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.

monsters
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  

TORFellowshipphase800
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.

First downtime in my campaign

After a series of adventures, the group heads home for their first ’Winter Holiday’. To make sure the settlement evolves and grows, I decided early that every winter the characters would rest and work on other tasks until the next group of settlers arrive from the ‘old world’.

This blog post describes some of the activities (so that we can remember them), and I have a couple of thoughts on the system (or disregard for the system).

campaign
There is plenty of inspiration in this book, but perhaps too much focus on mechanics and systems.

The Pathfinder way discarded

I had planned to use some of Pathfinder’s rules on downtime. I thought it would be cool to use the rules from Ultimate Campaign on building a house, and later strong holds, and so on. But it turned out that:
1) my players weren’t really into that level of bookkeeping
2) I wasn’t into that level of bookkeeping and …
3) the wizard picked spells like Wall of stone and Fabricate, making the need for materials partially irrelevant.

So, I’ve skipped it completely. And fundamentally run downtime as a narrative, with some skill rolls.

What did the characters do?

It had turned out that, Jarn, the paladin/ranger had made one of the two serving girls pregnant. The player decided that he honestly did love the girl, who was a no nonsense scrappy city-girl, and they decided to get married. The druid of the group officiated and gifts were presented. Each character came up with a gift for the couple, including a bridal suite in their new house with a clock, platinum rings for the entire group and his wife, jade figurines and a donation of blood from the scary half-orc fighter.

During the months they built a sizeable house with a small tower, a glass blowing workshop and smithy and the gnome constructed a ballista for the tower. They craft weapons and armor and train the militia.

dragon_armor
The druid was hoping for something like this, as his AC is really 15 when buffed at level 10. Alas…

The druid also started training an apprentice, the elf Sekhlas, and he went to negotiate for dragon scales, to build an armor, but unfortunately failed in his diplomatic effort.

I also let several characters learn languages, skills and tools, because, why the hell not?

Spies?
As the new settlers arrive in the spring, some characters receive mail and messages, and they finally get some plate mail. Their leader, Jarn, gets news that his father – who is the head of a knightly order – is sick from enemy magic, and that his mother needs assistance. She has in return sent his father’s medallion, which protects against fey charm.  The druid, Weylyn gets a letter from a friend, which relates the story of a kidnapping or defection by a great boat wright to the Hrran Hegemony.

The group was already worried about spies, and they are watchful, but also decide to lay a honey trap. They spread the rumor that they have hidden powerful war machines in the forest, and use awakened beasts to patrol the site – and wait. I think it is a good plan, which I will definitely play to.

The settlers that arrive include two adventuring groups. One is with the rival guild, and another accompanies the dwarves, who have come to run the iron mine, which the characters find.

Furthermore, the wizard, Thul Dweomereye, has apprentices and guards coming to expand his position.

What worked well?
Down time is essentially a chance to role-play and create more context and relations for the characters.
I think everyone got to do interesting things and the wedding and the news from home ground the characters in the setting. It creates a greater attachment to the world around them, and meant that I think they found pleasure in having a lot of gold they can send home and to the war effort.
I hope that the war in their homeland will come more into focus in the next leg of the campaign.

The players have fun when they use their spells creatively to create a home and survive, and there was no reason to take that away, because I had imagined we would use a more ‘mechanistic’ system for it.
And just for fun, I’ve decided to add the text of one of the two hand-outs here:

The Letter to Weylyn:

Dear Weylyn

I hope that you are thriving? I have thought of you many times in the last couple of years, but finding an opportunity to actually sending a letter has been difficult. This winter I finally returned to Finrod after what feels like a life-time of conflict. I have spent much time in Burndeth and helped our ancient kin and allies there. Pentath is now besieged by folk of the wild tribes of Lest, but they learned to fear the forest. So, they burned much of it. I have grown stronger in my struggle, and as we know, adversity and challenges makes you find new strength within you.

I write, not solely out of my desire to convey my thoughts and experiences to you. During the last couple of months here in Finrod, it was impossible not to hear rumours of this expedition and the ships going out to sea. I couldn’t help myself from paying close attention to these stories, as I had already understood from Deekin Chass that you were no longer on the Isles. It therefore troubled me that I stumbled on information that the great shipwright Amhlaidh Tod disappeared from his shipyard last year. The Council and the Circle have been keeping it under close lid, but you know how it is here – everyone knows everybody. The point is, they think he might have been kidnapped, or worse, been bribed to go over to the enemy. If that is true, the Hegemony might soon field a fleet of ocean going vessels. Their seafarers will not rival our own, but in my battles with Hrran, I have learned that its leadership is very resourceful and flexible in their thinking.

I have sent this letter to Moss Keeper Clearbrook, and I hope that it will find you soon.

