ALIEN: Destroyer of Worlds – review and GM advice

Destroyer of Worlds is the second cinematic adventure published for Fria Ligan’s award winning ALIEN RPG written by Andrew E.C. Gaska. It is an excellent, action packed adventure in the style of the Aliens movie. The first part of this blog post is a review, done after having run it. In the second – longer part I will provide an overview of our experience and my thoughts and tips on running the adventure – which means there will be spoilers in the Game Mother’s section.

In short, the player characters – a group of badass Colonial Marines – are ordered to locate and capture four AWOL black ops marines. The AWOLS fled Fort Nebraska, a UA frontier staging point located on a frigid, half-abandoned, insurgent ridden moon, currently begin evacuated because a Union of Progressive Peoples invasion is imminent, and that is just the beginning. Shit just keeps hitting the fan. Sounds cool? You f…ing bet your scrawny marine behind it is!

The adventure was published in 2020 and comes in a box. The book in the box is 88 pages, and contains a description of the setting, six locations, several NPC’s, a detailed description of Fort Nebraska and the additional rules you need, if you only own the ALIEN Start Set. The box also has seven pre-generated characters, a deck of cards with vehicles (the UPP APC, a Marine Core tank etc), equipment, agendas for the characters and visuals and stats of most of the NPCs. And lastly, there are maps, including a big-ish one of Fort Nebraska. The production value is extremely high and it looks great!

A quick view at some of the stuff in the box.


It is fair to say, you get a lot of value for your money. It should also tell you, that this is not a ‘one-shot’ adventure, in the sense that you can run it in one evening. It is advertised as being a 3-session adventure. That can be done, but you can also easily have it last four or five sessions, depending on the attrition of the characters. The amount of content also means that you can find a lot of value in the box, if you want to convert it for a campaign game. The GM can easily ditch – or change – the plot, and simply use the maps, the setting and the NPCs.

I ran the adventure for a group of five players in a vacation house over a long weekend. We played for a total of 10-ish hours, and I had to rush the ending a bit and cut down on some of the events.

Whereas the first cinematic adventure – Chariot of the Gods – emulates the first Alien film, and is a really good adventure, this adventure explores the second pillar of the ALIEN RPG: science fiction action, and does it extremely well. Destroyer of Worlds is in my view the stronger of the two adventures.

All in all, we had a total blast with the adventure. So much so, that most of the board games we also had brought along were not used.

“Alien: Destroyer of Worlds was a great visceral experience with strong cinematic ties to the movies, which left me craving for more upon completion of the adventure.”

Adrian Jensen, playing Charlie

The adventure has a cool, dramatic atmosphere. It combines investigation, inter character roleplaying with tons of drama and action. The characters are very playable with a clear goal in the beginning and with agendas that will lead to plenty of drama in Act III. The adventure is tense and action packed, where the player’s get to act out any “hell-raising, air assault, breach the door, smart-gun firing” fantasies they might have.

Like I also wrote in my ALIEN RPG review, I think this adventure is very well-suited to introduce people inexperienced with role-playing games to the hobby, because it is so easy to imagine the setting, if you just watched a little of the Alien franchise movies. They need to be keen, however, as it takes more than one evening to complete.

It is also a quite demanding adventure to run. The separation of locations and events makes sense, but it means that the GM needs to prepare carefully, and pre-select some of the options presented. There are also a lot of details to keep track of.

The only real issues I have with the adventure concerns some structural issues around Act II and III, where the timeline seems to break down and with the implementation of some major events, but the players are probably so busy fighting to survive and riding the roller-coaster that they won’t notice.

I would also have like a timeline for what happens before the adventure begins, as you have to piece it together from the description, and I’m still not sure how exactly it should be understood.

“I loved it. An action packed rock’n’roll trip down paranoia lane, as if Jeremy Saulnier was given the task of directing an Alien movie.”

Martin Svendsen, playing Hammer

Why should I buy this adventure?

  • You want to run a great Alien adventure
  • You don’t want to run a full campaign, but a one-session game is too short a fix
  • Your player’s love scary, hopeless, out of the frying pan and into the fire action science fiction
  • You want additional setting information and maps for your campaign
  • You want to run a Marine Campaign, and want an easy option for a grand ending to the campaign.

Why should I avoid this adventure?

  • Your players hate everything science fiction and only wants to cast spells and swing swords (which is fine, some people are like that!).

Advice for Game Mothers

Firstly, as you can see if you read the adventure, this text is with the caveat that the modular nature of the adventure means your experience will be very different from ours. But I still think reading a walk-through of our experience will help you run the game more smoothly and avoid a couple of pitfalls.

From here on, there will obviously be spoilers.

It is important to note, that I ran this game knowing I was on a strict deadline. After I had run the first four hours, the players were so enthusiastic that we decided to play the following afternoon for a couple of hours as well, which enabled me to do a bit more with Act II. But the choices I made reflects the time limit and the pacing of running it for two and half session, as well as the actions of the players/characters. If you have more time – especially with unlimited time – your choices, and the player’s choices will create a different flow and experience.

However, you should note that whatever happens, the main clue to reach the end of Act I is an insurgent divulging the location of the compound. There are also dice rolls involved, and there is at least one place in Act III where a failed roll can screw up the ending.

Act I: the Hunt

My players started with the Oblivion Bar, moved on to the Marshal’s Station, then the oil refinery and finally the Insurgent Compound, so the space port and the San Rocco medical facility were never in play.

Oblivion Bar

They went into the bar, and, as the veteran players they are, they stationed two at the front door. This meant that the two insurgents there could not plausibly get out without being noticed, as is the intention in the adventure. And already at this point, I made my first change!

According to the adventure, the girl insurgent was supposed to contact Botos, but I didn’t want the characters to already be aware of the insurgent leader and potentially start looking for a path via radio calls to Botas, so I had them working for Stolls instead as low level mooks.

First, however, Captain Silver went to talk to the bar owner, and as Fei2 is sympathetic, I had her ask them to come in through the back instead, as it would be bad for business for her to let them in through the front. That made the players appropriately suspicious.

I also mentioned Captain Edie, but they thought him too drunk to be worth speaking to.

When the characters notice the two insurgents, and start to interrogate them, it turns into a brawl, before Petre can take a hostage. A brawl is a good way to get the players familiar with the combat system, without too much at stake, so roll with that.

They capture the two, and put them in the APC, where they interrogate them. They let them know that they were to contact Stolls about any marine coming to look for the AWOLS. But when they now contact Stolls via radio, there is no answer (as he is at the marshal’s station).

All the while, they have good fun mispronouncing Zmijewski’s name and he retorting in kind – which seems to be a common experience.

Talking to Fei2, they get to see the security footage, and how the AWOLS argued and split.

To get more information about Stolls, they decide to go to the marshal’s station, if I recall correctly. They certainly didn’t see the potential for Reese having been picked up by the marshals. If you want a more direct clue, you can change the adventure to Fei2 or the dancer seeing Reese getting picked up by the marshals inside the bar, instead of afterwards.

It is great to have the NPC portraits. If I have one complaint, it is that their stats don’t entirely reflect how badass they are. They should have had a talent or two more.


The Marshal’s Station

This scene turned out almost perfectly, and we had our first character death. The characters get past the receptionist and talk to the marshal. They learn about both Stolls and Reese and decide to go and participate in the Stolls interrogation first. They are reasonably successful and decide to also bring him back to Fort Nebraska for further questioning. The Captain decides that she and Hammer will go and check on Reese, while the rest get Stolls into the APC. Yes, a split party!

So, when the two lone marines find Reese’s corpse, and Captain Silva walks back out to the team, she encounters the xenomorph hidden under the ceiling. We draw initiative, she fires and runs back to Hammer (we had forgotten about this rule, but the smarter move, would have been to switch initiative with Hammer, so he would act first, move up beside Silva and get a shot at the alien).

Instead, the xenomorph charges down into the cell, where both the marines now are. It doesn’t kill anyone in the first round, but when Hammer opens up with the Smartgun, the acid spray breaks Captain Silva. Zmijewski comes running, and with one more character engaged they finally get the xenomorph killed.

The rest of the characters rush to their aid, and Chaplain (Jaell) now steps into his role as commanding officer, and as he is the medic, decides not to save Silva’s life, even if he could. This can be seen as a controversial ruling, but I decided it didn’t count as PvP. Of course, the player who ran Silva was disappointed that he already had to get a new character and didn’t get to experience her arc. As GM, however, I must admit I think having someone you – from a movie-perspective – could view as a “main character” die in the first act, enhances the mood and tension – like Samuel Jackson getting eaten in act 1 in Deep Blue Sea.

Not the best movie, but a memorable death and it sets the tone!


At this point, I introduce Ms. Eckford, who simply walks up to Dante guarding the APC and asks to speak with his commanding officer. She tries to engage with Chaplain, but he calls Colonel Meyers, who I doubt would want Eckford meddling more, so Chaplain shuts down the building and moves everyone back to Fort Nebraska for a debrief.

In the interest of time, I let them get back to base and have Stolls crack and reveal the rendezvous at the oil refinery.

The scene ended with a very “realistic” mood of confusion, suspicion and sorrow. The player, who played Silva, decides to play Gunnery Sergeant Mason, instead. 

I had foreshadowed the snowstorm, and I move that in at this point.

Ultimately, I didn’t use Eckford again in the adventure. There was simply not enough time to make it work well. But I didn’t know that in the beginning, so I needed her in play early, if I were to deploy her to good effect later. If I had more time, I might have introduced her already at Fort Nebraska, when they get ready to go out after the briefing. That way, they will be less suspicious of her, given that she in on the base and therefore a “legitimate” part of the military operation.

Getting allies can be critical to their success (and a handy source of new PCs).

The refinery
The action at the refinery didn’t take long. They sneaked up on the men in the building, with the assault team leading the way in, and the rest waiting outside as backup. They opened with grenades and then went in full throttle. There was a small firefight and they finally capture one of the people there – the one with the radio, whom they interrogate, and learn of Wójcik and the compound.

The players debate, whether to ambush the insurgents when they get there for the rendezvous, but end up deciding to assault the compound.

I think an ambush at the refinery should be a viable option, and I was thinking that the insurgents would arrive in a couple of tractors and trikes and at the same time Vice Sergeant Major Davydocih would appear with his commandos. The stress of the ambush would trigger Wójcik, and she would run amok inside a tractor or something.

In any case, they are asked by the Major, if they want a Cheyenne dropship available to deploy as an air assault – and OF COURSE they say yes.

This is where we ended the first “session” of around four hours.

Who wouldn’t want to arrive in style?! Knock! Knock!

The Insurgent Compound

The group decides to do a two-pronged assault. The assault team and the Gunny will rapel onto the compound and the rest of the squad will fight their way through the gates with the APC.

The initial assault goes well, and they get through the gate and down to the roof, respectively. However, the two insurgents with rocket launchers in the inner yard gives them some problems.

It is important to note here, that the dropship can be a problem for the progression of the game, as an intact dropship gives them a way off the moon. Therefore, either the insurgents or UPP attack craft need to damage or wreck it.

In our case, a rocket puts a big hole in the dropship, and it flies away to provide firing support from a distance, but is, when the UPP arrives, re-tasked to defend the colony.

The assault team, Hammer and Dante led by Mason enter the compound from above after taking out the lone guard on the roof, and quickly encounter Wójcik. With three opponents to pick from, and a couple of lucky parrys, the group manages to defeat “her”. But are very freaked out.

Meanwhile, the other half of the team blasts into the inner compound, after shooting everything that moves outside, but the APC is hit with a very efficient RPG shot, which wrecks the armoured vehicle, and sends a blast of flame through it. Only the NPC Iona, driving the APC is damaged, but they get out quickly, and fight their way into the compound, lighting up the RPG-wielding insurgent with an incinerator.

The ground team discovers Stolls and his insurgents inside the living room, and sneak in a couple of grenades. That isn’t enough to take them out however, and they end up in a cool gun fight. I will say, the grenades seem like they are less effective than they would be in real life.

The fight in the insurgent compound was very intense.

Stolls escape to the outside of the compound, but the characters take him and a fellow insurgent out, when they attempt to climb the wall.

At the top floor, they discover LC Wright, chained in the next room, and she promises to help them, if they release her. The scenario highlights this as a secondary option for her location, and that worked well. It was especially useful to have a ‘voice’ in the rest of the adventure, who could talk about Fort Nebraska and the xenomorph problem.

The radio comes to life, and Act II begins in dramatic fashion.

Playing this scene took almost two hours, and it was great fun – chaotic and dramatic, with shit blowing up and cool close quarter battles.

Giving them the chance to blast gates and insurgents with gatling guns and plasma cannons was all kinds of fun.

I confused stage II and III for her Anathema forms, and used stage III attacks for both segments, but it didn’t influence the outcome.

ACT II: Invasion

Going into Act II, I knew I had to cut it fairly short, to stay within our time limit, but I also needed to make it feel significant enough to provide a break between the two acts, let the players play out their agendas and increase the tension.

The characters find Wrights gear, restocked on grenades from Botos and pick up his radio, so they knew someone was coming, but Chaplain collapses and begins to reboot. They were out of transport but take two of the quad bikes from the compound – one was destroyed when the gate house was blasted by the plasma cannon – and use them for the wounded and Wright (whom they don’t trust fully yet).

They hoof it through the snowstorm, while seeing the bombings of the space port, celebrations and incoming drop ships and dog fights above them.

I think it was an observation test to see their pursuers that prompted the high-strung Hammer to roll a face hugger on his stress dice, and as a result he dropped something. I ruled that he suddenly realized that his pocket with X-Stims had torn during the previous fight, and he must have dropped his drugs just a few moments ago in the snow (as I’m sure he obsessively checks that they are there). He immediately turns back to look for them, which forces the team to face their pursuers.

A hard firefight in the relative open begins, and the team gets the upper hand – mainly because of their many stress dice, and with Wright they have superior numbers. But Zmijewski gets a crit (gut shot). I forget to use the actual stats of Davydovich, but in the interest of time, it doesn’t matter. If I had had more time, he could have become a recurring threat, or reused as an ally later. But I was actually happy with how this encounter went. After the fight, Dante has a couple of blood drops run from his nose, even though he wasn’t hit (event).

