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BEOWULF: Age of Heroes – An Interview With Jon Hodgson (Handiwork Games)

When I read that Jon Hodgson of Handiwork Games and, formerly, of Cubicle7 had a Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition game based on Beowulf, I wanted to talk to him about it since he’s one of the handful of creators I’ve met face-to-face. In 2017, I won a chance to sit with Cubicle7 at the ENnie Awards. Jon Hodgson was there and, like everyone at C7, made a real effort to entertain me, and I appreciate that. During the Scarred Lands Creature Collection (5e) Kickstarter, Jon shared some details about the campaign that corrected my misunderstandings. With that in mind, I caught up with him about his latest campaign, which concludes tomorrow at 12 PM EDT.
BEOWULF- Age of Heroes 01.jpg
EGG EMBRY (EGG): Thanks for joining me. Let’s discuss your RPG Kickstarter, BEOWULF: Age of Heroes. What’s the project’s pitch?
JON HODGSON (JH)
: Beowulf is a setting for 5e, featuring duet play – one GM one player. It’s set in the half-remembered world of Anglo-Saxon myth we see in the poem Beowulf.

EGG: Why Beowulf?
JH
: Through my work on The One Ring Roleplaying Game I’d become very familiar with the poem Beowulf. It was one of Tolkien’s big influences, and it’s hard to overstate how much of Beowulf is in Middle-earth. Even the term “middle-earth” is found in Beowulf! When it came time to move on from C7 [Cubicle7] and find a way to do more satisfying work, I looked around at what I had, and what I knew, and making a cool 5e setting around Beowulf seemed like a great idea. There’s a lot of “stuff” for gaming in there – Dragons, gold, magic swords, monsters... The idea of a 5e game for two players – duet play really appealed, and dove-tailed beautifully with the lone hero (plus helpers) story in Beowulf.

EGG: Duet play? D&D 5e is balanced for a standard party with mage, cleric, and fighter. How have you rebalanced the gameplay to compensate for that alteration? What drove duet as the direction?
JH
: One big hassle we all face is trying to get a group together. With just two people it’s amazingly easy. You just message a friend and agree on a time. We wanted to do something to help with that. Now BEOWULF isn’t going to replace all your group games – they have their own appeal, and their own unique dynamics. But then so does BEOWULF! How we balanced things spreads across a few areas in 5e. So there’s the Hero Class, which is a bit beefed up at lower levels so you stand a chance. There’s also Followers, and the Inspiration pool. Between those three things, there’s space for a lone hero to thrive.

EGG: What’s the Hero class?
JH:
So, in Beowulf (the poem), Beowulf is a singular sort of character. He’s well-spoken, as strong as thirty normal men, an excellent swimmer, weaponsmaster, and brawler. In other words, he’s the whole party package, rolled up into one person. As we began development it was very clear that we couldn’t just take the Fighter class (for example) and add on the Follower system and call it a day. Heroes have to be capable in multiple areas. But we also know that folks will want to make their Hero a bit different than others, by focusing on a certain area. Beowulf is a “bench-breaker” subclass of the Hero, known especially for his Strength.

EGG: Subclasses are based on the Hero’s attributes scores? Can you give an example?
JR:
Sure. So there are six subclasses, each focused on one of the six ability scores. So every Hero can do certain things — they’re good fighters, can take some serious punishment and have lots of chances to specialise in things that interest them (i.e. take feats or improve their ability scores). But your choice of subclass lets you really focus on what you want to be best at. You can be like Beowulf and be remarkably good at unarmed combat, or you choose to be a Riddle-reaver and rely on your intelligence to study situations, find advantages and detect weaknesses in your enemies.
BEOWULF- Age of Heroes 06.jpg
EGG: In this game, what will Followers add?
JH
: Every Hero has their band of Followers. The precise number is determined by a few factors like level. Followers mostly remain in the background, just like they do in the poem: the story is about the Hero after all. But when their gifts are needed, Followers step up to help. Most followers can take a special action of one kind or another, and then they become spent, retiring from the spotlight until they’re rested. They might use their specialist knowledge to support the Hero’s efforts at a task, providing advantage on a roll. Or they might actually strike a blow against an enemy. Likewise, they might take a blow on behalf of the Hero. Followers also have the ability to rescue the Hero should a battle go badly, but they put their very lives on the line to do so, and when the Hero recovers, some of their band might well have fallen.

EGG: What other rewards are available through your Kickstarter?
JH
: We have so much super cool stuff. It’s slightly unusual in that we’ve invested heavily in both time and money before the campaign so that we don’t have to unlock our add ons via stretch goals – we’ve spent a good year working on miniatures, tokens, and some other gorgeous stuff. I’m really pleased with what we’re able to offer backers right away. And all the work is done, bar production – our miniatures are all sculpted – I had great fun painting the very first 3d prints for the campaign page. The tooling work for our lovely metal tokens is already done. We just need to tell our friends at Campaign Coins how many we’d like, if we fund.

