Knight in tarnished armor
Hello everyone. I'm still riding the writer's high from my Northlands review, so I'm striking while the iron's hot to cover another realm of which I have a great passion. The Midgard campaign setting is the brainchild of Wolfgang Baur, a world he's developed for his home campaigns since he was 14 years old. But unlike a lot of similar long-running projects which often turn into humanocentric low-fantasy, Midgard distinguished itself among the pack. The first glimpses utilized evocative world-building. Central and Eastern European folk tales served as major inspirations, and the initial products centered around a clockwork city that sat on the edge of foreboding forest (which may or may not have a mind of its own). Over time more material was released for Midgard in Kobold Quarterly and Open Design, Baur's gaming periodical and publishing house respectively. There were also crowd-funded "patronage projects" which acted as a sort of ur-KickStarter for fans.
A proper campaign setting sourcebook was released in 2012 for Pathfinder/AGE System (Dragon Age/Blue Rose), but throughout its lifespan experimented with variant rulesets. To my knowledge, material for Midgard is available for the 3rd through 5th Editions of Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder RPG, 13th Age, Swords & Wizardry, and the AGE System. As of 2018 it released a mostly system-neutral World Book which advanced 10 years from the original setting. There's also a Player's Guide, Hero's Handbook, and Guidebook for Pathfinder, 5th Edition, and Swords & Wizardry systems to go together with the World Book as "sister supplements." The World Book is the one we're reviewing today; as the owner of both it and the 2012 version, I'll do my best to illustrate the major geo-political differences whenever they crop up.
Our book opens with some in-universe fiction by Wade Rockett, where a group of adventurers are on a quest to discover what troubles the World Serpent's sleep in order to save their city from an undescribed darkness. The adventurers all contain character aspects from the setting, such as an undead ghoulish monk and a clockwork priestess undeterred by the cold blizzard sweeping over the land. I'm not really one for fiction in sourcebooks, so I don't have much to say other than it demonstrates how a Midgard adventuring party can include more exotic options of races.
Right from the outset, the Midgard World Book highlights several major aspects which set it apart from other settings. It acknowledges that there are many pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds on the market, so the Seven Secrets of Midgard are meant to be played up to make gaming sessions here feel like a truly different realm. I like this concept: with the wealth of 3rd-party material out there, it's very hard to commit to purchasing a new sourcebook that several others don't do already.
- A Flat World: Instead of a sphere, the world of Midgard is a floating disc-shaped object encircled by Veles, a serpent-god biting its own tail. Few have truly made it to the edge to see this great beast for themselves. The cosmos is similar, with a moon and stars, and there are rumors that a civilization of fey live on the "bottom half" of the world.
- Elemental Dragon Lords: Dragons in Midgard are strongly keyed to elements rather than alignment and the good metallic/evil chromatic set-up. Several centuries ago most dragons combined their resources into forming a vast empire, realizing this could get them more influence and power than fighting amongst each other in hoard-filled caves. The Mharoti Empire is the most populous and powerful country in the known setting. It is here scaled races, from dragons on down to the lowly kobolds, are the dominant social force.
- Gods That Dabble and Plot: The gods in Midgard are very active in the mortal world, although they wear masks to conceal their true identity. The reason for this is that one gains a god's power via murder or enslavement, and as such the masks make it so that the true number of existing gods is unknown. Deities may take a different name (and even moral code and teachings) from culture to culture yet are united by similar themes (Perun and Thor both command lightning).
- Hidden Races: Midgard has several major races who had a prominent place in the world from the outset. But there are other peoples who are isolated enough that they only recently have been discovered to the point that they can interact with wider society.
- Ley Lines and Shadow Roads: Magical energy known as ley lines rushes through the world, and enterprising mages can tap their power to fuel their spells. An ancient elven empire used said lines to create shadow roads capable of long-range teleportation to link their empire. Both sources are keyed to specific locations in the world and are prized by heroes and villains, kings and archmages alike, for the power they contain.