Be mindful of sails on the horizon.  

 

Your friend forever

Seera Wylder

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.

 

The Deserted Wizard – Part 3

I was almost caught up – and then life hits. Well, here is the final recap of this adventure. The next session had some downtime, and the sessions after that is the first chapter in a grand expedition to explore the lands around them after the winter. As always, I prioritize actually preparing D&D over writing about what happened. At least until I have significantly more time in the evenings… I do want to add a couple of reviews of RPG-material that I’ve been reading. And I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of Trudvang Chronicles

If the players thought they were done with mindflayers, they were wrong. The group was back to only four players, due to the Easter holiday, and the decided to make a short rest, before exploring the rest of the guild hall. They find their ancient archive, in a magical storage room, and recognize it as a valuable trove of lore, if you spend sufficient time on piecing things together. The also enter the guild masters office, where they locate the secret door to the strong room, but when they tamper with it, two stone guardians attack. In the strong room they find gold and silver, and more importantly a few bars of mithral and adamantine and a scroll that can be used to enchant a weapon permanently.

purple worm
Unfortunately, the purple worm mini I had ordered didn’t arrive in time. There will be more opportunities though… 

I kept track of time, because – unbeknownst to the players and their characters – the mindflayers continued to be aware of them and their actions. So they gathered another force and attacked again. They led that attack with a hill giant and a purple worm. The players were pretty freaked. But still, the four 8th level players, decided to fight the purple worm (which is CR 15 and has 250 hit points). Fortunately for them, they had luck on their side, as the purple worm is so strong that it can basically remove a character from the fight every round. The purple worm used its bite attack on the paladin/ranger in the first round, but the dwarf bard/fighter used his protective ability to give it disadvantage, so it missed. And the dwarf could tank the tail attack. Next round the purple worm missed with its bite again, but hit the druid with its poisonous tail, who went down. And then a mind flayer emerged from the hole the purple worm left. This was double trouble, but they kept piling on damage, and then the paladin/ranger was swallowed by the worm. The purple worm was heavily damaged, so with a final eldritch blast the warlock killed the purple worm (which 3 characters gave 250 in damage in 3 rounds…)

I had narrated that the three characters, with players who weren’t present, take on the hill giant and the goblins that followed it, and that the half-orc bellowed that they had to flee (that we my DM-que that it was wise).

The purple worm spits out the paladin in its death throes, and with a feather fall they escape the guild hall, but in the ruins beyond the run into another mindflayer ambush, with a single mindflayer, two intellect devourers and some goblins. That was fun!

id
They aren’t hard to kill, but surprisingly nasty, as the Int reduction needs a Greater Restoration to counter. 

The players know they are just a couple of bad saving throws away from defeat, but a couple of summoned bears and a charging paladin kills the mindflayer, which cause the rest to flee. The warlock had his intelligence reduced by the intellect devourer though, and is comatose, so now they are down to three characters.

The finally reach the exit point at the tower, where an elf is waiting for them. He introduces himself as Kelgon, but the paladin sense that he is a fiend in disguise. He does not reveal his true form, when they confront him with that knowledge, but he admits that the Mezzoloths that attacked them works for him, and that he has a proposal for them: if they are willing to help him kill undead in the ruins, he will give them knowledge and magic items in return. Their response is that they want to consider it, and that they will return with an answer, if he is willing to let them exit the ruin. He allows that, and finally the group emerges from the ruins into a forest that now seems much more benign and safe.

 

 

If you want to read my notes of this entire D&D adventure, they can be found here: DnD Adventure – The Deserted Wizard.

D&D Session 4

These are the notes from the latest session of our D&D campaign, which was in December. Our next session is Wednesday and should continue at a regular interval of two weeks.
The notes are not an attempt to be literary or to make for an exciting read. It is mainly a tool for me and my players, so they have a chance to remind themselves what happened last time.

For me, as a DM, I also find that writing a short synopsis of last session is a good way for me to start preparing for a new game session.

Session 4:

The party decides to investigate the grounded ship, leaving behind the female guard and the warlock (as he wasn’t present) at the camp. They make their way along the rocky reef to the wreck and are attacked by giant crabs. After they defeat the crabs they search the ship and locate a document sent for the governor of the settlement, Erin de Vin, and they find a batch of potions in a secret compartment in the captain’s cabin.

Someone, relatively powerful, has also animated the corpses on the vessel and suddenly they spring to life as zombies. They defeat them without too much trouble.

A discussion erupt over the gnome opening the sealed document from the Queen to the Governor. They re-seal the letter with mend, but after the letter is transcribed. It is however in a cipher.

They search another cave along the beach, and find the body of one of the elite body guards and a sailor. They loot them for their valuables.

