Third-party support for Dungeons & Dragons 5e has blown up in the last few years. One of the first companies to provide this third-party support and one of the most well regarded has been Kobold Press. Since the release of the 5e OGL, the Midgard setting has been moved forward ten years and has seen revised sourcebooks, moving many of the products that were previously detailed for the Pathfinder 1e system into the new timeframe, compatible with Dungeons & Dragons 5e.
In addition to the other updates to the Midgard setting, Kobold Press has produced a new version of the Southlands Campaign Setting, this time called the Southlands Worldbook, in line with the reissued and updated Midgard Worldbook that detailed the broader setting, with an emphasis on the central region.
Around the Worldbook
This review is based on the PDF of the Southlands Worldbook. The PDF is 322 pages long. This includes a credits page, a three-page table of contents, a ten-page index, six pages of ads for other Kobold Press products, and a full-page OGL statement.
There are some companies where I have contemplated just writing a “this is what their books usually look like,” especially when they have a dependable, functional, and attractive look that pervades their lines. Kobold Press is one of these publishers. The trade dress matches what is seen in the Midgard Worldbook and their other recent publications, this time with purple highlights, versus the dark-red/brown of the Midgard Worldbook.
As a quick comparison of the previous version of the book for Pathfinder, this version of the book is twenty pages longer, but it’s also worth noting that there is an 82-page Southlands Player’s Guide that houses some of the rules that would have appeared in the campaign book in the previous edition.
There are a few recurring themes in the Southlands Worldbook. One of those themes is consumption. There are lots of things that are very happy to eat sapient beings, and in a few places, you may get more details than you want, if this is outside of your preferred content. Tangential to this, there are also a few sections that veer into body horror, especially when it comes to the Green Walker growing through victims and subverting their bodies.
A lot of content touches on slavery. In some cases, this is framed as an illegal trade, perpetrated by malevolent forces. However, there are also some nations, like Nuria Natal, that aren’t portrayed as virtuous, but also aren’t portrayed as generally villainous, and slavery is legal in those nations as well. There are factions opposed to slavery that are generally portrayed as heroic, but in many cases, these factions are against slavery in the context of a nation or organization that they oppose, and don’t represent a Southlands wide movement against the practice.
I wish we would have gotten a few more sidebars and direct discussions addressing these and other topics from a standpoint of safety and collaboration with characters. It’s something I wish we would see more in every game product, but especially when we have topics like this in a product. I’m glad that we’re seeing more of this in official WOTC books, and I hope this filters into third-party support.
I don’t always dive into the entire production team on a product, especially larger products with extensive teams. In this case, I wanted to look at this, because it is a roleplaying setting that has a lot of influences from various Middle Eastern and Northern African cultures.
In this case, the primary designer was Richard Green, with additional design by Wolfgang Baur, Basheer Ghouse, and Kelly Pawlik. The cultural consultants were Ahmed A. Ajabry and Noordin Ali Kadir. The editorial team was led by Kim Mohan, with additional editing from Scott Gable, Meagan Maricle, and Victoria Rogers.
As a white man raised in the United States, I’m not the person to make a judgment call on this effort. I did want to address the team that did contribute, especially compared to previous similar settings that lacked cultural consultants and only featured white male designers and editors.
Chapter 1: Welcome to the Southlands
One thing that Kobold Press often does is to present “X number of things about this setting,” which they do here with “Seven Secrets of the Southlands.” There is a formatting issue where one of those seven points is formatted differently, which is a little confusing.
The overview of this is that the setting is meant to be huge in scale, pulp in tone, revolve around three major political powers, and be driven by the effects of divine sparks. It should introduce new cultures, have ancient history return in the present day, and deal with plots and conflicts that are entangled with one another.
There are overviews of the different people found in the Southlands, and included is a timeline running across the bottom of the chapter, giving specific dates to the events described in the book. Many of these events are created by tension and interactions between Glorious Umbuso, the Domain of the Wind Lords, and the nation of Nuria Natal.