I then add meeting Fei2 and her UA loyalists, and as Mason wants to save everyone, they bring them with them.

I also mention the ruptured oil pipes, but they don’t investigate them closely.

Finally, I introduce the tank and the insurgents sneaking up on it. The team takes out the couple of insurgents without dice rolls (again, I need to conserve time, and it seemed a foregone conclusion) and they order the tank crew to take them to the base, with Chaplain inside, while the rest of the team rides on top and Fei2 follows behind with the refugees.

The act ends with the electromagnetic burst and the black goo.

The Black Goo attack is a bit overkill, in my view, but it clears out Fort Nebraska.

The electromagnetic burst gave me problems, and I admit I missed that broken equipment could be repaired with a COMTECH roll. I think it is a bit too vaguely described – it says “most electronics – even those that would otherwise be shielded” are destroyed. How much of their equipment is actually electronic – and what might avoid being burnt? Is Mason’s CBRN detection kit electronic? I mean, it can be a very important piece of kit in Act III. What about their pulse rifles or Smart Guns? It seems like they would be affected. But it isn’t like the game explicitly expects them to be disarmed going into the fort and going to an armory to re-arm. Is anyone inside the tank or an APC protected, since “shielding” doesn’t work?

It raised a lot of questions, and my players asked multiple times: does this work, still? I usually said yes, because it was easier , especially given the time pressure (and had overlooked Comtech). Furthermore, the writers suggest that the tanks could be used to blow the gate, but wouldn’t they have been blown by the EMP? Because my players certainly wanted to go that route – and it would have been fun? And what about the sentry guns on the fort walls?

With more time, perhaps I could have broken much of their equipment, and made it an imperative to replace it at the base. One idea would be to roll a number of stress dice according to the equipment’s bonus dice, and break it on a Facehugger.

The EMP mostly seem like a plot device to “kill” all the hardware before the black goo is deployed, but the authors don’t seem to have thought through the consequences. Or maybe I missed something…

The artwork in the adventure is amazing. But the book is mainly text and maps.

ACT III: Getting off the moon

Fort Nebraska works like a dungeon crawl with random encounters, and where the group has to go back and forth to various objectives. I wish I had more time to run it, but on the other hand, I think with the tension built high, it shouldn’t run on for too long.

First, a word on ‘game stoppers’. In both this adventure, and Chariot of the Gods, there are a couple of times where a failed roll will completely derail the game. In Chariot of the Gods, failing to open the first air lock is such a time. In this adventure, it is when they try to restart the reactor in Act III. If that fails, it is basically game over – go blow a nuke. That kind of failure can be interesting in a campaign, where there is always another potential option, but here it kind of screws the ending. So, watch out for that!

I also ran into a bit of a problem with the black goo bomb, although I don’t think my players noticed. Given the time I think I needed to pass in Act II, they also moved most of the distance to the fort (about 5 clicks). Most groups will be coming from the compound, which means the black goo bombs have been dropped south of the fort, and the consequence of that is that the group shouldn’t run into the worst hit anathemas.

I let them experience one, before they reached the wall and its defenses. They decided to blow a couple of sentry guns with their rocket launcher, and I hand-waved that effort, although it cost Dante an ammo count. I didn’t find that part critical, given the time constraint. It is also a situation, where a freak, non-dramatic roll can kill a PC, which would be anti-climactic, given the stage of the game.

So, they climb the wall and enter the fort. They are told by Wright about the need to find a Major’s dog tag, and I added the ‘End of a Good Marine’ event, and Hammer picks up the marine saber.

They enter the lobby and find the area secreted and with several in cocoons. Later, the players remarked that it seems very quickly that the xenomorphs have accomplished all this work. I fully agree. It also seems like an odd location. Furthermore, shouldn’t there be ovo-morphs to impregnate the cocooned? However, the function of it is to telegraph that the base has been taken over by xenomorphs, to increase the tension. You could change this to an encounter with a single xenomorph or move the area to deeper inside the base and add a few ovo-morphs.

In short, they try to get down to sub-level 2, but discover the radiation in one of the shafts. Wright suggests that there are Hazmat suits in the armory, which they go get, but as there are only five, only the PC’s enter the second floor.

I roll a xenomorph encounter for the passage to sub-level two, and with Dante on point, I introduce the ‘cuddly xenomorph’, which is noticed by Hammer, and they begin to freak out and it ups the tension.

They reach the maintenance pits and the reactor relay room, and sneak past. Then they have the cunning plan, that they send Dante into the reactor room, to prepare it. This turns into an excellent scene, where Dante – sweating profusely in a HAZMAT suit – works for 15 minutes in the room, while the three xenomorphs in there come up and check him out. Very tense! And spot on for the mood.

He is a killing machine with 10 stress dice and the Overkill Talent, and he rips through the xenomorph

Meanwhile, Hammer sneaks out to test himself. He walks into the maintenance pit and charges a xenomorph with the Major’s blade. Here, I made a special ruling, because I thought it would be cinematic, that Hammer would be able to use Move to avoid acid sprays.

At this point, he is a killing machine, with 10 stress dice and the Overkill Talent, and he rips through the xenomorph. It destroys the blade of course.

This is where the whole thing hangs on a dice roll. Charlie rolls easy Comtech to restart the reactor. But fails and can’t push as an android. Fortunately, he has a story point available, and succeeds (barely) with the second roll (he should have succeeded automatically as per the rules). Without that success, the adventure will grind to a halt, so maybe have a backup plan, like going to the mainframe and ask Mother/Jaell to boot it up?

At this point, I overlook that they need to go back up to A.P.O.L.L.O to reboot the mainframe. In retrospect, I’m actually glad I didn’t, because it would have added time to complete the adventure, which we didn’t have.

Next, they go to set some nukes. They succeed in sneaking past the Charger – which is good, because I don’t have time to run the combat. They set a nuke, but fail to deduce how much time they’ll need to ascend. I’ll get to this point, when I discuss the climax.

Climbing to sublevel 1 via the chains in the ammo depot requires a push, and I use it to deploy the Charger, where the final character climbing up the chain barely escapes.

The team then proceeds to sublevel 3 with the NPCs.

Meeting the Queen is an epic – almost once in a gamer-life experience. Try to time it, so it doesn’t happen at 2AM with half the group asleep at the table!

Sublevel 3 and the finale
The characters go directly to the medlab and quarantine lab, where Charlie preps Dante for surgery. But while they are in surgery Hammer makes his play (according to his objective) and drops two frag grenades on the rest of the team and hauls ass.

After recovering, they pursue him to the space elevator shaft (I did not consider combat resolved, so Hammer is still a PC). As Dante and Charlie are doing surgery, the players get Iota and Wright.

Hammer opens the gate and is face to face with the Queen – the moment I think everyone was waiting for. Hammer opens up with his SmartGun, and with his total of 20-something dice, does a ridiculous amount of damage. His attack is followed up by grenades and other munitions, which takes out the Queen (I forgot to roll on her Critical Table, and make an epic come-back. FAIL! But I was tired…). Hammer is rushed by the xenomorph sentries and is broken, and when the rest of the marines rain fire on them, he is (deservedly) killed by the acid spray.

The remaining marines kill the last couple of xenomorphs and they get ready for departure. Because they discover that the inoculation had worked on Wright, they decide that everyone needs a shot, before getting on to the elevator.

I narrate how they go up the elevator, and as they begin to turn anathema, the nukes go off, and the space elevator tether collapses and the whole thing ends in a massive impact event.

Additional observations

Roads not taken

If you’ve read all of the above, you will notice that I never got to use the space port, the medical facility and most of the Act III events and the NPCs useful for Act III ( Colonel Meyers, Eckford and Davydovich). With a full session for Act III (or even two), it would have been great to at least use a couple of events with surviving marines and the frozen body of the Colonel.

And they never met Jaell. But I forgot about A.P.O.L.L.O. It was a lose end that would have been nice to tie up.

Things I learned and things I should have done differently

  • First of all, rolling to understand how long the elevator will take to get up there is dumb. They should know, more or less, how long it takes, because several of them must have taken the elevator, or have an understanding of that kind of tech.
  • I forgot COMTECH to fix equipment broken by EMPs.
  • A few hours after the game was over, I knew how I should have ended it. I should have let them use the escape capsule, while the elevator is getting destroyed. and land somewhere on the moon. Then more than half the characters would turn anathema – and if we’d had the time – played that encounter out, with the survivor waiting on a crashed escape module in the middle of a frozen wasteland. But – even experienced GMs – don’t always make the perfect call.
  • Overkill and plenty of stress plus armor piercing guns, means that marines can without too much effort kill Stage IV xenomorphs with one attack – or Stage 5 with an RPG. I think that is by design, but even though 14 armor looks like a lot for a Queen, it doesn’t hold up to RPG attacks, sniper rifles and SmartGuns, when players roll 4+ successes every time. Consider bumping the Queen up a bit, depending on who/how many survives at the end.
  • The recommended “three session” length for the adventure isn’t too far off, but it obviously depends on the length of your sessions, and there are many variables: Act I can be long or short, depending on how quickly the players move to the compound, Act II can be stretched out with events, roleplay and combat, and Act III has the potential to be very long, if you use the events and “random encounters”.
  • I would schedule at least 12-14 hours of game time for the adventure, and I would try to avoid doing Act III in one session to make sure you have some awake and fresh players for the conclusion.

Maps and stuff
The maps for the adventure are very cool, but also too small. I had a local print shop double the size of the Act I locations, which was very useful, and at a reasonable price.

Unfortunately, it turned out the fold-out map of Fort Nebraska is also too small. None of the players could actually read the text on the maps, which was a bit frustrating. If you have the spare cash, especially if you expect to run the adventure more than once, consider getting a print of Fort Nebraska double the size of the original (BIG).

For background music, I used some tracks from Aliens, but I also found that the score for the movie Hunter Killer also worked quite well.

Hunter Killer is a quite poor to mediocre action flick, but the sound track worked well for this adventure.

Final thoughts and verdict

I think I can speak for all of my players to say we had a blast, and ultimately none of my mistakes, or any flaws of the adventure itself, ruined our fun.

The game is so action-packed and dramatic, that it is very likely any lack of logic or irregularities will be overlooked until after the game.

The time you have to run it, and the paths your players take, will mean that your choices and experience will differ significantly from mine, and I think that is ultimately what really elevates this to a superb adventure. It provides a very solid framework for a fantastic role-playing experience, but ultimately it will be up to you and the players to make all the parts come together and have an epic, action-packed movie-like science fiction horror experience.  

With new or immature players, the “following orders” and use of hidden agendas could create problems. On the other hand, the official chain of command might make it easier for an inexperienced group to play as there is a defined structure as to who makes decisions – as opposed to a fantasy adventuring group free for all.

It is a challenging adventure to run, where you need to keep a lot of moving parts at your fingertips. I personally like how Free League structures the adventures, with locations first and then events you can sprinkle mostly as you please. But it does require careful preparation. I made a flow chart for Act I, where I plotted in the various clues that could bring them to other locations, to ensure I didn’t forget to deploy the relevant hooks.

I can see the need for the mysterious outsider attack with EMP and black goo, to ensure that the base is mainly deserted and to get the UPP attack out of the way, but it also seems a bit overkill for an adventure already mainlining cocaine and adrenaline!

In Act III, as a Game Mother, you need to consider if you still want to kill PC’s with “random shit”, and let them take over NPC’s, or make sure they die at cinematic moments?  The slow whittling down of the group mirrors Aliens perfectly, but it might not be that much fun – as a player – to have your character killed two hours before the climax of the game.

Three points of critique

  • The EMP blasts and the Goo attacks don’t seem to have been fully thought through and their consequences applied to Act III
  • The timeline for a xeno-morph takeover of Fort Nebraska seems off
  • As written, a couple of dice rolls in Act III can derail the fun.

The two cinematic adventures have covered two of the three themes (Space horror and Sci-fi action). The one left is Sense of Wonder, so I assume the third adventure might involve some colonist stumbling on some Engineer ruins and something about the Draconis strain, which is present in both adventures.

If you got this far, I hope that you will pick up the adventure and run it with as much – or more! – success. I for one hopes that Free League will continue to publish such excellent content for a really great game.

If you have questions or comments, please write in the comments or connect on Twitter.

ALIEN RPG – a review

I have loved the ALIEN franchise, since I saw Aliens with my father when I was maybe 10 or 11. It is still my most memorable movie experience. So, the ALIEN RPG, from Swedish Free League, was a must buy when it came out in December 2019.

I’ve played it for a total of around 15 hours (on Roll20), and I now finally have found time to write a review.

The game won a Gold Ennie at 2020’s virtual GENCON, so it is fair to say that it is very well made game! But picking up a role-playing game also comes down to taste, personal preference and just what game you wish to run right now. So, in this blog post, I’ll try to answer: is this a game for me? You will get the short and sweet points first. In the second part, I go into more depth on the mechanics and content of the book. In a future post, I will write my thoughts on the scenario Chariot of the Gods.

In Short: What is the Alien RPG?
The game is a retro-future horror role-playing game built faithfully to the franchise (and officially licensed). It uses the Year-Zero game engine, which is a dice-pool system – like most Free League RPGs.

The game is designed for two modes: cinematic play and campaign play. The cinematic play emulates an ALIEN movie and is a single adventure in three acts. It means, each character has a secret motivation, they can’t trust each other, are likely to do irrational things and aliens are probably going to kill some – if not all – of the them.

In the campaign you are likely to play either colonial marines, space truckers or colonists, and alien life forms aren’t meant to be introduced right away. Instead, the game features more mundane missions and jobs among corporate giants and working class grunts trying to make a living.

The book is around 400 pages and about half is system and the rest is lore, Game Mother information, a short adventure and a location.

The system emulates the stress and horror of the alien universe and it is fairly simple. Combat and action are cinematic, but there are enough character options for a short to medium-long campaign.

