Review: Mirkwood Campaign

Adventures_in_Middle-earth_front_cover_1000px
Adventures in Middle-Earth is made by Cubicle 7, and a conversion to D&D 5e. from The One Ring RPG. You can read my review of the core book here.

The Mirkwood Campaign is a campaign framework for an Adventures in Middle-Earth campaign, set in and around Mirkwood. The campaign evolves over 30 years and contains one or two adventures – or at least an adventure framework – for every year, which takes the players from 5th to around 15th level.

I think it is a very strong campaign framework, with a grand narrative scope and an epic ending. But the format is also unlike any published campaign I’ve read, which is why this review is more than just evaluating if it is good or bad.

The purpose of the review

I think the most important thing I can do for other Loremasters, who consider buying this campaign, is to do some expectation management.

My job is to make you – the reader – able to judge whether this campaign is something you and your players would like playing? That is not easy, as there are many variables, and this is not a standard campaign format.

The approach Cubicle 7 has picked to present the campaign and the philosophy behind it might surprise or disappoint Loremasters, if they expect something else.

Perhaps an easy first step is to tell you what the Mirkwood Campaign is NOT?

  • It is not a Sand Box campaign with a selection of locations and NPC’s with motivations that will influence the game.
  • It is not a series of fully fleshed out adventures, like Wilderland Adventures or classic campaigns like the Enemy Within (classic Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay).

Spoiler Alert!  If you are a player, you should consider not reading any further.

What is the campaign about?

Holdings
There are also rules for player Holdings in the campaign – a farm, inn or other permanent residence where the characters live. It fits nicely with the long years of the campaign.

The campaign takes place in and around Mirkwood, and the outcome of the campaign decides if the Woodmen of Mirkwood and the Beornings are able to withstand the Shadow during the War of the Ring, decades after the campaign concludes. The three Nazgûl that moves into Dol Guldur are the main antagonists, with the Werewolf of Mirkwood as a primary lieutenant. The struggle over the Lamp of Balthi in Woodmen Town is also central to the campaign.

During the campaign the players will be instrumental in countering the influence and machinations of the Nazgûl. That is cool. I think the overall scope of the campaign will be immensely satisfying for any players interested in the Middle-Earth setting.

It is however recommended that at least one character is a woodman, and that is important advice. The characters need to care – or have been made to care through level 1-5 – about the place and the people living there. Otherwise, many of the adventuring hooks won’t feel that important. That said, there are also good hooks for dwarves and wood elves through the campaign.

What kind of product is it?

Structurally, the campaign book is divided into five periods,  of 5-10 years. For each year in a period there is an overview of important Events that happens that year, an Adventure that is central to the main story, and a Year’s End, which describes the general outcome of the year.

The campaign begins around level 5, so you either need to make your own adventures up to that point or run some or all of Wilderland Adventures to get the players to the required level.

The Events for each year are a source for potential adventures, but the described Adventure is one that drives the epic story arc forward.

The adventures vary in scope, detail and quality. As a Loremaster, you are expected to do quite a bit of work yourself. Most of the adventures are not ‘ready to run’. There are no maps of key adventuring locations, such as Tyrant’s Hill, and it is up to the Loremaster to weave the adventures into a cohesive campaign, with hooks and motivations that align with this epic narrative.

Varying detail level

folkmoot
Is the guy with the orc heads a good ally?

As an example of one of the less impressive adventures is The Folk-moot at Rhosgobel. It is one of the first adventures, where the Woodmen will make some very important political decisions that will influence the rest of the campaign.
There are several NPC’s at Rhosgobel, some of them detailed in the Rhovanion Region Guide, but there is nothing on how they stand on each position, or any indication of how they might want to influence the characters. There is also no hook as to why the players are there. And – more importantly – no hook as to why they should get involved or care about the decisions being made.  Because the players don’t know that the decisions made at the end of this adventure will matter in the rest of the campaign, you should consider at the beginning of the campaign, why this moot should matter to them?

On the ‘bare bones’ side is an adventure, where the characters get involved in reclaiming a dwarven stronghold. The books lays out the plot, but you have to make the dungeon and any adversaries yourself.