The Southlands were once largely ruled by titans. Nuria Natal, with its rulers descended from their gods, remained outside of the influence of the titans, but elsewhere they were supreme in the Southlands. The titans were afflicted by a mania that caused them to war against one another, with the survivors falling into long-term sleep.
In more recent years, the Mharoti empire, a powerful empire ruled by dragons, invaded various regions of the Southlands. While never successful in conquering the region, they destroyed and destabilized many long-standing cultures.
The dead titans have left behind divine sparks, which can be claimed by mortal beings and give them amazing levels of power. Some of these sparks motivate adventurers and seekers of power, and some of them have been claimed by various factional leaders to bolster themselves.
Nuria Natal has a record number of returning undead children of the gods waiting for some calamity to happen. A titan has returned to reclaim some of the former lands ruled by the godlings. Pirates have caused slave uprisings on the coastlines. Lizardfolk have formed their nation guided by an artifact granted to them by their serpent god. What I’m saying is, there is stuff going on.
For anyone familiar with the previous version of the book, there is a quick summary of events from the last ten years at the end of the history section, and each of the chapters 2 through 10 further elaborates on these ten years.
As far as a summary goes, I do feel like this chapter creates strong inertia pushing forward the feeling of the setting. I like the big picture plot hooks you see in this section, including the divine sparks, which I love as an underlying plot element that makes the past of the setting relevant to the current era.
Chapters 2 Through 10
There is a lot of information in these chapters. Since the Southlands are so large, and because each of the regions has its story arc, I think it’s easy enough to read one section at a time when preparing to use this and save the rest for when your campaign may move to those areas. That said, I read this from cover to cover, and each section has a lot of interesting history, current events, and plot hooks. The regions explored include the following:
- Nuria Natal (A high magic nation with ancient Egyptian flavor)
- Lands of Wind and Sand (Elemental lords, nomads, and the ruins of minotaur cities)
- Dabu, Land of the Gnolls (A land of gnolls struggling with their relationship with their neighbors)
- The High Jungles (A jungle with a titanic malevolent presence that pervades, with floating cities, a demonically aligned city of sorcerers, and floating sites above the jungle)
- The Kingdoms of Salt and Steel (A nation with a strong military tradition and their dwarven allies)
- The Corsair Coast (A nation of aasimar recovering from devastating losses, a returned lion titan’s domain, and pirates disrupting trade and slaving)
- The Abandoned Lands (Ruins of cities ruled by Titans, with damaged ley lines and the culture trying to fix them)
- Hives of the Tosculi (Not one contiguous region, but the areas around the hives of insects influenced by an arch-devil, primed to strip the Southlands bare)
- The Southern Fringe (Settlements of trollkins, descendants of fleeing fae creatures, and the new kingdom of lizardfolk planning for greatness)
Each section details the broad strokes of the lands, statistics for settlements like population numbers, culture and customs, current events, perilous sites, and adventure starters. I like this format for presenting the individual regions. Just in the current events, I started postulating the kinds of adventures I would run in the setting, but this was further bolstered by the sections on adventures in the given region. There are lots of plot hooks, and I appreciate that it’s all oriented towards using the setting to run an action-oriented campaign.
I mentioned slavery above. This varies a lot according to region. For example, its portrayed in the most negative light in the Corsair Coast. In Nuria Natal, most of the slaves are dragonborn and kobolds taken as prisoners during the various clashes with the Mharoti over the years.
I think they do a great job of presenting some traditionally “adversarial” species into more three-dimensional characters. The gnolls of Dabu aren’t universally demonic villains but are fighting an internal conflict between followers of a violent, destructive god, versus more practical, less malevolent traditional tribes.
There are a few places where this isn’t pulled off quite as effectively. There aren’t very many orcs in the Midgard setting, but the only enclave we get in the Southlands are rapacious, violent killers and slavers, without any nuance. While they live in the jungle haunted by the Green Walker, they aren’t framed as sympathetic victims of the Walker, just naturally vicious and dangerous.