Ripley is the greatest female action movie protagonist of all time, and is an almost unique figure in the 80’s movie landscape.

What do I think of the ALIEN RPG?
The game looks amazing, has a great atmosphere and was a lot of fun to play.

The game enables you to immerse yourself in the Alien universe; a scary, uncaring, capitalistic future where no-one will really care that you scream you lungs out or have your skull pierced by a xenomorph tail spike.

The game has a fairly narrow scope, which I think works to its advantage. The system has been tailored to create the Alien-experience, primarily adding stress dice to the player’s dice pool, when they exert themselves or things go wrong (more on that below).

Because of the relative simplicity of the rules, the widely known universe and the cinematic style, I think it is one of the best options out there for introducing new players to the hobby .

Characters will die in ALIEN. A weapon and some armor might save you… but don’t let the xenomorphs get close.

The artwork and art direction is fantastic, and the book is easy to read and make sense of. However, I have read and played other Free League games, which makes the system familiar to me.

There is enough background and lore in the book to really get my creative juices flowing and I wish I had the time to run an extra campaign using Alien.

That said, I’m sure it isn’t a game for everyone. It is science fiction. It is dark. It is easy to lose a character. It is about body horror and being fairly insignificant in a world of grey and questionable morals. The system is also not very granular. So, not everyone’s cup of tea.

Why should I buy the Alien RPG?

  • You want to play a space-horror game
  • You want to run shorter adventures with a cinematic style for your group
  • You would like to introduce D&D players to another genre/system
  • You want to introduce new people to role-playing, but they aren’t into fantasy
  • You love the Alien universe.

Why should I pass on the Alien RPG?

  • You want a crunchy game that tries to simulate life in space and combat between people in the future
  • You want a game with a vast scope that you can use for any kind of science fiction game
  • You want a game that can support a years-long campaign

AN IN DEPTH LOOK AT THE ALIEN RPG

Below I will go into more depth with contents of the rule-book and the rules. My views are mixed in between and I end with a conclusion. If you have questions or want to discuss the game, post in the comments or reach out on Twitter (@RasmusNord01).

The System

Characters
The players can pick from nine different careers. These are mostly well-known types from the ALIEN franchise, such as Colonial Marine, Company Agent, Kid, Medic and Officer. They are broad in scope, so the Officer could be a Colonial Marine Officer, a Navigator or Captain on a ship or a colony leader-type.

You can also play a colonial marshal, which looks to be inspired by the 1981-movie Outland, where Sir Connery plays a “space sheriff” on Jupiter’s moon Io. The look of the film fits very well with the ALIEN universe, and if your players haven’t seen it, you can steal the plot…

The game only has four different characteristics (Strength, Agility, Empathy and Wits), and each is associated with three skills. This means 12 broad skills and keeping it simple.
For example, Mobility covers stealth, dodging, jumping and risky climbs, which in some systems would be three separate skills. Piloting covers all kinds of driving and flying, so you don’t need separate skills for driving a quad bike, flying a drop ship and driving a tank – for power loaders you do however need Heavy Machinery.

Each career has access to three talents unique to them, and all characters have access to about 30 general talents. The career talents are what enables characters to do something none of the other characters can do.

The special talents are interesting, and some are unlike what you see in most games. For example, the officer can get the Pull Rank talent, and with a successful roll can force both PCs and NPCs to do as they are told. The Company Agent “Rat Fuck Sonofabitch” has his personal safety top of mind and can make another character the target of an attack aimed at her (with a successful manipulation roll).

The Pull Rank talent is one example of how the Year Zero system has in-built mechanics for social interaction, which I think works better than fluffy “diplomacy” or “persuasion” in other games, where the actual outcome is often left to the GM.

There are also rules for synthetics … excuse me, artificial persons. They are in most ways better than a human PC, but they also have a few limitations.

Mechanics & Stress
The system is made up of dice pools of D6s. You add your relevant characteristic with the right skill and possibly ‘gear dice’ if you have the right tool and then you try to roll a 6. If you fail, you can try to ‘push’ the roll one time by describing the extra effort (you have the same idea in Call of Cthulhu 7th ed) and re-rolling the dice.
However, when you do, you get a stress level. Each stress level adds a stress dice, and if you roll a 1 (a Facehugger on the custom dice) on one of those, you risk going into a panic.

The stress mechanic is a key part of the way ALIEN simulates the films and the horror in them. My players named them – sardonically – ‘Hero Dice’, because they do enable you to accomplish greater feats, but they can also make things go very wrong.

If you push, and still fail, there will also often be a negative consequence, including damage to your characteristics, broken equipment and so on.

In our cinematic game, the problem was that, as things spiraled out of control, we rapidly tried all the different outcomes of the panic roll.

The intention is that you roll rarely – only when it is dramatic. One of the reasons is that there is only one retry. After that, the characters will have to do something different to reach their goal. The added bonus is that it keeps the game moving forward.

ALIEN also has a feature I’ve not seen in other Mutant Year Zero-games. Each skill comes with a number of Stunts players can pick, if they roll more than one success. For a ranged attack roll that could be an extra point of damage, but you can also pin down your enemy, the target drops a weapon, is pushed back or drops down. Or in Comtech, you gain additional information or are able to hide your tracks in the system. I like that, and it is very player facing as they get to pick the stunt.

Panic is rolled with 1D6 and adding your stress level. If you roll a total of 6 or lower, you keep it together. From 7-15 bad things happen – you can freeze, go berserk or flee, for example, and often increase the stress level of nearby PCs through your erratic behavior.

In our cinematic game, the problem was that, as things spiraled out of control, we very rapidly tried all the different outcomes of the panic roll. Thus, you become familiar with it – as a player – much quicker than a long critical table, and that was a criticism from my players: the results of panic were quickly unsurprising. That is one of our main criticisms of the system.

Combat & gear
Combat in ALIEN is very lethal – especially against Xenomorphs. I’ve killed a character with s couple of dice rolls (xenomorph attack, character was unable to parry, the space suit armor didn’t stop it (second roll) and the attack happened to be an auto-kill crit to the head).

People firing guns at each other using cover and with armor is a little less lethal, but still deadly. Rifles and shotguns do a minimum of two or three damage points, so characters who aren’t particularly strong will be “broken” if they are hit and have no armor. If you are broken, you roll on the critical table, which can be everything from a minor cut to a broken leg or pierced skull. There are no Fate Points to avoid a killing blow, no Death Saves or re-rolls on the critical table. If you get a bad critical, you need to make a new character.

Xenos also have their own critical table, which means they might get blown away when they reach zero health, or they could be playing dead, or lashing out in a final berserk move. That mechanic works well, although I wish it had more than five outcomes.

Unlike some Year Zero Engine games, the characters have Health Levels. In other games, the damage is taken directly from the Strength characteristic. I’m not sure why they’ve made this design decision? Damage to character’s strength can lead to a death spiral, but since melee combat is less prevalent in ALIEN, compared to Forbidden Lands or Mutant Year Zero, it seems less of an issue.

A great design feature is that monsters don’t follow the exact same system as a character. Xenomorphs have their own list of six random attacks they’ll use – usually twice per round, as they have more actions than humans. The system is also used in Forbidden Lands and works very well with the iconic killing blows of the xenomorphs.

This section also covers the many (bad) conditions you can suffer from, such as radiation, drowning, fire and vacuum.

The gear section is robust and has all the gear you recognize from the movies, plus additional items, such as various drugs.

The vehicle section only has six vehicles, all recognizable. That seems a bit light, but can easily be fleshed out in a supplement.

My only real gripe here is a lack of information on how the weapons for example work in zero-g. Can the rifles fire in space, where there is no oxygen, for example? They do include rules for hitting the hull with shots from your pulse rifle and the potential resulting explosive decompression…

Colonies typically have shit weather, shit food, boring backbreaking work and lousy pay, but at least the coffee is good – and free!

Hard Life Among the Stars
Between the sections on gear and spacecraft, there is a section on life in the ALIEN universe, which is very player facing. It includes the basics on how space travel works, but also covers topics such as media, salaries, entertainment, religion and law enforcement. It is fairly short, but important.

I would have liked – and it could be placed in this section – more how zero gravity, low gravity, radiation and other similar aspects of living in space is dealt with.

Spacecraft and space combat
The space ship section has examples of iconic crafts, like the Sulaco, and a modular system to build your own ships or upgrade existing craft.

ALIEN RPG is the first interstellar science fiction game, where the size of cargo ships makes a bit of economic sense. In many games, characters will be doing interstellar travel with just a couple of dozen tons of cargo – around the capacity of a big modern truck. In contrast, modern bulk carriers or crude carriers have 300,000+ tons of ore, grain or oil on board.

Even current coastal cargo ships have much greater cargo capacity than what you see “traders” typically haul in games like Traveller, Fading Suns, Space Master and so on. I really like that, as it fits with the gritty economic system of the game.

Space combat is described as quick and deadly – which would fit with the rest of the game’s approach to design. The system does have a couple of fun features, but not a ton of detail. It resembles the system used in Free League’s occult Arabian nights inspired science-fiction game Coriolis, but has been simplified.

I like that the captain on each side (a player and the GM) secretly picks his orders for each “role” on the ship. On top, there are four different roles for the various crew members: gunner, pilot, engineer and sensor operator, who have a total of 14 different actions, such as Target Lock, Accelerate, Maneuver, Fire Weapon and Launch Countermeasures.

I haven’t tried it, but with 14 actions split between the four roles, it seems like it doesn’t offer a lot of options – and how often do you want to ram another space ship, really?

On the fun side, there are however a lot of different component damage options, split between minor and major, like: coffee maker malfunction (!) and Intercoms disabled to AI offline and critical crew injury. These malfunctions are also used outside of combat, and are cool.

On a side note, the game and the adventure Chariot of the Gods doesn’t really take into account the mass and speed space craft must move with, and what would realistically happen if they collide (megaton explosive events).

All that being said, I doubt that space combat is what you play ALIEN for. I guess, in a Colonial Marine campaign, you could have multiple space battles, but in most games I would suspect it happens once or twice, if at all. The risk of losing your ship – if that is the “base” of your game, will also radically change the trajectory of your game.

The Alien Universe

The final part of the core book consists of advice to the GM, a decent section on the various governments, corporations and organizations. This is followed by a description of some of the key systems, planets and colonies.

The central tension of the world is between The United Americas and The Union of Progressive Peoples – a Cold War analogy – with various skirmishes, proxy wars and covert operations happening out in the rim.

In my view, there are a lot of interesting plot threads woven into all this lore, and plenty to get some solid ideas for campaigns and intrigues.

For example, the Interstellar Commerce Commission representative, Paul van Leuwen, who chaired Ripley’s tribunal, found out that a team of colonial marines along with Ripley were sent to LV-426 to investigate and now also has disappeared. He has launched his own investigation into what is going on, and he might need passage, or some freelance investigators to help him out…

The game takes place in the year 2180 and adheres to the canon of the movies and the excellent video game Alien: Isolation. It means the that the events and technology of Prometheus and Alien Covenant are part of the book, as is everything up to and including Alien 3. Alien Resurrection happens more than 200 years later, and is therefore not a part of the lore.

I think the lore sections gives you precisely enough info to spur your imagination, leaving plenty of room for making your own systems and colonies.

Along with lore, there is a detailed map of known space, which is featured inside the cover of the book. You can also buy a digital copy or on print.

The Weylan-Yutani Corporation is can be both employer and enemy. There are several competitors also featured in the book.

Economics is out of whack
One of my few issues, is with the fictional economics of the game, including the population sizes on the colonies in the core systems.

According to the lore, some planets have been completely strip mined. This fits with the themes of greedy corporations and horror, but seems very implausible.

Earth has been intensively mined for more than 100 years and though we have caused plenty of damage, we are very, very far from having strip mined our home planet. Australia alone is estimated to have deposits of 24 billion tons of iron ore left.

Even if earth has depleted its own resources, and you need to build infrastructure in space, it doesn’t seem like there is enough population outside of earth to generate sufficient demand for strip mining entire planets. Nor the technology or manpower to actually accomplish such a task. But now I’m nit picking!

Alien Species
The section on aliens is 40 pages long and is detailed enough for you to run a campaign.

It begins with details on the Engineers and alien technology, and then moves on to the various xenomorphs including other Extra Solar Species.

Especially the Xenomorph XX121 gets a lot of love, with information on all the different stages of its development, signature attacks for all of the stages and some hints about Empress and Queen Mother stages.

Cinematic Adventures
Alien can be played in cinematic mode and campaign mode.

Free League has, as of now, published two cinematic adventures: Chariot of the Gods and Destroyer of Worlds.

Cinematic mode is meant for “short” games, one-shots and conventions. A cinematic adventure has three acts, like most movies, and a key feature is pre-generated characters, who all have a personal agenda – a goal they need to achieve. The agendas increase the drama and make players take classic horror-movie style sub-optimal actions – like going off alone to the medical bay to steal drugs or go searching for the cat in an abandoned cargo bay, while a xenomorph is on the prowl.

In Chariot of the Gods, the characters even get new agendas in each Act, to push the action forward.

I must note that it took my group five 3-hour online sessions to get through Chariot of the Gods, and I skipped parts. I have though read online that others have done it in four hours and had fun.

Creating Campaigns
There are three potential campaign frameworks laid out: Space Truckers, Colonial Marines and Frontier Colonists.

The chapter on campaign play is, mainly, a lot of charts that lets you generate your own star systems, plants, jobs, missions, colonies and so forth.

I experimented with it, and I have to say that the tables allow you to generate some inspiring combinations that really spurred my imagination.

However, unlike Forbidden Lands and Mutant Year Zero, I don’t think you can simply run a game based on the results of these random jobs and missions. Alien does not have a list of interesting random events like Forbidden Lands, nor several detailed locations. It only has the example of Novgorod Station and a handful of accompanying events at the station, which could be enough to get you started, but my players would expect more.

