Adventures in Middle-Earth (AiME) is an RPG set in Tolkien’s world between the events of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. It is based on the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition engine, and you only need the free System Reference Document to use the AiME books.
Below you can find links to Reviews of many of the AiME books.
I’ve also played Wilderland Adventures and Eaves of Mirkwood and written my comments on how I ran the adventures and what I would change.
Cubicle 7 no longer has the rights to producing the game, so there are no more supplements coming, but the books currently available are more than enough to run multiple campaigns and to build your own.
All in all, it is a fantastic and faithful low-magic merging of the D&D 5e rules and the Tolkien-universe. There are a couple of balance issues and design issues, especially at the higher levels, but nothing a creative Loremaster can’t fix.
I’m running all seven Wilderland Adventures with my group of 7 players. You can also read reviews of other AiME products on this blog (and other D&D stuff). These adventure blog-posts are part review and part suggestions for Loremasters on how to run or adjust the adventure, based on my experience of running it. And to provide context for those two things, I will also describe what happened during the adventure. Art is copyright Cubicle 7 and pulled from their material.
Those Who Tarry No Longer was one of the adventures I really loved when reading it. Unfortunately, it has some issues as an adventure when you run it.
The story involves the characters in protecting an elf noble lady who is going to the White Harbor and into the West. The characters are to deliver her to the High Pass, but unfortunately, the Big Bad Evil Guy wants to destroy her.
The adventure invokes a strong sense of Tolkien and captures the mood of the diminishing world very well.
But, the adventure is very railroaded. It depends on the players how big an issue the railroading is for the group.
My players have bought into the fact that we (more or less) run these seven adventures and nothing else, to reduce my prep time for a period and to check out Adventures in Middle-Earth. Despite that, a few of them were bored with how little actual agency they have on the adventure. Other players just enjoy the ride.
How it played out:
The adventure took 2½ sessions to play, partly because I had a large group for the two first sessions – 6 and 7 respectively.
I – rather ham-handedly – narrated how they had decided to hunt the white stag of Mirkwood, and during the hunt encounter Legolas escorting Lady Irimë. I had to spend some time describing the emotion she instilled to get the players to see, how their characters might react – despite knee jerk murder hobo reactions of scoffing at pansy elves. I both described her in Middle-Earth terms, but I also equated the meeting with how we might react, if we suddenly meet a global celebrity or politician, whom we might not agree with or who’s work we don’t care fork – Beyoncé or Obama for example. You may not care for them, but it would be impossible for most people to blow them off or make fun of them. That seemed to work.
We then had a fun time role-playing the mood of feasting with the elves and travelling with her – where she gives insight of the things long gone.
It works really well that they are travelling through areas the group passed by before in previous adventures. The way she provides new layers of understanding to the history of the Old Ford for example, gave the players a sense of all the things that were forgotten, which they didn’t learn from previous Lore rolls.
After the Old Ford they begin to encounter orcs, which led to the major fight on the hill top, where they are rescued by eagles and brought to an eyrie. The seven characters held off the orcs for eight rounds and with only one character down. Then I brought in the eagles, to not drag it on any longer.
They laughed a bit at the cliché. But it is very thematic, and the meeting with the eagles afterwards I think was quite cool.
The second session of the adventure began with the players being dropped off by the eagles and settling in to the ruins of Haycombe. They camp and a caught in the dream world when Irimë fights the shadow that attacks her.
Initially, they liked the mystery of being transported to Haycombe and trying to figure out how to get home. We roleplayed in the inn and had fun, but when the master arrives and a fight breaks out, it quickly becomes clear that they have no real options. They can fight until they are forced to surrender, by the threat of burning down the inn. So, they surrendered.
We ended the second session after they had been marched to Dol Guldur.
The final part in the dungeons of Dol Guldur had fine role-playing opportunities, the mood was dark and the dwarves of the group had fun trying to fight their way out (I simply described how their attack ended up in severe beatings). The result was that when one was picked to fight the hill troll, it wasn’t the dwarf slayer – who might have had a chance – and instead it was the Dunedaín warrior, who was killed, and woke up – but I didn’t give him all the shadow points, as it was more a narrative death, to show them what was going on in the real world.