- Shifting Borders and Falling Kingdoms: Midgard is not meant to be a static world where published material takes place within the same year in perpetuity. As you can imagine, Kobold Press has a sort of metaplot going for the setting in terms of published material. But this section is more personal advice for GMs to make politics, revolts, etc change the world around the PCs whether by changing things directly or from situations beyond their grasp.
- Time Flies, and Status Matters: This part is expressed in two optional rules, one of which is detailed later. Time Flies is meant to cover longer-term campaigns over a period of months and years as personal progression is meant to be a significant undertaking of one's life. Going from apprentice to archmage in a year is not the presumed standard. Aside from time-sensitive missions and dungeon crawls, the rules suggest that the timeline advances by twice the real-world time that has passed between game sessions. For long-form sagas, it is two months of game-time instead. The Status rules are detailed later, which is meant to bake ancient-world style social status into a trait for characters.
Personally speaking I like most of these iconic setting traits. I am a bit more wary of metaplots, and the time flies rules should be more subjective than definite; I prefer the Northlands approach, where individual adventures are spaced between each other by in-game years regardless of how many gaming sessions it takes to complete them.
After this we get a timeline of events of Midgard, from the creation of the world to the modern day. The creation is subject to multiple interpretations, and the various races and cultures all have their own tellings. Dragons claim that the world was created by Veles for them to rule over, whereas the giants' insist the world was fashioned by the gods from the corpse of their murdered progenitor Aurgelmir. Regardless of the truth, it is known that the gods formed factions upon Midgard and warred against each other. The dwarves claimed that during this time they were created by the smith god Volund and the thunder god Thor to fight against the elves, giants, other races serving under the banner of enemy gods. During this time the dwarves achieved great deeds, but their halls fell from war and natural disasters. Historians have different reasons for this: some say they pushed they gods away and so were punished, while others say that elven sabotage and magic brought them low. The dwarves split in a diaspora with different cultural groups settling into new homes across Midgard.
Around 5,000 years ago the mighty pseudo-Egyptian Kingdom of Nuria Natal arose among a ley line-powered riverbank. Their civilization is the oldest continuous human kingdom, surviving through times when the rest of Midgard was brought low into war and barbarism. Two-thousand years later there was also a technologically-advanced island nation of Ankeshel which had flying carriages, lightning spears, and other marvels. It fell beneath the waves from the horrors living under the sea. And 800 years after that, a second great nation of elves created a new empire connected by shadow roads. They even ruled humans and other races, who by this time saw their rule as preferable to the centuries of chaos preceding their founding. But over time new generations knew only of elven rule, and Young Kingdoms seeking independence grew in lands the elves chose not to govern. Many of these dynasties still exist in some form today, albeit more in legacy than in unbroken succession. Krakova and Zobeck number among them. 800 years ago a war known as the Black Sorceress' Revolt broke out in the western nations of Bemmea, where human mages relied upon risky pacts with dark powers to summon into Midgard as soldiers. A mutual arms race between humand and elves arose out of this. In desperation some elves threw their lot in with similar dark powers, creating the subraces known as the shadow fey among the elves and the tieflings among the humans.
Shadow roads were shut down to prevent hellish forces from traveling Midgard at will, but not before the forces of the elven nation of Thorn marched through them long last time before disappearing completely. This began the start of the Great Retreat 482 years ago, when the elves withdrew in mass numbers from the mortal world. They left their empire barren in but a week. Other races stepped in to loot and occupy the empty lands, with the only elven enclave of Arbonesse remaining and closed off from outside contact. Gnomes, halflings, and servitor races were now free and directionless.
