Kingdoms & Warfare made over $1.3m on Kickstarter, and very few RPGs have crossed the six-figure line. Is it any good?
Yes, once you’ve got your head into the Kingdoms & Warfare space. This book transforms your D&D into a wargame, and I imagine very few D&D 5e players have crossed into the skirmish or wargame space before. Wizards of the Coast’s current push suggests little overlap between D&D and Magic: The Gathering player bases, after all, but we could both be wrong.
Matt Colville’s 5e D&D-does-battles supplement is 320-pages long, but I’m pleased to say you don’t need to learn a 320-page wargame to get the most out of it. Not even close.
You’ll have read all the new rules you need before you’re halfway through Kingdoms & Warfare. Thereabouts, a quarter of the book is for Domains and Intrigue, a quarter for Warfare, a quarter for Monsters and Magic, and the final quarter is The Regent of Bedegar adventure that brings all this to life.
Domains & Intrigue review
Colville didn’t write this epic in isolation, the list of designers is impressive; Celeste Conowitch, Gabe Hicks, James Introcaso, Justice Arman, Makenzie De Armas and Sam Mannell. The Regent of Bedegar is by Teos Abadia.
I think you see the depth of that talent pool straight away as Kingdoms & Warfare expertly mixes crunch and flavour, detail and abstraction, freedom and precision with ease.
A Domain isn’t just a Cleric consideration. In this case, the word applies to a group of people: a band of mercenaries, thieves guild or empire. I don’t know which is worse; the gender-specific “Kingdom” or colonial shudder of “Empire”, but MCDM had to pick one, went with Kingdom. However, Domains can be anything.
An Intrigue is a state of conflict between Domains.
Kingdoms & Warfare turns Domains & Intrigue into a system by creating mini character sheets for Domains and system tests for Intrigues.
You care about this as a player as you now have a way to band together some underworld allies to ensure that the cult you’re opposing has no way to raise money in the city by fencing their loot. As a player, you can see whether your wizard is rising in status among her peers. You can see whether the pocket fiefdom that surrounds your newly acquired fortress is doing better under your care than the bandit lord you took it from.
There’s another significant reason you care about this as a player; job titles and status within a Domain come with perks such as powers, sometimes magical.
As a DM, these rules are helpful because not only do they give you a structure and process for weighing the ebb and flow of power in your setting, they connect your PCs to it in a meaningful way.
You also will appreciate these rules as they come with incentives for your players. You create the world and bring it to life, and Coville, Conowitch, Hicks, Introcaso, et al. have helped find ways to persuade those same players to have a vested interest in it.
Lastly, as a DM, you need to take a close look at those incentives. As mentioned above, status and membership bring powers. For example, in the Mercantile Guild, an officer could be the Acquisitions Expert.
You gain proficiency in the Arcana skill. Additionally, if you are unable to cast spells of 1st level or higher (either because you have no spellcasting ability, you have expended all your spell slots, or you have used all your innate spells), you can cast the following spells using Intelligence as your spellcasting ability:
At will: detect magic, identify
3/day each: charm person, comprehend languages, unseen servant 1/day each: dispel magic, glyph of warding
I see why it makes sense that in a high fantasy setting that the Acquisitions Expert can be magically charming and knows when they are being offered a magic item or not. It might always be obvious why a character without any such power now has, but perhaps that’s answered at the same time as addressing “Why are they the Acquisitions Expert?”
Don’t take my opinion on this. The supplements own designers use the red flag-raising keyword “overpowered” while discussing this with you. One suggestion they make, a wise one, is to invoke these extra powers only when needed to distance characters and other characters’ capabilities. For example, if you’ve a group of rogues and rogue-likes in a Thieves Guild, these powers help give each one a niche. That’s different from just heaping more rogue power onto the group’s only rogue.
How do the mechanics work? Once you get your head around it, it’s two-fold. The first part is dice to keep track of when certain things can happen; the second is a simple D&D-style system in which simplified character sheets and mechanics are used to resolve Domain conflicts.
