|December 10, 2012||Posted by Martin Ralya|
A bit less than a year ago I wrote about the patronage project for Open Design’s Midgard Campaign Setting, which has now been released by Kobold Press ($39.99 softcover + PDF). I was offered a review copy, and as a fan of Wolfgang’s work and a GM with a hearty appetite for fantasy campaign settings, I gladly accepted. Midgard already sounded like it would be my kind of setting book a year ago when I first heard about it, and it is.
Like most of my reviews (and most reviews in general, right?), this one contains spoilers. If you’re planning to play a Midgard campaign, you might want to steer clear.
What is it?
The back cover describes Midgard this way:
The Midgard Campaign Setting brings to life a world of dark fantasy drawn from the great European traditions. Within this book you’ll find ley lines and deep magic; the Western Waste’s giant, shambling horrors and magic-blasted landscapes; diabolical gnomes and the schemes of immortal Baba Yaga.
You’ll sail the wind with wild elves and cut through the waves with swashbuckling minotaur corsairs. Midgard is a land of the Mharoti Empire’s lethal assassins and exotic splendors as well as the empty, dragon-haunted crags of the icy Northlands.
Midgard is Wolfgang Baur’s home campaign, which he’s been working on since he was 14, consolidated and expanded and made accessible to anyone who’s interested in the setting. The book is gorgeous: 296 full-color pages with a layout that’s both reader-friendly and pretty to look at, plus fantastic artwork throughout. It’s a marquee release that looks like it was produced by a much larger company than Open Design — the production values are on par with Paizo Publishing’s best Pathfinder books. It also has a solid index, which a book like this absolutely needs, and the PDF is fully bookmarked.
Midgard is a Pathfinder- and AGE-compatible book, but only a small percentage of it is rules material. Pathfinder mechanics are sparsely scattered throughout (mechanical write-ups for races, a few pages of feats, etc.), and there’s a 14-page appendix presenting AGE material, but this is a setting book first and foremost, and one that’s easily used with any system and doubly so with any pre-4e version of D&D. Given Wolfgang’s experience as a game designer I’m confident that the mechanical stuff is sound, but it’s not what I’m here for — I’m here for the setting material.
What makes Midgard stand out?
This is a fair question to ask of any fantasy setting, since there isn’t exactly a shortage of them: Why is Setting X — Midgard, in this case — worth my attention? As someone who enjoys reading setting material my bar is pretty low if a book looks like a good read, but as an increasingly time-crunched GM with dwindling shelf space I want more than just an interesting read. I want a book I would actually use to run a game.
The fact that Midgard is personal for Wolfgang is a big plus for me. It means he loves it as a GM, and also loves it enough to risk a lot of money producing it this lavishly; that speaks well of its chances to be a good book. Ditto for the cover, which is one of the coolest covers I’ve ever seen on a gaming product: Apart from being stunning, it makes me want to know more. Is that Death, and if so can the mounted warrior see him? Are they having a conversation, which was my first impression (and an intriguing thought)? What’s with the demon-looking thing behind them, and why does the dog not seem bothered by any of this? All of those questions imply that an interesting world awaits within the book.
But the biggest thing that drew me into Midgard is wisely placed right after the introduction: a one-page primer entitled Seven Secrets of Midgard. If you can read these secrets and not want to play a game set in Midgard, you probably shouldn’t buy this book. I love, love, love them. Here they are:
- Midgard is flat. Literally flat, as in the world isn’t spherical. That immediately sets it apart as a world based on myth, not just a setting with a fantasy “skin” thrown over it.
- Ley lines and shadow roads make fast travel and great power believable in the context of the larger world. At higher levels of play, both of those things tend to be involved in games, but not every setting handles them well; I suspect Midgard will.
- Dragon rulers. Dragons in Midgard don’t just hide in caves and sleep on piles of gold, they ruthlessly rule and expand their kingdoms.
- Interesting races. In addition to fantasy staples, Midgard has raven-people and minotaurs, among other non-standard races, and they’re tucked away waiting to surprise your players, not front and center in every region.
- “Time Flies, and Status Matters.” Midgard features Status mechanics — easily drifted to other games — that give you accessible tools for advancing PCs in non-mechanical ways. The Time Flies optional rule, unfortunately, got cut from the book (errata happens). I tracked it down on the Kobold Press forums, straight from Wolfgang: “That rule is a house rule I use to assume that at least 1 month (and more often 1 season) passes between game sessions. Apparently it got cut but the reference to it did not.“
- The gods meddle in the affairs of mortals. Midgard’s approach here is more Greek mythology and Discworld than Forgotten Realms avatars walking the earth, which is a good thing.
- Nations in flux. The kingdoms of Midgard are written to encourage the GM to change them over time, not to let them remain static; worlds that change are interesting worlds.