300 years ago a wise and powerful dragon known as Mharot created a political pact between others of his kind to create a Sultanate. As no dragon was willing to put another with supreme authority over them, they chose a human puppet prince to rule day-to-day affairs. The Sultan/Sultana paid tribute to the greatest dragon lords, and lesser dragons below them served as nobles administering their traditional lands-turned-imperial-districts. Utilizing legions of kobolds, dragonkin, and other subjected races, their power expanded across three continents by force or by treaty. They managed to crush the minotaur city-states and send their people scattered, but the dragons suffered their first major defeat from the god-kings of Nuria Natal. Even so, the Mharoti Empire still desires to claim the riches and land of Midgard under nobler guises. During this time the vampire and darakhul (ghoul) kingdoms of Morgau and Doresh formed, using the advantages of undeath to wage war at night and in winter. And the elves are starting to reappear in Midgard with little explanation on their part, seeking out ley line nodes, lore, and old religious sites.
We end this section with a series of recent events within the past 50 years. More nations enter into defense pacts against the Mharoti, the formerly-imprisoned sea god Nethus is freed from his prison but brainwashed by the goddess Hecate into believing himself her loyal husband, the darakhul conquer the nation of Krakova to absorb into Morgau, the shadow fey hatch an unsuccessful plot to take over Zobeck, the Queen of Dornig falls into an enchanted sleep, the Mharoti Empire's former Sultana flees the throne due to a coup from her previous military failures, among other things.
People of Midgard
We get a brief overview of the major regions of Midgard, which will be covered later in their own chapters. Midgard has seven major races, defined more by their representation in major world events and in some cases their commonality. There's also 8 minor races who have their place in Midgard. The races and their magical traditions are entirely in "fluff" (no game mechanics) but we're referred to appropriate system-based sourcebooks for Pathfinder and 5th Edition for actual rules. Each of the major races besides humans have a brief entry on cultural magical traditions which arose among them.
Before covering the races we have the optional Status rules. Basically it is a score every character has. It can range from 0 (slave) to 60+ (legendary heroes, demigods). It is either a flat 4 if point-buy is used, or with a roll of 1d6+1. A PC adds their Charmisma modifier to their starting status, and one's race (and class if using the Pathfinder rules) can further alter it. In short, in an adventuring party NPCs will address the PC with the highest Status as the default party leader. There is a table provided to be used as a yardstick for an average NPC's social standing. Personally I find it rather arbitrary in places: what separates a "peasant" from a "commoner," and why is an archer's status just below a guild leader or bishop? It's also a bit restrictive, in that it may lock out certain character concepts with a bad roll. You wanted to be a noble scion wizard struggling with familial obligations of rulership when they'd much rather bury their nose in books? Too bad your Charisma is 10 and you rolled a 1 on the d6. Welcome to serfdom!
Humans are a farflung group and inhabit all sorts of social structures and kingdoms. We get a rundown on the major ethnic groups and their cultural languages. Caelmaran live mostly in the western lands and are closely associated with dark magic (sometimes unfairly, sometimes not). The Dornigfolk are humans living in traditional elven lands and as such adopted the language and culture of "the last bastion of the empire of Thorn." Kushites are people of Nuria Natal, the Mharoti Empire, and many Southlands kingdoms. The Madgar hail from the kingdom of their name and live among the Rothenian Plains; they are also skilled in animal husbandry and sadly prone to drunkenness. The Northlanders are pseudo-Scandinavians who hail from a martial culture. The Roshgazi are mostly a sea-faring folk who share close ties with the minotaurs. The Septimes (who call themselves the Manzaro) are the people of the Seven Cities whose realms are notable for their methods of ritualized, honor-based warfare.
Finally there's mention of numerous smaller human ethnic groups and a perception among other races that humans are more prone to supernatural corruption.
Dragonborn (known as Dragonkin in the 2012 sourcebook) are the youngest race of Midgard. They are humanoid reptilians imbued with elemental traits of a draconic lineage and organize their ethnic groups along these lines (interbreeding is possible). They comprise a huge portion of the Empire's military force where their breath weapons (and elemental resistance) are incorporated into military tactics and formation. As a culture tend to be very arrogant and patriotic, pointing out how relatively fast their civilization grew in spite of their race's youth. Dragon magical traditions focus on the elements and there are rituals capable of turning members of the reptilian races into "higher" forms (kobold to dragonborn, dragonborn into drake).