A fleshed out example is one of the last adventures called Nine in the Hall, which is basically a horror adventure ready to run. It is – by the way – very cool that you can run a horror style adventure at around 13th level. That is virtually impossible in regular D&D, given all the magic available to the characters.

Nice long term view

The author, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, generally does a good job of presenting the effects on the campaign of different outcomes of adventures. For example, if the characters fail or if they support one, or another, NPC in an undertaking, how does that affect the coming years and the campaign.

Are the adventures good?

Most are good – or work with a strong core idea. There are several adventures in the book that I find great, very dramatic and interesting, such as Saving the Maiden, where the adventures have to journey to the Parliament of Spiders and negotiate with two of Shelob’s Children and then go and confront the third child of Shelob, Tyluqin, in her lair. Or when the characters -unexpectedly, face a Nazgûl the first time. And, as mentioned, one of the two final adventures, fits perfectly with the Middle-Earth mood.

A few of the adventures feel a bit underdeveloped, even for frameworks, and a few feels too railroaded for my taste, or have assumptions built into them that are odd.

Odd or underdeveloped

Hollow tree
If this concealed the entrance to a larger interesting dungeon, it would be more interesting.

For example, in the adventure, Questing Beast, the players come upon two dwarves, who have kidnapped an important elf. Never mind that this is sort of random (fate I guess) as part of the hunt of the White Deer, but the fact that the location they are holding the elf is just a hollow tree, seems underwhelming to me. There are obviously plenty of ruins in Middle-Earth (just check out the Road Goes Ever On supplement), so why not make this into something interesting? An elven ruin with some secrets and maybe a monster lurking somewhere?

An example of odd assumptions is, when the Werewolf of Mirkwood begins attacking the wood elves, the adventurers track it to its lair, and find the remains of a legendary elven lamp (although they probably don’t realise this at the time). The adventure assumes that the players describe the lamp to the elves, and maybe figure out what it is, but my players would with 99%  certainty bring the remains of the lamp with them. They also might try to restore it or investigate it further. But that isn’t at all considered in the adventure.

Probably the poorest example, in my view, is when the Forest Dragon wakes up. I was quite disappointed with that adventure. There has been no effort made into making facing a dragon in Middle-Earth feel epic or interesting. It is just a ‘hunt this monster’ story, and the dragon doesn’t do anything interesting, the Enemy isn’t doing anything interesting with it, and it doesn’t have a cool lair or any interesting abilities.

Is the campaign good?

Yes. Very good. Excellent even. I think. No, I’m sure it is. But there are a few clunky parts that I think could frustrate me.

I think there should have been more advice, particularly for new or less experienced game masters, on how to weave this framework into a campaign. A page or two of with an example would be useful.

The finale of the campaign is fantastic, and the fact that there are two different adventures to end the campaign, depending on how the characters decide to defend against the Shadow is very cool. Option 2 needs some work to have an epic finale, but the overall idea is good.

As I mentioned, as a whole, I think player’s would find the grand tale very very satisfying, if the ending is done right.

In general, the campaign does a good job of allowing failures as an outcome of an adventure – and that the failures impact the outcome of the campaign. You are given suggestions how to adjust most adventures depending on whether, for example the Woodmen are allies with Tyrant’s Hill or whether a particular ruler is still alive. That is great.

What are my main critique points?

There are instances where it feels railroaded. For example, where someone escapes, or something automatically happens, because that development or person is important to a future story. In a story driven game like this, you can have it happen ‘off screen’ as the ‘appendix’ to the story, and my players would be fine with it. But if it is part of the action, it is dissatisfying.

I also miss a flow-chart or graphic presentation of all the different adventures, with key decision points and a discussion of progression/leveling through the campaign.

Too much NPC Wizards

I think the Wizards are overused as participants in the adventures. They are to join the group in four adventures and show up in others. I think including them in two of the adventures, makes sense. I rarely enjoy having powerful NPCs participating in an adventure. If an immortal wizard of vast power is leading a group of 7-8th level characters, they will defer to him.  And because it is Middle-Earth, the players will know exactly how powerful that NPC is. Scouting Dol Guldur as 6th level sounds much more interesting, if  they alone. The solution in Wilderland Adventures, where Radagast is a patron that confers a useful blessing for a mission is much better. I would use that more.

