MIDGARD CAMPAIGN SETTING REVIEW
(This is my 1st review.)
I’m a sucker for campaign settings. I have been since I purchased that first Greyhawk Campaign Setting with the charging knight on the front. I’ve used them as the foundation of my campaigns (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Birthright, Golarion) and I’ve taken and ported elements that I liked from others (Ravenloft, Scarred Lands, Krynn). But despite my love of campaign settings, as with most things gaming, I’m pretty damned picky. If something doesn’t work for me, it usually [i]really[/i] doesn’t work for me.
Also, for the record, prior to a few issues of Kobold Quarterly and an Advanced Feats PDF or two, I had not purchased any Open Design/Kobold Press products prior to the Midgard Campaign Setting, so I’m not reviewing this product through the lens of a Patron, a Kickstarter supporter, or as an established fan of the setting. I’m also someone who initially avoided the setting as it seemed to me that in those dark days before the PFRPG was launched, the setting was fully embracing 4e. (Full disclosure, there is little in 4e that appeals to me.) This review is of the PDF (but I’ve ordered a hardcopy).
[B]WHAT COMPRISES THE MIDGARD CAMPAIGN SETTING?[/B]
The Midgard Campaign Setting is a gorgeous book. Layout is clear, yet attractive with full-colored illustrations & detailed maps (with a scale on each map!).
[b][i]Chapter 1: Midgard[/i][/b] presents the setting at a high level and introduces setting-specific characteristics. Most notable are the “Seven Secrets” that present some core fundamentals about Midgard, in particular, that dragons seek to rule in parts of the world, ley lines are a major conceit of the setting, and that while the timeline isn’t overtly fixed, it is assumed that the setting can change in significant ways. While that last bit may be old hat for seasoned gamers, I’ve rarely seen the “permission” to change the world so explicitly stated.
History, calendar, recent events, festivals, and planes are presented next. The history is detailed enough to present a sense of scope and backdrop without bogging down into textbook-style reading, the planes are flavorful and presented more in a tone of myth and uncertainty than a scholar’s treatise on their characteristics. Calendars, festivals, and recent events, which are often relegated to later chapters in other setting books, help ground the reader in the setting by showing up earlier than usual.
Finally, Ley Line mechanics are presented. These support the richness of the setting lore within the familiar framework of Pathfinder feats. Some subsystem details complete the Ley Line rules without becoming a burdensome add-on.
[b][i]Chapter 2: Heroes[/i][/b]
Races, Languages, and campaign-specific Feats & Traits are up next. Here are many of the things that make Midgard distinct and they are the same things that foolishly deterred me from looking at the early Open Design releases when they were 4e-centric. Kobolds as a major race? Minotaurs as a player race – didn’t we already get that with DragonLance? Dragonkin, -er Dragonborn… can you see the eye-rolling from here? Except that it all works and deliciously, flavorfully, so. The dragonkin & kobolds tie directly to the setting conceit of empire-building dragons. The dragonkin are more akin to Arcana Evolved’s dragonman race than the 4e dragonborn fluff hyped by WotC (IMO, at least). Much as Paizo has done for Goblins and Ogres, dwarves and elves are familiar but varied slightly in their own unique ways. I’m still not a huge fan of Gearforged but they’re not omni-present in the setting. Centaurs, gnolls, and tengu get more prominence than they do in many settings. Every race is recognizable from Pathfinder RPG core concepts, but all have a distinctive Midgard spin to them.
The standouts of this chapter, however, are the Midgard Feats & Traits. Broken down by region, they are mechanically sound yet dripping with setting flavor from evocative names to concise descriptive text. These reinforce the cultural differences of the various regions while avoiding long stretches of description-by-essay. By not having to hit the “generic PFRPG” button that the PFRPG line has to do, these all feel very connected to the setting yet can easily be ported to other settings. They avoid the sometimes over-specific traits found in some of the PF AP player’s guides, but those are designed to serve a slightly different function anyway.
[b][i]Chapters 3-9: The Regions of Midgard[/i][/b]
The bulk of the campaign setting, it is also the part I will summarize the most as this review is lengthy as-is. Here are the sections where Midgard is painted in vivid colors and contrasts. Each chapter covers a particular region: The Crossroads, the Wasted West, the Dragon Empire, the Seven Cities, the Rothenian Plain, the Domains of the Princes, and the Northlands. With the exception of the Northlands, the names themselves are evocative and inspire further investigation. Yet all of the chapters have a structure and flow to them that encourages one to continue reading through – a feat most campaign settings fail to achieve. Plot hooks and adventure seeds are laden throughout and each region is distinct. Yet by pulling from Earth-based myth, particularly of Norse and Eastern Europe, it has a familiarity that allows the reader to quickly grasp the cultural concepts of each region.
Important game info is presented for each region: a more detailed map, population info, gods worshipped, etc. as one would expect. But it’s the little details that stand out. Details that are often hand-waved away in other settings are found here as well. Travel times & costs between various cities, trade goods, prominent castles, cultural tidbits, and relevant game mechanics all combine to form a rich, yet cohesive whole that can support a very diverse range of themes & playstyles. It’s a customized kitchen sink, not a generic one, and the setting is stronger for it.
