The last time I worked on my Strongholds & Followers series was… oh, six months ago, almost to the day. How about that. I’m returning to it now at the request of a treasured reader, though there’s basically no danger of me getting to the part of the book he wanted me to examine in this week’s article. (We’re also gathered here today to celebrate completion of initial editing on Seas of Vodari.)
Part One | Part Two
Strongholds by Class
In Part One, I mentioned that each class also has a unique interaction and benefit from its stronghold. The general form is that each class has three demesne effects (you know, like lair effects that monsters get), three stronghold actions (like lair actions), a class feature improvement, and a table of followers. The GM chooses any number of the demesne effects that function for the PC. Stronghold actions are each (separately) once-per-short-rest. The rate at which you gain followers gets some mild guidance in the text, but overall is left to each GM’s sense of narrative timing. Multiclass characters can choose between their classes for each of these – you can’t have more than one class feature improvement at a time, but you can switch between them as part of an extended rest (as a reminder, that’s a week).
Just to refresh your memories from Part One, all of these features are explicitly intended to unbalance the game in the players’ favor. That’s the incentive to engage with the system in the first place. There’s not a ton of guidance here on what the DM needs to do to get back to balance.
- They make their demesnes into less-civilized, more fierce and celebratory places – a lot like the Heroic Domains of Ysgard in D&D’s Great Wheel cosmology. Also, poisons get neutralized automagically within the demesne, because poison as a weapon is a sign of civilization and cowardice.
- The actions you can take within your stronghold include a frightening shout (barbarians not having a shout feature or shout-based subclass in the PH or XGTE is money left on the table), a rage that you can share with allies, and a chain lightning that you can cast even while raging.
- Their Class Feature Improvement is an extra attack or an extra move when they drop an enemy. Like all class feature improvements, you can use it a number of times per extended rest equal to your stronghold level. (I’ll try to avoid repeating that in every class to come.)
- The followers table tells the story of civilization’s edge – not yet the true, monster-haunted wilderness, and certainly not a place of laws and civilization. The gnoll ambassador and hobgoblin ambassador sell this most of all.
- Bards make their demesnes more dramatic and theatrical – the story here makes me think of no one so much as Elan from Order of the Stick. None of these rise to the level of rules effects, as several other classes do.
- The bard’s stronghold actions maximize their inspiration dice, summon a three-piece band that makes your enemies take the worst of 3d20 for their saves for one round (…do what now? Oh wait I just got that it’s Rush), or restore all of the bard’s expended inspiration dice.
- Encouraging Inspiration, the bard’s Class Feature Improvement, lets you power up a number of your inspiration dice to increase the target’s proficiency by 1 while they’re not yet used.
- This is a disappointment among Class Feature Improvements. A very forgettable +1 is something 5e tries very hard not to do, it’s nowhere near the throughput of other features, and bardic inspiration doesn’t need more pressure on the targets not to spend their dice and wait for a more important chance.
- The follower list has a lot of spellcasters, including partial casters like the Knight-sorcerer retainer, and a good variety of ambassadors. As with any d100 table, most individual outcomes are very unlikely, but elf and gnome ambassadors both get five whole percentage points.
- The demesne effects here are particularly dramatic: demesne residents are immune to disease, the cleric can hear their prayers if they share a faith, and the demesne’s weather reflects the cleric’s health as long as the cleric is on the same plane.
- These stronghold effects are the most powerful thing I’ve seen yet. A contagion effect that targets all enemies within 30 feet is just the beginning, and that’s enormously better than a 4th-level spell. Annihilating all demons, devils, and undead within 60 feet that fail a Wisdom save is… uh, okay. That’s better than any 9th-level spell I can think of. Sure, your stronghold doesn’t get attacked that often, but when this feature works at all, it turns an overwhelming encounter into one save-or-die effect? Lastly, a HD refresh and 30 temporary hit points for you and all of your friends. It’s just shocking how much better these are than barbarian and bard features.