Especially for colonists and space truckers, the jobs seem too mundane for them to be really exiting. Even with the random complications and plot twists, you need – as a GM – to flesh out things a bit more in advance based on that random input. You have to make sure there is enough details on the intrigue and drama and probably a main protagonist to make it interesting.

A trip to deliver 2000 heads of cattle to a small colony station two parsecs away with the complication that “problems at the destination means they can’t get the cargo off – and perhaps the characters can help speed things along?” is cool, because it is mundane and “feels right”, but the real adventure orbits around the problem that “something is wrong” at the destination, which is hindering their delivery, and that characters must get involved in that. And I’m not saying it is xenomorphs – it could be malfunctioning Seegson droids, a weird AI, UPP infiltrators or something else entirely. My point is: you need to make that adventure, the NPCs, the plot and the location in advance to whatever detail suits you. The tables will only get you so far.

How does a job salvaging parts at the shuttered Fury 161 facility sound? All rumours about a “space dragon” are completely unfounded. Double pay? Done!

The random colonial marines’ missions naturally lend themselves more to being interesting and dramatic on their own: e.g. a Raid on a Sensor Site with a company agent along, who is meddling to secure corporate assets with the twist of sabotage on board with a UPP frigate on an intercept course. That sounds action packed, but you still need to craft the details: the map of the sensor site, the NPCs, the complications and so on – but at least the framework of something interesting is there already.

In my view, you also need to make a campaign arc that propels the characters towards meeting a xenomorph threat – a grand intrigue of some kind – that can connect the plots and adventures into a satisfying whole. The game doesn’t say a whole lot on that front, which is a bit disappointing.

As the game is deadly, it could make sense to have a bit of an ensemble cast. For example, the space trucker crew could be eight people for four players, with each player having two characters. Or the rest could be NPC’s until someone dies. It also leaves NPCs to put in danger – or kill horribly – for dramatic effect. Having 10 characters available for a squad of marines also makes sense, as some characters deaths seems to be inevitable.

The book ends with a short cinematic adventure, that takes place in the same location as the Aliens film: the colony Hadley’s Hope. The characters arrive back from a job at a processing plant (before the colonial marines and Ripley arrive) to find the colony deserted and a warning message sounding over the intercom. The characters must investigate and survive to catch a shuttle off the infested base.

The short adventure can be played in a couple of hours and comes with nice floor plans, PC’s and NPCs. A great place to start, if you want to introduce new people to the game, the genre or, perhaps especially, to role-playing games in general.

Alternately, the floor plans could be reused for your own adventure or campaign.

Conclusion

The ALIEN RPG is a fantastic game. It is tightly designed and sticks to its core themes.

The rules are designed to make the game feel like you are inside a piece of ALIEN fiction. It evokes the atmosphere and style of the franchise perfectly.

Inside the book, you will find everything you need to run a game, although the custom yellow stress dice with Facehuggers on, I think would make it run more smoothly (and you probably need two sets).

The art is great, and the book is easy to read – however during combat with xenomorphs, you do need to reference tables scattered all over the book. The rules are quite simple and very player facing.

That said, the style and themes are probably not for every gaming group, but I would argue that even for die-hard D&D/fantasy fans, an ALIEN cinematic adventure could be a great change of pace or palate cleanser between campaigns.

I would love to run a campaign in ALIEN, and I think it could easily stretch over 7-10 adventures – for me – a short to medium long campaign. But probably not more than that. The amount of character options and room for advancement would simply run out (see my calculation below) – unless you kill characters very frequently, which isn’t fun in a campaign.

The only real critique point in the rules are the amount of variation in the panic rolls and for critical hits on xenomorphs. I think the lack of variation could be a problem, especially in a campaign, and the panic roll mechanic is not easy to change.

My other slightly negative points are ultimately nit-picks, and every supplement for the game will be a ‘must buy’ for me.

Let’s say you play for 25 sessions, with on average 3.5 xp per session, which would leave you with almost 90 xp. At a cost of 5 XP per skill point or talent, that would purchase you:
12 additional skill points (on top of the 10 a starting character has)
2 extra career talents
and 4 additional general talents.
At that point, a group will be extremely competent and covering all bases.

Amidst the Ancient Trees – play advice & review

I ran the Call of Cthulhu (CoC) adventure Amidst the Ancient Trees from the 7th edition core rulebook by Chaosium on Roll20.

I doubt the game needs an introduction for most gamers, but CoC is a classic horror RPG where normal people – called Investigators – encounter the insanity-inducing cosmic horrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s universe and try to surviven with their lives and minds intact.

This article is one-part review and one-part advice on running the adventure, with a lengthy section on how our game went. It is one long spoiler, so if you are a player, stop reading!

A very high-level conclusion is that we had a good time. The adventure is solid, but not without flaws. It is not the classical “investigation” adventure, which is one of the reasons I picked it. It served well as a first introduction to the Mythos for the characters.

However, there are some stumbling blocks. And I probably made a mistake the way I set up the adventure. Primarily, I think the characters need stronger motivations to propel the players/characters forward towards a final conflict.

It is not a completely linear adventure, but it isn’t a sandbox either. As a Keeper, you need to make the choices available in the adventure clearer.

We had not played CoC for more than 20 years, so we were in a sense noobs, who still knew what we were getting into.

The setup

The group was me as Keeper and my three long-time friends and gaming buddies, who due to this pandemic found our games moved online, and it now made sense to play together again, despite living in opposite ends of our (albeit small) country. We made characters in advance and ran the adventure over two 3-hour sessions.

The players rolled their characters, and they were fairly mediocre, and none had a high EDU. Two did roll 80 Power, which became relevant.

tab smith
Character art one of my players found – and used the name Tab Smith.

The characters were:

 

  • A rich British dilettante living in Vermont, who had served as a liaison officer during WWI (drinking cognac and reading French poetry well behind the front)
  • A black Boston Jazz musician who owed a lot of money (motivation from the adventure)
  • A photographer of German descent who took photos for the police in Boston (and, it seemed, also more illicit photos), who wanted to get back on Harris.

So, not great woodsmen, but with some combat skills, good social skills (which they rarely needed) and good spot hidden.

Playing online

We used Roll20 as our digital tabletop but ran voice and video through Discord. I purchased the core book for CoC on Roll20 and upgraded my account to paid, which meant I saved some time setting up the adventure and taught me something about how the different assets can be used.

We could not get video and sound to reliably work on Roll20, which is why we moved to Discord.

In the first session we were on a joint call. In session two I used the bot Rythm to play music from Youtube via a Discord server. I couldn’t get the bot to play Spotify, but Youtube was quite easy. I think using a server and playing creepy music worked the best.

Short-ish recap

To help other Keepers run the adventure, it can be helpful to see how other groups went through it. Therefore you can read our version. Or you can skip down to my notes on what I liked and didn’t like, and how I would recommend adjusting it.

The group got the briefing, and one character started questioning the motivation of the kidnappers, which the sheriff answered as ‘money’, which was true. At this point I should have explained to played that he knew that Strong was a man of some means and that background, but I hadn’t picked up that he understood himself to be a local. I think it was also an initial attempt to try and figure out what the mystery was.

Harris
I used this photo for Harris.

I had found photos (mug shots from Australia) from the period to illustrate the kidnappers. It is important that the characters are able to recognize the bad guys, so I think that is important to introduce.

They were taken to the forest after their small posse had spent the morning getting ready at the dilettante’s mansion – meaning they didn’t do any kind of rumour investigation in advance. The whole hook of the adventure, I probably ran over too quickly, partly because I was conscious of game time.

They were lucky on a track roll, and advanced at a fair pace the first day and only encountered the two hunters. At night one character had a weird dream, but they didn’t notice any truck sounds.

 

Day 2

On day two they come across the track of the wounded artist, and as they can’t tell which way the track is going, they opt for going East – thus towards the camp, and agree they can go back to the Harris-track.

This is where I diverged significantly from the scenario as written. As written, they don’t get to the artist’s camp before day 3, but I couldn’t square that with a panicked wounded artist running through the woods for hours and hours at night and day. They therefore find the camp during the afternoon (before the second round of nightmares), which means they see the paintings before they had the dreams. One character had the bright idea to see which paintings seemed to be painted from memory and which were from observation, which meant he could identify which were dreams.

They opted to follow the drag marks north of the camp, and then I moved on to Night 2.

Night 2

One of the characters with nightmares got up, and was awake. He rolled an extreme success on spot hidden, and noticed Louis, the hidden servant of Gla’aki. He challenged him with the rifle he found at the artist camp, which made the servant attack. The character rolled another extreme success and did something like 24 in damage on an impaling shot. He shot him through the heart, and the servant played dead, as per the adventure. They naturally notice that he has been dead for a very long time etc. and decide to flee back to town back along their own trails. I forgot about the explosion and the weird light, though, from the dig site.

As the characters are no woodsmen, I made the very plausible call that they – instead of backtracking the whole way – end up out on the road, with the truck rumbling into sight. Here they learn some useful information, but find the driver odd and rude. I tried not to overplay it, though. He told them they were welcome at the site, but could walk.
They decide to walk to the dig site, as they might be able to catch a ride back.

Then I have another posse stumble into the road ahead of them, coming from the other side of the road. They could inform them of the sounds of gun shots during the previous night and the general direction (Harris’s cabin). This way I presented two clear choices to them (the dig site or going after the kidnappers). And this is where we ended the first session.

Second session

They chose to go the dig site, to see if they could get a ride home. On the way there, they come upon the road to the cabin and decide to investigate, making their sanity rolls as they see the same path as in their dreams and the cabin later on.

They go into the cabin, where they see the civil war outfits, an old rifle. When the photographer gets his gear set up for an amazing photo, he notices the pale blue light. They find the trap door and enter the cellar (with the big camera on a tripod). They find the coffins, and, as I share the art from the adventure, they can see a book. I rule that the coffin is open, and the pick up the book and the spine which is also in there.

coffins
The art reveals a clue. The adventure doesn’t say which coffins are open. Maybe I should have ruled that only the two coffins with occupants were closed? 

This is when the two servants emerge. The characters have a shoot first, ask questions later policy, at this point, and open fire. They discover to their chagrin that the two “zombies” don’t react as they thought to their onslaught, as the first servant played dead after getting hit. When they realise their attacks are ineffective, they flee up to the cabin and into the sunlight.
They opt out of going to the lake, and go back to the road and on to the dig site, but without reading the diary…

The group gets to the site and are able to talk their way into a conversation with foreman White. They are lured into the shed with the Turner gang and the kidnap victims. White reveals the captives (for dramatic effect) and a fight ensues. The players roll really well. One manages to escape through a window, where he begins fighting with two of the surveyors, before fleeing.

The dilettante officer knocks White down and barges into the room with the prisoners, and begin to set them free. The jazz musician, who grew up in a tough neighborhood, smashes a lit oil lantern on one opponent and sets his hair on fire. crits White with a gunshot, which I rule gives him a penalty dice due to damaged bone and sinew. Turner of course shows up, and he begins casting spells at the musician, but fails every single time, as the opposing PC has 80 in power.

Ultimately, the PCs cut the prisoners loose and smash open one of the barred windows and make their escape by stealing the truck. They return to Bennington and basically succeed, as they rescued the kidnapped girl, but fail to stop Gla’aki’s servants – and really without knowing what was going on.

Combat map element
I create a simple cabin layout in Roll20, to ensure everyone understood who was positioned where. I didn’t use grid movement as such.

 

My opinion and adventure issues

We had fun, and I think the system ran quite smoothly, despite it being the first time I’ve run a Basic game in decades.

It is not a bad adventure. It has fun action and the mood is quite cool. But it has a couple of significant problems.
The overarching problem is the loose connection between what the players have been told is the objective and the actual plot.

 

The briefing (or inciting incident) I could probably have run better. One of my players thought it would have worked better, if we had discussed they setup during character creation, and I think he is right. I just opted to have them create characters that weren’t designed for this adventure specifically. In hindsight, the other way might have been more fun.

It can seem a bit far fetched to send more or less armed civilians out to get armed kidnappers, that have shown their will to kill cops. Perhaps it would be more realistic, if Mr. Strong did the whole thing privately, offering money etc., because the cops were unable to pursue, until the Feds show up in force, because of the casualties they sustained?

My biggest failure was not spending more time on the motivations. They are not strong and dramatic enough, in my view, to propel the characters into danger, since the plot doesn’t propel the characters forward.

One of the players said, that he felt the adventure lacked a point where the story takes that clear twist from a rescue operation to a “foil the cult” plot – a point of no return for the characters.

The setup is classic horror: a group of people venture into a wilderness with one purpose but instead finds something dark and must combat it. However, there is no “point of no return” in the adventure where the characters MUST try to oppose the bad guys, to survive. They can just decide to go home or flee at any point.

The maps in the adventure aren’t that useful when running it. On the adventure map, the path seems linear, but I don’t think it is if you read the adventure. I made a flow-chart, where the road separated the kidnapper’s location from the starting point. That helped me a lot.

map coc
In Roll20 this is labled “player handout”. But it obviously isn’t, given the Legend on it… I found my own online and posted it on the Roll20 tabletop.

Can servants of Gla’aki be destroyed?

I struggled with how to handle damage to the servants. It says they are immortal in the adventure, but then why do they have HP? If you look up the stats in the rulebook, it makes no mention of them being immune to damage.

I liked that they couldn’t just destroy them with gun fire and brawling, but I assumed destroying their physical shapes will “kill” them – and that fire is effective to do that. I also began giving them penalty dice, if they had been critically injured, to reflect damage to their physical shell.

I’d be interested to hear what experienced Keepers have done, or what Lovecraftian Lore says…?

What would I do differently?

I would make some stronger motivations. Basically, by dialing the current ones up.

Verbs!
This is one of the best pieces of advice from Youtuber and game designer Matt Colville. There are good verbs and bad verbs. The original character motivations lack good verbs. 

– Harris killed your (brother, father, favourite uncle) and now you must get your revenge!

– You owe a Boston mobster 2000 dollars. If you don’t get the money it by the end of the week, he will burn your house down and break your legs, maybe kill you.

– Jane is your favourite niece, god daughter etc. You must rescue her!

