Book Review: Soldiers of Fortune by Matt James and Open Design

Why do people, rulers, and nations go to war? Is it to defend their homes and borders against the incursion of ideas, faith, or undesirables? To expand their domains for riches or land? Or simply because they feel the need to spill blood? More often than not, it’s less black and white than some might think. And who gets caught in the middle? Soldiers. Whether they are idealists volunteering for a cause or mercenaries simply seeking a paycheck, it’s the warriors usually doing the fighting for whatever cause their leaders choose to follow.

Matt James has experienced life as a soldier, which puts him in a unique position to understand not only what it’s like to put your life on the line but the many rationales used to put armies in harm’s way. In Soldiers of Fortune he eloquently expresses methods of introducing real world motivations into roleplaying games to not only make soldiers, mercenaries, and war more believable, but perhaps inspire new storylines that might not have been previously considered.

He starts out with motivations and plot hooks to get mercenaries (your typical band of heroes) involved in a potential conflict and he doesn’t mess around… Magic portals spewing evil creatures out of ancient mindflayer prisons? Missing or kidnapped leaders or heads of state? Unstable currency and theft by neighboring nations? These are but a few potential hooks to sink into the PCs in your campaign. And what happens when the party is misled and unwittingly does something evil? Will ethics and morality win out over greed and bloodlust?

Once you have an idea of how to get your party engaged, Matt describes the challenges of being a warrior-for-hire and potentially becoming a pawn to selfish forces all too willingly to sacrifice you in whatever game they are playing. Honor and glory are just the beginning. Discovering what more you’re fighting for is essential – whether it really is just for the money or in the name of some higher ideal.

Anyone who has thought about incorporating larger-scale battles into their own campaigns knows it’s not easy to do. There are usually complications of some sort or another when applying rules meant more for one-on-one combat to battlefields potentially encompassing hundreds or thousands of combatants. Well, now with Soldier of Fortune you have some options. These days I see skill challenges being used more and more frequently in Patfhinder and D&D 4e materials, offering ways to bring in strategies not easily integrated before. Matt details several skill challenges for mass combat from castle sieges and commanding armies to defending an area against a horde of invaders. Each challenge is broken down into discrete parts and thoroughly documented.

From there, Matt goes into the philosophy of war Sun Tzu-style in “Midgard Stratagems” covering everything from understanding the risks and benefits of conducting a war to the difficulties of financing a war and feeding an army, keeping an army moving, dealing with physical obstacles, and meeting the enemy on the battlefield. This should serve as a “strategy starter kit” for any general seeking the glories of war and should be a “must read” for all players and GMs in seats of power thinking of going to war. The ultimate lesson to learn here is easy – don’t jump into a war without preparing first. Things
get messy in places other than where weapons meet warriors in battle.

And if that’s not enough, the book offers new powers, abilities, and feats to aid mercenaries wherever they may fight. There are brilliant generals described as NPCs complete with lists of favorite tactics. And new magical items and gear specially designed to help military men and women do their jobs more effectively.

From there, the book offers an entire adventure for five 7th-level characters to fight the battle of Sanguine-Crag Pass. Party members serve as leaders, guiding the Army of the Blue Knights to take and control the pass to keep the evil Legion of Korel from doing the same. Unfortunately, like many things in war, things won’t be easy for the PCs. Somehow the players must deal with the minutiae of dealing with waves of endless minions fighting the Blue Knights while trying to achieve their objectives. Will they prevail? Only time will tell.

And lastly the book offers new monsters, weapons of war, and NPC templates to help GMs and players keep themselves and their missions alive. I love the NPC templates, as they provide a quick way to generate unique NPCs the PCs will face in the field. Everything from commanders and bodyguards to conscripts and partisans is here. Matt also offers rules for minion hordes, similar (in principle anyway) to how the mechanics of Swarms worked in d20, which offers a new way to torment defending or attacking armies. Monsters, Midgardian groups, and even gods are included in some detail.

I have to say that the more I learn of Midgard, the more intrigued I become. There’s a rich history there that goes beyond just defining borders, people, and creatures to populate a world. As Open Design releases more Midgard-themed books, I find tantalizing tidbits that keep me wanting more. If it’s a marketing campaign, I’d say they have my attention!

As far as the look and feel of the book goes, once again Open Design has done an amazing job with artwork and page layout to complement the great content. From the cover art featuring a giant facing a group of fighters defending a bridge to the interior art and maps, I was impressed by the variety and different styles used. The use of art in the page layout itself with borders, lines, and white space offers a clean, easy to read experience both printed (on my local laser printer) and online in PDF form. The only page I had difficulty reading was in Chapter 7 with the veritable porcupine of weapons in the battle shown. If it was a bit lighter beneath the text it might have been a bit easier to read, but that’s a very small nit.

If you’re reading the book online as PDF, I was pleased to see that the Table of Contents early in the book was entirely hyperlinked, meaning I could click on a section header and immediately drop into the book at that page. That’s in addition to the PDF bookmarks that have also been available in other Open Design books. Most of the PDFs I’ve seen lately have skipped the TOC hyperlinks, so it was nice to see them in use here.

The only thing I really missed is an index for the book, but that’s easily worked around by searching the PDF electronically. I would have expected an index, especially if this book is to be available in printed form, but again it’s a small nit easily handled with a search in your favorite PDF reader.

Reading Soldiers of Fortune, it’s impossible to miss Matt James’ love of his former occupation as a soldier and the fact that he shares that dedication with us through his writing. I hope that this won’t be the last time we see a longer project from Matt. If you’re looking for a way to get more Midgard into your life or learn about the business of war in FRPGs, you must pick up this book.

Pick up your copy today at RPGNow!

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