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!

 

 

 

 

Adventures in Middle-Earth: Loremaster’s Guide Review

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

lake_town_map_by_jonhodgson-d5ipariThe 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.

Journeys

Wonderous-items
There are plenty of ruins and dangerous locations to journey to in Middle-Earth.

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.

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A failed audience can make the rest of your adventure significantly more difficult.

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.

Roundtable
Four thoughtful dungeon masters and game designers have an interesting conversation (here). The conversation on systems for interactions happens around 1:35.

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.

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Snaga tracker, great spider and hill troll chieftain. 

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.

3643773-beorn+in+bear+form+by+david+wenzel
Beorn is obviously supposed to be very bad ass. But how bad ass? An RPG ends up asking, can Beorn win against a Nazgûl? What level would the Fellowship of the Ring need to be to defeat the Balrog?

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  

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The fellowship phase is an opportunity for each player to tell a story about their character that happens ‘off screen’.

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.

Adventures in Middle-Earth – Player’s Guide Review

 

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.

Adventures_in_Middle-earth_front_cover_1000pxThe 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

AME-Men-of-Minas-Tirith-819x1024
As a prosperous culture you get pretty nice starting kit.

The Cultures

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

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.

Virtues

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?)

Backgrounds:

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).

Equipment:
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:

ame mapThe 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 Shadow

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.

Audiences:

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:

TORFellowshipPhase2
An adventurer returning home to rest.

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?

To summarize:

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.