To create the plot twist, from finding kidnappers to stopping Gla’aki. You could have one of the kidnapped, Jane or Arthur, show up after having fled the cabin. This should be either after finding Turner’s cabin or after the Hideout. That NPC can tell them how the surveyors have captured the artists and are digging out something unnatural from the earth and speaking of sacrifices. This could spur them into a rescue action.

The small stuff

Then there are some little things that were annoying or points I think Keepers need to consider:

  • The dig site art does not match the map. That meant I couldn’t use the art as a handout.
  • There are no role-playing tips for Jane of any kind. You need to make that up yourself.
  • There is no mention of the truck at the dig site, so I placed it there.
  • I think there is a bit of a mismatch between how the driver, James Stanton, is supposed to be role-played and the rest of the surveyors. I tried to make White a bit more distant, but not sure I succeeded.

Using Roll20

The Roll20 character sheets helped quite a bit with identifying Hard and Extreme successes.

The assets from the adventure weren’t really that helpful, as the maps contained the Keeper information, so that was disappointing. I don’t know if Chaosium converted the adventure to Roll20. If they did, it looks a bit low effort.

I made (a really ugly) map of the dig site in Roll20 (see above), just to be able to follow the action there, as there are many NPCs to keep track of.

Roll20 was great for quickly Googling a photo of that car they drive or the gun they find, and then moving it on to the screen. Playing in a historical period, where photos exist from, is an advantage when playing online.

Summary:

Amidst the Ancient Trees was a fun adventure, but with too vague motivations and nothing that propels the characters from trying to find a kidnapped girl to stopping Great Old One’s servants.

The fact that it has a limited number of paths for the characters to take, I think makes it a good introductory adventure. However, I think it needs some modification.

I could have succeeded better in creating a scary mood. But that wasn’t the adventure’s fault 🙂

It worked well on Roll20, but wasn’t fully adapted to the platform.

 

 

Adventures in Middle-Earth Reviews

AIME1
Adventures in Middle-Earth (AiME) is an RPG set in Tolkien’s world between the events of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. It is based on the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition engine, and you only need the free System Reference Document to use the AiME books.
Below you can find links to Reviews of many of the AiME books.

I’ve also played Wilderland Adventures and Eaves of Mirkwood and written my comments on how I ran the adventures and what I would change.

Cubicle 7 no longer has the rights to producing the game, so there are no more supplements coming, but the books currently available are more than enough to run multiple campaigns and to build your own.

All in all, it is a fantastic and faithful low-magic merging of the D&D 5e rules and the Tolkien-universe. There are a couple of balance issues and design issues, especially at the higher levels, but nothing a creative Loremaster can’t fix.

Reviews:
Player’s Guide to Adventures in Middle-Earth
Loremaster’s Guide to Adventures in Middle-Earth
Loremaster’s Screen and Eaves of Mirkwood
Mirkwood Campaign
Wilderland Adventures
Rhovanion Region Guide
The Road Goes Ever On

Game guide:
Wilderland Adventures 1: Don’t Leave the Path
Wilderland Adventures 2: Of Leaves and Stewed Hobbit
Wilderland Adventures 3: Kin strife and Dark Tidings
Wilderland Adventures 4: Those Who Tarry No Longer
Wilderland Adventures 5: A Darkness in the Marches
Wilderland Adventures 6: The Crossings of Celduin
Wilderland Adventures 7: The Watch on the Heath

Minis perfect for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

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I’ve painted the burgomeister mini. Unfortunately, I don’t have the kind of photo equipment needed for minis. He is placed next to a Hero Forge mini for scale. 

If you use miniatures for your Warhammer game (or Zweihänder or other similar games), the Dunkeldorf line of minis on Kickstarter are perfect. The minis are of mundane characters, which can be hard to get, or you have to pay a fair bit of money for Oldenhammer minis or for the Mordenheim line, which is pricey today.

The line consists of 12 minis (plus 3 – or more -additional minis from stretch goals being unlocked). All of them look like people you can meet in the Old World. There is a barber-surgeon, a rat catcher, a burgomeister (mayor) a courtesan and so on.

I noticed the project before the Kickstarter was launched, and when the call went out for bloggers to have a look at the early casts, I threw in my lot. Nicki, who is one of the people behind the project, was nice enough to send me three samples. So, I got three minis for free, and I’ve already backed the Kickstarter. I don’t consider myself biased, but now you know.

You can find it here: Dunkeldorf minis

In any case, below I’ve written some thoughts on the minis.

Minis with personality

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Here are the three sample minis I got. I only had time to paint one, as time is my most limited resource.

What I really love about these minis is that they have a lot more personality than the Citadel or Reaper minis that I usually get.

Their faces and body types are much more varied. The Citadel faces tend to be much more ‘standard handsome’ in my view, whereas these are angular or corpulent. That really makes them stand out.

I’m no expert on minis, and no great painter, but the three I got, are nicely – but not overly – detailed and straight forward to paint, with the exception of the rat catcher, which has a lot more small details – she looks more like an adventurer.

They are clearly for ‘low fantasy’ as they don’t carry fancy items and weapons, and they have the beard, dress and hairstyle of a classic Warhammer game.

The minis are also about 50% women, which is another plus for me, as there is a clear gap in my collection when it comes to female minis that can be used for PCs or NPCs.

As stretch goals, you also get some other ‘dressing’ like an anvil and a cat, which are nice, but something I will use less frequently.

My only ‘criticism’ is the barber surgeon. His profession is a bit harder to identify just from the mini. He could also have a sling bag or something, to make him look a bit more like an adventurer. That would improve his usefulness to me a bit. 

Low Risk

The Kickstarter was launched be a couple – from my native country if Denmark as it turns out – which already runs an online gaming store (King Games). That is a big upside, as it lowers the risk of the practical aspects of a kickstarter tripping them up. As they have an online store, they also have a registered company, are used to administration and the logistics of sending packages around. It is also not a hobby projects – as such – which means the risk of ‘work’ getting in the way, is low.

You have until April 4 to get your hands on the minis.  The kickstarter is already more than fully funded, but I wouldn’t mind more stretch goals being unlocked.

My Twitter handle is @RasmusNord01. I would love to see other people’s painted versions of these minis – and hear about the games you run. 

 

Is Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay for me? – A Warhammer Primer

Warhammer front pages
I’ve played and run Warhammer since 1st edition. We finished a more than 90 sessions long campaign in 2nd edition in 2015.

Dungeons & Dragons has brought a tsunami of new players to the table-top roleplaying game hobby. That is fantastic. But there are other games out there – games that appeal to different tastes or can add variety to your gaming-life. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP) is one of the other classic games out there. I love both D&D and WFRP. This article will help you decide if WFRP is for you? The game was released in a fourth edition in late 2018 by Cubicle 7, so it is a perfect time to start.

As this is meant as a primer to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, I will not go into a deep comparison of the new edition versus older editions. But I will compare the fourth edition to other current games. In a later post, I hope to go into a more in-depth review of the 4th edition.

Before I go into the details, let me note that WFRP is not one thing. The setting has evolved over time, from edition to edition, and each group will play it in their own way. There is no ‘right way’ to play WFRP. That said, the current edition is not designed to emulate the high fantasy universe of the more well-known Warhammer Fantasy Battle, by Games Workshop. The rules and setting are close to the 1st and 2nd edition, but with a number of changes.

What is special about WFRP – in a few bullet points:

  •  The Warhammer role-playing universe has many of the common fantasy tropes like savage orcs, stubborn dwarves and prideful elves, but is set in a fantasy Europe in approximately the 16th century. There is gunpowder.
  •  Warhammer is known among many as ‘grim dark fantasy’. Violence is more explicit, magic is less prevalent and more adult themes and elements are common. You can expect gore, plague and diarrhea, bad teeth, amputated limbs from critical hits and drug-using sex cults (but which elements you include or focus on is ultimately up to you and your game master).
  • The ruinous powers – chaos – is the main enemy of most games. It is both an outside military threat, but also an insidious internal threat luring men with its power and corrupting player characters.
  • The game has a lot of humor as a contrast to the tragedy, violence, poverty and ugliness of the setting. In our group, it is often the quirky, down on their luck, sometimes pathetic, characters forced to make bad decision by circumstance that add a lot of laughter to the game.
  • Combat is violent and can easily result in amputations or death
  • It is low magic. You can play wizards and priests with spells. Characters ARE special in that way, but in the wide society that magic is rare. There are no magic items in the core rules, which is an indication of how rare they are.
  • Your character probably doesn’t know how to read and write
  • The social status of the characters matters a lot. An adventuring group of mercenaries, tomb robbers, river wardens and peddlers are unlikely to be admitted to the count’s court, despite having “vital” information about an orc invasion.

D&D is essentially a game about fighting monsters and finding treasure. You can see that, looking at the three core rulebooks, one is about fighting monsters, one is about monsters you can fight and about a thirds of the final book is about the treasure you can find.

If you look at the Warhammer rulebook with the same lens, I would say the game is about struggling to achieve a better life in the face of adversity, poor luck, vengeful gods and an unforgiving and unfair world.  The adventures also happen in between your ‘regular’ life as a cavalry soldier, rat catcher or merchant – few hunter monsters or loot dungeons as a ‘career’.

What characters can I play?

IMG_1644
The servant is a classic career. Perhaps you accidentally burnt down the inn you worked in and ran away, or maybe you are the loyal servants of one of the other player characters, who is of a more lofty position?

The character creation method and advancement system are one of the unique aspects of WFRP. Your character has a job (a career), and it is typically not glamorous, or quite the opposite, and you start at the bottom. There are 64 careers in total, each with four tiers in their ‘career path’. You can for example start the game as a peasant, a pauper, a dock hand, a body snatcher (digging up corpses, to sell them to physicians trying to learn anatomy (or is he really a necromancer…?)), an apothecary’s apprentice or potentially a noble scion or apprentice wizard. You can select what career you want – but you get bonus xp if you let the dice decide.

As you go on adventures, you both become more skilled (you improve your abilities and skills) and you advance your career – for example from pauper to beggar king or student lawyer to judge. Or you can break to new careers. Perhaps your Townsman is down on her luck and becomes a Pit fighter. Or you have an unfortunate adventure and your Boatman ends up as Outlaw. But essentially, the only restrictions on how you build your characters, what skills you take or talents you learn is set by the game master.

The game is excellent for a thematic game group: a cursed travelling circus, the crew of a river barge, a squad of watchmen, a criminal gang or the henchmen of a baron exiled to the Border Princes.

The amazing thing about this system is that it works as an internal story engine for each character. Each character’s development becomes its own cool story, partly driven by the trappings you need in your career. You may, for example, need to acquire a river boat to become a merchant or get your own gang of thugs to become a gang boss – all excellent role-playing drivers.

Clearly, your starting character is less competent than a D&D character. Furthermore, a D&D character will move from more mundane adventures to high fantasy at around 5th level in a few sessions. In WFRP you will stay much longer as more mundane and killable characters and may never move up to shape regional or world events.

What adventures will we have?

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Fighting orcs in a dungeon is also a common experience in WFRP, but also far deadlier one…

A Warhammer game can be about exploring dungeons, kicking down doors, killing monsters and finding treasure. There are certainly plenty of fallen dwarf strongholds, ancient tombs and necromancer’s towers around. But the survival rate is likely going to be low.

More common adventures would be investigating strange murders that lead to a chaos cult, which has infiltrated the local town council. Or perhaps recovering the cargo of a stolen river barge or stealing a mysterious artefact from a local collector. It could also be the classic escorting a caravan across Axe Bite Pass or less D&D-like instigating a peasant uprising in the neighboring barony – all depending on what kind of characters you have.

It is likely, as you advance your careers, the goals and adventures become loftier – with a burgomeister (mayor), spy master and a cavalry officer in the group, the adventures will quickly turn political or very personal.

Because characters don’t have the repertoire of spells and special abilities of D&D, more investigation  focused adventures are easier to pull off, while combat heavy adventures are more difficult. You are not going to have 4-6 encounters in an adventuring day, as a critical hit can easily shatter your hip or crush your elbow, effectively crippling the character. Wounds like that takes 30+D10 days to heal, and you may need to find a surgeon to get if fully fixed. Let’s just hope the wound doesn’t get infected…

What is the system like?

The fundamental system is percentile – roll D100 below your percentage chance, which is a combination of your attribute and your relevant skill. An example would be a character with Dexterity 38 and Lockpick 15 for a total of 53%. You just have to roll under to succeed (in a simple scenario).

However, in this edition, there are more opposed rolls, which means you need to keep track of how well you succeed.

Compared to D&D, the characters are simpler with fewer complex combat options. The game has the equivalence of Feats, called Talents (examples are Nose for Trouble, Seasoned Traveller, Holy Hatred and Berserk Charge). There are more than in D&D, but many aren’t combat focused.

That said, there are some fiddly bits that I’d wager most people don’t remember in their first few sessions.

IMG_1645
Expect your characters to get badly hurt and develop ‘the galloping trots’ after eating ‘Mystery Meat Pie’ while on a stakeout – for the merriment of everyone. In Warhammer you are frequently faced with the smell of shit – and sometimes it is your own.

In combat the system works with more modifiers to attacks than D&D, most rolls are opposed and hit locations are important. It reminds me a bit of D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder in that way, where you often had to add and subtract multiple modifiers.

Critical hits are also more important than in D&D and you can fumble – including fumbling casting a spell. Furthermore, weapons and armor have qualities that influence each encounter.

All taken together, that makes the core of the combat more crunchy than D&D and a bit fiddly – but WFRP does not have the hundreds of complex spells, which at higher levels can bog down the game.

You can’t get resurrected in Warhammer, but it does have a system of Fate Points, which you can spend, if the dice turn against you or you did something stupid, like hunting skaven in the sewers beneath Altdorf. You might have 2 or 3, so deaths are likely over time.

What books do I need?

Shadows over bogenhafen
The Enemy Within Campaign is widely regarded as one of the best campaigns published for any RPG. Cubicle 7 may publish a 4th ed. version, as it is set in the same timeline as 1st edition.

