As you can tell with my prior Supers & Sorcery review, I’m attracted to products which promise to do something novel and experimental. Back during the heyday of Min-Max Boards I had a mini-series known as Courtroom Reviews where I looked over D20 sourcebooks promising to revolutionize the rules or offer something unfulfilled in existing products. Beowulf: Age of Heroes sold itself on two things: a new beautiful setting inspired by a mythical early medieval Britain and Scandinavia, and rules for 5th Edition that can enable 1 on 1 duet style play. While I’ll be reviewing the book as a whole, I admit that the latter promise tempted me to check this out, but Beowulf: Age of Heroes has more than enough material to make it an interesting read beyond this.
There is one more thing to address that I feel is worth mentioning: the creators are keenly aware that many fascists and hate groups have a fetishized view of Northern Europe that has sadly permeated among fandoms of various subcultures, so to counteract this a donation to anti-racist charities is made with every sale of the book. Furthermore, the book notes that Northern Europe had explorers and traders of groups who in modern times would be classified as people of color, and that while not a truly egalitarian society women had more rights and privileges than is often assumed to be the case. Several of the pregenerated characters reflect this, such as an Arab exile who pissed off the wrong nobleman in Baghdad and is now taking refuge in the Whale Road, or various warrior women who are capable of defending themselves against man and monster alike.
Forward & Introduction
So why Beowulf? Well we have a foreword and introduction talking about the history of the Beowulf poem, which being the oldest known work of recorded English literature and one of the most translated, has been interpreted in many ways throughout the ages. And that’s not counting the malleable nature of oral traditions which preceded or replaced the written word when that wasn’t available. Beowulf: Age of Heroes is thus a reimagining of that mythical time, when the Anglo-Saxons set sail for a new home in the British Isles, where the ruins of the recently-collapsed Western Roman Empire stood as testament to a former time of grandeur now long gone, where the barrows and standing stones of prior generations held ancient secrets long lost to present-day sages, and the grim determinism of old religions meet in an uncertain dance with the new God of the Book and its liberating promise of universal salvation. The PC is a Hero, cut from the cloth of mighty warriors, rulers of men, vengeful monster-hunters, and explorers of the stormy Whale Road who achieve mighty deeds in a land brimming with monsters, foul magic, and the omnipresent threat of nature itself.
Furthermore, the structured nature of Beowulf-style tales of “travel to new realms, slay the monster” are by now tried and true literary tropes. But Age of Heroes structures things on both the player’s and GM’s side to facilitate 1 on 1 play, including a sample adventure within the book (and a free adventure which is a product all on its own that I won’t be reviewing just yet).
One thing I’ll say about Beowulf: Age of Heroes is that its art is downright gorgeous. Every chapter starts out with a beautiful two-page spread, along with lines from the Old English poem pertinent to the subject matter. Our first chapter is fluff-heavy, detailing the world of early medieval Northern Europe. As this era in history is radically different from the typical castles, knights, and churches most people think of when they hear the Middle Ages, this section details things from an historical perspective to better immerse the reader. But as this is a game derived from folklore whose tellers prioritize a good story over historical accuracy, and set in a world where beasts of legend are real, the book also gives an ‘historical fantasy’ overlay closer to the kind of thing you’d imagine in a skald’s song rather than a dry academic treatise. The text acknowledges that much of the setting comes from an Anglo-Saxon perspective, but it does try to make note of other cultures and tribes, and even has a list of various notable groups of Europe during the Early Middle Ages. Some listed entries touch upon lands even farther south than Britain and Scandinavia, such as the Lombards of Italy and Visigoths of Spain.
So some broad overviews: the actual century isn’t marked, but it’s around the time the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons left their native Denmark due to rising sea levels and growing marshland to settle in the British Isles. The Roman Empire still stands in the east and the Islamic faith is forging a new Caliphate in the south, but in Northern Europe most of civilization are small plots of land organized into autonomous tribes and kingdoms rather than proper nation-states, where a warband of several dozen is considered a momentous event. Most travel is done by ship on the Whale Road, a term for the Northern and Baltic Seas, and barring a few trusted trade routes precious few people seek to settle further inland in continental Europe. Those lands are home to omnipresent dark forests, shadowy places of death filled with wolves, bears, bandits, and worse and whose soil is poor for farming. Most people are subsistence farmers, and division of labor is mostly specialists in various crafts: for example, blacksmithing, scops who are basically bards, and Christian monks who attend to spiritual duties.* The primary social venue in settlements was the meadhall, a communal longhouse that served as a multi-purpose eating place, courthouse where the local lord resolved disputes, and a place of retreat during raids by bandits and monsters.