Lastly, there are slightly different approaches for Domains that heroes are part of in contrast to NPC only. These changes are mainly around what powers are involved, and it makes sense because you won’t ever use them in the same way. The catch here, and perhaps I need to work through this with some more lived examples, is handling it when heroes join or annex a previously rival Domain.
Simply put, this is a wargame system for D&D.
It’s not a complex system, and it’s far more abstract than most wargames, but it’s not a handwavy set of tables to decide the flow of a battle at a meta-level.
You do get down to the nitty-gritty of moving troops around a battlefield. You worry about whether your conscripts are being flanked by elite troops or if your flyers are in position.
I’m pleased to say you don’t need to worry about buying and painting suitable models. It won’t take hours to set up. My brief playtest battles have all been with paper (and once with dice, which was a mistake as dice that looked similar during set up mysteriously no longer looked the same halfway through the battle, and I lost track).
Here’s the gotcha; the default is that your player characters are not expected to be there in the battle.
Think Lord of the Rings, I guess. There’s a huge battle going on but the adventuring party, the Hobbit core at least, is off climbing a volcano to get rid of the One Ring (spoilers!). That’s the expectation here. The battle will happen while the PCs have a cinematic clash with the big bad.
One of the reasons why this is the case is not to reduce the drama. Who wants to run a multi-hour battle after the heroes have already won (or worst, lost!) against the dark lord?
However, if that’s not your vision, then don’t worry; it doesn’t have to be done like that. And in every case, the army is just an extension of the PCs, and units gain benefits based on their character classes.
Kingdoms & Warfare is logically arranged. The supplement starts with Domains & Intrigue first because if you can master treating a Domain as a slimline character with stats and checks, you need only extend that to units for military forces.
- Units have the following statistics;
- Attack – tactical effectiveness
- Defense – avoid or reduce attacks from opposed units
- Power – physical prowess in combat
- Toughness – ability to withstand attacks
- Morale – ability to keep fighting
- Command – understand and execute orders
- Number of Attacks – how often a unit can engage in a round of battle
- Damage – casualties inflicted
- Size – ability to maintain morale, cohesion and carry out orders
- Movement – always 1 (a blind stat)
That’s quite a lot, I think, and these statistics can change with experience and other factors.
Each with cards/character sheets of their own, these units move around grids representing the battlefield. The more units you add, the larger the recommended battlefield becomes to avoid unwelcome clutter.
As this is a fantasy battle, a unit can be composed of various different types of people; different ancestry in Kingdoms & Warfare lingo.
There are a few complications to get your head around; tiers, commanders and magic.
Not all units are equal, and Kingdoms & Warfare represents this by assigning units to tiers and suggesting limits for each.
Commanders make a big difference, which makes sense because these will be your PCs and notable NPCs. Cleverly, Domains are brought into play here. A commander from the Wizards Guild brings something different to the battlefield than the Rage Master from the barbarian tribe. Want another reason to progress through Bard College and unlock their secrets? You’ll unlock those rare and powerful Unit enhancing abilities if you do.
And then there’s magic, of course. As it happens, destructive magic is much less complex to get your head around than anything else. I guess that’s because we can all imagine what artillery fire would be like thanks to those World War moves we’ve seen.
It’s things like “Antimagic Shield” (a Wizard Martial Advantage), which makes Units immune to the effects of wands and scrolls (but, wait, no other magic?), that makes me slow down and need to think things over. And what about commanders with magic items designed for party level play that might be powerful enough to affect the course of a battle. I don’t expect rules for all those, this framework gives me some support, but it requires thought.
I’m clearly out of practice with my wargames, which I’ve not done for decades, as despite how straightforward these rules are – I struggled. It was only after some playtesting, shuffling things around on my floor that pennies began to drop, and it made sense. If you are a DM planning to include battles in your game, I strongly recommend you don’t try and wing this. Have some practise sessions first.
My absolute favourite aspect of the Warfare section, though, is “Downtime warfare”. In other words, between more traditional D&D games, your Paladin can have been off leading a raid against the cult, and these are rules to help you play through that at what feels like the right level of detail.
See those Domain & Intrigue rules? They’re the perfect pick-up point to reflect what happens in the world if that cult is smashed.