For fourth edition you only need one book: the core rules. It has all the rules, 30+ pages of setting information, 25 pages on religion and a solid selection of monsters – enough for many, many games.

A starter set is out on PDF (should be out in print in June 2019). It contains more information about a specific town called Übersreik (a solid 65 pages), a long adventure and several short adventure ideas (48 pages), handouts and some premade characters. The starter set is meant to teach newcomers to the hobby to run the game. It has situationally specific boxes on the rules you need with examples.

The core rulebook is – in my view – not written to introduce new players to Warhammer. So, if you’ve never played WFRP, I think the starter set is a good option.

Do I need minis?

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You don’t need minis to play WFRP! But here are some of my Warhammer minis.

No. The game is less grid-focused than D&D, mainly because you have less need for spell area of effect and the like. But if you like miniatures, there are 30+ years of minis to pick from. Although, the old vintage ones can be pricey.

Where can I learn more?

There are dozens of books from the previous editions available. Some are classic campaigns and source books, like the Enemy Within, which still command high prices in good condition. But you can probably get many 2nd edition books cheaply.

There are also a large range of novels to get inspiration from, although the newer ones from Games Workshop are more related to the Fantasy Battle version of the setting.

My personal recommendations would be the original Gotrek and Felix short stories Troll Slayer (which you can find in the First Omnibus, containing Troll Slayer, Skaven Slayer & Demon Slayer ), the novel Beasts in Velvet as well as the collection of short stories Ignorant Armies – which are out of print. But the Ambassador and the other parts of that series is also a fine grim dark read.

Wilderland Adventures: The Watch on the Heath

I’m running all seven Wilderland Adventures for Adventures in Middle-Earth with my group of 7 players and writing about the experience. You can also read reviews of other AiME products on this blog (and other D&D stuff). These adventure blog-posts are part review and part suggestions for Loremasters on how to run or adjust the adventure, based on my experience of running it. And to provide context for those two things, I will also describe what happened during our play-through of the adventure. Art is copyright Cubicle 7 and pulled from their material.

We had a blast with the conclusion of Wilderland Adventures. The adventure lasted two sessions, with the second session almost wholly taken up by the final climactic battle with the Gibbet King.

The adventure is fairly straight forward with a cool location and interesting battle at the end. That said, I had to do quite a bit of prep to make the final part run smoothly, as there isn’t much advice for running it as tactical combat.

How it played out:

After returning to Dale and getting a just reward, they are approached by Oin, who takes them to the Lonely Mountain. Under the mountain, in the Chamber of Marzabul, they meet King Dain and the sage Munin, who tells them of the theft done by Lochmand.

LEgendary items
I made a list of weapons and armor for the characters to choose from. It seemed more interesting to hand them out in the beginning, as opposed to a reward when the game is done.

They complete the audience with great success and gain access to the armoury of the Lonely Mountain and get the book about Zirakinbar to study along the way. I had prepared a list of Legendary Items that they could sort of choose between, to make each item more memorable, and not just a free for all.

Here is the list I made (use if you like):
Legendary Weapons

After the audience, and some provisioning, they travel north to the Grey Mountains. Along the way they meet Witherfinger, and gain some valuable information, in an enjoyable role-playing encounter.

They are somewhat confounded by the strange landscape, and gain both an exhaustion level, and some of them several shadow points (for the first time in the campaign).

When they reach the mountains, they traverse the area with ice trolls, and wake up a single one of them. The four characters wipe it out before it gets it second initiative round.

Reaching Zirakinbar, they see the dragon approaching, and meet the ghost. I changed it to Lockmand instead of the old Master of Laketown, as that historic figure had not previously had anything to do with the campaign, and they’ve spent little time in Laketown. I also changed the treasure to be the one that Lockmand escaed with from Dale, which seems much more appropriate. It is still cursed gold and there was quite a bit of it.

With the information from the ghost, the players figure out that the Gibbet King probably plans to capture the dragon to either inhabit it (a great idea) or use it as mount.

As they have decoded the book, they enter the dwarf outpost from below and kill the two orcs working the furnaces, after which we end the first session of the adventure.

The Final Fight

The climax of Wilderland Adventures we played with five characters present. They sneak up through the fortress and avoid the entrance hall (wisely, it turns out).

They burst through the door to the Gibbet King, and it is initiative. A lot happens over the next 2½ hours and seven combat rounds, and it is hard for me to relay in the right order in writing.

But overall, the most combat effective characters focus on the big orcs, while the less combat effective focus on closing the doors (particularly the Scholar).

The slayer moves up to the Gibbet King and throws him into the big fire in the second round (given the information earlier, I think the players – reasonably – expected a bigger effect from that).

In the same round, I think, Raenar arrives through the northern tunnel (which is quite important, as if he arrives in one of the tunnel where they need to close a door, it could spell trouble).

One of the orcs then push the cage out of the fire, and the Gibbet King begins to mesmerize the dragon.

When the fire doesn’t kill the Gibbet King in the second round, he uses his legendary weapon to pry open the cage and destroy the body, but the Gibbet King switches to one of the orc corpses, which I ruled caused the spell to falter.

Meanwhile, the Warden uses his Grim Visage dwarf helmet ability, which causes some of the Mordor orcs to flee, and the warrior and wanderer slays the orcs holding the chain, and the ones that come to replace them.

As Raenar is now free of his spell, he in annoyance breathes down on the area where the orcs with the chain were, which includes the Gibbet King and Fegor, the woodman Wanderer, and Raddu the dwarf Slayer. The dwarf resists well, but Fegor is down to one hit point.

Raenar now demands that they all kneel before him, and Fegor does so and throws all his gold out to him. He rolls high enough to be spared the wrath. And more characters kneel before him.

At this point they get the final door closed, and the reinforcements from the 1st floor begins to arrive, which the Dunedaín holds back.

The sound builds and the characters kill the troll reinforcement, and the rest of the orcs pull back, seeing the carnage and a dragon.

The characters then flee to rooms with doors and to the Raven’s Perch, and I judge that Raenar retreats. My reasoning is that he so weary of their legendary weapons, given his back story, and the damaging sound, which he is unfamiliar with, that it deems it wiser to retreat.

I’m of course also aware that after many rounds of combat, the group would stand no chance against him.

How was the adventure?

Journey
It was a fun and fitting adventure to end the series. I’m not sure the overall plot completely makes sense, as the “diversion” of the attack at Celduin, seems a bit overkill to sneak past Dale and the Lonely Mountain in the vast wilderness surrounding it. But, never mind!

Dragons, dungeons, ancient artefacts and dark magic. What more can you ask for in an adventure!?

I think the mood set was very well done and the places and characters very suitable for Middle-Earth and the stature of the heroes.

It is timed well to move the characters into a very dangerous area with lots of opportunities to gain shadow, which they know from the previous adventure, is bad, when facing the Gibbet King. That is good foreshadowing.

The dragon adds real drama, as it is an almost insurmountable challenge at that level. It also helps show that there are still great threats and adventures for characters of mid-level.

As we won’t be coming back to Middle-Earth anytime soon, when this campaign is done (I’m running a homebrew final adventure), it was great that they got to see the Lonely Mountain and meet King Daín in this ‘tour de Middle-Earth’.

The Secrets of Mazarbul mechanic, with a character gaining exhaustion to gain useful information, I really liked. I think the adventure would be less interesting, if the players don’t get the information in it.

A few nit pickings:

Why, oh why was the Chamber of Winds not part of the pre-made battle maps in the book? A baffling choice, as it is one of the maps that will be used with 100% certainty, and which is the most complex to draw. It would have made the battle even more memorable and made my life a bit easier.

Lockmand, as written, dies in his cell, killed by the Gibbet King, making capturing him even more pointless. I think my change makes a lot more sense (see below), if I do say so myself.

The guard rooms in Zirakinbar suddenly have 1d6+1 orcs. That is a weird change in design all of the sudden. It all the other adventures it has been x amount of orcs per character and the difference in difficulty between rolling a 1 and a 6 is very significant.

What changes did I make?

Not many significant changes, but I made a lot of notes for the end to run smoothly. Some of them I think would have been nice to have in the published text.

I imagined that Lockmand joined Gibbet King on his journey with the gold and was rewarded with a stab in the back when they arrived. He is now the ghost they meet, who more realistically has useful knowledge of their plot. And the gold was the treasure he used at the feast. The old Master of Laketown may feature a lot in the One Ring products, but this campaign does not take place in Laketown, or makes him part of the story in any way, so my players would have had no idea who he was.

Zirakinbar
I ruled that closing a gate was one action. I placed the bonfire north west of 9. 

Based on the playtest feedback, they must have a good sense of how long the final battle would last, and when the dragon should arrive and so on. I made a plan and adjusted a little bit on the fly. It looks like this:

End of round 2: Raenar arrives in the northern tunnel. You can adjust the difficulty, by letting him arrive in one of the tunnels he needs to close.

Round 3: Raenar approaches the Gibbet King, who now has him under his spell

Round 4-5: The orcs try to place the chain on Raenar

Round 6: Reinforcement orcs arrive from the ground floor (if they aren’t dead)

I let the other orcs try to lift the chain as well, but they did not last against the characters.

I also placed the big bonfire mentioned in the text on the map, in the middle.

In the adventure, the noise takes six (!) rounds to build to a damaging level, but that is way too late for it to have an effect on the battle, so I let it build for a round or two, before I began dishing out damage.

In Conclusion:

A worthy end to a generally strong series of adventures. My players enjoyed it, maybe because it goes to the core of the game: Dungeons & Dragons – but in Middle-Earth style.

I will write an overall review in the beginning of the new year. The next three sessions were a homebrewed adventured in Eriador, and I will cap this series of blog posts with some final thoughts on Adventures in Middle-Earth.

D&D Homebrew – Part 2 launch

”Any sight or word of them?”

“No, governor,” the chief scout said.

Governor Erin de Vin had recently shorn her red hair to prepare herself for the fight to come. They needed every edge they could get. There wouldn’t be room for mistakes. She was annoyed she kept thinking of how her mother used to braid it. That was a long time ago now. And in a distant land.

She was standing in the new gate tower looking towards the forest fully armored. It smelled of fresh sap. A yellow piece of cloth was blowing gently in the breeze from the sea from a branch at the edge of the forest. There was noise of chopping and digging from the work parties.

“And the elves?”

“I sent ambassador Faenar to parlay with them, but they aren’t telling him much. He is only half elf,” Oaktender said. His eyes narrowed.

“You don’t trust them?”

The halfling, long worn by weather and sorrow, shrugged.

“I think we can trust that the hobgoblins are their mortal enemies. But even I can’t sneak very close to the elves, and I only understand a bit of their hand signals anyway. They are weary of us, for sure. Like we are of them,” he said.

The governor sighed.

“Wouldn’t you be?” she then said.

Then she was silent a while, looking at the Royal Engineers and settlers working hard on their defenses. Thinking. Planning.

“The hobgoblins?”

“Still camped. But growing stronger.” The halfling spat with a practiced show of disdain. The glob of phlegm sailed over the edge of the tower.
“Whitefeather counted two ettins and at least four dozen goblins, who were new arrivals, some of them riding giant spiders. But we can’t see what their sorcerers are doing. They have obscured their camp with some kind of magical fog.”

“How do you view our chances?” The governor looked the halfling straight in the eye – don’t sugarcoat it.

“Our morale is low after the troll attack. Most have recovered physically, but many are brittle beneath. Tulh and his men will give them pause, but he will run out spells long before our enemies run out hot bodies to throw at us, and he will be an obvious target – and hard to protect. Bakhta the Bearded is a good fighter, I think, beneath his bravado, and he is cunning, but his team is too small and too inexperienced. Without Jarn and his crew, we lack striking power, and we will at a minimum face crippling casualties. It is likely we would have to abandon the settlement, if any of us survive. Even if they return in time, the odds aren’t great,” the halfling said, reporting like he used to do with his superiors in the military, and not to someone who had come to be a friend and comrade over the past three years.

They could both hear measured footsteps from below the tower and then the sound of someone climbing. The thin face of Tulh Dweomereye came through the hatch, and he proceeded to climb deftly up next to them, retaining most of his dignity. He wore his dark blue robes today. The ones with the embroidered fire elementals on the sleeves.

“You have news?” the governor said. Her words came out a little too quickly.

“Indeed,” said the wizard with a thin smile.

“Did they succeed? Are they on their way?”

“It appears that they have succeeded, yes, yet again. I wonder when their luck runs out? In any case, they are bringing back our people and will be here in a few days. It sounds like they will have quite a story to tell. Let’s hope we will get to hear it, at some point.”

“Thank the Mother!” The governor gripped the battlement hard with both hands and smiled fiercely.

“But there have been losses, I understand,” Dweomereye said. “It appears Claire didn’t make it.”

Oaktender sighed deeply and looked down, mumbling a prayer. Then he took a deep breath and drew himself up.

“I shall go spread the word. This will bring back some spirit.” He forced a thin smile. “Then I will go give the bad news to Whitefeather,” the halfling said.

“At least, now we have a fighting chance,” Erin de Vin said and looked to the vast forest beyond the clearing again. What kind of strength would the enemy assail her with? What did the elves come to offer? She cast her doubts aside, grinning inwardly. Whatever else happened, the hobgoblins and their damned giant allies would get a big kick in the teeth.

 

 

Wilderland Adventures: the Crossings of Celduin

I’m running all seven Wilderland Adventures for Adventures in Middle-Earth with my group of 7 players and writing about the experience. You can also read reviews of other AiME products on this blog (and other D&D stuff). These adventure blog-posts are part review and part suggestions for Loremasters on how to run or adjust the adventure, based on my experience of running it. And to provide context for those two things, I will also describe what happened during our play-through of the adventure. Art is copyright Cubicle 7 and pulled from their material.

It took us four sessions of mostly great gaming to finish the sixth adventure in the Wilderland Adventures-series, so this is obviously a fairly long read. It is also the adventure with the longest page count in the book, with 25 versus mostly below 20 pages.