*the priest as its own distinct social class doesn’t really exist among Anglo-Saxon pagan communities beyond community leaders overseeing the management of holidays and building of shrines. In these cases, “priestly duties” are very much a community effort.
In sparsely populated areas with only a few scribes and rune-carvers gifted in literacy, laws were not inviolate written tradition, instead being an informal series of oaths and gift-giving to cement trust and social bonds. Leaders of settlements were known as ring-givers, so called for the silver and golden rings worn on arms, fingers, necks, and other places which took on symbolic value in the dispensation of wealth. The payment of taxes, the sharing of loot obtained during voyages and raids, the payment of weregild (a life-price) for the death and injury of a community’s inhabitants, and hospitality of providing food and shelter to guests in exchange for respect and abiding by the laws of the household all share aspects of thess gift-giving and oath-based societal constructs. This is a culture where one’s word is one’s bond and to violate oaths and refusal to settle one’s debts within reason is one of the worst things a person can do.
We also have write-ups of more controversial material, or ones that often require care in their portrayal in gaming sessions. First off, the text notes that women had many privileges and rights as free men in Anglo-Saxon law, and the RPG makes no special import or distinction between genders in terms of the setting or in how people react to the PC and their Followers. The text later on does make mention of a common-held belief that women are innately better in the arts of divination and ascertaining the wyrd of others, and those who have a knack for it often gain a social role as wise women in communities. This is even the case in Christianity, who often culturally flavors such things as being visions from God. The use of fate and wyrd do have game mechanics, but gender has no bearing one way or the other in their manifestations.
Secondly, the discussion of slavery details how most slaves in Northern Europe were often indentured servants who sold themselves into bondage in order to avoid starvation. The text notes that while it wasn’t based on modern concepts of race and there were more ‘rights’ for the slaves at the time than the Transatlantic slave trade, it also notes that is it understandably uncomfortable material and shouldn’t necessarily be minimized into a “they didn’t have it so bad” mindset. The poem of Beowulf didn’t focus or elaborate on slavery much and that it’s reasonable for campaign to easily have all characters encountered be ‘free.’ Additionally, the cultural interpretation of Christianity in the region preached universal manumission as a virtue, and it was common in this era for many converted lords to free the slaves in their lands.
Moving on, our last major cultural section talks about faith and religion. The two major philosophies are the Old Ways, an all-encompassing term for the various European pagan practices, and the Church of the Book, aka Christianity.* The Old Ways are more fatalistic: there exist many gods, who don’t necessarily have to be moral paragons or figures that you like, and often have enough problems of their own in fighting fighting giants and other horrors. Humanity has no inherent special place in the cosmic order, and the world is doomed to destruction in a war with monsters. This is a reflection of the inevitable cycle of life, death, and conflict inherent to existence; this state of affairs isn’t necessarily good or evil, it merely is, and the best one can do is to adhere to a sustainable way of life and uphold values of strength, sacrifice, and self-determination. Sacrifices and rituals can earn favour from the Old Gods in exchange for blessings, such as magic amulets to ward off danger and divination from the words of spirits.
*albeit the sample Arab pregenerated PC for the Hermit’s Sanctuary standalone adventure has an alignment “of the Book,” and is noted as being “faithful to the One God, though his version seems somewhat different to those of the Northerners.” This likely implies that Jewish and Muslim characters would also count as being the same alignment in regards to the game’s faith alignment mechanics, which we’ll cover later.
We have a list of a few Gods of the Old Ways and their common names. They derive heavily from the Norse pantheon, including those classic standbys of Odin/Wodan/Wotan/etc and Thunor/Thor/Donar. The fact that different people use different names, rituals, and even tales of such beings is not seen as theologically troubling. They are gods, after all, and exist beyond the typical mortal constraints of time and fate. Finding their natures seemingly contradictory and hard to understand is but proof of their divinity.