I’m also a little uncomfortable with the phrasing that the humans of Kush have “tainted blood.” Because their spellcasters have turned to demons and devils to help protect them, there is a high instance of tieflings in the nations but using the “tainted blood” narrative makes it sound like there is something deficient in any tiefling that comes from this region. Also, “tainted blood” in general is just not a phrase I am comfortable seeing in game material. It’s got a lot of baggage.
This is a very high fantasy setting. I think the order of operations for the content in this setting is high fantasy first, cultural flavor second. I’ll point to my disclaimer above, but from my limited perspective, I don’t see nearly as many out-of-context cultural elements thrown into the setting to make it feel “authentic.”
There are some great fantasy elements across these lands. They have sand ships that sail deserts. There is a floating city of aeromancers, and a floating mote that leads to the house of the Fates. Some markets sell magic items where you need to wear masks to visit. There is a city that is a magical trap holding an army of fiends. There is a rakshasa ruler that has a library with secret, forbidden arcane knowledge. I can’t even list all the fantastical plot hooks, but it kept me excited to read about each region.
While the setting section rarely breaks kayfabe and says, “this is what you should use this region for,” it still makes it extremely clear what the story threads of each region are, and they are well summarized towards the end of each section. Some sourcebooks present interesting settings that still leave you wondering what adventurers do in that setting. This book does not suffer from that flaw, at all.
Chapter 11: Gods of the Southlands
This section of the book presents the gods worshipped in this setting. If you aren’t familiar with how Midgard presents its gods, while worshipers in Midgard may not agree with this, the gods are generally cosmic forces that take different masks. That means that some gods that are worshipped in different regions may be the same cosmic being, manifested in a different way to different worshippers. Part of this presentation involves only providing one axis to a god’s alignment, giving you a general disposition, rather than a hard-wired personality. For example, a trickster god may be chaotic, with some stories showing them as benevolent or benign, and others showing them as vicious and dangerous.
Like the Midgard Worldbook, the Southland Worldbook groups these gods into loose pantheons, and clerics can be clerics of pantheons rather than specific gods. There is also a section of Dark Gods.
While some gods may manifest as evil from time to time, Dark Gods are usually gods that are dedicated to ending the world, or undermining society. It’s less about if they are evil, and more about if they would let it all burn down in pursuit of their agenda.
The major deities detailed are the following:
- Anu-Akma (Guardian of the Dead)
- Aten (Sun God, requires his followers to be monotheists)
- Bastet (Goddess of Cats, Perfumes, and Alchemy)
- Djyy (World Serpent)
- Eshu (God of Travelers)
- Horus (God of the Sky, the Moon, and the Sun)
- Isis (Goddess of Love, Mercy, and Healing)
- Kwansi (God of Spiders, Storytelling, Oracles, and Laughter)
- Mbanu (God of the Forge and Fire)
- Ninkash (Goddess of Merriment and Brewing)
- Ogun (God of Iron and War, Keeper of Keys)
- Ptah (God of Sculptors, Tombs, and Labyrinths, Father of Dwarves)
- Sabateus (God of the Night and Magic)
- Takhar (God of Guardians)
- Thoth-Hermes (God of Scholars, Learning, Merchants, and Thieves)
- Xevioso (God of Thunder and Battle)
- Yemaja of the Waters (Goddess of Water, Mother of the Titans)
One of the interesting bits about how Midgard presents their gods is that point of view can change what categories a deity is grouped into, based on what they represent to a region. Case in point, Baal is one of the primary gods of the Mharoti empire, but Baal-Hotep, the manifestation of the god in the Southlands, is grouped with the Dark Gods, because the Mharoti invade and despoil. The whole list is:
- Aposis (Dragon of the Apocalypse)
- Arbeyach (Prince of Swarms)
- Baal-Hotep (King of Dragons)
- The Hunter (The Blood God)
- Laughing Nkishi (The Laughing Darkness)
- Mot (Prince of Necromancers)
- Nakresh (Patron of Thieves and Tomb Robbers)
- Selket (Terror of the Faithless)
- Set (God of Storms and Chaos)
- White Goddess (Matriarch of Blood and Strength)
Unlike the Midgard Worldbook, in the Southlands Worldbook we also get a list of lesser deities that are either regionally worshiped or serve a role ancillary to other gods presented in the greater deities’ section.