The adventure begins during the Gathering of the Five armies to celebrate the victory over the goblins following the death of Smaug. During the celebration all the soldiers of Dale, as well as many visiting dwarves, are poisoned which leaves the realm defenseless when the Gibbet King attacks with his army. The heroes have to rush off to defend the Crossing of the Celduin river, to buy enough time for King Bard to gather enough forces to stop the orcs. The longer the heroes can defend the small village next to the only bridge over Celduin, the less costly the victory over the orcs will be.

So far, it is probably adventure we’ve had the most fun with overall, but I did spend a little more time adjusting it. I also spent more time preparing props and minis and I made some terrain. It all factored in to make for some very memorable game sessions.

The mood is great, there are many opportunities for fun role-playing, the heroes can really build their legend, and it fits well with the heroes moving from Tier 1 to Tier 2, going from local to regional heroes. The final battle is difficult and epic – if adapted to fit your player’s characters and play style.

Mechanically, it works really well that there are no long rests available, until before the final encounter. However, I needed to do quite a bit of modification to make the last part of the adventure fit a more tactical game. The conversion from the One Ring RPG seems to fall short of actually adjusting the adventure to a D&D-reality.

The middle part of the adventure has a few problems, I think in large part because it presents itself to the players – at that point – as an investigation and intrigue adventure, but it is really not. The poisoning is just a plot point to force the characters to the main part of the story – defending the crossing of the Celduin.

How it played out

As mentioned, it took us four whole sessions of about 3½ hours to play the adventure with 5-7 players. We spent the entire first session just arriving in Dale, role-playing andd meeting NPCs and with the archery contest. The second took us through the middle part, and the third and fourth sessions were tactical combat in Celduin, with the final encounter taking up the entire last session.

Session 1: Baldor’s trouble and the Masked Ball

Baldor and Belgo
Baldor and Belgo have prominent roles to connect the characters to Dale, in my version of the adventure.

To have a real hook or two, I added two things (see the links to handouts below):

 

  • Baldor (from the first adventure) invited them to stay during the celebration, and he also had a personal favour to ask. Letter from Baldor
  • The hobbit emissary of the group was asked by the Mayor of Mikkel’s Delving to represent the Hobbits, as they didn’t know where Bilbo was, as they felt it was unseemly that the big folk should have that party without any hobbits being present. Letter to the Hobbit Emissary

The player’s seemed to really like those hooks and went readily to Dale. They arrived at Baldor’s new home. He had regained much of his wealth, but it wasn’t a happy house, and Belgo was in trouble and had started skulking from his tutor, stealing little things with his friends who were bad company. They waited up for him and he came home drunk (even though he was 12 years old). We had some great roleplaying with their ‘talk’ with him and the outcome was that he became a squire to the Dunedaín.

The two hobbits, one of them the emissary, went to Bard’s court and talked their way into being introduced to the court, where they met Bombur and others. Very evocative of the setting, and it used the backgrounds to good effect.

The next day I introduced all the suggested games and contests outlined in the adventure, and we had fun doing riddles, the dwarf Warden won the song contest, and rolled ridiculously at the party in the evening, so that really established him as a person of renown.

For the evening’s celebration I pulled in some additional characters to avoid having only NPC’s important to the plot at hand detailed (see link below). Also, I have many players, and each one needed someone they could engage with. I’m not running the Mirkwood Campaign after this, but I used a couple of characters from there, and they would work well for foreshadowing, if I did.

Read my notes for the Masked Ball and Baldor’s Request here: Notes for Crossing of Celduin

One of the hobbits spoke with Gandalf, so I had him invite them directly to his quarters instead of sending a note (which I also had prepared as a handout with the G rune).

The Dunedaín used his Foresight of their Kindred ability to see that there was something about a bridge and a storm in their future, and Lockman was a foreboding character (unfortunately, he kind of forgot that for the next session).

The following morning the contests began, and as I have a ranged-heavy group, most of them participated in the archery contest. The Dunedaín won with an incredible roll. He reached 35 on his to hit check. That obviously gained him much renown as well.

Session 2: Contests and the Feast

DAle
Dale is an interesting location, but not much information is currently available for Adventures in Middle-Earth. It can seem a bit of an abrupt shift in location from the previous adventures in the book.

The contest continued. The dwarf slayer won the wrestling contest (spending one rage) and lost in the finale in the riding contest. He also won much renown and was a favourite among the dwarves.

In the grand melee, the dwarf slayer participated with the woodman wanderer of the group, but no one else wished to participate. They made it through the two initial rounds and then it was a grudge match against the mighty Gerold the Beorning, whom the dwarf had defeated in the wrestling match.

We roll initiative every round in combat, and for this duel style combat that is especially important to add drama and avoid a slug fest. The dwarf slayer won initiative the first round and opened up with a reckless attack. To the player’s horror, Gerold followed up with three attacks and won the initiative the following round, which meant he had six attacks on the dwarf with advantage. Despite alone against two characters, Gerold manages to knock out the dwarf, but is beaten by the wanderer, who goes on to the finale to fight Elstan, first captain of Dale. They have an epic sword fight, but the player loses. Which I narrated as the best outcome, according to the crowd. The people of Dale saw a great fight, but their hero won at the end, so ultimately the Woodman also gained much renown for his effort against their great captain.

For the feast I had a large part of the group at the place of honour, which was great, as it puts them up front at the center of the action. The players of course began suspecting something was off, and the slayer tried to kind of intervene, but I just plowed on with “Lockman”, as that felt appropriate, because the jester would try and play his part and avoid being distracted by ‘the audience’. But I’m also railroading a bit, because I know that the poisoning needs to happen. I did not mention that the ale had an aftertaste, as suggested in the adventure, because my players would immediately catch that as ‘plot-slang’ for poison, and cancel the whole feast.

What has to happen happens, and everyone gets poisoned, and then the characters start looking for the responsible, they have the gates closed and ring the alarm bells, as they fear an imminent attack. They question the guards and hear about the group leaving with a chest, but they are long gone. They go to Lockman’s house etc.

So, this is where the adventure – I think – has the appearance of a classic investigation adventure. But it isn’t, and I think my players were confused, and probably feeling a bit useless, until I moved them on to the next thing.

We move quickly on to the consequences, and, as the dwarf Warden has the Ravens of the Mountain virtue, the raven comes to him with the message of the advancing army.

They go to meet King Bard the next morning, and as they did so well in the contests, and with an emissary among them, it seemed very fitting that he would look to them as heroes, and they didn’t need any prodding to help with a plan.

We then play the journey to Celduin. I forgot to put in Lockman as an option to pursue, but I actually think it is for the best (because I will use him in the final adventure). I added four goblin archers to the Raiders encounter for my five characters, and they easily defeated them in an ambush.

As seen before, the DC of perception tests are so low that the characters have no chance of failure. Of course, the designated Lookout has at least +0 to his perception, so there is zero chance the orcs will catch them by surprise…

They then reach Celduin, and has to treat with Erik, the town Master, which was great fun. They really didn’t like that guy. And we ended with them preparing for battle.

Session 3: The Battle Begins

IMG_1049
I spent quite some time building a tower terrain piece, as the verticality of the battle is quite important. 

This session took us through part 7 of the adventure and the beginning of part 8. We run a tactical game, and I had wolf rider minis ready. The players made a plan, where two characters would hide on the far side of the bridge, to cut off the retreat of the outriders.

This sort of worked. One of the characters one the other side was the Slayer, who was now really feeling the fact that he had spent two rages and most of his Hit Dice recovering from the Grand Melee and the encounter with the orcs in the previous session (which was great!).

The outriders attack (I skipped the orc chief coming to threaten them to surrender, as my players open fire at maximum range), and they had a very tough fight, as they hadn’t planned for the wolf riders being able to jump into the river and get past the tower (taking some damage in the process from the submerged spikes, placed there by the characters).
I did add three goblin archers on wolves who stopped on the far side of the bridge, and an extra regular orc warrior on wolf to the encounter. But because I hadn’t expected the players to fight on both sides of the bridge, the extra wolves added quite a bit of difficulty to the encounter.

Ultimately, the players won a very hard-fought battle, and because none of the orcs or wolves escaped on the west side of the bridge, I allowed them to replenish the Preparation Dice they had spent.

Then the troll came, and with his movement they peppered him with arrows. He got to the gate and started smashing it. I rolled quite poorly, and they killed the troll when the portcullis had 4 hp left. With just a little luck, it doesn’t need many blows to crush the gate.

In the aftermath, the Warden sends his own raven out to look for the army, and we have a cool scene where it is the dwarf’s own raven that gets shot and speaks its last words to its master.

Finally, the Gibbet King speaks trough the dead warrior at the inn, but sadly few characters gain shadow points.

Session 4: The Final Battle 

IMG_1121
I made a Gibbet King out of two bases, some metal rods and an old 1990s Citadel skeleton. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite have time enough to finish it. 

The final battle against 75 orcs and the Gibbet King took up the entire session. If you don’t run the encounter with minis you can probably shave some time off.

First, I should say, my six players managed to kill 40 orcs by the time they threw the Gibbet King into the river. And several of them had plenty of hit points left, I think. With the tower as a choke point, I think there is a chance they could have pulled off killing all 75. There are more on the far side of course, but that should still give the army pause…

Basically, I sent down dozens of orcs, who started climbing the tower using grappling hooks and just by climbing and who were shooting from across the bridge. I ruled that using a grappling hook it took two rounds to get to the top of the tower, but that it took three without them, as per the first encounter.

My group is fairly good at ranged attacks, and they stacked up a lot of kills in the about 5-6 rounds before I introduced the Gibbet King. They cut the ropes of the grappling hooks, and were ready to smite orcs that climbed independently.

The Gibbet King moved down to the gate, used his dread spells to first crush the portcullis and then to breach the repaired gate (that took two rounds, I ruled).

The hobbit emissary deployed his expensive fireworks, which blinded the archers behind them, and prevented more reinforcements from moving up for a couple of rounds.

Then the orcs streamed through the gate, but the dwarf slayer, and some of the other characters, plugged the hole, and could have held that for some time, while I brought up reinforcements.

In hindsight, if I had deployed more orc guards in the beginning, the orc killing would have been harder.

As all the characters I targeted with the Dread Spells had zero Shadow Points, the results were underwhelming (see my notes on changes below).

They shot some arrows at the Gibbet King, and could see they did damage, but ultimately, the Gondorian scholar began heroically to make his way to the King’s cart, and the Dunedaín followed (with a natural 20 athletics roll).

Together, and with a Gift Dice, they pushed the gibbet into the river, and the battle was over, with King Bard arriving to mop up.

Weirdly, they talked about preparing fire arrows before the battle, but never thought of using them against the Gibbet King.

How was the adventure?

We had a ton of fun playing the adventure. There are many great role-playing moments in the adventure, and there are opportunities for many characters to shine. It avoids having outside forces saving the characters, and there is a variety of final outcomes, depending on how well the player’s fare in the final battle, which I really like.
It is a perfect opportunity for the characters to move from being local heroes to gain renown as ‘tier two heroes’ (as per the Player’s Handbook pg 15), and show off their skills. My player’s enjoyed that a lot, it looked like.

I have previously, due to time constraints, not spent enough time tying the characters and their backstories into the adventures and the world, but when I did that effort for this adventure, it really paid off.

This is not an investigation…
As I mentioned, the middle part suffers from being a plot device to ensure that the characters are the only ones who can go to Celduin and defend the bridge. Effectively, the characters are powerless to stop Lockman from succeeding in his plot, and they have little to do – which has any effect on the story – in the aftermath.

It looks like that the possibility of discovering the plot only serves for them to capture Lockman, but that has no effect on the story either , and he dies in his cell in the next adventure, which means it is basically a waste of time for the players.

I think it is quite poor design, but I recognize that it is hard to avoid, if you need the characters to go alone to Celduin and be heroes… I felt like I rushed through that part, in part because I knew it wasn’t the focus of the adventure, and I think my players felt that. On the other hand, you want to avoid getting bogged down in ‘investigation’ if there isn’t any point to it, as that I think would frustrate them more.

Fun encounters
The final three encounters are fun and dramatic. It can clearly develop in different ways, depending on fx whether the troll knocks down the gate.

It does shine through that the adventure was converted from a system that isn’t tactical. It is something that can be fixed, but I need to know things like, how many rounds of movement does it take for the orcs or the troll to get to the gate? And one of the Gibbet King’s abilities doesn’t even have a range to it.

To make it work tactically, and to get the right balance in the encounters, I did many small changes that I describe below.

All in all, 80% of the adventure is some of the most fun we’ve had with Wilderland Adventures.

What did I change:

I changed a lot of small things, particularly on the mechanical side. It is important to keep in mind that I had 5 and 6 players – respectively – for the last two sessions, so I had to increase the difficulty of the encounters.

Part 1-6:

  • As described in the overview of the adventure, I reintroduced Baldor and Belgo to get the group to Dale.
  • I added guests to the Masked Ball to avoid having only plot relevant NPCs there.
  • Lockman’s guards need some stats. I gave them 22 hp, AC 14, +4 on attack rolls and 1d8+2 in damage – but didn’t use them.
  • My players sent the villagers away for safety. Remember that some villagers need to stay behind, for example young women to treat the wounded, for some of the scenes to work.

The Battlefield:

  • IMG_1044
    Here you can see most of the battlefield. 

    An important change – that I didn’t ultimately need – was what the orcs would do, if the group manages to destroy the bridge. According to the adventure, the army will create a ford further up the river.
    There is a number of problems with that:

    • First of all, that would take at least a day, thus pushing the timeline, but the characters only get two extra preparation dice.
    • Secondly, if they could actually do that, the tactically best move for an advancing army is to do that in the first place, instead of trying to take a river crossing held by the enemy.
    • Thirdly, if they actually cross there and arrive behind the characters, the characters are in a much, much weaker position, as the whole reason why they can hold against the army for a while. It would be a winning move, and the characters would basically be doomed.
    • The orc army wouldn’t even need to bother with Celduin, if they could cross elsewhere, but go north to fight the enemy army, invalidating the character’s presence.

