The kobolds at Kobold Press have done it again! The Midgard Heroes Handbook for 5th Edition is already available from the Kobold Press store, with physical copies starting to arrive in the hands of gamers this week. This 216-page hardcover book contains everything a player needs to create a character for the Midgard campaign setting and features the same top quality content we’ve come to know and trust from Kobold Press.
Here at Nerdarchy, we received an advance copy of the book for a chance to look it over and share our thoughts about what’s inside. And there is a lot. New playable races, subclasses, feats, backgrounds, spells, weapons, alternate optional rules, creatures and more. It’s impressive how much is packed in here. Let’s unpack a bit and see what you get.
This scope of this review is not intended to diagnose balance or power level of any options, or to critique the mechanics design contained herein. Rather, it’s a look through what kind of content you can find inside and how you might use some or all of it for your own games.
Midgard Heroes Handbook first look
The first thought I had after flipping through Midgard Heroes Handbook is it’s a perfect example of presenting new content for a 5E campaign setting. So many of us who play come up with our own unique homebrew elements to make our worlds distinct, and it’s not uncommon to entertain daydreams of collecting all our creations into a campaign setting resource for publication.
For Kobold Press, their Midgard setting is no different. The designers for the book include top name individuals in the industry like Shawn Merwin, Jon Sawatsky, Richard Green and Dan Dillon to name just a few of the stellar lineup. Along with their work, the book is beautifully illustrated by a team of wonderful artists under the direction of Marc Radle. Standout among them for me is Bryan Syme, whose work appears in a lot of Kobold Press products I own. I’ve come to think of his work as definitive Kobold Press. Joining Syme is an extremely talented group of artists giving the content a unified look that ties all the material together visually.
Midgard Heroes Handbook starts off with a terrific overview of the Midgard setting. Several regions and locations are given just the right amount of information. Major individuals, events and peculiarities for each area contain enough jumping on points to spark your imagination without delving too deeply that a reader could get lost. I really enjoy this approach. If you’re already familiar with the setting, these succinct sections are a nice refresher for you. And if you’re largely unfamiliar with the particulars (like me) they’re excellent summaries of what is most important about each entry.
The rest of the book is a dream come true for players who crave more options for their 5E characters. A full 140 pages is packed with races, subclasses, feats, backgrounds and magic – including not only spells but unique new ways to both cast and interact with magical energy. As I thumbed through the book, I was truly astonished by the breadth of the content. Not only does it contain enough sheer options to run entire campaigns nearly exclusively with the book, but for players in other settings there’s tons of cool new stuff to drop into other settings (pending your Game Master’s permission of course).
Game Masters themselves get an appendix as well, with new creatures, magic items and conditions to provide boons and banes for characters in your games.
A healthy amount of the content in Midgard Heroes Handbook is drawn from other existing Kobold Press products, so a word of warning there. But much of it is revised and tweaked in this book. Also, it’s absolutely worth mentioning that Kobold Press has a track record of great pricing. So many of the resources they publish are very affordable, so if you already own some of the Deep Magic series for example – great values themselves – it’s not a serious drain to invest $39.99 for this hardcover or $24.99 for the PDF version.
Playable racesFully 17 new racial options for 5E help the Midgard setting come to life. Many of these options are wholecloth new, while others are new subrace options for existing 5E races. My personal favorite is the centaur because who doesn’t want to play a centaur? Whether you go with the idea of a knight who is their own steed or a more tribal approach, centaur characters are an iconic mythical creature. Like all the race options in the book, the centaur entry has both general and setting specific information. Even if your games don’t take place in Midgard, there’s great ideas in here to help you include any of the races in your own setting and give them a distinct place in your world.
There are ten wholly new playable races and nine new subraces for existing character options in standard 5E content.
- Bearfolk: Bipedal bearlike humanoids devoted to tribe and family, with deep spirituality and strong artistic talents. There’s two subraces for them.
- Centaur: Striking a balance between grace and savagery, the iconic mythological creature has a lot of really cool abilities like natural attacks, speed and a charge attack.
- Dhampir: Half-living children of vampires and humans, I am certain there’s a ton of players out there who will love to have a vampiric option. On top of having an ability to slake their Dark Thirst and regain hit points, they have an awesome Predatory Charm feature that could really double down on something like a School of Enchantment wizard, Archfey Patron warlock and the like.
- Gearforged: An artificial race, and like dhampir I know there’s legions of players who love the concept of clockwork characters. The section on gearforged is substantial, since they are quite different than flesh-and-blood races. Two standout points here are important components, a soul gem and memory gears that gearforged possess. There’s a lot more to these constructs than spinning gears and individual intelligence.
- Gnoll: Typically depicted as bloodthirsty demonic creatures, the very mention of gnolls can strike terror into the hearts of more civilized folk. The book doesn’t get too deep into this aspect of gnolls, but does address it in the base racial traits and the savage gnoll subrace. There is, however, a civilized gnoll option.
- Minotaur: Another staple of fantasy and myth, playable minotaurs will make a lot of players happy. The artwork for this entry does a great job of elevating minotaurs from what is often a bloodsoaked savage creature to represent a race with a vibrant culture in the setting.