Monsters & Magic items review
We’re about halfway through the book, and it does not feel very much like 5e. It doesn’t even look like D&D. There’s no mention of 5e on the front cover, and if it wasn’t for the 5e-style checks, these rules could almost have been for any high fantasy setting.
The Monsters and Magic section changes this. Here the art feels so much like D&D. We’re dragons, for a start.
In fact, we have Gem Dragons. The timing is interesting. Matthew Colville and co returned Gem Dragons to D&D before Wizards of the Coast. Wizards of the Coast did that just this weekend, and here is MCDM expanding on the rules they have a head start with.
But will D&D players stick with alternative rules when official ones turn up? No doubt some will prefer them, and players like that may well turn out to be the core audience of an advanced supplement like Kingdoms & Warfare.
The Monsters section exists for a few reasons. It builds on Strongholds & Followers idea of Concordance, a value that measures how closely aligned characters are with a god or patron’s teachings. Here we’ll also find boss monsters capable of being an action-orientated threat on the battlefield.
In the magic section, we also find new Codices. I don’t have Strongholds & Followers, so I didn’t know what Codices were in MCDMverse until now. They’re easy to understand; artefact level magic items.
And Codices are popular with fans, so MCDM added more.
Do you need Strongholds & Followers?
I’m breaking the pattern of this review for just a few lines. I had been following the format of Kingdoms & Warfare, but I’ve just mentioned Strongholds & Followers twice. In fact, I’d been purposely avoiding mentioning the mega-hit until now.
You don’t need Strongholds & Followers to use Kingdoms & Warfare.
You don’t need it at all. K&W is entirely independent.
However… there are plenty of mentions and self-aware nudges. By self-aware, I mean Matt and the team clearly don’t want you to think that you need to buy anything else to get full use of the rules and advice they just sold you. But it would be nice if you did.
The Regent of Bedegar
As I admitted, it took a while for the pennies started to drop and for me to get my head around the warfare rules. The Regent of Bedegar helped with this.
This last full section of the book is a pre-written adventure that ties together all the new rules and clever ideas. It’s an illustration of what’s possible, even perhaps best practice.
I’ve not played it nor run it, and so this section won’t belong. I wouldn’t want spoilers either.
However, I did cherrypick bits from it to test with myself. Hasn’t lockdown made us all better at solo play? Doing so helped turn the abstract into reality. Like, don’t use dice to represent Units; use the Unit cards as intended.
Look and Feel
I’ve a PDF version of Kingdoms & Warfare, and it is splendid. I predict the hardback will be impressive. The art is incredible, the layout traditional but best in class.
Kingdoms & Warfare is a book you’ll browse through to find what you need, and you’ll love doing so.
It’s also a reverse TARDIS of a book. At the start of this review, I said that you won’t need to learn 320-pages of wargame rules. That leads to the question, what else does the book do with the page count?
Lots of examples and character class specific rules make up a big chunk of a book. In some ways, in good ways, it’s smaller on the inside than it looks on the outside. The need to know parts don’t waffle; they’re articulate and precise rules.
However, given that each character class brings different powers to the battlefield through the commander rules, there are pages and pages (including the illrigger). Need a model to build a Domain around? Like a religious order, noble court, magic circle or martial regiment? Rules for those too.
You don’t need to master all these Domain or class-specific stuff at first. It’s there when you need it.
Yes, good use of the Kickstarter cash. I know much of the money vanishes into fees and production costs, but just a glance at the art, the writing, the team, confirms the quality.
Here’s the rub. I don’t think I’ll use Kingdoms & Warfare very often. I run games that benefit from this thoughtful and structured approach to conflict over an expanded period infrequently. BUT! I’m gonna love having K&W when I do run a game like that. Kingdoms & Warfare will be my backbone.
If you’re planning a war, consider these Kingdom rules.
Please note that my copy of Kingdom & Warfare was provided for free to review.
- You can buy the PDF of Kingdoms & Warfare from MCDM. A hardcover is coming, just once a way through the paper shortage and logistical nightmare of the lockdown is found.
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