EGG: Who is working on this with you?
JH
: We have a brilliant team. I’m very fortunate to be joined by some old colleagues on this one. Jacob [Rodgers] has chimed in – I first worked with Jacob on Adventures in Middle-earth, where he really proved his mettle. David Rea did some really excellent proofing work on The One Ring and Adventures in Middle-earth, and it’s been great to get his expertise. He really knows his 5e, and he brings a lot of breadth of play style to the team. On the art and production side we have Scott Purdy and Paul Bourne who worked with me at my previous job, and left shortly after I did. I was tremendously fortunate in being able to convince them to join Handiwork Games as staffers. If we do well on Kickstarter we have some really exciting names to reveal as adventure writers – both in terms of names people will recognise, and some really fresh new voices that bring some much needed new perspectives. Who knows if we’ll get there though?

EGG: What can players expect from the free introductory adventure, BEOWULF: The Hermit's Sanctuary?
JH
: It’s a real showcase of what we’re doing. You get a slightly slimmed down version of a bunch of the new systems we’ve built – we really wanted to show people very clearly what we’ve been up to, as well as showing off our production chops. It’s an archetypical BEOWULF adventure – there’s a call for help from a small kingdom or settlement, and the Hero answers. They then must investigate the cause of the problem, and uncover how it can be resolved. Let’s be honest here - it’s usually a monster. And almost always an unkillable monster. Or at least unkillable by normal folk. The trick is unraveling how to defeat it, and that usually lies in a combination of knowledge found with NPCs, and by investigating the locale itself. That’s all there in the Hermit’s Sanctuary.
Hopefully people are enjoying it – it is completely free, so there’s no reason not to grab a copy from DriveThruRPG.
BEOWULF- Age of Heroes 03.jpg
EGG: In the campaign, you’ve taken a strong stance against racism. What efforts are you making to distance this setting from any racists?
JH
: It’s a great source of sadness that some of the aesthetics of this era have been adopted by racists – you see a lot of racist Norse tattoos and the like, none of which really makes an awful lot of sense – there’s nothing inherently extra-racist about the Anglo-Saxons as a historical group. And stories like Beowulf are world treasures to be enjoyed by everyone. Once the book is out we’ll be making a donation from every sale to anti-racist charities. We can’t do that from Kickstarter because it’s against the rules, but once it’s out and on general sale, we can and will. On a smaller scale we have very clear rules on what we do and do not include when it comes to imagery that has been sadly co-opted by extremists. We don’t use the lighting rune for example. We’ve reworked a couple of fonts to be less like that. But as we’ve said on the campaign page – we don’t want to entirely abandon this fascinating and inspiring part of history to extremists who have no claim on it. Beowulf is for everyone!

EGG: Thank you for taking the time and making those changes to make this a product for everyone. What other projects are you working on?
JH
: We have a bunch of stuff on the go! We’re really well progressed through the new edition of cult UK classic a|state. We’re taking the amazing setting and re-presenting it as a Forged in the Dark game, which is proving to be a wonderful fit. We have an awesome team on that one – Morgan Davie, Gregor Hutton, and we’ve even convinced the original lead writer, Malcolm Craig, to return to offer his assistance. Right now we have 40 groups playtesting the first scenario. You can check out a|state on our website. It’s looking super cool. We’re also working on three new card games – the Forest Dragon Farmer is something we’ve been meaning to get out there for ages, and we have a couple more under wraps.

EGG: Thank you for talking with me. Where can fans follow you and learn more about this campaign?
JH
: Head to [our website] and you’ll find loads of links to everything we’re up to, including the BEOWULF campaign.
Egg Embry participates in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program and is an Amazon Associate. These programs provide advertising fees by linking to DriveThruRPG and Amazon.
 
Egg Embry

Egg Embry


lyle.spade

Adventurer
This looks really interesting. I recently picked up Nights Black Agents Solo Ops, which is also a 1:1 game, and it looks like these folks have approached the challenge with some similar ideas, especially in the use of contacts and followers to fill in gaps presented by a one-PC party.
 

DMMike

Guide of Modos
EGG: Duet play? D&D 5e is balanced for a standard party with mage, cleric, and fighter. How have you rebalanced the gameplay to compensate for that alteration? What drove duet as the direction?
JH
: One big hassle we all face is trying to get a group together. With just two people it’s amazingly easy. You just message a friend and agree on a time. We wanted to do something to help with that. Now BEOWULF isn’t going to replace all your group games – they have their own appeal, and their own unique dynamics. But then so does BEOWULF!
So if the awesome setting and art weren't enough, the game also promotes social distancing? Win-win!
 



Azzy

Newtype
Dammit. Look what you made me do: I ended up backing it despite not want to spend any more money until after Friday. le sigh

On a more serious note, I was interested in this when it was first announced (it's been quite a while). I hadn't heard anything about it since last year and didn't know that the KS was up and running. Well, I sneaked in with 9 hours left before the KS ends. :D Still, I was on the fence—as much as I've loved Beowulf since middle school, I was hesitent about the duet thing. However, getting to hear more about it and its mechanics started tipping me over the fence. After seeing the art, it was all over. The whole, vocal anti-racist stance was just the cherry on top—I am so damned sick of racists co-opting my heritage.
 

Volund

Explorer
I ran Hermit's Sanctuary on Roll20 for a friend in my regular 5e group and he thought the adventure was great! I backed the KS and we're looking forward to running more adventures along the Whale Road. The pdf KS reward level is under $20 so give it a look!
 



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