Dwarves are divided into three major cultural regions. The dwarves of the Northlands are the most tradition-based, favoring the gods Thor and Volund and making continual warfare against the monsters of the northern realms and raiding coastal territories of the south. The dwarves of the Ironcrag cantons are focused in the crossroads and famed for their advanced technology, including gunpowder and airships whose construction is a closely-guarded secret. The dwarves of the Southlands live primarily in Nuria Natal and are integrated into the dominant human culture as bodyguards, warriors, creators of clockwork servants, and engineers of god-king's pyramids. Dwarven magic is believed to be learned from Wotan and are the mutual traditions of rune magic (which even non-mages can use) and ring magic.
Elves once lived in a grand empire of Thorn, and although not the eldest race they take pride in teaching the human and dwarves "the art of civilization." As of now the few elves remaining in Midgard are part of three groups: the ruthless and duplicitous shadow fey, the nomadic Windrunners of the Rothenian Plains, and the river elves of the kingdom of Arbonnese. The Elfmarked are humans with traces of elven blood which sometimes manifest in ways such as pointed ears. Arbonesse elves have three names: a birth name by parents, a personal name taken upon adulthood, and a lineage/family name. Dornig law forbids those without elven heritage from appropriating elven names, but there's a brisk trade in genealogy in that realm for tracing one's ancestry in hopes of claiming this social status. Elven magic tends to be ritual-based and tied to the shadow roads.
Gearforged are deceased souls imbued into an artificial clockwork body, first created by the priesthood of Rava. They were made to serve as soldiers in the city of Zobeck, and their bodies rely upon a combination of magic and technology to function. Their magical traditions involve soulforging (the creation of transplanting souls into gearforged bodies), and a tradition of Clockwork Magic focused around machinery.
Kobolds were the slaves of dwarves long ago, suited to menial labor and minework. Many live in the fringes of society in dwarven kingdoms, and in the city of Zobeck are confined to a large ghetto. They learned to adopt unorthodox tactics to survive, such as trapsmithing, creation of small warrens, and dirty fighting. They dominate the mining industry in many lands, and in some cases they own their own mines which they guard fiercly. The Mharoti Empire is an exception to their otherwise low social status: there they are treated as being above humans yet still below dragonborn and dragons. Many kobolds throughout Midgard either aspire to travel there or view the realm as one of liberation. There is no mention of kobold-specific magic.
Minotaurs are a searfaring race of warriors. They are fond of self-decoration, whether carving patterns in their own horns, shaving or dying their fur in certain ways, ritual scars, and braiding hair with tokens of fallen enemies. They are great lovers of food and many communities devote significant time to finely-prepared cuisines during festivals and important events. Minotaurs who have their horns broken face considerable stigma and must constantly prove their worth, which ironically has produced some of the most famous members of their race among the "brokehorns." Minotaur magic focuses on labyrinthine themes, from confusing illusory charms to traps and abjuration. Said magic is forbidden to be taught to non-minotaurs.
Ravenfolk are also known as huginn or heru. They have small settlements all across Midgard and distrusted for associations with spies, thieves, and being all-purpose troublemarkers. The exception is in Nuria Natal where they are honored and serve in high positions in temples of Horus. But whatever culture they live in, ravenfolk take pride in being messengers for the gods; they do not choose which god seeks an individual, and it is an unlucky Ravenfolk who brings the attention of one of the Dark Gods. They claim to have invented or shared the runes of the All-Father, and tend to focus on prophetic and shadow spells.
Shadow Fey are believed to be elves and goblins who swore an oath of service to Sarastra, the goddess of night and magic. They gained great power and prestige in the Shadow Realm, at the expense of being cut off from their former allies and an aversion to sunlight. They still adhere to the cultural traditions of their elven ancestors, and their magical traditions involve the manipulation of shadow and starlight.
