Hard to believe it’s been half a year since my last Let’s Read, but here I am back in the swing of things! Like my last two projects, I chose a book of which I am passionate about: the Southlands Campaign Setting.
The Southlands is a sort of “setting expansion” to Kobold Press’ Midgard: a thematic blend of Ancient Egypt, the Arabian Nights, and various fantasy counterpart sub-Saharan African kingdoms ranging from antiquity to the Early Modern period. There are also some pulpy tropes such as lost temples of prior civilizations, but is thankfully absent of “evil primitive natives to kill and loot” trope. The Southlands began as a KickStarter in late 2014 and soon grew to be one of the most-backed crowdfunded Pathfinder books with nearly $100k raised. At times it ranked as one of the most popular Pathfinder settings by Drive-Thru RPG sales figures for years, usually eclipsed only by the main Midgard Setting, Ponyfinder, and some other hot sourcebooks of the month. It is one of the few d20 products which goes for a Fantasy Africa vibe as a central setting, and its high production values combined with comprehensive research on the writers’ part make it a unique gem shining among 3rd party worlds.
Note:The Southlands Campaign Setting, unlike the Midgard Worldbook, is exclusively Pathfinder in its mechanics, but several supplements such as Southlands Heroes and a few adventure serials imported material from it to 5th Edition. For those familiar with my last review I should also note that its publication was 3 years before the Worldbook which updated the Midgard setting by 10 years. Thus, certain details such as the Nurian alliance with the Seven Cities against the Mharoti have not yet been undertaken.
Welcome to the Southlands
The Southlands’ prologue opens up with Seven Secrets of the Southlands in a similar vein to the Midgard Worldbook: important setting elements which emphasize what to expect from the land and what makes it different from other settings on the market.
- A Vast Continent: The Southlands is a huge landmass well over 2,000 miles long from north to south. The continent teems with all manner of forbidding lands, diverse nations and city-states, and lost legacies of prior civilizations. Long-term journeys matter even more than the destination.
- Land of Endless Actions: The Southlands hews more for a pulpy adventure and Fantasy Africa feel in contrast to Midgard’s traditional Ye Old Medieval fantasy. Emphasis is placed on lost wonders, secret conspiracies plotting against each other, and fast-paced action and plot twists.
- Ancient Powers: The Southlands is home to larger-than-life entities of godlike power who shaped the fate and reach of civilizations. Three of note are highly detailed: the former titan empire of Glorious Umboso which once ruled the majority of the continent; the still-living Wind Lords who hold dominion over most of the northern deserts; and the living gods of Nuria Natal who regularly physically manifest and meddle in the affairs of their mortal subjects.
- Divine Sparks for the Taking: Not even the divine lasts forever, but their legacies persist in the annals of history. Gods, titans, and other supreme beings have an internal force known as a “spark” which normally dissipates upon their death. But sometimes it lingers on, sealed in sacred vessels or tombs or even claimed by beings seeking great power.
- New Cultures and Altered Races: The Southlands is in the same realm as Midgard, and includes a few of said setting’s races such as minotaur and ravenfolk albeit with altered cultural mores. For example, ravenfolk are often associated with the Nurian gods Horus. But aside from humans and dwarves, the “traditional” fantasy races are done away with in favor of five playable new ones along with minor regional races.
- History Reborn: The Southlands is ancient, having gone through numerous empires and dynasties which rarely remain buried in the past. From mummified god-kings who raise from the dead to defend their nation to discovered relics, the past affects the present in ways both metaphorical and literal.
- Unfolding Plots and Expanding Conflicts: The cultures and nations of the Southlands are rarely stagnant, and even old kingdoms’ borders can shift from invasions, raids, and politicking. Bandits and cults are lower-scale yet just as dangerous, whose evil designs can spell doom to communities.
I feel that a few of these points aren’t exactly novel or unique, but I do particularly enjoy the concept of divine sparks (which actually have game mechanics by using the Mythic Adventures system) as well as the overall avoidance of simply replicating the dwarf/elf/etc fantasy races whole-cloth.
A Brief History
Even the canniest scribes and blessed scholars can only compile a fraction of the Southlands’ history which stretches back to time immemorial. The sands of past eras eroded the legacies of many rulers to the point that they’re mentioned only as footnotes in papyrus scrolls and oral folklore. Fact turns into legend and rumors, and conquering kingdoms rewrite history to glorify themselves. Even so, there are a few grand nations and events which are remembered thousands of years later.