- The Manifest Divinity Class Feature Improvement adds a very respectable 3d8 AoE healing to any use of your Channel Divinity. This is good fun and one of the more potent CFI’s.
- The followers include a wide variety of military units, mostly high-prestige kinds of retainers, and a fairly normal array of other followers and ambassadors.
A footnote calls out that this is not the same as the other kind of druid’s grove, which I talked about in Part One. Infelicitous wording, though.
- The demesne effects here are pretty substantial: many animals can talk (both Common and Elven), and act as an early-warning system; edible plants that grow wild produce a goodberry effect; there are no roads, but the druid’s allies (including allied units) pass through the demesne as if it were nothing but
- The stronghold actions are a big AoE grasping vines effect, restraining and damaging enemies; a single-target banishment; and summoning a bunch of shambling mounds. These are all very powerful, but not nearly as encounter-ending as the cleric actions.
- The Savage Shape Class Feature Improvement throws wide open your Wild Shape options to include monstrosities, fey, and dragons, as long as their CR is not more than half your level. As long as you can use it sparingly, that’s greatly overshadowing the Circle of the Moon druid, but sure, okay.
- Their followers list is unusual enough that it gets four paragraphs of explanatory text as well. Druids don’t often have military units (though not never), but they have a lot of retainer options that suggest life in the wilds, just like the barbarian’s table. Few standard followers, but they do get access to the Fey Allies table – the first time that one has come up.
- The fighter’s demesne effects give a sense of plugging into the warfare system, even if not all of them get explicit rules for how. Most clearly, fortifications improve unit morale by a greater amount here. Standing stones appear in such a way as to protect locals, and boy is that a big reality-bending effect to imagine. Archers shoot farther in an unspecified way, and edged weapons stay sharp even through hard use here.
- The stronghold actions are incredible: for one round, spellcasting enemies take a bunch of damage and their spells don’t work if they try to cast; all of your side’s attack rolls succeed for a round; and your side regains all lost hit points. Still not the one-effect encounter ender, but powerful.
- Fighting Surge (their CFI) makes all success attacks from a given use of Action Surge (reminder: a number of uses of Action Surge per extended rest equal to your stronghold level) become critical hits instead. Definitely solid, or a lot better than that depending on your magic items.
- The follower table is huge here, which… doesn’t make it better or worse, just more varied. They’re less likely to attract Special Allies, which is a net loss, and they pointedly don’t tell any one kind of story with their other followers. The idea, I think, is that fighters are something of a default and widely-understood group and social role, so they’re treated like a “standard” demesne ruler.
The Monk’s Monastery
- Slowed aging, good temperature control, and a 15% chance to summon a powerful Earth creature to end any fight in the demesne make up the monk’s demesne effects. That last one suits Matt’s Alloy setting, but probably not a lot of other settings.
- Stronghold actions for monks include a single-round immunity to all non-psychic damage, an eight-strike flurry of unarmed attacks (reminder: this is on initiative count 20, not on your turn), and a full ki refresh. Definitely good, and eight attacks might be enough to really crimp a BBEG’s style even from full health.
- For their Class Feature Improvement, monks have Focused Ki – they can ignore an attack’s effects other than damage, if they have at least 1 unspent ki.
- The follower list goes very heavy on spellcasters, and I’m not sure why. The laborer followers I understand better.
The Paladin’s Chapel
The rain may never fall till after sundown
By eight the morning fog must disappear
In short there’s simply not a more congenial spot
For happ’ly ever aftering than here
- The quote explains the first demesne effect. The second imposes Sunlight Sensitivity (more or less) on all evil creatures, which… we’re definitely not in universally-applicable paladin themes at this point. Thirdly, a demesne-wide detection of chaotic or evil creatures of more than 7 HD. I’m fine with the first effect, but the second and third run specifically counter to what I want from 5e.
