My current D&D homebrew campaign has been put on hold, because I just got a new job, and to eliminate a stress factor, I decided to run a published campaign, to cut prep time. Instead we will pay Wilderland Adventures for Adventures in Middle-Earth by Cubicle 7.
I’ve written about Adventures in Middle-Earth on this blog previously (Player’s Guide and Loremaster’s Guide), and been quite excited on their use of the D&D 5th edition rules and their very thematic take on Middle-Earth.
But you can’t really know how well the rules work unless you’ve tried them in your game. As the youtuber Matt Coleville, so rightly puts it: the map is not the territory, the recipe is not the meal.
This new – and relatively short campaign – will therefore be an ongoing review of the seven adventures that makes up the Wilderland Adventures. They read well, but do they play well? And where do they need adjustments? Playing the campaign should also provide other GM’s, who might be interested, some insight into how the rules actually play out? In effect a review/playtest of the entire game.
When we’ve played through the seven adventures, we will return to my home brew campaign. I hope I can publish my backlog of session recaps over Christmas, so we have the game recorded while we are on a break.
As I’ve also bought the Rhovanion Region Guide and the Mirkwood Campaign, two new products for Adventures in Middle-Earth, I may drop in elements of those source books as well.
We make characters December 6th, and I hope we also get to play the first part of the first adventure.
Initial Review of Wilderland Adventures
This is not an in-depth review of the 156-page campaign. It is hard to really recommend a published campaign you haven’t run. This is more my first impressions from reading it, and getting ready to run it.
I won’t describe all the adventures. But it will have mild spoilers. So, if you are a player (especially one of my players), and you want to know absolutely nothing about the story or adventures, you should read no further.
Wilderland Adventures is seven linked adventures, where the first four can be dropped into most Middle-Earth campaigns set in this area. The final three are more closely linked, and are hard to run independently. The adventures take place in various locations in Wilderland and will take the adventurers to around 7th level.
My first impression of the seven adventures is very positive overall.
All of the adventures feel like they are set in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. The mood is spot on and follows the themes outlined in the Loremaster’s guide (such as The Long Defeat in a Fallen World and Deliverance Arrives as All Seems Lost).
Particularly the second, fourth and fifth adventures looks like they are excellent. The second one features a captured hobbit and fun goblin feast song, the fourth evolves around a Noldor elf the players have to escort towards the sea, but her powerful song and presence attracts a lot of attention and the fifth is an infiltration mission.
Actually, I think the first adventure is the weakest of the seven. It takes the group through Mirkwood, and has quite a dark tone. It is not a bad adventure at all, but I would have liked a much stronger hook.
As it is for 1st level characters, it would have been nice, if the adventure also accommodated getting the group together, with a strong motivation, as Mirkwood is a dangerous place for first level characters. Instead it assumes they already know each other and are wandering along the Long Lake, when something happens. The designers opt for having an action hook that can result in combat. I think it will work as intended, but I would have appreciated getting help with getting the group together.
But let’s see how it plays out!
The book is very well organized with summaries of the campaign and each adventure. It is also fully colour illustrated like the rest of the Middle-Earth products. As an added bonus, it contains colour battle maps for most of the encounters. But
On the design side, I really appreciate that all the adventures don’t assume the heroes succeed. There are usually options for various alternate solutions or paths that the adventure might take and failure is frequently an option – the one they are supposed to protect dies or they are discovered and need to flee before they learn key information. This is a refreshing change from the published adventures I’ve typically seen. But to be fair, I’ve not run a published adventure since 2007 or something like that.
That said, it is not a sand box-style series of adventures, like e.g. Curse of Strahd. Each adventure has a clear plot line, with a hook, a journey and a couple of adventuring locations, and a climax.
The transitions from one adventure to the next may need a bit of work, and I expect I might add some minor additional adventures or events to create a smooth flow.
An excellent additional value for money is the customized journey events that are included. A journey has 12 possible events, and there are 12 unique events for all 7 adventures. That will add some interesting spice to each adventure, and will ensure that two groups running the same adventure will have somewhat different experiences, as typically only two or three events will come into play.
On the role-playing side, there are plenty of opportunities and interesting NPCs. I particularly like that there is a box on how to role-play the major NPCs. They describe speech patterns, mannerisms and movement – elements that I’m generally not great at coming up with for my own NPCs. I hope the assistance will add a lot of extra fun to my game.