Midgard is a darker setting yet is still a setting ideally suited for High Fantasy. Most settings chose to hew strongly towards the dark (WHFRP’s Known World) or the High Fantasy genre (Forgotten Realms), with only token attempts to support other genres and styles of play. Midgard strikes a great balance, making it easy for a GM to lean whichever way suits the campaign or players without having to drastically change the tone of the setting.
[b][i]Chapter 10: Pantheon[/i][/b]
Once again, my expectations were dashed with this chapter. Fantasy pantheons are a favorite setting aspect of mine and compared to a [i]Book of the Righteous[/i] or [i]Scarred Lands’[/i] pantheon, how could gods pulled from Norse, Eastern European, and Egyptian myth possibly compare?
As it turns out, pretty damn well. Forgive my soapbox-grandstanding for a moment, but gods should not be the top of the monster pyramid for homicidal players to slay. In a game where alignment provides a shorthand for a character’s morality and ethics, portraying the gods as relevant for something more than the source of a cleric’s power can be a difficult goal to achieve. Pages of backstory on a god’s personality might make for an interesting read, but often has little bearing on the playing of the game. Too often, there is little room for theological debates, heresies, or wars and a rich source of conflict and story/setting development is lost.
So how does Midgard avoid these pitfalls? Masks & alignment. See, some of Midgard’s theologians believe that the gods represent themselves differently to different cultures. Few regions agree which of their gods are the “masks” of another in a different region. One man’s Thor may, or may not, be another man’s Mavros. Also, most gods, being unknowable and beyond mortality, usually only have one alignment axis fixed (Law, Chaos, Good, or Evil) and the other is variable. The result is a world where the familiar mythological figures shorten the learning curve for new players and where mystery is injected back into fantasy RPG religions.
In short, it rocks.
Of equal import, rather than paragraphs and pages on a god’s personality, we get more practical, game-relevant info: expectations of worshipers, symbols, holy texts, shrines, priests, and interactions with other faiths along with standard domain & favored weapon info.
[b]WHAT SETS MIDGARD APART FROM OTHER SETTINGS?[/b]
I’ve considered writing RPG reviews of other products. However, with Midgard, I was [i]inspired[/i] to write a review. Honestly, that bugged me. What was it about this setting that made it stand out among the many I’ve read and used in my games over the years? I’ve been ruminating over it for a few days and these were my “Aha!” takeaways:
[b]Seasoned, not saturated.[/b]
This was the setting I shouldn’t have liked. It allowed for dragonman characters, gunpowder, clockwork/steampunk, and Earth-myth gods. All things I generally do not like in my FRPGing. But they’re placed in the setting in such a light-touched and organic way that the “coolness” outweighs my reservations. Limitations are placed in a way that seems plausible rather than forced. Most importantly, the writers understand that a little can go a long way and that it’s easier to increase certain elements to suit a GM’s game than it is to rip something out.
I love the clockwork city of Zobeck and the fact that dwarves have invented gunpowder. But I still get to have orders of knighthood, witches in the forest, and all of the medieval tropes that I embraced when I bought that first Greyhawk campaign setting. It doesn’t feel forced and it’s not laden with anachronisms that break the immersion in the setting.
[b]Rules serve the setting rather than the setting serving the rules.[/b]
This is perhaps an unfair critique against other settings, and I’m sure it’s not true in all cases but it rings true to me. It’s how I felt after reading this book. I look at things like Ley Lines, the Mana Wastes, gearforged and the rest and it’s clear that they are there because the writers thought they were interesting and cool. They added to the distinctiveness of the world, the plot hooks, the adventure seeds – they added to Midgard’s character. They didn’t build a world to fit the Pathfinder RPG. They built a world and then built PFRPG rules that made the integration seamless.
- [b]“I want to run a campaign…here”. [/b]
This is the first RPG setting where I could not only envision running a campaign in every region, I [i]wanted[/i] to do so. There were no regions that didn’t interest me, nowhere that I definitely wanted to stay away from, no place that didn’t “work for me”. I don’t know that anyone else will feel that way, but it was a first for me.
[B]WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?[/B]
Not a great deal, honestly. There are a few errors/typos such as the omission of the “Time Flies” optional rule while reference to it survives and things like races having a Favored Class rather than a character choosing their favored class.
While some will find it part of the setting’s charm, fans of elves and half-elves may be surprised at how elves are less common than in other settings. Halflings return to their Tolkein-esque roots and seem almost an afterthought.
After Paizo’s much-cheered revamp of gnomes into an interesting race, some might be taken aback at the dark circumstances of many of Midgard’s gnomes. However, it’s not a universal situation for the entire race, so again, season to taste.
There is little mention of orcs, and I’ve always had a soft-spot for orcs as one of my go-to bad guys. I hope that they gain some prominence in the setting if the line expands to regions beyond the seven described in the campaign setting.
Midgard is a rich, vibrant campaign setting that should be in every fantasy RPG library. It’s familiar without feeling rehashed. It’s unique in a way that enriches the differences rather than overshadowing other genres or aspects of the game. It’s written in a way that provides a massive amount of info in manageable chunks and ignites the imagination.
Yes, it’s that damn good. Go get it now. 5 of 5 stars.