Their wanderer took the place of the boy in the next fight against the hill troll but was only beaten unconscious.
Finally, the shadow comes for the elf, all the characters make their saving throws, and they return to the world, with Irimë alive.
Elrond’s sons then arrive (and it was nice having the Rivendell Guide, to add extra flavor to that part), and Irimë made them Elf Friends.
How was the adventure?
It is a very railroaded adventure.
It is also an adventure with a great atmosphere, and there are some really good role-playing scenes in it. The core idea is strong, but the execution has several flaws, in my view. It seems like the author has a story to tell, and the point is to show the players the power and magic of the elves and give them a chance to experience Dol Guldur. It succeeds at that. I think there is a chance the author had something greater in mind but couldn’t fit it within the space he has in the book.
If your players simply want to experience and ‘live’ Middle-Earth and just want to help you tell this cool story, they will most likely enjoy this adventure.
If your players want to have real agency, they are probably not going to like this adventure, unless you change it – a lot.
I think a key issue is the fact that the players can’t see what their objective is, and the mechanical parameters aren’t visible. That means the choices they actually can make which have an impact on the final outcome aren’t clear, which means the players can’t make any meaningful choices (see game designer Sid Meyer’s view on that). They can of course roleplay their character – to some extent – but if their character would flee Haycombe at the first sign of trouble or they have a great plan to avoid being captured, they can’t really execute on it.
An example are the two big battles: the outcome is given for both and in the second case there is little penalty for death. But neither is there any advantage from holding out as long as possible. They might as well just surrender at the beginning, or you can narrate the whole encounter at the inn. It makes no difference.
There is not really any advantage in figuring out what is going on, either. And very little to ‘investigate’, which was my player’s initial approach. They just have to wait for the ride.
In Dol Guldur all their actions help decide the final DC of the saving throw they have to make. But the players don’t know that – although in my case I gave them enough information to their characters that they figured it was a spiritual battle about not giving in. As they did all the right things, the final DC was not hard. Is a single dice roll for each character the best way to resolve the climax? I’m not sure…
What could you change?
It would be a significant amount of work to make the adventure less railroaded. Below I have some ideas as to how players could get more agency within the current framework. I would love to get comments with other ideas.
In the battles against the goblins, I would have Irimë tell them that she will signal the eagles, and that they would have to hold out until they arrive. I would then progressively make each round significantly more difficult, using wolves, archers and perhaps a hill troll at the end. I would also wait with the star light from Irimë’s magical ring, until they came under big pressure. It might also grant them a HD in hit points. If the group fails to hold on for the given number of rounds (it says six in the book), Irimë would be killed, and the Eagles would come and take them all away.
The fight at the inn is the biggest problem. I almost think the best solution is to simply narrate it and get on with the story.
You could give inspiration for lasting through both waves at the inn as a reward, but it is still very railroaded. Fighting to let others escape the town is another option, because that would feel like a victory of sorts, but then why would the key NPC’s not be among those who escape?
In Dol Guldur, the DC of the final roll changes depending on what their characters do. Do they tend the dying man? Do they convince the minstrel not to join the Necromancer?
To make a less railroaded version, I would keep the first part of the adventure, and the core idea for the dream and the spirits attack but make it into a (longer) more open adventure, with more freedom, requiring more investigation to figure out what is going on and more proactive means of defeating the spirit. But that is a significant amount of work.
All in all, the mood and role-playing in the adventure is great. But the players are mainly along for the ride. It depends a lot on your players if they would enjoy this.
I’m running all seven Wilderland Adventures with my group of 7 players. You can also read reviews of other AiME products on this blog. These adventure blog-posts are one part review and one part suggestions for Loremasters on how to run or adjust the adventure, based on my experience of running it. And to provide context for those two things, I will also describe what happened during the adventure.
Our first adventure had a somewhat fragmented group. We began late December, and due to vacations, illness and work, I had 3-4 players when running the adventure, but in different constellations, so I had to do some narrative adjustments to keep it logical.