All of the adventures also use the Audience mechanic, and sometimes the outcome of an audience can be critical for the outcome of the adventure.
I’ve now read the Loremaster’s Guide for Adventures in Middle-Earth by Cubicle 7. In short, I still love the game, and I will run the Wilderland Adventures (see review soon), but unfortunately, the Lore Master’s Guide, isn’t quite at the excellent level of the Player’s Guide (review here).
The Player’s Guide was extremely well done, and I basically had nothing bad to say about it.
The Loremaster’s Guide is also incredibly beautiful in its artwork and layout. It expands on some of the unique mechanics for the game, like Journeys and the Audiences, and it adds wonderous items and legendary weapons and armor with an approach to the D&D rules that I think is great. The magic item section is my favourite section of the book.
But, overall, on the content side it falls a bit short compared to the Player’s Guide.
Fundamentally, I think there are some things missing from the book, and it feels short and ‘light’. It is 50 pages shorter than the Player’s Guide, but has the same price tag. If I had felt they covered everything I needed, that would be fine, but they don’t, so I feel a bit dissappointed.
For a more in-depth view of the book, keep reading. It is a pretty long read.
The book is divided into 9 sections with Setting, Adversaries and Battle taking up about half of the pages.
Setting and the Tale of Years
The first large section is on the setting. It has a few pages on the Wilderlands and about 10 pages on Lake-town, which is the default starting location for the game. It also has a useful timeline, which has both ancient history and future events included.
It is not a bad section, but the game is called Adventures in Middle-Earth – not Adventures in Wilderland – and as a Loremaster, I would really like to have seen at least a few pages devoted to other lands, such as Gondor and Rohan, particularly since you can play characters coming from these lands. Currently, it is only half a page. Who is Steward in Gondor? Who is king of Rohan? What is their political situation? I expect my players to ask those question. I would have liked help answering them.
Furthermore, I think, despite the fact that you can look these things up on the internet, it would be fitting with a high-level introduction to some of the mythology of Tolkien’s world. I’ve read the Silmarillion, but it is many years ago, and I would have loved a couple of pages on the first and second age. For example, it would have been nice with a brief introduction to the different elves and how they relate to the setting, what the Valar are, the Fall of Núemnor, Angmar and the Witch King and so on.
The map for Laketown is on the inside cover, and it is great, and the guide is solid and useful. The adventure hooks are not very inventive, but that is a minor issue.
Before the Game & the Adventuring Phase
The second section is 2½ pages on things you should talk to your players about before starting the game. I think it is relevant, and certainly something I will do.
Adventures in Middle-Earth is not like playing regular D&D and players may need to adjust their expectations. For example, the theme The Long Defeat in a Fallen World highlights that the players can’t defeat the great evil in the world, they can at best achieve a ‘watchful peace’. There is a melancholic undertone to Tolkien’s world. As a Loremaster you can tone it down, but it important for creating the right ‘feel’ in Middle-Earth. Obviously, this runs counter to many regular D&D campaigns, and should be addressed before the game.
For the Adventuring Phase (the third section) there is the advice that goes for any game master. But you also get some advice on how to play with Tolkien’s setting, which has some good points. One of the points is that the Hobbit is written as a memoir, and thus subjective. Therefore, the events of the novel might have transpired a bit different than Bilbo remembers it. Another perspective is that Tolkien probably didn’t see his own work as having an established ‘canon’, which means you are a Loremaster also have room to add your own story-telling.
On the mechanics side, they grant some extra advice on rest, exhaustion and inspiration. I particularly look forward to seeing how rest plays in the game. It is of great importance, and mechanically much more interesting than in D&D. The guide highlights that it is up to the Loremaster to manage the pressure you apply to the company, and the amount of rest available is key to that.
All in all, the two sections have some needed advice for Loremasters, particularly, if you only have experience running a D&D 5th edition game.
The fourth section is only 8 pages, and it discuss journeys, ways to run them, and a couple of pitfalls. It finally adds rules for creating your own Journey Events Tables.