- Ratfolk: Another gamer favorite concept, this small race will undoubtedly wriggle their way into many players’ hearts. Next to centaur, this one is my favorite simply because I’d really like to play a squeaky little ratperson.
- Ravenfolk: Another anthropomorphic animal, these creatures have a cool dichotomy baked into their makeup. Walking the line between wandering thieves and divine messengers, there’s a lot of room to play around with when it comes to this unusual race.
- Trollkin: Lots of wonderful flavorful material about this race, combined with two distinct subraces, make this entry stand out. As I read over the entry, my mind drifted to Mike Mearls’ Happy Fun Time Hour where he designed the Giant Soul sorcerous origin and how the trollkin would make a really fun and thematic character of this kind.
New subraces or options for existing races
- Dwarf: Northland and cantonal dwarves use mountain and hill dwarf statistics respectively, but these two subcultures have their own places in Midgard and some flavor text to support this. Soundland dwarves, on the other hand, are a mystical subrace with new features. Cantonal dwarves are also the only race in Midgard with access to gunpowder and airships, which the section touches on.
- Elf: River elves are the high elves of Midgard, but like the dwarves there’s information on their culture and position in the setting. There is a separate section for an elven subrace, the shadow fey. I’m not sure why it wasn’t listed with the main entry for elves, since it is a subrace of standard elf. Nevertheless, the Shadow Realm is a huge part of the Midgard setting and these distinctive elves pop up in a lot of Kobold Press content I’ve seen. There’s a good reason for this – they’re awesome. Anecdotally, I just ran a game for the Nerdarchy crew at Cleveland ConCoction and used several shadow fey as antagonists. A few of their traits in the Tome of Beasts I thought were odd for monster entires, and would make better options for players. And lo! They’re all included right here. If your adventurers ever encounter a band of these twilight prowlers, watch out!
- Gnome: These smallfolk can sometimes be overlooked in other settings, with players wondering what exactly their place is in the world. The entry here does a good job of establishing their place in Midgard. While there’s no new subrace options, there are new traits that Midgard gnomes have in addition to the standard gnomish ones. They also have a new piece of equipment, which doesn’t have a direct mechanical benefit but does have a really terrific roleplaying and storytelling element.
- Human: For those who don’t take the variant human option (it’s a thing, people!), elfmarked and Kariv wanderers add two new human varieties. Elfmarked are essentially half-elves, and like gnomes this section gives a sometimes overlooked race their own place in the setting. Kariv wanderers put a spin on the standard human with ability score increases that could fit certain characters perfectly, plus a neat mechanical trait that won’t make or break a character but can provide fun roleplaying opportunities.
- Midgard kobold: We’ve already got playable kobolds, but the entry here contains a lot of background information on the setting’s distinct kobold culture and a different take on the racial features and traits. These kobolds lean into the tinkering aspect of the race.
- Winterfolk halfling: More thematic than anything, this variety of halfling might not win out over existing subraces for many players, but in the right sort of campaign and group I could see these halflings fitting in very well.
There’s over 50 new subclasses in Midgard Heroes Handbook. Fifty. New. Subclasses.
Let that sink in.
The takeaway for me after looking through this hefty section of the book goes back to what I initially said about doing a campaign setting book right. While any of the subclass options can find a home in other games, what they do for Midgard is create a background that cleaves to the 5E ruleset while making it possible to play entire campaigns with amazingly unique qualities solely from the options in this book.
I know in Midgard there’s of course Champion fighters, Hunter rangers and the like, but you could completely remove all of them, use only what’s in this book and still have awesome adventures. And they’d really set the campaign apart too. What I mean is, perhaps in your campaigns, the only sorcerers in the world are Mazeborn or Shadow origin spellcasters, the only rogues are Duelists, Fixers and Whispers, and so forth.
Without getting into the specifics or even attempting to summarize all of the incredible class options here, instead I’ll give you a list of the top ten subclasses by name alone that already get my imagination working overtime. This is in no particular order.
- Oath of Radiance paladin
- College of Entropy bard
- Fixer rogue
- Beer Domain cleric
- The Great Machine warlock
- School of Entropy wizard
- School of Geomancy wizard
- Void Domain cleric
- Path of the Ancestors barbarian
- Ghost Knight fighter
Something that really caught my attention is the large number of new cleric domains. While standard 5E clerics have a good variety to choose from, these new options open up many possibilities. Clerics of the moon, travel, justice, labyrinth and the above-mentioned beer give cleric players tons of new avenues to explore.
Another thing worth mentioning is the subclasses are organized under martial and roguish characters, divine characters, and arcane characters. As if the subclasses themselves aren’t enough, each section contains extra bits to further flesh them out. Martial characters get a whole section of new weapons and options for fighting with them, and divine and arcane casters includes a section on runic magic.
Since I have quite a few books in the Deep Magic series from Kobold Press, many of the options for arcane characters look familiar, like the Angelic Scribe, High Magic and Elementalist. As noted above and on the book’s back cover though, this content is updated and expanded in Midgard Heroes Handbook.