This section of the introduction is peculiar. Instead of a linear progression of years, the text is organized by local cultures and the rise and fall of specific kingdoms. While I suppose it can be good for condensing relevant information for said realms, it is a bit jarring and even the longer-lived nations such as Nuria Natal jump around in places. There’s one entry of the rise of Morreg 1,500 years ago; after that we get the Moon Kingdom which rose 450 years ago; then we jump back to 1,100 years ago to cover how a pair of nomad nations rose from scattered tribes to repel Morreg’s incursions. I’m going to opt for a different approach, where I try to adhere to a more linear timeline.
What follows is a condensed history of the Southlands. Around the dawn of creation the giant Aurgelmir’s breath transformed into the four Wind Lords. Said spirits sought to avoid the war between gods and giants, retreating to the newly created plateaus and deserts of the mortal realm. After Wotan and the first gods triumphed over the giants, the defeated remnant titans retreated into far-off lands and founded an empire in the southern continent known as Glorious Umboso. Their civilization sparked many wonders and advances in art, lore, and magic and were worshiped as gods by less-powerful mortals. Alongside Glorious Umboso rose the kingdom of Nuria Natal, where a dynasty of mage-families discovered a powerful ley line within the river that would become the nation’s namesake. Although its borders shifted greatly, the river kingdom survived to the present day with the aid of mummified god-kings of prior generations, ready to wake during times of greatest need.
3,000 years ago the island kingdom of Ankeshel slipped beneath the waves, causing fleeing refugees to make their way to the Southlands’ northern deserts. They intermarried among the indigenous people and would later become known as the Tamasheq. The titans of Glorious Umboso were afflicted with a terrible magical plague which plunged entire cities into madness. No amount of magical or natural healing could halt its progress, so in a desperate bid to preserve their legacy they imparted bits of their divine sparks to trusted mortals. They charged said mortals to act as caretakers for their empire until they recovered. A few titans took shelter among the sea god Nethus, but most sadly destroyed their civilization in an orgy of chaos and violence. The titans’ former core territory became known as the Abandoned Lands, with uncontrolled magic from altered ley lines spilling out into the world and warping flora and fauna.
Although they did not intend to be such, the Wind Lords would soon earn their name as political leaders of the Ankeshelian refugees. The four Wind Lords debated how to handle this, and three of them agreed to accept them within their lands. The dissenting voice, Boreas the Northern Wind, viewed this as an invasion and assaulted the refugees with freezing storms and attacks by his elemental minions. The Southern, Eastern, and Western Winds were disgusted by this cruelty and made war against Boreas, driving their bloodthirsty brother out of the Southlands to Midgard’s far north.
Some disciples of the titans founded city-states among the Southlands’ western coast about 1,500 years ago. The mightiest two were Morreg and Lignas. Lignas was a metropolis of learning, with compiled lore making their scholars prized by far-off kings who sought the best advisers. Morreg was a more militaristic city whose warriors seized territory all along the coast, turning their humble beginnings into a self-designated Enlightened Empire. Lignas, with its mighty arcanists and theurges, was the only realm which could repel them for an extended period but even they were sacked in time. Alas Morreg’s reign would fall, not at the hands of an outside power by by its own mad Prince Agajay. Their leader's seduction by the teachings of an evil god plunged Morreg into ruinously expensive military campaigns and broke his empire into scattered warbands. Mutual defense pacts forged by far-flung tribes fearful of Morreg’s powers turned the Cattle Queens of Terrotu and the Zulu-like Narumbeki Legions into veritable forces. Lignas regained its independence, and after suing for peace Morreg entered a long period of decline.
In the following generations the Southlands saw the rise and fall of other civilizations. The maritime minotaurs founded a Carthage-like Moon Kingdom 450 years ago before the Mharoti Empire razed its cities. 400 years ago the druids of Kush accidentally summoned an eldritch abomination known as the Green Walker. In a fit of desperation the druids conducted a self-sacrificial ritual to freeze the monster's cancerous growth in a bubble of slowed time.
