Friday, February 18, 2011

DnD: Review - Soldiers of Fortune

There is something Matt James wants you to know: Being a mercenary does not make you a bad person. A fact he repeats often and emphatically in his new book Soldiers of Fortune. Despite the common stereotypes associated with soldiers for hire - that of unscrupulous, amoral cutthroats looking for easy money - this material encourages your PC's to dive into the often grim and gritty world of professional soldiers paid for their martial expertise and willingness to fight, and quite possibly die, for a cause not their own.

Written by Matt James and published by Kobold Quarterly
The supplement, written in the context of the Midgard campaign setting, is broadly divided into two parts: fluff and crunch. The fluff, comprised of the first three chapters of the book, starts off with a discussion about the reasons for war, the various Midgardian factions and alliances that often wage war upon one another, and strategies for successfully waging war. The last part of Chapter 2 being comprised of several skill challenges.

The second half, the crunch, occupies most of the book's 79 pages. Features in this section include new feats, powers and paths; magic items, rituals; and a slew* of new monsters and templates. Included in the crunch, but separate from the lists of new material is The Battle of Sanguine-Crag Pass, an adventure for five 7th-level characters.


As someone who grew up hearing a lot of military stories (my father served in Vietnam and my brother currently serves in the National Guard), and eventually getting into table-top wargames myself, a lot of the background and information presented in the fluff about war in general was nothing particularly new to me. I realize, however, this may not be the case for a lot of readers. I will acknowledge, though, that the focus on the role of mercenaries in larger conflicts presented in this work was something I don't recall seeing before in material such as this.

The most welcome portion of the first three chapters, to my mind, were the Skill Challenges. I particularly liked the fact that the Besieged challenge - in which the PC's are tasked with holding a defensible location - could be flipped around to recast the PC's in the role of the besiegers. Another idea presented in this section that I'd like to experiment with is the long-form Skill Challenge which might be conducted in stages over the course of an adventure, or possibly even a campaign.

It is the final four chapters of the book - the crunchy portion - where I felt Soldiers of Fortune really succeeded as a source of inspiration. I frequently found myself stopping and mentally expanding or elaborating on material in the book. Magical banners and standards (including one for Gnolls!), rules and stats for siege engines, templates for PCs and NPCs alike, formations, minions on the battlefield; each of these sections fed my anticipation for my next campaign, and an opportunity for these ideas - some as-written, some tweaked or expanded - to be implemented.


The book is laid out in a straightforward two-column format, with a fairly polished feel to it. I wasn't a fan of the page borders or the occasional 3/4 width image that had text crammed around it, but these are minor quibbles and shouldn't detract from the overall reading experience. Stat blocks with titles and descriptions split across pages were probably the most annoying thing; thankfully, this was a rare occurrence. I was also curious as to why certain sections, such as the Skill Challenges, were placed as they were within the overall structure of the book - again, not a deal breaker, just something I noticed.

The full-color cover by Malcom McClinton and interior black-and-white art by Joe Slucher, all original save for one stock image, are average-to-above-average in quality - my personal favorite being the image of the old man at the opening of Chapter 3. Each piece had at least one detail that really stood out and drew my attention.

Crystal Fraizier's encounter maps were well-done and easy to read. One gripe, though: there is no indication of where the PCs are supposed to start, on the map or in the encounter description.


Overall, I thought this was a solid effort. I would have liked to have seen some of the material elaborated and expanded upon, but taking it upon myself to do so draws me to the product in a way that it might not have otherwise if every possible detail were spelled out. I don't know if Matt James has written any other sourcebooks, but, should he continue to build upon and develop the skills and ideas demonstrated in Soldiers of Fortune, I feel certain that he could produce some great RPG material.

Buy Soldiers of Fortune if:
You are planning to run a military-themed campaign; your PC's enjoy the tactical nature of combat encounters; your group enjoys the role-playing opportunities that occur in a profession where money and violence are inextricably bound together; Your PC's have expressed an interest in operating heavy weapons; Your group would like to participate in epic, large-scale conflicts.

Consider Soldiers of Fortune if:
You appreciate reading others' ideas and tweaking them to fit your particular campaign or style of play. You want to give the forces that oppose your PC's some depth and character. You're considering increasing the scale of your combat encounters and skill challenges.

Avoid Soldiers of Fortune if:
Your PC's like to play wondering heroes answering a higher call - righting wrongs, dealing out justice, and slaying evil monsters; hate taking orders from NPC's (even ones paying for their services) and/or don't really care about the consequences of their actions (and you don't care to enforce them); Your group prefers small, quick encounters and simple resolutions to clearly defined problems.

I have included a link to the notes I took as I was reading Soldiers of Fortune, written as stream-of-consciousness observations:
SoF_impressions (9 Kb .txt, Mediafire)

Review Disclosure
I volunteered to review this product; no compensation has been asked for or given for this review. A link to an early version of the .pdf was provided to me by the author. All errors encountered in the text were shared with the author and publisher. I have been assured by the author that most, if not all, errors have been corrected in the final edition.
*Slew, in this context, being defined as: 14 templates (2 for minions), 27 monsters, 3 siege engines

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