How it played out
The first four players made their characters, and we began the adventure. I followed the adventure and had them wander along Long Lake, when the young Belgo comes running, and tells them that his father is being attacked by his guards. The group rush after to help him and drive off the thugs with a well-aimed attack and a solid intimidate roll. They agree on helping him getting through Mirkwood, travel with his elven friends on rafts to the Halls of Thranduril and manage to convince the elves that they can stay and get some nice supplies, while they rest. They still feel that they are rather an unfriendly lot, those elves.
The group begins the journey through Mirkwood with the merchant Baldor and his son Brego. With two of the original four players missing, and two new players participating, and one still not able to make it, I create an encounter, where the two new characters are fighting two attercops, and the third – still unnamed character – has been poisoned and is unconscious. The two ‘old’ characters come upon the battle, while leading the small caravan, and throw themselves into the fight. During the fight, the non-present characters ‘guard’ the ponies, Baldor and Brego against other attercops. The two groups agree to travel together for safety (obviously).
For the journey we rolled Feast for Kings for Embarkation and two journey events. I decided to place the journey events in between the fixed encounters, and they arrive at the sink holes, a place touched by the shadow, before the Castle of the Spiders.
Baldor drinks from the stream, and the present characters chase after him, while the non-present two characters remain behind to guard Brego (felt fitting with the story, actually).
They follow his trail and arrive at the castle of the spiders, where they successfully rescue him, after a tense and fun battle. I had one of the absent PC’s arrive, a world weary Dunedaín, to provide bow cover-fire for their escape.
After the battle, Baldor and a dwarf player character have a great role-playing exchange on Baldor’s experience of the death of Smaug and the reclaiming of the Lonely Mountain.
I introduce the second journey event, and the group comes across Tauler, one of Shelob’s children, but they manage to avoid him without being seen, but gain a few shadow points, and run for their lives.
The unconscious (7th) characters wakes up, but due to unusually low attendance, he only has two active travel companions. I narrate how the absent characters are so exhausted and mentally drained from the trip, that they stay around the Baldor and Bregor to guard them. The new character is a Wanderer, and as the group really needs a long rest, he activates an ability, to lead them to a hideout, where they can have a long rest.
After the rest, I introduce an additional journey event, where they find warg paw prints at a potential camp site, and the wanderer shines again. Then comes the storm, they fail their audience with the hermit, and a thrown out of his home.
Finally, they arrive at the well, the Dunedaín fails his save, and jumps into the well. They fight the Thing in the Well and survive.
As we still have good time left, Baldor tells them of the rumour of the new Easterly Inn. They head for that location, we role-play the arrival, have a fellow-ship phase, and I introduce the hook to the next adventure. We end the session when they depart to find Dindoas Brandybuck.
How was the adventure?
It was a strong adventure, and it played better than I had expected. After reading all seven adventures, I considered this the weakest of them all. But it was dramatic, had a strong mood and reflected the dangers of this journey well.
My players have had different play experiences, because of the fragmented group. But, overall, they are happy that there is action, but a greater focus on role-playing than in my home brew campaign. A couple of them did fear that the setting was too – how shall I say it – light and too focused on pure narrative role-playing drama. They want to roll initiative and fight orcs. And they still get that!
One of my players also told me that he really liked that he knew that everyone is a hero. In regular D&D, he must consider everyone’s true motives, but in AiME, they can fundamentally rely on each other.
The mood inside Mirkwood was excellent. The journey events enhanced the mood really well. In the second session I did change one of the random events from an encounter with more attercops to the ‘place of shadow’, because they were fighting attercops when I introduced the new characters. For pacing reasons, I had four journey events (including the attercop attack in session 1), and it worked well.
The oppressive and exhausted mood that is the essence of the journey played out very well. Particularly, after the group rescued Baldor, and he told his story of losing his wife and home, wishing the dwarves had never woken Smaug, we had one of the best role-playing scenes in recent years. The frayed bond between father and son also gave the last part of the adventure a shadow of sadness, which I think worked well.
Good & bad encounters
The Castle of Spiders was an awesome encounter. It was very tactical, because of the terrain. It was tense due to constantly appearing spiders, and it looked like the players had a great time. The small things, like 25 ft. movement, and wielding a spear with reach, was important.