The Church is a new religion to the region, and has its own explanation of the world and humanity’s place in it. Unlike the fatalistic Old Ways humanity is not doomed to the many cultural equivalents of Ragnarok, but that faith in the God of the Book and the actions of good works can help anyone earn spiritual salvation. Monsters of the world are the descendants of Cain the First Murderer, and God can help everyone resist them. Even the meekest slaves and sinners can do their part, if only they believe and repent. Adherents of the Church are mostly self-autonomous and some interpret God’s law in their own ways but acknowledge the leadership of Rome’s Pope. Through his aid they helped secure and copy many scholarly works via networks of monasteries and abbeys, which gave them a huge edge in using the gift of literacy for long-distance communication and economic bonds. Which they of course point to as God’s favor.
Christians at this point in history do not have the strength in numbers or force of arms to violently suppress the Old Ways in this region, so for now they mostly dedicate their conversions via rhetoric, trade, and economic aid. There are many people who in fact combine aspects of Christianity and the Old Ways, borrowing the teachings they find best apply to themselves and their communities, or are fence-sitters who for various reasons feel that they cannot take a definite stance on ultimate religious knowledge. Beowulf: Age of Heroes does not take a side in who is theologically right, and makes it so that both have elements of truth: treasures and rituals that appeal to pagan gods have just as much power as the relics of Saints, and monsters can be willing servants of Satan as often as they are giants seeking vengeance for their kin slain by Thor and Tyr.
But what everyone in the lands of the Whale Road believe in, be they pagan or Christian, is the power of Wyrd. To describe it in simplified terms for the benefit of an RPG, it is a cultural interpretation of something closest to fate or destiny. Everyone has a future and role to play in existence, for good or ill, but these things can be learned about and understood and thus influenced. A person’s wyrd can be found out via various omens and portents, both in divination rituals as well as knowing what to look for in the natural world. The wyrd of heroes is to achieve great things and be remembered by future generations for their skill and valor.
Our chapter ends with New Rules for Beowulf: Age of Heroes. More a list of things to come than an in-depth entry, each detail has reference to page numbers, and throughout the book there’s useful cross-referencing when these new rules are mentioned. We’ll cover these in their own sections, save for three exceptions:
Firstly, Alignment as it exists in Dungeons & Dragons has no place in Beowulf. The Hero is presumed to be a “good person” in that they help others in need by fighting monsters who are a blight on communities. Instead alignment reflects one’s faith: Old Ways, Of the Book, or Neutral. Each alignment has its own set of Feats available only to that religion, and certain magic items can only be attuned by the right believer. An Alignment Die represents the Hero having the special attention of God, the Gods, or luck and whenever a D20 is about to be rolled with Advantage the player can choose one of the dice to be representative of their Alignment. Once the dice are rolled the Hero can gain Inspiration if the Alignment die is selected as the result of the roll, whether it succeeds or not. In the case of a failed roll the short-term loss narratively rewards the Hero with Inspiration due to their Wyrd aligning with them. This way of rolling dice can be used a theoretically infinite number of times, only limited by the amount of times that they can gain Advantage during the course of play.
Secondly, there are two new Conditions which can be inflicted on or protect foes: Defeated and Undefeatable. Even in a warrior culture most people do not want to die, and fights to the death are rare. All kinds of humans and monsters can be subject to the Defeated Condition via general preconditions listed in their stat block. Being reduced below a certain Hit Point value is the most common, but other things include exposing them to their signature weakness, hacking off a non-vital but important limb, and the loss of morale via a leader or number of allies falling in battle. The specifics of the Defeated condition can take many forms, from becoming doomed to die from wounds after slinking away,* surrendering in battle, becoming disarmed or transformed to a harmless state in some way, and so on. What is inviolate is that the foe cannot continue to fight or take advantage of the Hero and their Followers afterwards in a moment of deception: Defeated means Defeated.
*which in fact was the fate of Grendel in the poem.
