So as an unrelated aside I heard from a reader that the poetic text boxes in the various opening chapter pages aren’t from the Beowulf poem proper. I’m unsure of their origin or if they were made wholesale for the book. I still find them enjoyably thematic, but I’d be interested in hearing from more experienced voices about this one way or the other.
This relatively short chapter details a rather vital aspect of Beowulf’s campaign rules: the loyal allies, hired help, and unlikely team-ups forming a “secondary party” for the otherwise lone Hero. Followers are a special kind of NPC with their own rules: they add +0 to all d20 rolls (although they can gain advantage/disadvantage), they don’t have AC or Hit Points and instead of suffering damage they suffer death saving throws as appropriate to their gift/burden/context-specific environmental feature, and in combat they roll initiative as a group in what is known as the Follower Turn.
In combat and other round-by-round tense situations the Hero can Activate a Follower during the Follower Turn as well as on their own turn as a reaction, which triggers the use of a Gift (and in some cases a Burden first). In a few special cases certain abilities can cause multiple Followers to activate during the same turn. Additionally, some Gifts, Burdens, and other circumstances can cause a Follower to be Spent, meaning that they cannot be Activated again until a long rest is taken or if a special ability or item on the part of the Hero “revives” them. This represents the Follower succumbing to injury, exhaustion, returning to the ship or meadhall, or simply having their big narrative moment and thus fades into the background. At the end of each adventure, Followers have the chance to be improved, and the player may make a number of choices up to the Hero’s proficiency bonus:* give one Follower a new temporary Gift, transform a temporary gift into a permanent one, or make a Burden temporary. Temporary Gifts and Burdens will be removed from play after completion of the next adventure unless made permanent, and the player cannot choose a temporary Gift to become Permanent as part of the same “level up” phase.
*but gain an additional choice if they act as the game’s scribe in writing a detailed account of a Follower’s story between adventures, which will be covered later in this post.
Followers otherwise don’t have any other Skills/Proficiencies/etc beyond these rules besides some suggested GM Fiat of granting advantage to the Hero for certain situations. The Hero can have a maximum number of Followers equal to twice their proficiency bonus plus their Charisma modifier. Recruiting above this limit for longer than is reasonable can impose the Malcontent Burden on them all, which causes them to refuse to act on a Natural 1 when activated. Nonhuman Followers can be recruited in rare circumstances, most especially Noble Animals who are otherwise natural beasts possessed of a keen intellect. Simple Warriors are ‘basic’ follower types who can automatically be recruited at any center of civilization and start play with four appropriately martial Gifts. The two remaining Follower types are the broader Potential Followers who can be recruited during an adventure and likelier to have unusual Gifts and Burdens, and Assistants who temporarily join the Hero out of circumstance but may become permanent Followers depending on certain criteria during the course of the adventure.
Followers don’t really take damage in combat or are directly targeted by monsters supposedly, as the text notes that they only ever roll death saving throws as the result of their Gifts and Burdens. They can die normally as the result of failed death saving throws, but the player may voluntarily declare a Follower to be Slain rather than killed normally in a dramatically-appropriate ultimate sacrifice, granting bonus Experience representative of the rest of the party reflecting upon their service and experiencing character development as a result. Of course, a Hero who has Followers die under their watch has consequences, such as families demanding wergild and other Followers gaining the Untrusting Burden if too many of their comrades die serving the Hero over the course of play (number equal to the Hero’s level + proficiency bonus).Follower Burdens
are short, mostly one-sentence entries which convey role-playing and/or mechanics descriptions. There are 23 Burdens and 66 Gifts, which is a great amount for making Followers feel diverse and distinct. Some Gifts (particularly the RP-centric ones) are extra starting Gifts and don’t count towards their total number, while others can only be selected as an initial choice and cannot be gained later. A few represent advanced training and must be gained after going on adventures with the Hero, gained only be gained during specific encounters, or are initially possessed by Potential Followers and Assistants of remarkable skill.