The section includes half a page of ‘Ideas for things seen on the road’, which is a paragraph of random scenery description. This might be relevant for novice Loremasters, but to me it seems like padding. You can almost flip to any page of Lord of the Rings to get something similar.
NPCs and Audiences:
Beyond the introductory general discussion of NPCs, and how people view strangers, this section has a selection of NPC stats and accompanying motivations and expectations that helps you roleplay them. I think the motivations and expectations are a nice addition and I think the NPCs you are most likely to use are covered. The more senior NPCs – like the Dwarf Lord and Elf Lord – I think should have a few more special moves or tricks. They feel a bit underwhelming, basically, but that can easily be fixed.
Audiences is a core part of the game. You can fail an audience, which has consequences and might take the adventure into a new direction, and that creates drama.
These rules dig deeper into the mechanics and how to use audiences in play.
I like how the players must consider, who introduces the group, because which culture he or she comes from influences the audience. And the players can – ideally – figure out, what approach (brash, groveling, chatty etc.) is most likely to result in a successful audience, based on the information they have about the NPC.
Incidentally, this system gets close to what the esteemed round table of Mike Mearls, Matt Colville, Matt Mercer and Adam Koebel discuss, on having a separate framework for interactions, which the Audience mechanic basically is.
Adversaries and Battle
I probably have the most problems with this section. There’s nothing wrong that can’t be fixed or created by a Loremaster, but that takes time.
The best part is the introduction, which describes how battles in Middle-Earth feel. For example, they are often in interesting locations that favor the enemy, they are often defensive and escape is often not an option. To support that, the designers have included some Combat Scenery you can use. The combat scenery is useful. It is a nice list of things that can impact a fight, such as Black toadstools, a Flooded Pit or Web. My critique is the layout. Each type of scenery is listed under an area, such as The Wild, Mirkwood or Ruins. The problem is that every time a type of scenery could occur in an area it is describe again. It means that the mechanics for Bog is described twice, and so is Thicket, Bracken, Nettle Bank and several others. It is a waste of space, in my view. If they had organized it differently, they could have had room for more ideas and perhaps more diverse terrain e.g. Wastelands.
The second part is a Wilderland Bestiary. This section describes 11 types of orcs, a couple of giant spiders, six trolls, a wild wolf and the wolf leader, werewolf, Hound of Sauron and Vampires. It is enough creatures to run a low-level campaign. But I’m disappointed that they only cover creatures from Wilderland, and that the highest Challenge Rating creature is 6. I think when you name a book the Loremaster’s guide to Adventures in Middle-Earth, you need to give the Loremaster the basics to run any campaign in Middle-Earth. In my view, they should have included the classic Tolkien creatures, like the Ent, a Ring Wraith, a Barrow Wight and perhaps even the Balrog (and you could of course argue that all these monsters are in the regular monster manual, but they aren’t covered in the Open Game License).
I also disagree with how the designers set some of the challenge ratings. One aspect is how I see the Middle-Earth world, and the relative strength of the heroes and their adversaries. It is fair that the designers have a different view.
My game master gripe is that the adversaries don’t cover a wide enough spectrum of play, which would have been easy to fix. The trolls are a particularly good example. There are six troll types, and they range from CR 2 to CR 6. The mountain troll is described as incredibly strong and dangerous in the text, so why not make them CR 8 or 9? I would want a group of four 5th level characters to fear encountering one of the stronger trolls. Now, I have to modify it myself.
Furthermore, if you assume that orcs and trolls are the primary foes for an entire adventuring career, you need to widen the scope. What would an encounter for a 13th level group look like? Eight mountain trolls, as written, would get crushed by the players, I think.
Another example, is the legendary Werewolf of Mirkwood. It is CR 6. It is feared all over Mirkwood and the surrounding area. In the Rhovanion Region Guide (which I will write about soon), Beorn is CR 11. Thus, Beorn, would easily defeat the Werewolf. Is that the relative power level that the designers were aiming at? From a Lore Master perspective, the issue is that if this is meant as a monster that hunts alone, CR 6 very quickly becomes a walk-over for the characters.
After the list of monsters the book has six pages of special creature actions and abilities. They are primarily intended to add flavor to the game, and to add surprises in combat.