The other condition, Undefeatable, is a special Condition that only the major villain of an adventure can have. It’s reserved for “capital-M Monsters” as the book calls them, who have unmatched endurance but whose vulnerable state can be learned and thus exploited by the Hero. Not only are they immune to the Defeated condition, they only take 1 point of damage maximum from any source of harm. The Undefeatable Condition is removed once the Hero exploits their weakness or via their 20th-level capstone class feature.
Thirdly, Spears Are Always Available. This weapon is iconic for its ease of crafting and use, and the Hero can always find a spear at hand. Be it from the armory of a ship or meadhall, a spare weapon handed over by an ally or picked off a fallen foe, or even taking up a nearby hefty tree branch and snapping off the end into a sharp point, the Hero is never unarmed unless they make the conscious decision to fight with their bare fists.
Beyond just background, class, and feats, this 38-page chapter gives a player everything they need to build their starting Hero besides Followers who have a chapter all their own. To start with, the standard rules of 5th Edition are followed, with a few exceptions: first off, all Heroes are human: they have typical Human race things but add +2 to one ability score and +1 to another, are fluent in the Trader’s Tongue* and the language of their homeland, select one Feat they qualify for, and roll randomly or choose from a list of 12 Quirks. Quirks are mostly-passive abilities which give a Hero some useful feature or trick, and include options such as advantage on saves or resistance to certain harmful attacks, Darkvision of 60 feet, being able to move through the spaces of larger-sized creatures, or rerolling a natural 1 on an attack, ability check, or saving throw.
*an argot language used among sailors of the Baltic and North Seas.
Backgrounds exist in Beowulf, which more or less follow the PHB procedure of two skill proficiencies, bonus equipment, and Features. However, one interesting thing of note is that each one gives the PC a single Tool proficiency of their own choice. The Backgrounds are also reflective of a supposed role or destiny of the Hero, such as Avenger (a monster slaughtered your people and now you want to slay it), or the appropriately-named Chosen One (singled out for a special purpose by a prophecy). Additionally, the Features aren’t just role-play centric but have specific game mechanics that can directly aid the Hero. For example, the amnesiac Adrift’s feature allows the PC to spend Inspiration 1/adventure and choose an NPC who knows something of their past which can grant bonus XP when revealed, while Noble’s Blood can revive a Spent Follower* or restore Hit Dice equal to their proficiency bonus to a character as an action 1/long rest.
*Follower whose services and abilities are temporarily unusable.
The Hero Class is the only class available for play in Beowulf: Age of Heroes. They have a d8 Hit Die but start play with 10 + CON score (yes score, not modifier) in Hit Points at 1st level (d8 + CON modifier thereafter), can choose one uncommon save (STR/INT/CHA) and one common save (DEX/CON/WIS) in which to be proficient, and choose three skills of their choice in which to be proficient, and are a predictably martial class in having proficiency in all armor, shields, and weapons (including improvised weapons). For starting equipment they have a Hero’s Kit which contains common adventuring supplies, a spear, and can choose from an assortment of armor, shield, helmets, and melee and ranged weapons as bonus equipment. They already get a subclass at 1st level, and have 6 to choose from which are all strongly themed around an ability score.
Beyond their first level features, Heroes get predictable martial class features: a Fighting Style at 2nd level,* Ability Score Improvements/Feats every 4 levels but also at 6th, and an Extra Attack at 5th level. For more original features they can spend a bonus action, Inspiration, and Hit Dice to gain temporary HIt Points at 2nd level, can reroll a failed saving throw 1/long rest at 9th level, can counterattack in melee as a reaction at 11th level, can drop to 1 HP instead of 0 if they succeed at a CON save** at 15th, can deal bonus d8 damage and an automatic critical with a melee weapon by expending inspiration and shattering it at 17th level,*** and at 20th level can use a bonus action to remove the Undefeatable condition from a creature albeit having their own hit points reduced to 1/4th if above that value.
*which doesn’t have archery or 2-weapon fighting but does include 2 new ones: Shield-Strong gives +1 AC when you have a shield in one hand and spear in another, and Hammer-Handed which lets you make an unarmed or improvised weapon attack as a bonus action if you have at least one hand free.