For Burdens, about half (11) of them impose disadvantage on a common type of check (Awkward on Charisma checks, Deaf on checks requiring hearing, etc), while some are more reflective of loss of morale and/or negative personality types. Death-Marked is a bit GM Fiat, indicating that someone out there wants the Follower dead and is willing to act on this hatred. In another case, Mute means the Follower cannot (or refuses to) speak. The Envious Burden (which can be gotten if a Follower is paid much less than everyone else) requires a generous payment in shillings at the end of a voyage/adventure or a DC 20 Persuasion check or else they leave the party, while Untrusting forces the Follower to succeed on a DC 10 Wisdom save in order to be activated in dangerous situations. There’s one oddly-placed Burden called Eager where they provide the Hero advantage on recruitment checks (Persuasion checks to recruit new Followers) which sounds more like a Gift. However tis exact text is repeated as a Burden for a sample Follower in the free standalone Hermit’s Sanctuary adventure, so I’m unsure what to make of it. As a recruitment check is the Hero rolling vs a static DC and not a contested roll, this is all the more confusing.
There’s a lot more Gifts which have more mechanical bite to them. There’s a healthy assortment that grant either the Hero or the Follower advantage on some type of roll. But some of the more interesting ones include Bearded Axe
(grant the Hero advantage on all attacks rolls for a turn and the target of their attacks cannot benefit from a shield), Engage
(every Follower with this Gift is activated to occupy up to 2 opponents per Follower, preventing them from attacking the Hero for up to 3 turns if a sufficient distance away, after which point said Followers must start rolling death saves), Healer
(Hero regains half of their Hit Dice), Weapon-Bearer
(every Follower with this Gift is activated, dealing 1d6 damage on a hit; Noble Animals deal only 1d4 but have advantage on the rolls), Learned
(Old Ways follower is literate in Ogham** and can interpret various clues about the ancient world), Mounted
(roll weapon damage dice twice and keep best result against unmounted enemies), Prophetic
(Hero rerolls a failed saving throw), Rescue the Hero
(every Follower with this gift activates and makes a death saving throw, rescuing the Hero from certain death and allowing them to take a long rest), Scout
(make a Stealth check to explore a nearby area, reporting their findings to the Hero on a success), and Shieldwall
(every Follower with this Gift protects the hero, allowing the Hero to spend Hit Die to heal if there’s at least 4 shield-bearers including the Hero and can Engage with enemies for up to 1 more round without needing to make death saves).
*Legends is a new Intelligence-based skill in Beowulf. It replaces Arcana and History and covers everything from history and politics to folkloric knowledge and the ways of the supernatural.
**Ogham is an ancient runic alphabet commonly found on rune-carved surfaces, standing stones, and other ancient edifices of religious and cultural significance
There is one Gift that throws a wrench in the “don’t worry about Followers save for their Gifts and Burdens,” and that’s Meek. A Follower with this Gift won’t be targeted by enemies unless they are the only target within range. That then brings up the inevitable question of whether or not Followers can suffer death saving throws in combat as a result of independent monster attacks, and what value to assign their Armor Class once they’re attacked in such a way. I feel that this Gift was a holdover from an earlier draft. Another Gift that raises more questions than it answers is Quick, where the text states “this Follower can use their own reaction to move anywhere within reason.” So does this mean that Followers have Actions, Bonus Actions, and Reactions of their own? The Follower Turn at the beginning of the chapter indicates that only one Follower can be activated during this Turn (or the PC’s Turn when the Hero spends a reaction) unless a Gift specifies that those with the same tag can act all at once. Finally, there are also Gifts which grant Followers advantages on various saving throws, and not just death saves, which implies that they too can be afflicted with negative Conditions.
At the most basic level, Followers aren’t the best combatants offensively. The +0 on attack rolls means that against high-AC opponents they’re only likely to land a lucky blow via overwhelming numbers and gaining Advantage. Most Weapon-Bearers deal a simple 1d6 damage die that doubles on a crit, or 1d4 with Advantage in the case of a Noble Animal’s natural weapons. But there are many Gifts which can make them fight better: Deadly Strike allows the Follower to spend Inspiration to turn a successful hit into a critical hit, Heavy War-Hand makes a Weapon-Bearer deal twice the normal amount of weapon damage dice, Multiple Strikes allows a Follower to make two attacks instead of one, Sneak Attacker deals 1d6 bonus damage like the Rogue class feature of the same name, and Two-Handed Blow turns the d6 damage die into a d8 for human Weapon-Bearers. And finally, the Hunter can grant Advantage on a Nature or Survival check as well as make a 1d6 ranged arrow attack with Advantage against a target within 80 feet. Unlike the Weapon-Bearer Gifts, Hunter does not activate Followers with the same Gift as a group, meaning that you can’t rain down a hail of arrows on one’s foes this way.