The Minor Races are low in number, too scattered or isolated to match the power and legacies of the major races. Their entries are much shorter here. The Aasimar are human descendants of angels concentrated in the realm of Ishadia and are engaged in a war of attrition with the Mharoti Empire. Bearfolk are anthropomorphic bears who live in roving bands concentrated in the Northlands and Shadow Realm. Centaurs roam the Rothenian Plains and have a violent history of banditry. They've even destroyed small nations and entire cities. Darakhul are undead akin to ghouls who feed upon the living. They have a pact with the Dark Gods and live in in an underground of Doresh. Dust Goblins are people who refused to be conquered or negotiate during wartime, but due to being on the losing side of many wars got pushed to the most inhospitable regions of Midgard. The text contradicts itself on the "no masters" part by mentioning that worgs and nightgarms treat them as pets and servants and in turn the goblins worship them. Dust goblins scavenge among ruins for relics to trade in cities, thus earning the "dust" moniker. Gnolls are raiders of the southern kingdoms and tend to be xenophobic, but have integrated to various degrees in Nuria Natal. Gnomes are a people whose ancestors earned the wrath of Baba Yaga and thus turned to the aid of devils for protection. They now mostly live in the forest kingdom of Neimheim of which little is known. Tieflings once dominated the noble families of western magocracies but are now reviled for being "hellborn," although shadow fey, gnolls, and gnomes tolerate them. Trollkin are people with mixed giant and fey bloodlines; they are known for being ferocious warriors as well as having powers over spirits and the roads between worlds. They have their own kingdom in the Northlands. Finally the halflings, or Winterfolk, left with their elven masters during the Great Retreat. Those few who stayed behind in Midgard are rarely seen and ply their trade on the rivers of the Grand Duchy of Dornig.
There's quite a bit of entries here for various cultural details. I'm not going to treat them as their own sections, instead surmising them.
Time and the Seasonal CalendarWe get an explanation of Midgard's calendar system (12 months, 360 days and 6 intercalendar festival days) along with days of the week of the most populous cultures. We have a discussion of how various people mark their years.
Travel, Trade Fairs, and Festivals: This has detailed accounts of the passage of days between well-known cities of Midgard both by foot and by horseback. Daily pay for guards is listed based upon
profession, and there's a list of trade fairs based upon their location, date, and what goods are their specialty. Major holidays festivals around Midgard focus around seasonal changes. Some of the more interesting ones include the Lantern Festival during the Winter Solstice where a torch-light vigil to the sun-god parades around town; New Year's Dawn where people gather to watch the sun rise and bang pots and ring bells to drive away bad spirits; Hatching Day for reptilian races in which many of them are said to have their first birthday; and the Day of Misrule where a child is pronounced high priest or king/queen and the adults seek to fulfill their pronouncements.
Ley Lines and Shadow Roads: Ley lines are primarily used to empower spells beyond their base capabilities. They come in three varieties based on strength: weak, strong, and titanic. The specifics for their game effects differ depending upon the rules system, but in general grant beneficial effects for free and/or add to the numerical values of spells. However, manipulating their power is no sure thing and mages risk backlash of varying magnitudes if they fail to concentrate the power. We also get a map of the known ley lines of Midgard:
The arrangements are not coincidental. More than a few nations based their territories on ley lines, such as Nuria Natal whose line more or less goes along the riverbanks. The Greast Wastes of the western realms are screwed up from the elf-mage wars and so has only one reliable line in the far west.
Shadow Roads are basically fast-travel networks. The best-maintained ones are in the former elven lands of Dornig and can take 1d3 days of travel, but beyond there the travel times are longer (particularly in the Great Wastes where 1d12 is the standard). Not all shadow roads are safe. They may be guarded by celestial, fiends, fey, and other dangerous entities. In order to travel a shadow road, you must know its location and be able to open it via a Shadow Road spell or Key of Veles magical item. Some have additional prerequisites for their function, like only being usable on a full moon.