The group continue their search for survivors, and at the top of the cliffs they look into some ruins and find a small campsite. The campsite had see

big kuo-toa
Big Kuo-Toa. They haven’t met one this size, yet… This illustration is from the 3rd Edition Underdark book for the Forgotten Realms, which I can recommend. 

n combat recently, and booted prints flee away from the site and into the forest. After some deliberation, they decided to not pursue the trail now, but investigate the entrance to the cave where the Kuo-Toa probably lives in order to try and find more prisoners from the ship. They send in Horziwer, the gnome rogue, to investigate, is magically disguised as a kuo-toa. He wanders in, meet some guards and finds and odd labyrinth like area, made of drift wood, sea weed and skulls and bones, overlooked by a guard on a platform. The group decides to sneak in using Pass Without Trace. They take out the first two guards and manages to kill the two guards on the other side of the labyrinth and surprise and take out the kuo-toa reinforcements nearby. Here the session ended.

I wished for a TPK…

7rqen

I don’t normally wish for it, or plan for it, but a TPK would just have been great for the story. Let me try and explain why…

We were playing our sixth session of Temple of Elemental Evil, this time with only 4 players with 3rd level characters and the paladin was the only healer. At first they accidentally ventured down a sloped hallway to level 2, and saw the chained hydra and chained owl bear. They engaged the owl bear, and killed the troll keeper that came after with some trouble. They explored a bit, and established that there was at least one more troll in the area. Wisely, they went back to level 1, and found their way into one of the two ghoul lairs. This is where things got really interesting.

Ghouls, and more ghouls

Ghoul
The ghouls in 5th edition are nasty, as when you hit paralyzed characters it is automatically a critical hit. This illustration is from the 3rd edition of the D&D Monster Manual.

It was one of the many encounters in the temple that quickly turns into several waves of enemies. In this case, one of the ghouls from the first room will run into the adjoining rooms and get help from its buddies. Furthermore, two cowardly ghasts will be watching from a third room, and join the combat if they are winning, but I decided to add the mechanic that if more than half of the four ghouls were alive after a couple of rounds the two ghasts would flee.

Fortunately for the characters they killed the third ghoul by the end of round two, making the two ghasts flee. However, they flee through the room of the two boss ghasts, and these two will not back down from a fight (as described in the module).

So severely depleted, with the barbarian at 1 hp, the monk had been down once already and with no more healing power or potions, they had to face two ghasts with extra hit points. It was clear it could turn ugly quickly. With the damage output of the ghasts, any of the players would go down with one hit, which would reduce their damage output, and further increasing the odds of more players going down. My first internal reaction was ‘crap! what do I do if I kill them?’ But then it dawned on me that it would be great if I wiped them out.
Because, as you may have read here previously, I have a pool of around 12-14 players for this campaign, and I play with the group that shows up that evening (max 7 players). The area around the temple attracts a lot of adventurers, so it works out really well. It is very dynamic, and we get to see different group combos. Each session ends with the party returning to the surface. The rest of the adventurers stay at their base camp or in Hommlett, resting and planning their next raid on the dungeon.

Great flavor and motivation
Had they TPK’ed, I would have sworn the players to silence, and their party would have been yet another group of adventurers disappearing without much trace in the dangerous catacombs beneath the Temple of Elemental Evil.

It would have created a fantastic motivation for the other players (and the TPK’ed players with new characters) to go and find out what happened, and perhaps find surviving captives, or avenge them, if they weren’t (I would probably have rolled randomly who survived). I could have them as sacrifices in the deeper temples, I could have them charmed or dominated, they could be torture victims of the cult leaders. And their magic loot would turn up in new places, adding a new dimension of investigation and interrogation, such as: ‘Where did you get this cloak? This was worn by our friend Ishmael the last time we saw him…?!’ The extra sense of danger in exploring the dungeons, when the players know a TPK can happen, would also add to the tension of the game.
tumblr_msrnpeO40g1rrofo2o1_4001
As it turned out, I rolled very poorly for the two ghasts, hitting the players zero times, and the players managed to win the day with very high damage output. Great for them…

But I think it is fair to say that I don’t fear having a TPK in the future. I may even wish for it, a little bit.

My Dungeons and Dragons Homebrew 1

I want to provide context for my posts on rules and campaign setting, and I’m writing brief overviews of each session for my players anyway, so I’ve decided to post the chronicles of my campaign on this blog. With my Warhammer campaign coming to a close at around 90 sessions, where I have a few paragraphs on each session, I can see it is also a pretty cool thing to have when looking back at all the great fun we had.