All of these abilities are pretty nice, but since there are precious few ways to give them straight bonuses on rolls* Followers as individual combatants aren’t really extraordinary. However, as even a Charisma 10 Hero can have as many as four Followers and a Charisma-focused one may have around seven at low Levels, their potential damage can get pretty high.
*One exception being the Noble Animal-restricted Animal Wisdom that can add 1d6 to any skill check undertaken by themselves, the Hero, or an ally.
This chapter concerns itself with the structuring of adventures and the types of stuff you’d find in a “DM’s Guide” equivalent sourcebook for Beowulf: Age of Heroes. Much like the poem of the same name, the RPG is very formulaic in the structure of adventures: the Hero learns of a danger, the Hero and their Followers take a voyage/journey to the source of the danger, they visit the meadhall of a community and learn more about the local troubles, the Hero encounters the Monster and makes use of learned knowledge to overcome it, and the day is saved and the Hero’s party is rewarded. Rinse and repeat.
is generated at the start of every adventure, forming the first line of a poem-style description akin to a couplet. Tables of nouns and adjectives are rolled, and results can add Inspiration Tokens to one of three Pools: the Hero Pool, the Follower Pool, or the Monster Pool. There are four tokens available at the start of play, and tokens can be spent from the pool to grant the appropriate character Inspiration (with the Monster Pool being for GM-controlled characters in general). This effectively makes Inspiration a stackable resource rather than a binary “have it/don’t have it” mechanic. Combined with the Alignment Die, this is a good way of having Inspiration come up in play more often and not be so quickly forgotten by GMs and players.
is when the Hero, their Followers, and their naval crew set sail on the Whale Road. There are suggestions for land-bound travel, although this section focuses on sea-based affairs. The Voyage generates 1-3 Challenges depending on its length before the vessel reaches its destination. Challenges are akin to random encounters, with tables separated by the type of Challenge, and can range from Followers getting involved in a religious debate, encountering pirates and monsters at sea, or dealing with particularly agreeable or disagreeable weather. Most Challenges are capable of imposing a Gift or Burden on the Ship and/or Followers, making it so that no Voyage is ever uneventful. One particularly notable and deadly Challenge involves a meteor falling from the sky, outright killing a Follower on a failed DC 5 DEX save, but granting them a very nice Gift that is only ever temporary: Sign From Above, granting the Follower advantage on all saving throws.Meadhalls and Mystery
is when the Hero’s vessel makes landfall at the troubled community. There’s a bit of fluff and cultural detail, talking about how most lands have “shore guards” to keep watch of the sea and hail travelers and/or report back to the community in the case of trouble. At the meadhall or social gathering spot, the Hero has the chance to learn more about the Monster and its secrets. Plot-relevant NPCs have Social Stat Blocks, indicating relevant skills to earn their trust, advantage/disadvantage on rolls based on the Hero’s background and actions, potential ‘side-quests’ relevant to the character, and other ways in which Followers can help improve the Hero’s chances of overcoming these social challenges. Beowulf subscribes to the “fail forward” philosophy, where the Hero can still have a direction to be pointed in if a roll fails, but with a price of some kind. For example, an offended NPC may abruptly leave the meadhall, leaving a strategic location unguarded which the Monster and/or other evildoers may take advantage of. Another failed roll may involve a local scribe or runist mentioning that they’re too busy to help and need to excuse themselves to research, which indicates to the Hero that they’re in possession of useful material.
