We’ve not done many reviews here. It’s just not something I’ve felt particularly… qualified to do. I don’t think this is fair, and it probably speaks my own self-esteem and how I see the value of my own opinions. That said, about 1500 words into this article I paused, took stock and realised I was pretty much writing a review and changed the title accordingly. I hope for this to be the first of many!
Two years ago, I wrote about Azeroth as a tabletop RPG setting. I liked the idea of playing in this world. There was, years ago, a tabletop RPG based on Warcraft, but it quickly became out of date, even before it was out of print. The setting evolves, y’see? With each expansion to World of Warcraft, new areas are added to the map or are redesigned. Azeroth today is very different today to how it was in 2005 when the World of Warcraft RPG (successor to 2003’s Warcraft RPG) was released, or 2008 when the final book in the line, Dark Factions, came out.
As an aside, this game was put out by my beloved White Wolf, publishers of the World of Darkness. They published the WoW RPG under their Sword and Sorcery imprint, using the D20 system. This system is derived from the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. This pedigree is interesting because here we are, more than a decade later with the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Wouldn’t it be nice to use this well-received system to indulge our dreams of Azeroth?
Well, I thought I’d have a go at making up my own Azeroth campaign setting. I’d need to tweak some races and classes, adjust some spells, add some cool items… Oh, and I could even put together a wee booklet featuring not only the rules, but also a selection of the beautiful WoW artwork that’s been put together over the years. Oh, this will be fun! let’s just do a quick search to see if anyone’s done any of the groundwork already… Oh, someone’s done it all. Well, it won’t be pretty… wow, this looks great… Ok, but it’ll all be style over subst… no, this is actually pretty damn good…
So, let’s take a look at what’s on offer in this wonderful homebrew PDF. The production quality is simply amazing. The design closely follows the example set by Wizards’ own official D&D publications. As such, this PDF feels like a D&D supplement, further encouraging their use.
Let’s compare them to the old, official RPG. My intended starting point was to be the races, so we’ll start there. Let’s look at one of the defining races of the setting, the Orc. The Orcs of Azeroth began their story as invading aliens, coming through the Dark Portal to Azeroth from their homeworld of Argus (later Outland). The original RPG presents them thusly:
Visually, this is fine. The design is clean, uses the key Horde colour of red and has a nice, big piece of artwork in the middle to show a typical Orc. The style is not dissimilar to that used in the 3rd, 3.5 and 4th edition D&D books. The flavour text is pretty good, giving a brief outline of how Orcs are percieved, the stock they place in honour, a good account of their appearance and some other information.
Rules-wise, I take a bit of issue with the stat bonuses. The extra stamina is fine, but I question the -2 to intelligence. Orcs are not portrayed as the smartest of creatures, but they’re not stupid either, at least not in this setting. It’s also quite a deep penalty of the sort you don’t see as much these days in 5E. Medium size and a speed of 30 feet is pretty standard. There are bonuses to animal handling and intimidation, as well as any attacks made against humans. The animal handling bonus comes directly from the MMO, as Orcs have bonus to damage from pets. The most interesting ability is the Battle Rage, which functions similarly to the Barbarian’s rage.
The 5E version is gorgeous. It uses the same piece of racial artwork, which is great. I like that they did this. It also includes some really nice background art of Orgrimmar. It actually looks like the Orc was always part of the background art, but if you check the file, you see that he is overlayed onto it. The layout and style closely follows that of the official D&D books. It uses the same font, backgrounds, headings and so on. The writing is more concise and I really like the first paragraph, from an Orc’s point of view.
In terms of rules, there are some similarities between this version and the original. The Orc still has Darkvision, is still of medium size and still has a speed of 30 feet. The stat bonuses are much more appropriate. No longer are you punished with a large intelligence penalty but instead, you get bonuses to strength and constitution. Relentless endurance is taken from D&D’s Half-Orc and fits well here. Initially, there’s not much to this race. You get the rest of your bonuses once you’ve chosen your clan from a choice of three different broad types, fulfilling the role of subraces. Hunter clans get extra dexterity, stealth proficiency and a nice speed burst ability. Mystic clans get some bonus wisdom, proficiency in arcana and the ability to cast Augury. Finally, the Warrior clans get extra strength, improved ability carry and push stuff around, and the Savage Attacks ability that the D&D Half-Orcs possess.
Both the old and new approaches are products of their respective times. As someone who really likes 5E, the newer setup appeals to me far more than the old. Visually, the clean lines of the old RPG are appealing, but I prefer the newer style.