200 years ago the Mharoti Empire’s early expansions pushed into the Southlands, warring against Nuria Natal, razing the Moon Kingdom’s Cities, and even trying to annex the Dominion of the Wind Lords. The Moon Kingdom suffered heavy losses, but the Nurian God-Kings and Wind Lords push back hard. They unleashed the full brunt of their divine and elemental might against the draconic warbands, from undead armies to golem siege engines rising from the pyramids to spirit-infused breath weapons turning against their own dragons. The Empire’s forces retreated from the Southlands, but the dragons did not consider this a total defeat. In future generations they would test their capabilities, conducting smaller scale raids against key targets with decades-long gaps between them to keep the shorter-lived races complacent enough that they won “this time.”
Divine Sparks have their own side-bar in the first chapter. The usually manifest as glowing spheres of energy found within the most secured dungeons, ruins, and and palaces. Oftentimes they are pursued as part of a great undertaking, but more than a few unassuming souls rose to great deeds by accidentally stumbling across them in more unexpected places.
Mechanics-wise, a character must absorb the spark into their body in a four hour process of meditation and internal study. The character rolls an integration check, which is 1d20 + their character level + the highest of their Constitution, Intelligence, or Wisdom modifiers against a DC of 30. Success allows the character to become a mythic character as per the Pathfinder Mythic Adventures rules, or counts as a completed trial in the process of gaining new mythic tiers.
Failing the integration check afflicts the would-be powerseeker with a permanent curse as per the bestow curse spell. Alternatively for Game Masters who don’t care for Mythic Rules, divine sparks could instead grant powers usable a certain amount of times per day, usually a spell-like ability of up to 5th level, limited shape-changing, or immunity to a specific element or harmful effect.
The Mythic Rules are Pathfinder’s answer to 3rd Edition’s Epic Levels. Instead of extending numerical abilities past the 20th level cap, there are Mythic Tiers independent of level which are ascended via the completion of heroic trials. The tiers grant unique abilities as well as Mythic versions of existing feats and spells. I have never played with these rules, but from what I heard of Paizo’s Wrath of the Righteous is that they take Pathfinder’s tenuous balance and rocket launcher tags and amplify them to 11.
The later chapters outline examples of divine sparks and their locations, as well as some important NPCs who already have one. As such sparks are rare and implied to be part of the culmination of an adventure arc, the rolling for integration seems unnecessary and should instead be narratively played out. The fact that only one creature can absorb a spark at a time means that scaling will be uneven within PC groups unless discovered sparks are always equivalent in number to the party size when found. Given that the Mythic Rules for Pathfinder are already quite unbalanced, this will only further exacerbate PC power levels if played straight.
But I do like the concept of adventurers traveling around in a classic fantasy “find the legendary crystal MacGuffins” as part of an epic quest, with a literal divine power boost as a reward for each one collected.
Races of the Southlands
The majority of this section provides us a discussion of two existing “major races” of humans and dwarves along with five new races. There is also a list of “minor races” whose presence is smaller, localized to specific regions. The minor races, if they are new and not reprinted from the core rules or existing Midgard books, are detailed in their own respective chapters.
Humans dominate the Southlands much like they do in most campaign settings. The major cultural groups are divided into six group categories which are more akin to pan-ethnic groups: spread among many countries but with a shared linguistic and/or cultural origin.
The Annites are descendants of Ankeshel refugees and northern nomads, whose two major groupings are the Tamasheq nomads and the Qamari humans of the minotaur kingdoms. They are analogous to the real-world Amazigh and Carthagnian peoples respectively, and start with 4 (!!!) languages by default: Draconic, Nurian, Tamasheq, and the Southern Trade Tongue.
Kushites’ name derives from their rainforest kingdom, although their numbers can be found all the way to the far south. They live in isolated tribes but they do have a large capital city called Nangui built on the stump of a fallen World Tree. Kushites produce a high number of albinos among their people, which their enemies ignorantly proclaim to be a sign of demonic blood. If I had to guess, they are analogous to the real-world Kingdom of Kush in antiquity, although the rainforest is a new touch.
The Morregi include the people of the western coasts, both of the nation-state and those whose ancestral lands were once claimed by them. Their culture is known for frequent joyous celebrations, and are quite proud of their self-proclaimed ability to produce great priests and prophets. Between Lignas’ centers of learning and Morreg’s powerful diviners, it is a claim that is often backed up with ample examples. As said nations’ regions were known as the Kingdoms of Gold and Salt in prior Midgard publications for the preponderance of said trade goods, I presume that they are analogous to West African Kingdoms such as Mali and Ghana.