**that increases every time it’s used between rests.
***the bonus damage is dependent on the number of positive qualities, or Gifts, the weapon has.
Many of the Hero’s class features center around melee combat, and lacking spells it would seem that they don’t have a good selection of choices. That being said, there’s some versatility in options among skills, tools, and the like along with the prior Backgrounds and later Feat and Follower options. And the subclasses known as Heroic Tales expand the class further. They have some things in common, notably the ability to impose the Defeated condition 1/long rest as an 18th level ability via some aspect of their trade.
Bench Breaker are brawny, mighty-thewed warriors. They gain abilities focused around melee combat, forceful lifting and moving, and so on. At 1st level they can add Strength instead of Charisma to Intimidation checks. At 3rd, 7th, 10th, and 14th levels they can choose a Wrestling move that grants them new actions in combat, ranging from a higher based unarmed damage die, the ability to shove or grapple as a bonus action, can spend Inspiration to impose the Stunned condition on an unarmed strike if the creature fails a CON save, and dealing automatic 2d6 + STR damage every round while grappling as they choke a creature, among other things. At middle to higher levels they gain advantage on STR checks when breaking things and being moved against their will, add double proficiency when forcefully moving and damaging objects, at 14th level they can perform an inhumanly impossible feat of Strength by spending inspiration and rolling a GM-imposed check with disadvantage, and at 18th level can impose the Defeated Condition if an unarmed attack reduces a creature to less than one-fourth its max HP.
While a great subclass for unarmed fighters, it leans a bit heavily on the unarmed/grappling side of things, and doesn’t have as many options (particularly in Wrestling) for Heroes who aren’t Hammer-Handed or prefer to keep their hands occupied with weapons or shields. But all that being said, I am happy to see more options for unarmed combat (including a Feat or two later on), especially given how Beowulf himself beat Grendel without any weapons. Such a fighting style isn’t one you see very often in European fantasy without the imposition of a Monk class.
Swift-Blessed rely on speed and reflexes to overcome the opposition. At 1st level they gain proficiency in Sleight of Hand if they didn’t have it already, and can use the skill to perform acts of legerdemain that can be passed off as magic to the unobservant eye and grant advantage (or disadvantage!) on an appropriate Charisma check. At 3rd level they can spend Inspiration to Dodge as a bonus action, at 7th level they gain the Rogue’s Evasion, at 10th level they can substitute Sleight of Hand vs an enemy’s Perception in lieu of an attack roll vs AC 1/rest and deal an automatic critical hit if they win, gain advantage on all DEX saves at 14th level, and at 18th level can impose the Defeated condition if a ranged attack reduces an enemy to 1/4th or less their max HP.
This subclass is rather defensive-minded, but its ability to get around an opponent’s defenses via Sleight of Hand and Dodge as a bonus action are very useful even if limited-use. I’m not keen on a class feature which can impose disadvantage depending on GM Fiat, as classes and subclasses by their nature are supposed to add more to a character rather than taking things away from them.
Ox-Spirited Heroes can push themselves through the most Hellish of torments via superhuman endurance and willpower. At 1st level they gain advantage on all saves and checks to resist position, and at 3rd level they can spend a Hit Die as a bonus action to gain resistance against one damage type for 1 turn or to turn a critical hit into a normal hit. At 7th level they gain advantage on saves to avoid Exhaustion, at 10th level they can spend Inspiration as a bonus action to negate the Stunned and Paralyzed conditions, at 14th level can spend a bonus action 1/long rest to heal 10 + CON score (not modifier, score) in Hit Points, and at 18th level they impose the Defeated condition on a creature if it fails a CON save vs an effect and the Hero succeeds against the same effect.
This subclass doesn’t grab me like the others, although I suppose it’s because its abilities are more passive than active. The 18th level ability feels more situational, too; it brings to mind challenging an enemy to a drinking contest or some other testing of endurance which may not always be applicable in the heat of battle.
Riddle-Reavers use knowledge and cunning in addition to martial skill in order to overcome foes. At 1st level they gain the incredibly useful ability to identify all resistances, immunities, and vulnerabilities of a creature by studying it as an action. At 3rd level they can grant Inspiration to themselves and a number of allies equal to their Intelligence modifier if they spend 1 minute preparing for and studying a challenge.* At 7th level they gain advantage on saves vs illusions, disguises, and sensory trickery, and at 10th level they gain advantage on saves against a creature’s special feature provided that they observe or gain knowledge about the feature in some way. At 14th-level they can bestow the 7th and 10th level advantages on allies who can see and hear them within 30 feet. At 18th level they can impose the Defeated condition on a foe if they spend an action and the enemy has less HP than them; if these circumstances are met and the enemy fails an INT save, they are Defeated.