Next up, let’s take a look at classes. The original RPG has nine classes, some of which have several ‘paths’. These are:
- Arcanist (Mage, Necromancer, Warlock)
- Healer (Druid, Priest, Shaman)
On top of these, there are several ‘prestige classes’, each of which has specific requirements that must be reached before characters can take levels in the class. These prestige classes are:
- Archmage of Kirin Tor
- Elven Ranger
- Mounted Warrior
This mix of classes and prestige classes was typical of earlier editions of D&D. Thus far in 5E we’ve not had any prestige classes. Most of the concepts that had previously been used for such classes are now incorporated as sub-classes within the core classes. By giving more options within each class, the idea is that you don’t need the added layer of complication that the prestige classes represented.
The classes in the new book directly follow the classes in World of Warcraft itself. Each class also has subclasses that represent the various specs that players can opt into in the MMO:
- Druid (Balance, Feral, Guardian, Restoration)
- Hunter (Beast Master, Marksman, Survival)
- Mage (Arcane, Fire, Frost)
- Monk (Brewmaster, Mistweaver, Windwalker)
- Paladin (Holy, Protection, Retribution)
- Priest (Discipline, Holy, Shadow)
- Rogue (Assassin, Outlaw, Subtlety)
- Shaman (Elemental, Enhancement, Restoration)
- Warlock (Affliction, Demonology, Destruction)
- Warrior (Arms, Fury, Protection)
On top of these classes, this version also introduces two prestige classes. For each class, you must reach level 5 and meet requirements for specific stats before undertaking a special task. The prestige classes and their association subclasses are:
- Death Knight (Blood, Frost, Unholy)
- Demon Hunter (Havoc, Vengeance, Wrath)
Both systems also allow multi-classing, not just for prestige classes, but more generally. This further increases the choices that you have, particularly if you have a specific character from World of Warcraft that you wish to emulate. You could mix Hunter and Warlock to try and make a Sylvanas-like character, or Warrior and Barbarian for something like Garrosh. Perhaps you could mix Hunter and Priest for Tyrande, but that would mean you’re playing as the Alliance. Why would you do that, fam?
Let’s move on from you being disappointing and take a look at one of the classes. I’m enjoying playing as a paladin just now in our Strahd campaign, so let’s go with that, beginning with the old:
There’s a fair bit going on here. Design-wise this is pretty similar to the race profiles. The template and style is the same and there’s still that nice, single piece of art. There are two things I dislike about the design. The first is the red banner announcing the name of the class. i don’t like it. It feels overly flashy, perhaps even tacky. I know it was in the race page too, but I didn’t really notice it at the time. I really see it now. I also dislike the tables. Firstly, there are too many of them, relics of a less elegant system. The visual design of them is also ugly. The black background does make them stand out, but they are just big, dark splodges on the page. They’re ugly.
Turning to the actual content, there’s a brief flavour blurb at the start and then jumps straight into the rules. This is fine, good even. When you create your Paladin, there’s a few bits and pieces to deal with at level 1. You have a lot of skills to choose from, along with a free spell and your Holy Strike ability, the equivalent of 5E’s Smite. From level 2 to 4 the complexity ramps up pretty steadily, as you take on a charisma bonus, some auras, immunities, the Turn Undead ability, Lay on Hands and spellcasting, pretty much as you would with any D&D Paladin. You get more WoW flavour at level 5 with Crusader Strike and with Fist of Justice at level 7. There’s also a code of conduct, requiring Paladins to maintain a good alignment. The tables are, as I said above, the relics of an older system where attack bonuses and saves ramped up with level. Glancing over the table, I can’t help but notice how boring it is after level 7. Oh, sure, you get some extra uses of your auras and holy strike. You can unlock some different auras to be activated, too. Generally though, there’s not much you get that’s really new after level 7. This is quite disappointing as unlocking new abilities as you level is something I really enjoy in World of Warcraft.
All in all, the Paladin in this game bears a lot of similarity to the standard D&D Paladin. WoW flavour comes from the auras and a couple of named abilities. The class is a little blans after level 7, but you could have some fun here.
As with the race profile, the Paladin section of the 5E book is visually superior to that of the old book. The artwork features the Paladin class hall from the Legion expansion and artwork of a Draenei Paladin. At the time the original book was released, the Draenei had not yet been added to World of Warcraft as a playable race. There is also a nice piece of what appears to be a Blood Elf Paladin. Again, the whole layout echoes the standard setup for all of the official D&D books.