Feats and backgrounds
Another area that helps really define a setting, background and feat options provide more opportunities to customize characters. Like all the material in the book, these options would be super easy to drop into any campaign. There are some that are closely tied to other options in here, like those geared towards Dragon Magic for example. But there’s still plenty of things for more generalized characters, even a few under headings for specific subclass option in Midgard Heroes Handbook.
As for backgrounds, which are one of the best innovations to come from 5E, there are a whopping 22 new ones to choose from. Again leaning into the Midgard setting, they’ll add another layer of uniqueness to campaigns set there, but are equally viable in any setting.
Before getting to the enormous selection of new spells, you’ll find new ways of casting spells! Geomancy and runecasting build on the 5E spellcasting foundation in ways I am sure huge numbers of players will enjoy. Geomancers take advantage of ley lines, invisible rivers of magical energy flowing around the world. There’s even a map insert of Midgard showing where these ley lines are located in the world. This content can very easily be adapted by GMs for other settings too. Proximity to ley lines alone is enough to affect spellcasting.
Employing aspects like this in your own games can add really fun twists and environmental effects to encounters or locations to make for memorable moments at the gaming table. There’s tables for the effects of weak, strong and titanic ley lines, as well as ley line backlash. Imagine adventuring in ancient ruins suffused with magical energy where casting a spell could result in anything from only costing a bonus action or doubling the range to losing one spell slot of your highest available level or magic items losing 1d4 charges.
Runic magic and rune rituals likewise put a whole new spin on spellcasting with a unique new system for using and casting this sort of magic. Nerdarchists Dave and Ted did a video about Deep Magic: Rune Magic if you want to learn more about this robust system.
And then we arrive at the new spells. Glancing over the new spell lists for all of the spellcasting classes, I was blown away to see the sheer volume. While you would leave out staples of 5E like fireball, bless, vicious mockery, eldritch blast and a ton of others, you could theoretically use only the spells in Midgard Heroes Handbook for any of your spellcasting characters. There’s that many spells in here.
Of particular interest, sorcerer spell lists are greatly expanded upon, and warlock spell lists gain a large variety of new cantrips that might not be eldritch blast but nevertheless contain potential ways to play a warlock and maybe – maybe – spam something different.
Overall, the number of new spells here is staggering. If your GM allows you to use Midgard Heroes Handbook to add to your spellcaster’s options for expanding their repertoire, you’re going to have a lot of fun trying these out.
Something for the Game Master
After the new spells, an appendix adds new toys to the GM’s toolbox with creatures, magic items and miscellany. The appendix isn’t very long, but new stuff is new stuff right?
By far, the most intriguing material in the appendix is the Horses of Midgard section. Sounds pretty mundane right? Seven distinct varieties of horses takes something innocuous like these real world animals and puts a fantastical spin on them. For example, an Arbonesse Star Mare gives its rider advantage on Charisma checks against intelligent creatures, while a Fey Walker’s rider can use a bonus action to command the horse to disappear and reappear in a nearby location. I really enjoyed seeing something as common and normal as a horse given this sort of treatment.
Two new magic items and two mundane items round out the appendix, before the final entry – two new conditions. Conditions are a 5E mechanic bringing a very streamlined approach to the edition for things like creature abilities and environmental effects, and also something I can’t think of a single other time I’ve seen given new options for. That’s not to say they’re not out there, but I peruse quite a bit of 5E content and nothing comes to mind.
Each of the conditions in Midgard Heroes Handbook is pretty specific, so I don’t imagine they see a whole lot of use, but for straight up creativity I dig what they’ve done here, exploring ideas for new content of this sort.
Another Kobold Press winner
I’m not surprised in the least by the level of quality and scope of creative content in Midgard Heroes Handbook. The kobolds have a solid library of great content and I’ve used a lot of it in games I’ve run despite none of them being set in Midgard.
While this book is geared towards players, I’m confident GMs out there will find a lot of cool stuff they can add to their games too. You could use the new subclasses to present new cultures in your world, new spells enemy casters can wield against your heroes and new races and subraces to reveal new regions their own unique styles.
I would like to thank Kobold Press not only for providing the advance copy of Midgard Heroes Handbook to us so we could share our thoughts with the Nerdarchy community, and I’d like to pass on the goodwill by adding the book to the Nerdarchy collection of material for our regular giveaways. Keep an eye on the Quests & Adventures live chats on Saturdays at 2 p.m. when Nerdarchists Dave and Ted and Nate the Nerdarch announce the giveaways and winners. If you can’t catch these live, they are available right afterwards on YouTube, as well as in our Kickstarter Korner series here on the website every Sunday.
You can get both print and PDF versions of Midgard Heroes Handbook directly from the Kobold Press store.
The PDF version of the book is also available through DriveThruRPG, and Nerdarchy has an exclusive coupon code for that and other OneBookShelf sites – DTRPG-Nerdarchy for a one-time 10 percent discount on orders of digital products $10 or more. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: Availability and links updated to include print and PDF versions released after initial publication.]
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