Generally speaking, at the very least there should be opportunities for the Hero to learn where the monster lives, its strengths and weaknesses, and how to defeat it. There’s also talk of what kinds of activities people may do at the meadhall based upon their social class and occupation, other popular social gathering spots for the rare community or culture that doesn’t have a meadhall, and ways in which the Hero may find and recruit Noble Animals who typically aren’t the types to loiter in such places.Exploration
is an all-fluff chapter telling the GM how to make the setting feel alive in the description of common terrain and their particular cultural relevance to the native peoples. Being an historical fantasy setting, particular attention is paid to the more supernatural elements as well. The Dark Forest is an all-encompassing term for the vast woodlands further inland, widely recognized as territory belonging to elves, beasts, and unnatural monsters. Northern Europe is open to plenty of stationary bodies of freshwater, along with a wide variety of wetlands from swamps to fens to bogs. Said wetlands became so endemic in Denmark that the Anglo-Saxons left to seek better terrain elsewhere. Long stretches of open land known as heaths and moors are places where nothing taller than heather and wiry grasses grow, and such places are often associated with desolation and lack of shelter. Innumerable islands dot the Whale Road, many uncharted or sparsely settled, which are perfect opportunities for the PC to come upon some otherwise isolated or “undiscovered” community.
Although their boundaries didn’t touch the more northern reaches, the Roman Empire made headway in parts of Northern Europe. They long since receded to the eastern Mediterranean where they still hold power, but here the extent of their legacy are crumbling ruins and the few texts in Latin maintained by devotees to the God of the Book. The expansive roads, buildings, walls, and forums hint at a population and technology far in excess of the current era, which have caused the Anglo-Saxons and other indigenous groups to refer to the ancient Romans as “the giants.” The other vaguely-defined human civilization is “the Ancients,” a catch-all term for the cultural remnants of indigenous Europeans who built barrow-mounds, standing stones, and ruins. The works of both the ancients and the giants are known to contain lost knowledge and magical workings, although their lands are often cursed and home to strange Monsters and inhuman guardians ill-understood by most people. They are thus avoided by all save for desperate salvagers and enterprising sorcerers.
talks about creating the climactic villain of a Beowulf adventure. Although the Hero is likely to fight many lesser foes of supernatural disposition over the course of play, the capital-M Monster is the primary foe responsible for a community’s woes that cannot be felled by simple violence. In the lands of the Whale Road there are various types of commonly-known monsters, although the taxonomic classification by origin and species hasn’t really caught on yet. Most people don’t care how a monster came to be or if it’s related to other kinds of monsters: to most, a monster is a monster.
The Monster of an adventure has the Undefeatable Condition, which increases its Challenge Rating by 2, making them seemingly immortal. As such it is not common for the Monster to make an immediate appearance save by cautious and clever use by the GM, instead appearing after a slow build-up of dreadful premonition as the Hero’s party begins to piece together events over time. GM advice is given on how to construct a Monster’s lair, who would know about the Monster’s weakness or how such knowledge may be found, the goals of the Monster, and how to leave behind clues and evidence of its nature and actions.
Although it’s covered in the Monster chapter, I feel it necessary to tell it here: ordinary humans, no matter how wicked they may be, cannot be the Monster of a tale. They may serve Monsters or even gain fell powers from them or trafficking in the dark arts, but when a man becomes a Monster this reflects a warping of their own sense of being that they are no longer one of us.
Once the Hero has defeated the Monster come Rest and Rewards.
For those that use XP tracking, a table of sample rewards are divided into four categories (Monster, lesser Enemies, Meetings, & Investigation), while Achievement Rewards are similar to the Milestone system. In the latter case, gaining 6-7 Achievement Rewards from proper categories over a few adventures propels the Hero to the next level. Rewards, the generation of potential magical items in the monster’s hoard, and payment of crew (being generous in the payment grants the Loyal Crew Gift) are discussed, and Downtime between adventures provides suggestions on things the Hero can do in their spare time: Research that can grant useful information, Recuperation that can end negative Conditions and/or grant advantage vs diseases and poison for 24 hours on the next adventure, training in a new language or tool proficiency, and so on and so forth. This is on top of the actions used for upgrading Followers; Downtime indicates how the Hero self-improves.Player Journal
provides player-facing activities to help aid the GM in the creation of the story. Journals are basically creative writing exercises expanding upon a character, place, or event, sometimes retelling what already happened but from a relevant perspective in-character. The Hero Journal can grant bonus XP/Advancement checkmarks, while Follower journals grant a bonus choice for Gift attainment/Burden removal.
I recall times where some gaming groups assign a player to be a “campaign scribe” in summarizing events of today’s session, and in exchange get in-game boons for this task. The Player Journal system more or less codifies this as a rule, and is especially appropriate for duet play.
This chapter details the various rewards that can cross a Hero’s path during their adventures. The first section details sample tables and instructions on creating fancy valuable objects pertinent to the era, but the bulk of this section covers loot of the more magical variety.