I think it is a welcome addition, and with less variety of monsters, compared to regular D&D, you need to spice up the orcs, trolls and so on, to keep them interesting. I particularly like some of the very thematic abilities like the troll ability ‘In the Sack with you!’ and ‘Drums’ for the orcs.
Magic Items and Magic
This is not the actual titles of the next two chapters, but that is what they cover. They are also my favourite chapters of the book. It is probably also the only part in the book that is really useful for other D&D games.
The two chapters have a general discussion on magic and treasure in the game. Adventures in Middle-Earth is not a game where you riffle through the pouches of every fallen enemy. The good people of Middle-Earth value beautiful things, but greed and acquiring money for its own sake is not seen a heroic.
Wonderous artefacts are very rare items that confer a blessing to the character. The blessing is normally tied to a skill or ability. Mechanically, they let you add you proficiency bonus to a check, or lets you add it twice, if you are already proficient. But at this point, you are still not doing anything ‘magical’. Your character is simply very good at something. To obtain a ‘Magical Result’, ie. Create an effect that would normally be impossible, like turning invisible, you have to spend hit dice to get the effect. The Lore Master decides how many, depending on the effect.
I think this mechanic is excellent, and something I would use for my regular D&D game. But particularly in Middle-Earth, where the players have little healing available, hit dice are more valuable. Therefore, spending hit dice to gain a magical effect is a more meaningful choice. I love it!
The section on legendary weapons and armor adds items that confer a +2 or +3 bonus to the characters and other combat bonuses. All of these items have names and history, and the higher level you are the more enchanted qualities you can benefit from (up to three). The system reminds me of the dwarven runes from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd edition, where an item could have up to three runes. As Cubicle 7 will begin publishing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, I assume they are familiar with it…
Magical healing includes the classic Lembas bread and Miruvor drink.
Finally, there is a discussion on how you create your own supernatural forces and creatures, and certain categories that fit well with the setting, such as: Oaths and Curses, Items have Power and Necromancy.
The Fellowship Phase
The last section of the book deals with the fellowship phase. It deals with Sanctuaries and Patrons and adds a couple of undertakings. It has a couple of pages on how to run the fellow-ship phase and what the effects of a Sanctuary are.
I have one gripe with the section, and again it ties in with the length of the book. The section has two paragraphs on Experience Points. And it says: ’While the precise system you chose is up to you, and the topic is beyond the scope of this supplement…’ Wait. What? Awarding experience points is a topic beyond the scope of the Lore Master’s Guide? Where else would you expect to find this information? Awarding experience points is a key aspect of the task of running a game, and I would have expected some advice on XP and player progression, as the game has less monsters and combat compared to regular D&D.
My Final Thoughts on the Loremaster’s Guide
If you have kept with me this far, I’m fairly certain you are interested in Adventures in Middle-Earth. And despite my criticism of this supplement, it is still a useful, well written, well-organized and beautiful book. It is just not as great as the Player’s Guide.
I will have to play the game to truly understand if there are any information that I would need missing from the book.
If you are a future Loremaster of Adventures in Middle-Earth, you should still get this book.
The player’s guide for the Dungeons & Dragons version of a Middle-Earth role-playing game is perfect for a fan of Tolkien’s world. The designers basically nail the atmosphere and feel of the setting and demonstrate that the D&D 5ed. rules can be reworked to fit a very different style of play.
Adventures in Middle-Earth is very true to the original material and is therefore a very low magic game. There are no spell-casting classes and the abilities the players do have can be heroic, but the magic in them are always subtle – just like in Tolkien’s novels.
The game is published by Cubicle 7, who also makes the One Ring role-playing game, and Adventures in Middle-Earth is their D&D interpretation of that game. It is clear that the designers already have a deep understanding of the lore. All the classes, cultures and virtues are clearly grounded in the source material and the book is filled with relevant quotes from the books.
I was so inspired by this book that I began re-reading the Lord of the Rings (for I don’t know which time), and this is the first role-playing supplement that I’ve read cover to cover since D&D 3.5.
The setting focus on the 70-year period between the events of the Hobbit and the events in the Lord of the Rings. The default area for the game is the Wilderlands, which covers the area from the Misty Mountains in the west to Erebor in the East. The death of Smaug, the return of dwarves to the Lonely Mountain and the rise of Dale as a center of trade has created a cautious surge in optimism, and Bard of Dale calls for adventurers to help them rebuild the land.