The Nurians are common throughout not just Nuria Natal, but also portions of Kush, the Spice Coast, and the city-states of Siwal and Saph-Saph. They are a proud people, able to point to an unbroken heritage spanning back thousands of years. They are analogous to real-world Ancient Egyptians (Nuria Natal) and Arabs (Siwal and Saph-Saph).
The Tethyians live among the islands of the Southlands’ east coast and engage heavily in maritime trade. They sport heritage not just from the Southlands, but also travelers from Khandiria and Far Cathay (Midgard’s fantasy counterpart India and China).
The Zwana are tall people with sharp features who live around the settled edges of the Abandoned Lands and whose most well-known members include the citizens of Narumbeki, Terrotu, and Omphaya. Their customs and regional dialects vary wildly depending on where they live. I do not know what specific real-world counterpart cultures they adhere to beyond the Narumbeki being Zulus, but would probably guess various savanna cultures.
Dwarves of the Southlands are related kin to their northern counterparts, but culturally are very different. They are more known for scholarly pursuits such as scribes, alchemy, and magic (as well as engineering and artisanship) than warfare. They are respected in most lands for their high-quality goods.
Gnolls are one of the “new” races of the Southlands. Much like their typical D&D counterparts they are warlike and their societies operate on a Social Darwinist worldview where strength and martial prowess determines one’s station. The weak of their own race and others are often enslaved, but due to their respect of strength they can exist on non-violent terms with cities and nations who more than prove their worth. There’s a sizable number of “civilized” gnolls who integrated into Nurian cities and even adopted their gods.
Stat-wise gnolls get +2 Strength and Constitution with no other stat penalties, +2 natural armor, darvkision 60 feet, as well as spear/bow/mace proficiencies and Survival boosts for locating food and water. Their only negative trait is their cowardly nature which gives -2 on fear-based effects.
Gnolls make for pretty strong warriors, and their natural armor boost is pretty good.
Kijani are a plantlike pseudo-race whose ancestral homes are the jungles of Kush. The Green Walker’s depredations forced them into a diaspora to the far south. They are calm, contemplative people who seek to master their worser natures of anger and fear which are the result of a sort of cultural PTSD from their exodus of Kush.
Kijani appear like green-skinned members of other races in part due to their Great Change, where they implant symbiotic seedlings into willing hosts. This is part of a multi-generational evolutionary plan to turn their race from plants to mammals. The seedling grows over time before separating from its host to rapidly grow into a full-fledged kijani bearing aspects of their host “parent.” Knowledge of this process can be unnerving to outsiders, so they only share the Great Change with trusted non-kijani friends and lovers.
Stat-wise they have +2 Charisma, -2 Constitution, and +2 to one other ability score reflecting their humanoid host. They are also treated as the plant type rather than humanoid, gain bonuses to attacks and AC when reduced below half their Hit Points in a pseudo rage, a constant speak with plants effect, and may treat any two knowledge skills as class skills and gain +2 on checks with them. The plant type alone is a powerful defensive ability (immune to mind-affecting, paralysis, polymorph, sleep, and stunning) but otherwise the rest of their abilities are rather balanced and thematically useful.
Nkosi are feline humanoids whose creation lies at the hands of the titan Gamka’s divine spark. Gamka granted trust human servants with the powers of the mighty lion. These ur-nkosi could transform into said wondrous beasts for a limited time and even gained vestigial features long-term. They appear as humans with catlike teeth, eyes, and fur in their natural form and organize their societies into extended family units where children are raised as a group. They treat humans as long-lost kin, and possess binding oaths which are often assigned to family and/or country.
Stat-wise they have +2 to Strength and Dexterity but -2 Charisma, have the Monstrous Humanoid (Shapechanger) type, a base speed of 35 feet, treat Perception and Stealth as class skills, a natural bite attack, and can transform into a zwana lion (new monster in this book) a limited number of times per day as akin to the beast shape spell.
Nkosi are very much built to favor melee and mobile striker roles.
Tosculi are wasp-like insectoids who have a poor reputation among the rest of the Southlands for being on a constant war footing with their neighbors. They have a caste-based society much like ants (drones, builders, warriors, queens) who seek to conquer for their leader’s glory. Tosculi possess a hive-mind mentality where they are born hearing a song known as the Golden Swarm. A few tosculi are born every so often unable to hear this song and often seek a life of independence. Even then these outcasts rarely fit into other societies, becoming loners or banding together among other misunderstood outcasts.