The solution for me is that the orcs can’t cross anywhere else, but they can try to bridge the span with wooden logs or planks. There would in effect be a new encounter where the orcs and trolls try to repair the bridge, while being protected by archers and orcs with big shields.

  • I had the original map printed, but I didn’t like it for tactical movement on a grid, and it doesn’t match with the description of the bridge in the adventure. I therefore made my own. The bridge is described as being able to have two riders being able to cross at the same time. The original map has the bridge as 10 feet wide. That only leaves room for one horse. I therefore made the bridge 20 feet wide, also to avoid orcs getting completely bottle-necked.
  • I ruled that the enemy could move up to 300 feet from the gate, before being out in the open.

The Warg Riders:

  • My players placed wooden stakes in the river and on the river bank, which, on top of the preparation dice, damaged warg riders that jumped into the river to get around the tower.
  • I added three additional goblin archers on wolves that stopped on the far side of the bridge to provide covering fire for their allies, as it seemed like a logical choice, as too many warg riders would crowd the bridge.

The Troll

  • Because the troll must move for several combat rounds over open terrain, under fire, I gave it resistance against non-magical weapons.
  • The trolls ability to regain 3D6 hit points as an action is completely pointless if it takes more than 3D6 damage in a combat round, so I made that into a bonus action.
  • I added an actual gate with hit points, when the players decided to fix it before the battle. It would be weird, I think, if it only gave them a preparation dice.

The Gibbet King

  • I introduced the King after maybe six combat rounds. That was simply based on my sense of the battle, and when it was appropriate for him to arrive.
  • I gave the King speed 40. You could go down to 30, if that pacing is better for you.
  • The horses pulling the cart were undead, as that fit the mini I used, but you could also have orcs push it. With live horses, I think my players would have killed the horses, which would complicate things immensely for the Gibbet King…
  • The Gibbet King, has to – in a tactical game – drive all the way down to the gate. If the group has two good ranged focused characters, they can do quite a bit of damage over the rounds it takes him to get there. With just fair rolls, a Wanderer with Foe of the Enemy could without problem deal 10 points of actual damage per round. That could take The Gibbet King below half hit points, before he even reaches the gate.
  • I added 50% hit points, as there were six characters in the battle, and not the standard four.
  • According to the adventure, he makes the iron wheels of the portcullis move, but my players had already disabled the mechanism, so he naturally ripped open the portcullis, and after that the gate. That is also more dramatic, in my view.
  • Dreadful Spells:
    • The spell has no range. I gave it 100 ft.
    • As he needed to open two gates, and attack the characters, I didn’t adhere strictly to the recharge.
    • None of the characters I targeted had any shadow points. That makes it fairly disappointing. Consider adding a small amount of force damage, or necrotic damage, as an additional effect, For example 2d4 or 2d6.
  • Visions of Torment: again, my players had none or 1-3 shadow points. I increased the damage to 2d4.

Wilderland Adventures: A Darkness in the Marshes

I’m running all seven Wilderland Adventures for Adventures in Middle-Earth with my group of 7 players and writing about the experience. You can also read reviews of other AiME products on this blog (and other D&D stuff). These adventure blog-posts are part review and part suggestions for Loremasters on how to run or adjust the adventure, based on my experience of running it. And to provide context for those two things, I will also describe what happened during our play-through of the adventure. Art is copyright Cubicle 7 and pulled from their material.

A Darkness in the Marshes is the first of the adventures in the series that is tightly connected with the storyline of the main bad guy of the seven adventures – the Gibbet King.

Radagast
I really like how Radagast is used in this adventure. I think the blessings he provides should have been used more in the Mirkwood campaign.

In the adventure, the characters are tasked by Radagast to find out what it is that stirs in the west. It is an information gathering mission – not search and destroy (to my player’s later frustration). He sends them to Mountain Hall, a woodmen settlement in the mountains, where the chief knows a lot. From Mountain Hall they can find their way to the old evil fortress Dwimmerhorn and learn something about the evil that threatens the area.

The adventure has a lot of atmosphere, and – as always – the style and mood of the adventure is closely aligned with original Tolkien canon. However, my run of it was not as successful as I had hoped and anticipated. The reasons lie partly with the adventure, partly with my players and partly with me.

On the one hand the adventures is good because the characters can fail to get to the key scene and the information at the end. The problem is, if they fail, the finale of the adventure will be unsatisfying, and you will miss the foreshadowing before the final adventure.

A second problem is mechanical, primarily with the chase system used if the characters are discovered. It didn’t seem to work – at least the way I understood it.

Thirdly, the fortress they have to investigate, appeals differently to more traditional D&D players. There are monsters to kill and human slaves they ought to rescue. Being unable to do those things doesn’t sit well with players who like being heroes, kicking down doors and slaying orcs.

To review the adventures, I intentionally keep fairly close to the adventure as written. For a better play experience, I could have customized it more to accommodate my player’s style.

How it played out:

The adventure took two sessions and a bit. For the first part I had six players and for the last part I only had four. All of them were 5th level.

The adventured started of really well. They meet Radagast and ask most of the questions anticipated in the adventure. They get their answers and are offered the blessing. My players declined a blessing, because they didn’t fear the more mundane dangers much, so they wanted to avoid being noticed by a greater danger.

In the adventure, the group is supposed to be guided by a local scout named Banna. I declined to use her, as my group already has a Wanderer, who has special knowledge of the area they travel in. I wanted him to shine, and the journeys are – so far – more than easy enough. And as far as I can tell, she has no real function in the adventure.

Mountain Hall
The Mountain Hall village has some threads to other plots and adventures you can use in a wider scoped campaign.

They arrive at mountain hall after a couple of unsuccessful journey events with an exhaustion level. As they have a woodman with them, it is fairly easy to gain access and they are led to Hartfast, the chief of the settlement.

The audience with him goes well. The dwarves offer assistance with his goblin problems and with the mining operation – as is noted in the adventure is an option, which is a nice touch – and the adventurers get descent lodgings.

The Dunedaín of the group discovers the goblin saboteurs and with a pretty astonishing amount of natural 20’s all the goblins are quickly killed, the missing guard is found, and the group are accepted as heroes.

The Dunedaín also use his foresight virtue to get a premonition that Magric the Trapper, who was offered as guide to Dwimmerhorn, is going to betray them.

They see the Horn of Warning, meet Magric and move into the marsh. The escaped slave Walar comes running, and they have the encounter with orcs and wolves. I added a couple of wolves to the encounter to make it a bit more challenging.

As they are forewarned of Magric, they are ready for his treachery and quickly slays him. It is weird that there are no stats for him. He isn’t even given – as far as I can see – one of the standard profiles from the LM Guide.

After the encounter we finish the first sessions.

A dungeon! But not quite…

Dwimmerhorn
Dwimmerhorn is an adventuring location with a lot of atmosphere, but you might need a more fleshed out dungeon below.

The characters speak with the escaped slave, Walar, and learns a few things about Dwimmerhorn and they get a rough map of the place.

They decide to all sneak up via the hidden path. After a few failures, and some falling damage, they get to the top. From there they can see the temple and that orcs feed a prisoner to the wargs.

The group is kind of split between those who want to burn down a building and/or help the slaves escape and kill the leader of the orcs, and those who want to simply investigate.

They sneak forward to one of the storage rooms and wait to see what happens. I let Ghor the Despoiler walk from the ruined keep to the temple with a couple of hooded cultists (hoping they will follow). Instead they debate and decide to sneak into the ruined keep to look for information (which isn’t an unreasonable expectation), despite knowing there are human servants in there, but overlooks the risk of a fight that warns all the orcs.

In any case, they fail at sneaking undetected into the keep. When discovered, they again debate what to do: Continue to the keep and defend it and hope the tunnel to the dungeons is there, go to the temple instead and hope for a tunnel down to the dungeons below the fortress or simply escaping over the wall?

They decide to go into the keep. I place a handful of servants in there and they dispatch them and bar the door, while orcs surround the building. This gives them a couple of rounds to search, and as they find nothing, they decide to climb to the top of the ruined keep, jump down to the encircling wall and escape down the cliff, with a few extra arrows being short at them due to the route they took.

Fleeing from Dwimmerhorn we use the chase system in the book, which I can’t see works as intended. My group decides to use the forced march option back to Mountain Hall and they only get one journey event. As far as I can tell, that effectively means they can’t be caught by the orcs (more on this below), and they arrive at Mountain Hall.

As Magric was killed, there is no confrontation at the gate, as scripted in the adventure, and they are let into the settlement, where they can rest.

The adventure concludes with Ghor and some orcs sneaking into the settlement to assassinate them. I added two additional Snaga Trackers (against four characters), but they killed them all fairly easily. Partly, the reason for them handling this encounter easily is that their main melee character is dwarf slayer, which means he fights without armor and has advantage against poison, and both features are big advantages in this fight.

How was the adventure?

The adventure is pretty good overall, but our playthrough was far from optimal, for various reasons.

  • When you put a dungeon in front of my players they want to investigate it. As a game catering to D&D players looking for something different, I think there is a bit of misalignment of expectations between regular D&D players and the location as presented.
  • The chase system doesn’t work, in my view, and fails to bring a sense of danger and pursuit to the adventure. I wanted there to be a real chance that a character had to sacrifice himself to hold off the pursuers, as that would have been epic, but there was zero chance of that.
  • The missing dungeon I had recognized as a problem, but due to time constraints I didn’t add that to the adventure. I should have found a map online and had it with me (more on that below).
  • It is in the spirit of Middle-Earth, but the adventure sets the characters up to eventually be discovered, so they have to flee. The reason is that they want the evil mastermind to vacate the fortress, so the plot can go on. Not every player will enjoy that. It is a bit railroady.
  • We failed to get to the big pay off at the end. We will see how that affects the rest of the campaign.

The betrayer, Magric, seems kind of obvious, but it is in line with the world. He seems fair but feels foul. The adventure has him almost automatically escape. I let them kill him, particularly since the Dunedaín had used an inspiration on his Foresight of the Kindred virtue to foretell his betrayal.

If you’ve had a different experience, I would love to hear about it in the comments!

What would I change/do differently

Make a dungeon

I would definitely have a large dungeon map ready with some detailed locations and monsters for a regular dungeon crawl with pursuers behind them. Or I could have made a couple of events including some dark slimy monsters to meet below the fortress for a more cinematic approach.

dysons
For some cool maps, you could for example go to Dyson’s Dodecahedron.

When my players fled into the keep, I should have let the entrance to the dungeon be there and winged a couple of encounters and let them struggle all the way to a secret underground exit, after which they would have to sneak past sentries posted around the fortress to keep them from escaping.

The chase system needs to be reworked to a greater or lesser extent, unless you wish to avoid a greater risk of character sacrificing herself to slow the pursuers. At the minimum, the characters have to be caught unless they take some action to avoid it.

The chase system

wolves
I think it is quite important you add some actions the pursuing orcs take to catch up to the PC’s. It will make it more dramatic and prompt the players to take counter measures.

As written, the characters get a Lead of 2, if discovered inside the fortress. Each failed roll made to resolve the journey decreases the lead by 1. But, they only get 1D2 journey events. Already, the risk of capture is low. Unless, if I understand it correctly, they get a journey event that requires each character to roll, then the risk increases substantially.

However, if the characters attempt the force march option the lead increases by 2 for each of the two attempts – they don’t all have to make the constitution save.

On top of that, they can attempt to throw off pursuers by eg. Covering their trail. If they succeed they increase the lead, or decrease it, if they fail. If you forced march, the negative consequences outweigh the positives.

To correct it, you can increase the journey events to 1d2+1.

I would also add some proactive actions the orcs take to catch them, which I think would also spur the characters to take countermeasures. If you do that, you might keep the journey events at 1d2-

For example:

  • Wolf scouts are sent to harry them, and they are ambushed, with the wolves targeting any mounts or wounded they might have. It also decreases their lead by 1.
  • The orcs march through the night (effectively also use the forced march option to decrease lead by 2). The characters can hear the howls of the wolves growing closer.
  • The orcs blow horns which summons a patrol from another direction or a flock of crows to watch them.

I should have narrated the chase more, but I didn’t have much to attach it to. They had such a big mechanical lead that it was hard to make it sound dramatic.

Additionally…

I should have had Walar, the escaped slave, hint at that they are keeping something of great importance in the temple. Perhaps the coffin with it arrived and he saw it being brought into the temple? Had they known that they would have investigated it.

great orc
Ghor is CR 5, but a Great Orc is CR4. The main difference is that Ghor has about 20 more hit points and does a little more damage, but great orcs have a massive AC of 20. 5 more than Ghor with AC 15. I think Ghor needs more AC to last through a fight, and perhaps a second special ability to make things interesting.

The final encounter with Ghor was not as close nor as interesting as it could have been. It also has some mechanical silliness. The DC to hear the orcs, while sleeping, with passive perception, is 12. 12! Perception is probably the most common skill in any party. I had them roll with disadvantage instead against DC 15, but most still made it.

As mentioned, I added a couple of Snaga’s, and I boosted Ghor’s AC to 17. But the characters defended a house, and could keep the dwarf slayer in front as the main target, and he is very hard to kill.

Also, would they try to assassinate the characters, when they didn’t see the Chain of Thangorodrim or the Gibbet King?

All in all

I think this can be an epic adventure. It just wasn’t when we played it. The first part ran well with roleplaying that oozed atmosphere and Tolkien-vibes.

But half of my players for the second session wanted action and they wanted to be heroes by killing Ghor, rescuing slaves and perhaps setting the orc barracks on fire. It is a very typical D&D approach, and I’m often like that myself. They were fundamentally not in the mood for ‘information gathering’ and that happens. Sometimes you just want to kick in the door and roll initiative.

If I had added a chase through the dungeon, and spotted the flaws in the chase system, and corrected them, I think the session would have been more memorable (and it would expand the adventure to three sessions).

In a couple of days we move on to the Crossing of Celduin, which I hope will run more to my (and my player’s) expectations.