The most significant mechanical innovation is the Journey system the game has and the game also features corruption of the character’s spirits through Shadow Points. That said, all the fundamental elements, such as class, races, feats and equipment have been re-worked to fit the setting. That creates – in totality – almost a different game entirely.
I look at some of the major features below.
Making a Character
Each player picks a culture instead of a race, such as Men of Bree, Men of Minas Tirith or Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain. All of the cultures are flavorful and has long lists of appropriate names. Mechanically they are similar to the races of the PhB, but with fewer fantastic abilities. They mainly provide stat increases and skills, and – importantly – define which virtues (feats) you can pick.
The classes are where the rules begin to diverge significantly from a regular Dungeons & Dragons game. There are six available classes: Scholar, Slayer, Treasure Hunter, Wanderer, Warden and Warrior. Some of them are mechanically quite similar to the core classes. Fx the Slayer is similar to the Barbarian and the Treasure Hunter is similar to the Rogue. But all the spell casting classes are gone and replaced by the Scholar, who is both healer and keeper of lore.
The two or three archetypes for each class also sets all the classes apart. These are closely molded to the Middle-Earth setting and blurs some classic distinctions. For example, the Warden has Counsellor, Herald and Bounder as archetypes, and they are part bard and part fighter, depending on which one you pick. What I love about them is how well they fit the setting. The Bounder for example, if you don’t know, is referenced in the Lord of the Rings, as the halflings that keep the Shire safe.
Mechanically, it is hard to judge, without playing the game, how well they are balanced.
In place of feats there are a number of virtues, and most of them are tied to the character’s culture. Thus, only wood elves can learn Wood-Elf magic – which gives you the “awesome” power to enchant an arrow, and, if you pick the virtue three times, make a victim fall asleep! I love how low magic that is. And again, they fit the setting perfectly.
A few of them seems to be a bit over-powered. For example, Bardings can pick Swordmaster. It says: when fighting with either a broad sword or long sword, add your proficiency bonus to your AC. I can’t see myself not picking that Virtue. Even if it added half your proficiency modifier, I would pick it. That indicates an imbalance… (P.S. and I’ve now noticed that one of the pre-generated characters has this Virtue, and he only gains +1 to AC, so perhaps they made an error in the write-up?)
The backgrounds have much more flavor, compared to the PhB, and again connects well with the setting. Examples include Doomed to Die (You know your life isn’t going to end well, but soldier on anyway), Loyal Servant (as a squire or gardener or close kin) or Hunted by the Shadow (the Shadow is constantly after you and your family, as you are renowned foes of the Enemy).
The equipment chapter is short, but mechanically relevant. All the armor and weapons are found in Tolkien’s world, so there are no great swords or plate mails on the list. Particularly, when it comes to AC, that can influence gameplay. Heavy mail provides the highest AC, which is 16. They’ve added Great Shields, which gives +4 to AC, which is probably to close that gap. On the “magic item” side, they don’t compare to the regular DMG. Cultural Heirlooms can be gained as a feat on level 4 and on. It could be a weapon, like the Dalish Longbow, that gives +1 to attack and damage, and +1d8 extra on a critical hit. On one hand, I like that player’s can add cultural heirlooms ‘off screen’ so to speak. But will they? And if they do spend a feat on an heirloom, how do they feel about another player finding something similar in a treasure hoard?
Journeys and rest – adding meaningful encounters:
The most significant ‘new thing’ in the game, in my view, is a system for journeys. I won’t go into the detail of the rules, but whenever the group needs to travel to an adventure location, they need to use the journey rules, in place of the regular overland travel and random encounters described in D&D.
Each map area has a difficulty level (color coded), and the start of each journey the group pick characters for a number of roles: Guide, Scout, Hunter and Look-out. Embarkation dice are rolled and modifiers added, and depending on the roll and the land they travel through, they may have a number of Events. The events can be combat events or obstacles, but they can also be beneficial.
The tough part is, when the characters arrive at their destination, they roll an Arrival roll. If that goes badly, they might gain exhaustion levels or Shadow Points. Both are bad.