Each god’s entry has suggested domains, alignment tendencies, favored weapons, a section on worshipers, symbols and holy books of the faith, as well as shrines and priests. It also lists other gods that may be using this god as a mask, how the faith interacts with other faiths, and what the god demands of devout followers.
I like how the gods are presented in this setting. They give some very useful information on using the faith in a campaign and giving the faith some context. If there is one thing I’m not thrilled with, it’s the pantheon cleric rules, which this book suggests you use. These appear in the Midgard Worldbook and involve changing domains regularly to honor individual gods, and I feel like it overcomplicates the idea that you could just worship multiple gods and pick a domain that suits what you do in their service.
Appendix A & B: New Southlands Monsters, New Southlands NPCs
There are 17 monsters presented in this section, as well as 9 NPC stat blocks. This includes an archfey and an animal lord tied to this region of the world. Most of these monsters are new, but some are reprints from other sources that represent populations mentioned in this book.
I particularly like the Ravening Minotaurs, infected with a disease that was originally kind of like a super-soldier serum that went wrong. The Kijani are plant people that want to assimilate traits from other species, so they can plant part of themselves into a humanoid, creating a symbiotic bond until the Kijani is ready to split off again. From a utility standpoint, there is a CR ½ lion stat block for your shapeshifting feature limitation needs.
Many of the NPC stat blocks represent subclasses presented in the Players Guide, and as an aside, some striking character portraits are representing these NPCs.
Appendix C: Southlands Magic Items
Were you expecting a magic ankh in a setting with Egyptian elements? Well, you got one. There are also magical aprons for crafters, blood-drinking spears, crocodile armor, magic items that help you find portals, cursed weapons, minotaur axes, lion and gazelle-themed items, divination boards, infernal rods, camel saddles, sandals, a scimitar, and more.
My personal favorite is the Staff of the First Labyrinth, which lets you emulate your favorite Lady of Pain moments by dropping people that annoy you into an extradimensional labyrinth.
Appendix D: Southlands Random Events
These are a series of random events that can be rolled, either when encountering a certain kind of location, or when in a specific region. Like some of the other Kobold Press books I have seen, these present a little bit more than just an encounter chart with a monster. Often, it’s a sentence that presents a monster and a situation. It’s not overly detailed, but it gives the GM more to work with than just a monster type.
The locations we have random events for include the following:
- Tomb Events
- Nuria Events
- Crescent Desert Events
- Jungles of Kush Events
- Corsair Coast Events
- Dabu and Narumbeki Events
- Dominion of the Wind Lord Events
- Ocean Events
- Mountain Events
- Abandoned Land Events
These random events tables each include 8 different options, but they do include monsters from the Tome of Beasts, Tome of Beasts 2, and the Creature Codex. If you don’t have those resources, these random event tables are a little less useful.
Death is Only the Beginning some sourcebooks present interesting settings that still leave you wondering what adventurers do in that setting. This book does not suffer from that flaw, at all.
A lot of products say that they are about action or exploring, etc., but don’t always follow through on showing how that works in the setting. This sourcebook doesn’t have that problem. It is constantly showing you the exciting parts of the setting and framing those exciting parts as current events and potential adventures for a GM to use in a campaign. Each region has something that would be fun to explore, and the ancient history of the setting is relevant because of current events and adventure seeds.
The Wrong Side of the River
A lot of this I summarized in the safety section, but I would have liked more of a discussion on safety and using this material collaboratively at the table. I wish that some of the wording around Kush and the orcs of the setting had been written with a little more nuance.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I think this is a great example of what a campaign setting book should do. It presents an exciting set of locations and gives you the tools to use them in a campaign. It delivers on what it promises upfront, and if you are a GM reading this book, you are constantly getting ideas for what you want to use, and for items with which to challenge and entice your players.
What are some of your favorite things to see in a campaign setting book? What campaign setting books have done the best job of presenting table-ready, usable material? We want to hear from you in the comments below!