Stat-wise they have +2 Dexterity, +2 Wisdom, and -2 Charisma. They are Small Monstrous Humanoids with +1 natural armor, two 1d3 claw attacks, treat Perception and Stealth as class skills, can share a square with another member of their race at once and flank any foes they are engaged with at the same time, can use soften earth and stone once per day as a spell-like ability which they use to build their hive-cities, and have wings which allow them to glide and fall safely from any height even if unconscious, paralyzed, or similarly restrained.
Tosculi are begging to be put into roguish and scouting archetypes on account of their skills. Many of their racial traits are useful for all kinds of archetypes, from their auto-class skills to natural armor and gliding wings.
Trollkin are the descendants of all varieties of immortal and monstrous races cross-breeding with humans. “Trollkin” is a catchall term for these people. Trollkin are feared by many and viewed as violent brutes, pushing them to gather into tribes known as septs scattered throughout the Southlands. Their variant bloodlines means they have lots of physical diversity, but tall forms and strong bodies are a near-universal trait.
Stat-wise Trollkin have +2 Constitution, -2 Dexteirty, and +2 to one other ability score representing a dominant monstrous/supernatural heritage. They have a natural bite attack, +2 to Intimidate checks, +1 natural armor, and a racial bonus on saves against ingested poisons equal to their Hit Dice. Furthermore they can take alternative racial variants represneting various bloodlines. The default trollkin race has a zimwi ancestor (ravenous lion-like ogres cursed with eternal hunger), but there are three subraces who can swap out the trollkin’s default racial features of bite attack, AC bonus, and saving throws vs ingested poisons in favor of new abilities.
Fey-kin can grant a choice of an appropriate cantrip as a once-per-day spell-like ability and bestow curse as a once per month spell. Eloko-kin descend from a race of evil underground dwarves and gain a 1d4 claw attack along with cause fear as a once-per-day spell-like ability; and finally the adze-kin, descendant of a race of vampiric humanoids who gain vampiric touch as a once-per-day spell-like ability and a climb speed equal to half their normal land speed.
Overall the trollkin are the half-orcs of the Southlands in being outcasts geared to a brute striker roll. The subraces don’t really impress me besides the adze-kin, which gets a very good spell and a climb speed.
An aasimar of Ishadia. Not from the book proper, but from Kobold Press' Advanced Races: Aasimar.
The Minor Races of the Southlands include seven of the more notable peoples not covered above. The Aasimar are concentrated in the continent’s northeast, boasting proud angelic heritage; the Heru are ravenfolk who live in the temples of Horus as honored citizens, respected in Lignas, and in the valleys of the Abandoned lands. Many praise Horus as their patron deity. The Jinnborn are nomads descended from elemental entitites, living in the Dominion of the Wind Lords and possess a literal bond to the land itself. Lizardfolk are a young race of the Southlands, living in the isolated realm of Veles-Sa harboring a giant egg believed to contain the World Serpent’s child. They are currently isolationist, but believe it is their destiny to conquer the surrounding lands in said serpent-god’s name. The Minotaurs are limited mostly to the Southlands’ extremes, be it the crumbling Moon Kingdom remnants of the northern deserts or the kingdom of Sudvall at the continent’s southern tip. A few gave up their heritage and assimilated into the other populations, but even then seem to possess a knack for vessels of all sorts. Even the desert-bound sandships are known to carry minotaurs as crew and good luck charms. The Ramag were once humans allied with Glorious Umboso, manipulating ley lines to connect the titan empire in a magical web for transportation and defense. They still live in the Abandoned Lands, claiming the city of Ramagani as their homeland whose portals connect the city to far reaches of the Southlands. Tieflings appear anywhere demons and devils consort with humans, and face varying levels of acceptance: Nuria Natal and Lignas tolerate them, and in the devil-ruled city of Nangui they rise to positions of great power.
Thoughts So Far: Southlands’ introductory chapter starts us off with a strong impression of the setting and what it will be about. The history section contains an organization style different from other setting books, but is not enough to feel too confusing for me. I like the new races as well as the changing of existing ones to better fit into the setting.
Join us next time as we visit the River Kingdom of Nuria Natal, whose pyramids hold legacies of great kings and where gods walk the streets!