Campaign setup

My campaign is fundamentally an exploration campaign. The realms of the East have been warring for 30 years against a dark empire named the Hrran Hegemony. The war is in a deadlock and the ‘good’ realms need resources, allies or some kind of joker to break the deadlock. Fortunately, the half-elves of the Isles of Finrod have found a new continent across the ocean. The largest human kingdom therefore sets up an outpost and has sent settlers there to establish a new realm, and to explore the lands for riches, magic and potential allies. The characters are among the second group of settlers sent there.

Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington
The land where they settle is covered in deep forest. This is from a Washington state rain forest.

The Group

All members of the adventuring group come from the realms in the East, which have a geography and technology roughly equal to early medieval Europe. They decided at the beginning to form a accredited Adventuring Company, which provides some advantages, but cost them resources.

bagpipe
The dwarf bard use a bagpipe as his instrument. Fun, and great for attracting random encounters!

After 3 sessions the line-up is: 

Sir Jarn Ashford, Human paladin 1/ranger 2

Arak, half-orc fighter 2/war cleric 1

Welk Del’mantanrese, human abjurer 3

Weylyn Cullain, half-elf moon druid 3

Horziver Xalybyr, gnome arcane trickster 3

Abbott, human warlock 3

Korrick the Lorekeeper, dwarf fighter 1/bard 1

The first 3 Sessions:

Session 1:

The members of the adventuring group has various ties to each other, both are mostly not close friends. They embark on their journey at the Isles of Finrod, and sail across the ocean on one of three vessels (of course). After a few weeks they make a stop at Hope’s Pinnacle, which is a lone island with a huge abandoned castle built by giants, where a garrison and port has been built by the good nations. They stay a couple of days before continuing their journey.

Close to land the ships are thrown into a storm and attacked by Kuo-Toa. The party fights them off, but after the storm dies down one of the three ships are missing.

Meta: They drew random questions I had created, which they answered to create more backstory for their characters.

christopher-columbus-ships
The ships of my campaign are similar to the far left ship, however sleeker, with more of a norse longboat element, and more elaborate elven carvings – and no cross on the sails.

Session 2

They arrive at the small settlement, which lies in a cove, next to a river, surrounded by a vast forest, and with a couple of gleaming white towers reaching above the canopy in the distance. They are greeted warmly, and introduced to some of the people living there, including the governor Erin de Vrin. But with a missing ship, the mood has a somber undertone. Next morning, the two adventuring parties available to the settlement are sent out to find the missing ship. The characters are sent north, while their ‘rivals’ are sent south.

The group treks through the forest and at night are assaulted by a Displacer Beast, which they manage to slay. The following day they come upon a group of goblins, throwing stones and taunting a wounded elf captured in one of their pit traps. They drive off the goblins and rescue the elf. The elf has tattooed camouflage on his skin and he almost only use sign language.

Session 3:

With some difficulty the druid Weylyn begins to communicate in the elven tongue with the tattooed barbarian, and recognizes that he speaks some kind of dialect of the elven language. They learn that a big winged beast roams to the north, and that he finds it very important to stay hidden. The next morning the elf has sneaked out of the camp.

Using the wizard’s seagull familiar, they do spot the winged creature, which turns out to be a wyvern, and see its nest in a ruined tower. They decide to explore the tower while the wyvern is hunting at dusk. At the top of the tower in the nest of flotsam and bones, they find a couple of scrolls and a kuo-toa body. Welk and Horziver figure out how to destabilize the nest, and make a plan for attacking the wyvern when it lands, and hopefully drop to the bottom of the ruined tower. The plan succeeds and the party manages to overcome the wyvern without getting hit.

At night, the carrion crawler that had hidden in the tower came out to feast on the wyvern. It was discovered, and the group killed it.

Trekking further north they finally come upon a cove, where the lost ship is stuck on a reef. The cliffsides have many cave entrances, and they begin to explore. They find a body of a sailor, after chasing away two giant crabs, and in one of the caves they are attacked by many crabs, but rescue an exhausted guard from the ship, who hid in the cave.

They bring her back to their camp, to give her rest and hear her story. At night kuo-toa emerges at high tide from one of caves and sacrifice a human to some kind of snake creature that emerges from the sea.

Meta and Mechanics note:

Fighting the wyvern, the damage output of 6 players was very high, with above average rolls, and it was a short

The Wyvern monster manual illustration from 3rd edition of D&D by the way.
The Wyvern monster manual illustration from 3rd edition of D&D by the way.

encounter. But the danger of getting hit by the poison stinger of the wyvern made it a tense encounter. It certainly displays the weakness in D&D 5th if you have large groups against single enemies. However, in this case, a hit by the wyvern on almost anyone of the 2nd level characters would either drop or kill them. I think it was fun, and when the PC’s dare something dangerous, the player’s feel great when they succeed.