As a GM, you can share some of those secrets with your players to build their interest in the world, which is handy. If I listened to a pitch for a Midgard game that mentioned the flat world, dragons ruling kingdoms, meddling gods, and baked-in status mechanics, I’d be asking when I could roll up a character.
What’s in it?
The Midgard Campaign Setting includes 10 chapters, three appendices, and an index. Chapter 1, Welcome to Midgard, is a succinct overview of the world and its European mythology based-flavor. Chapter 2, Heroes of Midgard, details the races and their associated Pathfinder mechanics. Chapters 3 through 9 each detail a major region of the world, from the Crossroads (Chapter 3, which includes the Free City of Zobeck) to the Northlands (Chapter 9). Those chapters are the meat of the book — 183 pages out of 296. More on them in a moment.
The last chapter, Pantheons, covers the gods of Midgard (more on this in a moment, too). Appendix 1 is the AGE conversion stuff, Appendix 2 provides encounter tables by region, and Appendix 3 highlights a few other products that offer more information about elements of Midgard.
The book takes a gazetteer approach to describing each region, and the regional chapters aren’t structurally identical. Instead, each one covers the most important stuff in that region, which varies depending on the character and nature of the region in question. They all include a regional map, though, and write-ups on the major nations and cultures.
Here’s a sample regional map:
Perhaps no region inspires more tales of terror across the face of Midgard than its ruined western reaches, a once-verdant land permanently ravaged by the Great Mage Wars. [...]
For centuries, tyrannical arcanists dueled over the ley lines under Midgard’s western lands. Tremendously powerful mages built and abandoned principalities as the fickle ley lines shifted, and the constant magical strife among the nine rival magocracies slowly drained the life from the land. Only the bones of these cities remain today, their tumbled stones and spires covering a ravaged landscape pockmarked by acrid lakes and stunted trees, a sour, magic-blasted land devoid of normal life. This is not the whole of the magocracies’ legacy, however.
Worst of the surviving relics are the colossal, unimaginable alien creatures summoned during the war’s desperate final years. They now slowly sleepwalk across the horizon, held outside of time by the spells that finally halted the wizards’ eldritch arms race.
Like Midgard being flat, that last bit is literal: The actual Great Old Ones, huge titan-like monstrosities, loom over the landscape here. It’s an utterly unique and alien land, and one I’d love to use as the foundation of a campaign.
It also highlights another thing I like setting books to do well, and which I love about this one: It’s drop-in friendly. I can snip this whole chapter out of the book and plop it into a homebrewed world by changing a few details. While the ravaged west is deeply connected to the history of Midgard, it’s simultaneously plug-and-play; that’s no mean feat.
Sticking with this region, the rest of the chapter offers up the following: descriptions of the Great Old Ones, a map of the wastelands, storms and landmarks of the wastes, and information about the dust goblins (a regional faction); write-ups of the Duchy of Bourgund (with demographic stats and highlights of the area), the Magocracy of Allain (including a map of and a detailed look at the city of Bemmea, plus lots of information about the nation and its highlights), the Barony of Trenorra, Barsella, and the island of Morphoi (including new spells).
Given the specific character of the western lands, what’s presented about each of them is what needed to be presented — which is a good thing. They’re full of surprises, they all sound interesting, and they all offer table-usage-friendly history to present to players as well as lots of hooks for adventure. The other regional chapters are the same: comprehensive, unique, and interesting.
Gods are tricky to present well in fantasy games. Deities & Demigods, while a classic, gets it mostly wrong in my opinion, providing unlikely-to-be-used stats, cool pictures, and not that much else; The Book of the Righteous, a fantastic product containing generic fantasy deities, gets it largely right but is intimidatingly lengthy. Midgard strikes a great balance, which is important given that the gods are billed as being more than just flavor in this setting.
Should you buy it?
Yes, you should buy this book.
I would put the Midgard Campaign Setting in the same league as my favorite fantasy setting products: the original Forgotten Realms boxed set, The Time of the Dragon boxed set, and the Pathfinder Campaign Setting. To put that in context, I regard the FR boxed set and Time of the Dragon as magical, foundational, formative products that have helped define me as a gamer. I haven’t had a chance to play in Golarion, the Pathfinder world, but reading that book gives me the same sense of wonder and excitement I get from Faerûn and Taladas. Midgard hits me the same way.
What I look for in a setting book, particularly a fantasy setting book, is something that inspires me to run a game there — a book that draws me into the world, presents setting material in a way that’s both useful and entertaining, and looks like it will shows its best qualities at the table. The Midgard Campaign Setting is all of those things, in spades, with extra magic gravy on top.
This is a superb book that I can recommend without qualification to any GM who likes well-realized, gazetteer-style fantasy settings.
If you have any questions about the Midgard Campaign Setting book, I’ll be happy to answer them as best I can in the comments.