- The stronghold actions are not so much fight-enders as a good strong advantage. The first grapples all evil or chaotic (again, this doesn’t fit great with 5e) creatures within 120 feet in chains that erupt out of the ground. The second is an earthbind effect, forcing flyers to land. The third grants one ally an AC bonus equal to your Cha modifier for 10 minutes. No instant kills!
- The Class Feature Improvement is pretty close to just outright bad. It lets you downgrade your target’s resistance or immunity to your radiant or weapon damage by one step (i.e., immunity becomes resistance) for a single attack.
- Why is this bad? Because very close to nothing has radiant resistance or immunity, and weapon damage or immunity falls off almost completely as soon as you have a +1 sword. Maybe I’m about to see that radiant mitigation is common in the new monsters introduced in this book.
- The follower list has two unique items – a winged elf ambassador that lets you hire winged elf units, and a paladin special mount table. Those are super cool, and make me wish that every class had a clear unique possibility – but the text does emphasize that DMs shouldn’t feel constrained to the follower tables, they’re just suggestions.
- Beyond that, this introduces a winged unicorn, and thousands of t-shirts cried for joy. (To be clear, if having a winged unicorn is your fantasy, I am completely in favor of this book celebrating that fantasy and giving it to you.)
- The demesne effects make the whole region behave a little more like – as you’d guess from the name – a favorite hunting lodge. Game is plentiful, large – and fierce. Enemies and unsuspecting locals (whoops) have to pass Survival checks or get attacked by big bad very cold wolves. (Considering how much the paladin entry cares about evil and chaotic creatures, having the ranger’s domain spawn evil winter wolves is… a take.) Finally, allies travel easily, enemies travel with difficulty.
- The ranger’s stronghold actions are modest compared to other classes, but still very good compared to most lair actions. One round of all enemies having vulnerability to your attacks, a fog bank you and your allies can see through, and one round of your attacks imposing ongoing damage. Very good, not widely available effects, but not full-on game-breaking.
- The Chosen Enemy CFI imposes vulnerability on an enemy for individual damage rolls, which is a strange phrasing of the idea. This too is only okay as a CFI, compared to some of the others.
- The ranger’s follower table is fairly normal. Light on ambassadors, long on special allies (special allies are the really good stuff).
- The rogue’s demesne effects let the rogue hide a number of people, such that no mortal or magical force can find them (not including the rogue demesne ruler). Intruders feel watched, even if they aren’t. Finally, traps randomly spawn and attack hostile creatures when they finish a long rest inside the demesne, which… could go way beyond the realm of plausibility, if there’s a whole unit invading.
- Rogue stronghold actions are comparatively tame: a one-time 6d6 damage add to each enemy within 60 feet, a 60-foot stealth-and-invisibility purge, and a Coin of Fate mechanic that can cause attacks to miss, and keeps working until one of them hits. These seem fine to me.
- I honestly question whether I even need to explain what a Class Feature Improvement called “Vanishing Strike” does. Probably the only thing you don’t automatically know from that name is that its duration is until the end of your next turn.
- The rogue followers table is more caster-heavy than I would have expected, and very light on military units.
- The demesne effects are… weird, since sorcerers of different origins don’t have much in common with each other, aesthetically. Curses, blessings, and oaths can go… more than wrong, explosively wrong, in the sorcerer’s demesne. Residents in the demesne start manifesting minor sorcery while they live there. The rain gets weird and (harmlessly) prismatic.
- The stronghold actions let you cast three spells during your off-turn (that is, on initiative count 20 like all stronghold/lair actions), heighten your spells for a full minute, or give you a 4d8 fire shield. These are potent; with some luck that first one could punch way above its weight, the more so if you’ve used the second one before it.
- The Source of Magic Class Feature Improvement is, by a huge margin, the weakest of the CFIs. It gives you additional sorcery points equal to your stronghold level. O…kay? That’s very close to nothing at all – let’s true 3-5 sorcery points per stronghold level, for starters.
- There’s a whole section on how sorcerer followers are unusual and travel light, and that seems about fair.
