly comfortable and safe one to include in just about any campaign.
The Oath of Radiance gives a paladin multiple features and spells tailored more towards the cleric spell list – features similar to turn undead, buffing spells, and a very potent aura which stacks with the base Aura of Protection. The oath isn’t a particularly thematically distinct one, but they instead seem to be a fairly tanky alternative form of cleric.
The Oath of Thunder paladin, interestingly, gains proficiency with stealth when they take the oath, which seems interesting but bizarre, as none of the tenets of the oath seem to relate to stealth. Upon further examination, the oath’s features are designed to encourage you to sneak up on foes and slay them in surprise rounds, which is incredibly interesting for a paladin oath, but doesn’t seem to mesh well with the storm theme.
The Vampire Slayer archetype for rangers gives a ranger some new options for the Slayer archetype. Overall they aren’t particularly impressive, ignoring resistance to nonmagical weapons’ damage, some new tactics which can be tailored to fighting ghouls, hags, vampires, and the like, and dealing extra damage through a vulnerable shot in melee.
The Zobecker Scout adds an urban flair to rangers – it adds “city” to your favored terrain as a ranger, and you can use your Primeval Awareness to find items or commodities. The Zobecker Scout also expands the ranger spell list, which is a huge boon for rangers who are inclined to cast. The Alchemical Talent feature allows the Zobecker Scout to make alchemical devices, ranging from a decently potent explosive to a poison gas bomb to additional damage types on weapon attacks. The alchemical devices present are an interesting change-up to the traditional rangers’ tactics, and overall the Zobecker Scout will find a lot of mileage in an urban setting such as the newly announced official Ravnica setting(In particular, the subclass seems well-suited as an Izzet goblin) or Eberron.
The Duelist archetype for rogues functions similarly to the Battle Master fighter or even 4e’s Warlord class. The Duelist can expend prowess to use techniques much like Superiority Dice on a Battle Master. These techniques are fairly careful to not quite step on the Battle Master’s toes, though, and doesn’t do much which affects creatures other than the Duelist and the enemies they’re fighting.
The Fixer Archetype allows a rogue to squirm around, avoiding foes who get too close for comfort, as well as several features revolving around finding or “legitimately acquiring” mundane equipment and making contacts or cover identities. The features provided by the archetype are either non-combat or purely defensive, so the archetype is not for the rogues looking to eke out more damage per round in a fight.
The Whisper Archetype gains a powerful 60-foot step in darkness utilizing shadow roads, as well as multiple features which allow you to become hidden or even invisible. As the archetype advances, the Whisper rogues learn the technique by which displacer beasts.. well.. displace. The ability is incredibly potent as it imposes disadvantage to attacks against the Whisper rogue, but GMs should note that this feature doesn’t protect a rogue from spells with saving throws.
Midgard Heroes Handbook also offers players unique maneuvers with a large number of weapons. These weapon maneuvers can redefine how a character’s tactics with a specific weapon are approached, using the minor weapon techniques introduced in Beyond Damage Dice to add another dimension to a character’s combat options. The techniques are mostly low-key alternatives to “roll to hit, deal damage, wait for your next turn,” but a GM could use them to make an NPC combatant memorable or encourage players to find more creative uses for their weapons.