I like the way that 5E character sections are put together. The only substantial table is easy to read, simple, and has everything you need in one place as you level. Looking down the table, the spell slot allocation is identical and there are minimal changes to other abilities.
At level 1, the two Paladins are identical. At level 2, we almost see some divergence as the WoW paladin gets Crusader Strike in place of Divine Smite. The thing is, the abilities are identical and Crusader’s Strike is just renamed in order to add more WoW flavour. Level 3 is the first real change, with Divine Health – a useful, if boring ability – being replaced with the far more interesting Divine Aura. From this point on, whenever the D&D Paladin would gain a new Aura, the WoW Paladin instead gets an upgrade to his Divine Aura. And that pretty much sums up the core changes that make the WoW Paladin distinct from the standard D&D one. Well, mostly. As with the D&D Paladin, the WoW Paladin takes a sacred oath which basically acts as a sub-class.
The first of these oaths is the Oath of the Holy. In WoW, this is the healing spec for the Paladin. It gives you access to a number of healing and buffing spells, as well as a couple of Channel Divinity options. These are an AOE heal that scales with Paladin level and another ability which does damage to enemies and healing to allies. This is definitely a subclass that focuses on healing far more closely than any standard D&D offering. As you level, you also get to cast your Lay on Hands at range, as you can in the MMO and you can use Divine Shield, which works in exactly the same way as the D&D Half-Orc’s Relentless Endurance. At level 20, you get to properly channel the light through yourself, turning spells into bonus actions, giving enemies disadvantage on saving throws against your spells and generally being a nightlight for the rest of the party.
Oath of Protection is the tanky spec from WoW and gives you access to several appropriately defensive spells and a range of different smite spells. The new Channel Divinity options gives you two of the iconic abilities from the MMO. Avenger’s shield lets you go all Captain America and throw a shield at an enemy, whilst Consecration allows you to effectively ‘keep aggro’, stopping enemies from moving too far away from you. This sort of ability is great for protecting those squishy priests and mages! As you level, you also gain the ability to take damage on behalf of others (making you popular, I’m sure) and a passive healing effect. At level 20 Ardent Defender replaces your armour with pure divine energy for a short time, giving you resistance to all damage and buffing your allies as they roll wisdom and death saving throws.
Finally, Oath of Retribution is the damage-dealing Paladin spec. They get some fun damage-dealing spells, including some of my favourites such as compelled duel and flame blade. A Retribution Paladin’s Channel Divinity allows him to stun or gain an advantage against an enemy in combat. These are not my favourite Channel Divinity effects from this class, but they are certainly characterful. As you level, your attacks become magical and you can make reaction attacks against any creature affected by your advantage-giving Channel Divinity effect. At level 20 you gain access to Divine Judgement, giving you resistance to damage from nonmagical weapons, an extra attack and the ability to score crits on a natural 19 or 20, rather than just a natural 20.
The WoWish flavour of this class definitely comes from the Sacred Oaths. The core class is fine. It’s good, even. It’s just not that different from a standard D&D Paladin. There’s no unique flavour until you delve into the Oaths. At that point, you have an interesting, unique class to play with. Are these oaths very specialised? Yes, especially the Holy Paladin, but that’s ok. It’s fine. It actually really fits with the feel and theme of the game. You’re playing World of Warcraft, there should be clearly defined party roles. That’s how the game works. Does it slightly weaken the individual character? Yes, it does. I don’t think this is a problem, though. I actually really like it and I would probably go a Holy Oath Paladin, given the choice.
There’s no question over which of the two books gives the more fun and interesting approach to classes. No questions. It’s obvious. It’s the 5E one. Should go without saying, but let’s not risk being misunderstood. I really like the approach that the author has taken in ensuring that every spec from the MMO is reflected in the 5E experience. That’s really fantastic and allows a much more faithful translation of the game than was facilitated by the old RPG. The old one was fine, but it was just a bit blander. I liked the use of prestige classes in the old game, but with the subclasses giving more options to each class, they’re not really needed any more.
That said, there are still a couple of prestige classes in the 5E book in the form of Demon Hunters and Death Knights. This makes sense. To take the Death Knight as my example, a character would have had a life before becoming a Death Knight. They would have already had to prove themselves as reasonably capable and powerful before being deemed worthy of being resurrected into this order by the Lich King. It makes sense for this to be a prestige class with a bit of a lock on it. Also, just to reiterate a point that I keep making, look at that art from the Death Knight page. Isn’t that grand? This book is so well put together!