Magic and Scholarship: This section highlights the major magical colleges of Midgard and their specializations which aren't always wizardly in nature. Colleges tend to be specialized rather than generic, able to study a variety of magic but with a major emphasis on certain kinds. For example the Arcane Collegium of Zobeck is notable for clockwork magic as well as alchemy and illumination magic, whereas the Great Linnorm House is built out of the bones of dragons and makes heavy use of runic spells and has an all-female order of celestial magical practitioners.
Languages: There are 28 major languages of Midgard. Whereas this would be a vestigial feature in most games, language has a folkloric effect and some of the more supernatural and stranger tongues grant speakers unique abilities. For example, mastery of Void Speech (spoken by alien gods and beings of the outer darkness) adds +1 to the DC of fear-related spells and skill checks, while Whisperium (a silent language of gnomes and diabolists) allows the speaker to cast a spell silently once per day. Many tongues grant a bonus on social skill checks related to their dominant culture 1/day. This both shows that the speaker's knowledge of their culture and phrases rather than being an outside, and reflects how concepts are more easily understood in one's native tongue.
The World: The final section of this chapter talks about the setting's cosmology and the planes of existence. We know already that Midgard is a disc-shaped realm surrounded by Veles, but the Elves retreated to a land on the opposite side of the coin alternately called the Bright Land, Elflands, and similar names. Between these two sides is the Shadow Realm, a dark and forlorn place of nightmares. The heavens are geocentric, meaning that the sun, moon, planets, and stars orbit Midgard. The sun is the chariot of Khors, or Aten, or whatever dominant culture views as their sun god. There is a single primary moon and seven lesser moons known as the Mage's Stars for their symbology in arcane magic. Stars (not moons) in the sky are intelligent living creatures capable of coming down to Midgard, whether just to visit people or in need of great heroes.
Six planets orbit Midgard, but most people only know of five and the sourcebook does not say if they too are disc-shaped. They are associated with various elements in alchemy or believed to hold sway over various aspects of the world. Asaph is believed to influence the seas of Midgard; Ermoan is a small and fast planet which some believe to be a comet or a lost court of shadow fey; the darkened planet known as Melgros is only able to be seen by those with the keenest eyes and thus earned the name "Archer's Planet" because most who see it happen to be legendary archers; Temperos is believed by the giants to be home of the gods; Tiomoutiri is most visible at sunrise and as such has a sacred spot among sun-worshipers; finally, Zuhal is considered to be responsible for controlling all magic.
As for other planes of existence, they are the domains of the gods and their servants. There's the tortuous Eleven Hells; the gluttonous Evermaw which is the afterlife for all undead; the voidlike realm of the Ginnungagap full of alien, maddened creatures; the great marketplace of Lingedesh where anything can be bought and sold; Ravatet the Plane of Rusty Gears where forgotten treasures lurk among the junk piles and strange scavengers; Silendora, a mythical land believed to be where the Elves retreated; and Valhalla/the Storm Court, where gods of the North and of war come to meet and hone their blades.
And connecting all the planes together is Yggdrasil, whose World Trees are its branches that poke into Midgard and allow travelers to visit other realms. They are revered almost everywhere they grow, and druids and worshipers of the Northlands pantheon treat their spells as if they were 1 level higher when on such sacred grounds. We get a list of known World Tree locations, including some of which became corrupted by dark powers.
Thoughts So Far: Midgard has a sort of storybook feel in the set-up of its world, what with masked gods and talking stars and a flat world. The racial magical traditions, association of planets with alchemic metals, and list of colleges for spellcasters point to a high fantasy and high magic style of setting. Having the most powerful country be a non-human realm is also novel, and I do like how they gave learning languages mechanical benefits even if not all options are equal. The bulk of the rest of the book covers the various lands of this wonderful world:
Next chapter we'll cover the Crossroads, the geographic and cultural heart of the continent!