*but can only benefit in such a way a number of times equal to their Intelligence modifier per rest.
The features of the Riddle-Reaver are useful in how open-ended they are, and they make for good team players with their Followers.
Council-Callers are wise beyond their years and mortal nature, relying upon common sense and worldly experience to find answers in the most hopeless and confusing trials. At 1st level they gain advantage in Insight checks to discern something about a creature who shares their alignment, which is pretty situational.* At 3rd level they can effectively cast the Augury spell 1/long rest, and at 7th level they can spend Inspiration to reroll an attack, save, or ability check before knowing whether or not the result is successful. At 10th level they can roll two d20 when finishing a long rest, and can replace the results of a roll made by a creature within 30 feet with one of these rolls.** At 14th level they gain advantage on all WIsdom saving throws, and at 18th level can impose the Defeated condition by spending a bonus action and succeeding at an Insight check of DC 20 + double the creature’s WIsdom modifier, and next round the Hero reveals the creature’s secret and thus the Defeated condition by spending an action.
*and in terms of a Christian PC nigh-useless against monsters who aren’t the type to pledge allegiance to the Abrahamic God. I take it this is more for social and investigative encounters, which are actually quite important in the adventure structure of Beowulf: Age of Heroes.
**each such die result may be used this way only once.
The Council-Caller subclass has very open-ended and useful abilities, with only the 1st level feature being of potentially limited usefulness. Like Riddle-Reaver it’s very much a thinking person’s subclass which shines best in the hands of a creative player.
Honey-Tongued are those whose forces of personality can stir the hearts of others, inspiring fearful dread and loving trust in equal measure. At 1st level if they spend Inspiration on a Charisma check when making a first impression, a successful result produces a dramatic or otherwise improbable reaction in the Hero’s favor. At 3rd level they can impose advantage or disadvantage on a creature’s attack/save/ability check within 30 feet as a reaction a number of times per rest equal to their Charisma modifier. At 7th level they and their allies within 10 feet have advantage on saves vs charms and enchantments, and at 10th level they can dispel a magical effect on another creature (not just mind-afflicting ones) 1/rest via an Intimidation or Persuasion check against the DC of the original saving throw. At 14th level they can cause all creatures within 60 feet to stop fighting on a failed Wisdom save 1/rest; if nobody has made an attack roll at the beginning of their next turn they can talk to the crowd uninterrupted for 1 minute. At 18th level they can impose the Defeated condition by succeeding on an Intimidation check DC equal to 20 plus twice the creature’s Charisma modifier, provided that it’s current HP is lower than the Hero’s.
This subclass is broadly useful, with a bit of an unexpected anti-magic aspect among the mid-range class features. The “speak really good” abilities are a bit more open-ended in the results they can impose, although the 3rd level feature is really good both for helping one’s Followers and for hindering foes in general.
I intended to have the rest of the chapter in one post, but this is getting rather long so I’m going to separate them into two sections.
Thoughts So Far: The book does a great job at portraying an evocative historical fantasy feel of an otherwise ill-understood era in both flavor text and mechanics. It is by no means weighty in the words department, but it has just enough detail to get across the right feel.
The Hero Class, while being more freeform in options than most martial classes, is partially concerning on account that such archetypes don’t approach the brevity of options that spells can give, and some of the subclasses felt more open-ended than others. However, between the Alignment Die and some of the later new rules such as Followers, there looks to be enough options to take both in combat and outside it for a player to feel like they have a healthy array of tactical decisions.
One thing I really like is the Defeated Condition. Although a GM with verisimilitude on their mind can get around it easily enough, a lot of tabletop RPGs (and especially video game RPGs) have almost every combat be one to the death. Although it enshrines it in specific mechanics, the imposition of overcoming a foe once a certain circumstance is met is one I like and can see myself incorporating into mainstream D&D.
Join us next time as we cover the rest of Part 2, from new equipment, ships, feats, and more!