Furthermore, travel connects with the rest and healing rules of the setting. Long Rests can only be had in a Sanctuary – like the House of Elrond or Beorn’s home. Therefore any damage or exhaustion they acquire from encounters or bad luck may be hard to heal when you reach the destination.
The rules will add danger and flavor to the game, and they can be used in other campaigns with a little modification and work. In my current regular D&D campaign, with 9-10th lvl characters, one random encounter should either be very dangerous or have a deeper purpose, such as providing clues, potential allies or add depth to the setting, because it won’t drain resources or make their lives significantly more challenging, as they are back to full power the next day, unless I want to spend several hours just running random encounters. I think this system solves that issue – you basically want to avoid wolves or orc raiding parties – because they can impact if you are able to succeed in your greater goal or quest.
Of course, it also adds a lot of flavor, and, as the group has no magical aid – like Purify Water, Good Berries or Leomund’s Tiny Hut – the journey will become something dangerous the group must consider closely.
The game has a system for gaining corruption. It can happen through sorrow, blighted places, misdeeds and tainted treasure. The results are negative psychological traits (Shadow Weakness) and ultimately a complete fall into Shadow. Boromir is the obvious example from the novels.
It is hard to judge how big a threat it is to the characters over a campaign. But I like the mechanic and, again, it feels right for the setting.
In accordance with the fiction, not everyone welcomes travelers from afar, and the game therefore has a system for Audiences with the various rulers of Middle-Earth. It is basically skill challenges modified by how various cultures see each other. Not everyone enjoys a system for a role-playing encounter, but I can see why it is included. It can certainly add drama and consequences, and again fits the game setting perfectly. In the published adventure Wilderland Adventures, the mechanic is used frequently – but more on that in a future review.
The Fellowship Phase:
This down-time system also fits well with the setting. The assumption is that you adventure and travel in the spring and summer, maybe autumn, and settle down for the winter, perhaps to help bring the harvest home, to research ancient lore or to open a new Sanctuary. It is also a way to regain hit points and exhaustion levels, which might be sorely needed, given the trials that the characters can go through.
It is certainly a much more interesting down-system compared to the original D&D rules, but without a whole lot of clunky mechanics added.
Final Thoughts on Adventures in Middle-Earth:
I would love to run a campaign in this game and setting. It is very well done, and it feels like you can really play a Dúnedain ranger, a dour dwarf of the Blue Mountains or a hobbit off seeing the world and stride right into Tolkien’s pages.
I don’t think it is for everyone, though. It is probably the least magical fantasy setting I’ve encountered, certainly in D&D, unless you go for an actual historical or near-historical setting.
As a DM (or Lore Master I should say), my greatest concern is that I doubt the setting works well with characters above 7th level or so. I could be wrong, but I think making stories with fitting enemies and drama at level 8+ will be a challenge within the Middle-Earth setting – partly because the most epic plots have been told by Tolkien. But these concerns are for the review of the Loremaster’s Guide, which should arrive at my door soon… and perhaps the upcoming campaign: Mirkwood.
It can be hard to judge if the game is well balanced, and particularly how well the different classes and cultures compare to each other. Player’s really dislike if one class or character build outshines every other, and almost every group has a player who will spot those ‘killer combos’ in an instant. And as there is little or no enchanted equipment, except for heirloom items and good dwarven steel, the player’s AC and attack modifiers, will generally be lower, compared to standard D&D. It is hard to tell how they stack up against monsters?
Exhaustion can also be crippling and it is hard to remove. Are the journey rules too hard, if you don’t have characters built to be good at survival, perception and so on, or if they are plain unlucky?
Why should you buy this book?
If you love Tolkien’s world and want to play in it.
If you plan on running a low magic campaign. It will have many things you can lift.
If you are a newcomer to DM Dungeons & Dragons this game is in some ways easier than regular D&D, as there are fewer spells and so on to keep track of, and the setting will be familiar to most people. However, … see below
If you want inspiration for your own campaign, such as classes, feats and backgrounds.
Why shouldn’t you buy this book?
If your players want plenty of cool spells and magical gear, Adventures in Middle-Earth isn’t for you.
The murder hobo, kick in the door play-style is also a hard fit with the setting. This is a game of heroes and often tales tinged with sadness.
A newcomer DM might find it hard to deal with the game, if it turns out there are imbalances, whereas core D&D is quite robust.