Magical items from the base 5th Edition rules can be imported, but the book has some advice: Heroes may be learned in mystical ways, but they aren’t practitioners of sorcerous arts and so mostly concern themselves with magical items that have straightforward practical effects which don’t require deeply-honed arcane knowledge.
Talismans are common magical items primarily designed to be worn in order to avert misfortune or bring good fortune. They have once-per-day abilities which are activated in a certain way (prayer to a god, rubbing it or holding it alofted, swearing an oath, etc) and the effects typically grant Inspiration under a certain condition, turn a critical hit into a normal hit, restore hit points, or grant advantage on a certain skill type for 1 minute after spending Inspiration. Amulets are more powerful and typically have ‘charges’ which refresh every day such as spending inspiration to make a spent Follower unspent, gain Darkvision, or grant advantage on a specific kind of roll. Greater Amulets have always active powers such as breathing underwater, allowing the wearer to jump 3 times their normal distance, resistance vs a specific energy type, advantage on all saving throws, and the like.
Magical Weapons and Armour gain static attack/damage/AC bonuses, but they must have some kind of cultural significance or expert craftsmanship per +1 value. For example, pattern welding is a smithing technique which makes a weapon count as magical for purposes of damage resistance/immunity along with the +1 enhancement. Other means of creating/enhancing further +1s include weapons with names that become widely known in song and tale or are gifted via ritual gift-giving for a great service; ones etched with mysterious runes; and weapons found in ancestor graves and barrows (but are typically warded with curses and unliving guardians). There’s also “dwarf made” weapons and armor that in reality reflect any exceptional craftsmanship, and grant bonus damage equal to the wielder’s proficiency or an AC bonus equal to half said proficiency. Finally, there’s a sidebar which gives inspiration for coming up with Old English names for weapons and armour of renown.
Healing Treasures represent various herbs, salves, and medicines. They are never for sale and locally produced for times of great need or given as rewards to a Hero. They are rather ho-hum, restoring hit points and removing Conditions and diseases. But in regards to being used on Followers we get more interesting effects: healing items can cause a spent Follower to become unspent, gain a temporary Gift, or have a duration-based Gift last an extra round
Treasures of the Book and Hoards of the Old Gods are alignment-specific treasures and take on cultural aesthetics. Christian-style magic items include the bones of saints, engraved crosses, tablets inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer and such, while artifacts of the Old Ways can be more versatile ranging from hammer pendants, rune-engraved antlers, and carved wooden heads in the likeness of a deity. Both types of treasures impart once per day abilities, ranging from turning undead to adding Inspiration Tokens to a Hero/Follower Pool to imposing the stunned condition as an AoE against creatures of an opposing alignment/faith. There do exist “unaligned/neutral” treasures that tend to be merely extraordinary items unconnected to the supernatural, or possessed of powers unknown to both pagans and Christians. The neutral-aligned effects are more down to earth, like gaining advantage on any Intelligence check (particularly in the case of scholarly texts) or adding proficiency bonus to restored Hit Points during a short rest.
Magical Animals are the final type of treasure and are different from Noble Animals in that they are less active and only good for a neat trick or two at most. They can scout out areas, provide warnings, grant Inspiration to their owner 1/day, grant advantage on relevant skill checks in which they can be of assistance, or restore Hit Points 1/day via comfort and companionship or “magical spittle.” Gross.Thoughts So Far:
Although I have yet to test it out in play, the Follower system seems to have great potential in shoring up a lone PC’s short-comings. Given that the Hero can gain a lot of Followers over time it is approaching more of a “minion” style than that of relatively-equal sidekicks. The Gifts & Burden sub-systems are at once easily understood yet have enough variety in choices, and the use of encounters, being spent, awarding of treasure, and actions undertaken by the Hero during adventures keep Followers from feeling static and unchanging while also requiring canny management in the rest-based encounter system that is D&D 5th Edition.
The chapters on Adventure structure and Treasure had some useful material and provided great means of fleshing out the setting, although nothing in the way of being revolutionary. Overall, these chapters are nice additions for the GM in helping run campaigns that feel authentically Beowulfian.Join us next time as we cover the sample adventure in Part 6: the Three Ogre Brothers!