Uninspiring locations

Too many locations are not very inspiring to me, as I mentioned. Perhaps it is the difference in play style from the One Ring, which the campaign originally was developed for, to Adventures in Middle-Earth, where I still think you need a measure of old-fashioned dungeon exploration.

It may be also be the play-style difference when it comes to the maps. There are no local maps of dungeons, locations or the like, which I’m going to need. I would have liked some.

Conversion problems

Werewolf and nazgul
Fighting a Nazgûl and the Werewolf is a very cool encounter, and it happens, but I think the stats don’t match their fear factor.

The game mechanics, and particularly combat mechanics, of D&D seems to be a weak point for the people at Cubicle 7. It is as if they haven’t run a mid-to-high level game for players who care about the mechanics.

If you are an experience Dungeon Master, these things will be relatively obvious, but for newer players it may not, and that could lead to disappointing/less dramatic moments.

One example is the Werewolf of Mirkwood. It is Challenge Rating 6, according to the Loremaster’s guide. The players will face it at around 6th level, at 10th level and again at 12th or 13th level, where they with the Lamp of Balthi have advantage on all attacks and their foe disadvantage. That they haven’t added significant amounts of minions or lieutenants is odd. There isn’t even a text box addressing this is baffling to me.

The Dragon of Mirkwood has the same problem. It is CR 12, and they are to face it at level 12. As any DM, who has run a significant amount of games will know, a single foe, with two attacks versus a group of characters, with probably six or seven attacks between them is not going to last beyond round three.

Finally, the Nazgûl are weaker now, compared to the time of the War of the Ring, but I still think they are on the weak side. And they don’t have enough tricks. They don’t even have Legendary Actions or Legendary Resistance. That is a weird design choice to me…

Silly difficulty

On the other hand, in one of the later adventures, the characters suddenly face wisdom saving throws of DC 20, which even proficient characters will fail half the time, and those who aren’t proficient will almost surely fail. Or when on a trip with Beorn, characters have to pass two out of three DC 15 constitution saves. If they don’t they can’t continue in the adventure. I guess they have to sit and watch or go home for the rest of the evening?

Outlaw
Not exactly an epic foe for a 13th level character…

Finally, the consistent use of the standard NPCs from the Loremaster’s Guide becomes silly. At 12th or 13th level, the characters are supposed to deal with a band of outlaws, numbering between twice and four times the number of characters. According to the adventure, they can ‘get allies to besiege the tower’. But Outlaws have 33 hit points, AC 15 and +3 to their attack rolls. How is that going to challenge four 12th level characters – even in the Middle-Earth system? If they were to really score top marks, they should have added descriptions of a couple of tough lieutenants that you could add to the mix.

It can seem like it is simply lack of effort in converting an otherwise excellent campaign.

Final Words

The Loremaster gets a huge helping hand to run this campaign, but she will have to make a significant effort herself to weave the character’s tale into this grand narrative and flesh out the weaker points (and drawing maps). The Mirkwood Campaign will be an epic and memorable tale for every player who is along for the journey, I’m sure.

I hope I will find time to run it within a couple of years.

Agree? Disagree? Have you run it? Please, let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Review: Mirkwood Campaign

  1. Hi Rasmus,
    When I read reviews of One Ring and when I read about the conversion problems you mention, I can’t help thinking: Why do you choose to play it in D&D and not use the native One Ring system?
    Love
    Johs

    Like

    • I actually really like D&D 5e, and that combat is tactical. And I feel at home in it.
      It means that I can change things in the system, if I can see it won’t work (with my group), as intended.
      Secondly, my players are actually a bit conservative and love D&D and ‘rolling initiative and killing orcs’. It would be hard to get them excited about this ‘other’ fantasy system. They were already skeptical about playing in Middle-Earth. 🙂
      Thirdly, I’m already thinking about using the Journey Rules in my own home-brew game, as they work very, very well.

      Liked by 1 person

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