Beyond race and class, there are more factors that make up a character. D&D 5E puts a lot of focus on the background of a player character, providing a number of archetypes for characters to build on, each of which has a number of tables with different ideals, motivations, and flaws. This is not something there was as much focus on in earlier editions and, sure enough, there is not a backgrounds section in the old book. There is one in the 5E book, though.
It’s a pretty short section, as it makes direct reference to the 5E Player’s Handbook, making clear that the few backgrounds listed should be considered in addition to the core ones, rather than instead of them. The four are quite interesting, though. The double agent and the Kirin Tor Apprentive backgrounds are pretty self explanatory, as is the Tauren Tribal Member. The Faction Fostered background is interesting, though. It describes a character who racially belongs to one faction but was raised by the other. Essentially, it’s a narrative tool that allows you to play as cross-faction characters such as Horde-aligned humans and gnomes or Alliance-aligned Tauren or Forsaken. This is useful both for giving players more choice and for creating some potentially interesting characters.
The equipment sections of each book are another major point of divergence. The original WoW RPG has an extensive equipment section of the sort you’d find in most fantasy roleplaying games. It has three solid pages of weapon tables, followed up by several pages of description and additional weapon rules. There are also many pages dedicated to armour, shields, materials and adventuring supplies. This is a fully-fleshed out equipment section.
This is not the case for the 5E version. Whilst the original WoW RPG was a self-contained game in itself, the 5E edition is a supplement for an existing game. As such, it refers you back to the D&D Player’s Handbook for lists of weapons, armour, supplies and other items. It does add a few items, though. The largest section of this chapter is devoted to firearms, a weapon class not really represented in the standard D&D book. These items are established as being quite expensive, but are also powerful. There are also a handful of ‘racial weapons’, representing setting-specific weapons such as Kaldorei Moonswords and Moonglaives, Sin’Dorei Warblades, Tauren Totems and the Warglaives used by Demon Hunters. Finally, this book also adds a few different types of shields, including smaller bucklers and larger tower shields.
In addition to new races, classes and equipment, the 5E book also include 19 new feats to further tailor the flavour of the game to match the MMO. These feats, as with the backgrounds and equipment, are in addition to the core feats detailed in the Player’s Handbook. Many of them – most, actually – are specific to certain races, further differentiating the different races from one-another and giving options within the same race. My favourite feats from this section include one that allows Gnomes to create new devices with their talent for tinkering and another that gives you proficiency in those lovely, new racial weapons that were included in the equipment chapter.
Finally there’s the spellbook, wherein you will find spell lists for each of the caster classes. As with the feats, equipment, and backgrounds, this section of the book refers back quite heavily to the D&D Player’s Handbook. The lists include many spells from the Player’s Handbook and a few others that are preceded by asterisks. These asterisked spells are new and specific to this campaign setting. They include familiar spells for players of World of Warcraft, including the Mage’s Frostfire bold, the Warlock’s Ritual of Summoning, the Priest’s Mind Flay and the Shaman’s Healing Rain. The lists are followed by descriptions of the new spells. Here are some interesting examples:
Jaina’s Flying Ship sounds fun, doesn’t it? The vindictive part of my heart is a little disappointed that the ship can fall out of the sky without hurting the players, but that’s fine. I just like the image of them pushing their luck that little bit too far and falling to their gruesome deaths. Says a lot about me, possibly…
There’s a lot more to this book than I’ve detailed above. There are more variant rules and many of the classes bring something new to the table. There are profiles for shapeshift forms and Warlock demons. There’s a lot of content here, and I love it all. There’s also a Monster Manual that I may review at a later date. There are some places where the wording is a bit off, but this is generally a well-written and well-presented book that I’d love to use on the tabletop. The original WoW RPG was a great book and a great series of books, but this kind of blows it out of the water in both style and substance. That it refer back to the D&D Player’s Handbook is also a plus. 5E is a solid system that, whilst not perfect, is loved by many. It’s rapidly becoming quite ubiquitous and, with the number of cool setting books being released, it’s easy to see why. The biggest shame about this book is that it can’t be published properly because of the issues of licensing. I would, with some confidence, back any published project that the authors of this PDF produce.
If you’re keen on checking this out for yourself, and I really recommend that you do, visit their Subreddit to access files and discussion.
I intend to return to this in the future, reviewing the Monster Manual and taking a look at the rest of the races and classes available in the game. There are a fair few WoW fans up here, so I hope that I can get this to the table at some point, too. Even if it’s only for a one-shot, I’m keen to give it spin.