The Warlock’s Fane
- The demesne effects are overtly sinister: the sun “appears as a baleful orb” there (I think that just says that people who live there like the sun less?); the constellations are strange and the stars seem to fall (that sounds incredibly cool), the warlock is immediately aware of enemies in the demesne, and once per month the warlock can throw an earthquake at enemies inside the demesne, for free.
- The stronghold actions include refreshing all of your spell slots, blanketing the area in eldritch blasts (one per customer, not actually that bad), and summoning a very powerful creature as suits your patron. These are pretty tame, compared to other classes, but the servitor could be very good (CR 10 or thereabouts).
- Master Invoker, the warlock CFI, grants an extra spell slot. Since those slots stop scaling at 5th level, it’s good but not showstopping.
- The followers are spellcaster-heavy and leaning toward unsavory sorts, which is about what you’d want.
- The library of a wizard’s demesne duplicates a copy of any nonmagical book brought into the region. No matter where they are, the wizard can scry on anyone in their demesne. Finally, the wizard can control weather in their demesne, no matter where they are.
- The wizard’s stronghold actions are easily some of the strongest – probably only the cleric is as mind-blowingly good. A free casting of any prepared spell, a free flesh to stone on every enemy within 60 feet (WTF?!?), and you recover all spell slots. Uh. That last one breaks a whole bunch of things, because you can always teleport home to refresh all of your slots, as long as there’s one short rest between.
- The wizard’s CFI, Spellmaster, is also huge – they can concentrate on a second spell. Considering how there aren’t any other ways to do this that I know of now… there’s some maximum advantage way to play this that is just incredible.
- Much like fighters, there’s a sense of wizards as one of the default rulers – a bunch of military units, their retainers are all over the place, and so on. This feels like Ars Magica, straight-up.
Which brings us to the end of the player-side class demesnes. I do wish these were a little less over the top in power, because staging a challenge means it’s a bigger fight where the PC of that demesne gets most of that session’s spotlight time. I’m sure it’s fine in Matt’s style (I’ve watched only a few of his YouTube videos, so I don’t grok that style yet), but it would be rough in my style. They’re definitely appealing as a player and make you want to get involved in building a stronghold. Much like Birthright, you really don’t want to be the one party member who doesn’t (yet?) have a demesne, though.
I’m going to cover this section fairly quickly, because it’s just one page. Villains don’t get a 12-class breakdown. Instead, there are three “classes” of villains, at least vis-à-vis demesnes: necromancer, shaman, and warlord. Their minions likewise have three types: mindless servants, rampaging hordes, and tactical phalanxes. Minion type and villain type aren’t deliberately connected.
It’s hard to tell how hard you’d have to hit a PC stronghold with a villain and minions to get anywhere with presenting a threat. The abilities offered here are cool, but not remotely similar to the scale of player abilities. The stronghold-versus-stronghold exploration play that the text proposes does sound like a lot of fun, at least.
There’s a great table of special allies, sorted by alignment. Sorting anything by alignment is a curious decision in 5e, but okay. The idea of gaining a young or adult dragon as an ally is fun, but the terms of “alliance” are much trickier, as the text suggests. You don’t so much give orders as tell them your plans and hope for the best. In fairness, the players in my campaign sort of have a copper-green dragon ally, now that they went to the trouble of bringing him back from death after killing him. (Dragons in my campaign are all chromatic-metallic mixes and alignment-ambiguous.) All relationships have their problems.
Anyway, powerful creatures that you can go have a conversation with to see if they can help you never really gets old, as long as they’re not so motivated to help that they solve your problems for you. Adult dragons, storm giants, and the like are more patron than ally until mid-late play, I would expect.
I don’t want to be unfair to this text, because I still haven’t read the whole book thoroughly. The mechanics of this section seem unpolished to me, which is unfair – that’s my association with vastly powerful abilities handed out unevenly.
Leaving it here, at the end of Chapter 1 – next time (which I hope will be less than six months from now) we’ll get into the followers part of Strongholds & Followers.