The Thing in the Well was not quite as interesting a battle. I had to boost its hit points, despite there only being three characters, as they had reduced it to half hit points, before it had a chance to act.
At first level there is a lot of luck involved in combat, and one blow can fell a character. So, on one hand, the encounter is very dangerous. Characters falling down the well, or who are hit more than once, have a good chance of going down, and that will quickly turn the tide. Particularly, if they have spent their powers already, they will be in great danger. On the other hand, the Thing has AC 12. With starting characters having +5 or +6 on hit rolls, it means it is likely that 3 out of 4 attacks will hit it the first round. Three attacks can quite easily do 20+ damage. As written, it is unlikely the combat will last more than 2 rounds.
As I considered the Thing a bit of a boss encounter, it was a little bit disappointing.
What would I do differently?
I would change the hook:
The hook is rather weak. I understand they want to introduce the action quickly, but if I were to run it again, I would start the adventure in Lake Town at a tavern. I would let the thugs be competitors to the characters, which would create tension in the first scene. It would also give the characters a way to introduce themselves, the can haggle with Baldor, and intimidate the thugs. Later on, the thugs can follow them, and try to attack them at night.
I would introduce scenes:
When Baldor drinks of the enchanted stream and runs off, it is one of several cases, where something happens during the Wilderland Adventures, where it seems like the characters can act, but the outcome is basically certain, if you want a fun adventure.
The problem is that the characters think they can catch Baldor, before he runs into the forest, for example with a skill roll. I mean, Baldor is an older, not very fit man. It seems plausible, but there is no indication of how far Baldor is from the watch, when he goes crazy. That can create frustration with players. My player just shrugged it off.
The same can basically happen, if Brego is the one enchanted by the Thing in the Well, and throws himself into the well, and a similar situation occurs in the next part of the adventure.
The solution is to me – suggested by a player, who also DMs – that I tell them there is a scene, and I then describe what happens in a dramatic way. They are cool with a fun story unfolding, and that way there is no ambiguity to create frustration.
I would change the final encounter:
I think the final encounter could use some more terrain to make it more interesting. If the well is inside some kind of ancient structure, just with some walls and perhaps a couple of rooms, it would create more tension when they explore it.
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.
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!
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.
This series made me step out of the traditional mold when it came to world-design. Before I read the first novels of the series, my campaign worlds had been pretty standard “European” or it had been Earthdawn (which as a game itself also inspired me a lot). Westeros was not what I found most inspiring, but the decadent and old lands of the east are very cool with places such as Astapor and Mereen. I made a campaign called the Far Seas, a maritime campaign with a lot of islands, where I put in big Jade pyramids, nomadic Halfling armadas, lost gods, fantastic cities with ancient monuments and strange magical effects. Looking at many published campaigns today, Far Seas isn’t exceptional, but it was a good step for me, and it was so popular that when I moved to another town, a friend of mine ran a campaign in that world. That is a pretty big compliment.
“Aggo was back next. The southwest was barren and burnt, he swore. He had found the ruins of two more cities, smaller than Vaes Tolorro but otherwise the same. One was warded by a ring of skills mounted on iron spears, so he dared not enter, but he had explored the second one as long as he could. He showed Dany an iron bracelet he had found, set with uncut fire opal the size of her thumb.” – A Song of Ice and Fire
The fantastic video game Dark Souls is a masterpiece of game design. I’m intensely inspired by the level design. The way the world seamlessly flows together and slowly reveals new secrets and connections has to be experienced. The story of the world, its mythos, and the NPC’s stories and motives are extremely opaque and are only revealed by examining all objects and if certain specific steps are taken in the right order. And in Dark Souls outcomes and decisions are permanent, so if you attacked that NPC or he died in a battle, you will have to start a new game to try a different path. This is an exploration element that I really like as well, and is an approach I’m attempting in my current D&D campaign.
They way that you avatar’s experience mirrors your experience as a player is masterful design. The setup of many of the monster encounters is also very interesting and can easily be used in D&D.
Dark Souls II has less interesting level design (it is still great), but it is also visually very inspiring for my current campaign.
When it comes to video role-playing games, it is – in my experience – when it comes to mechanics and exploration the closest you can come to a pen & paper game. The reason is that you can approach enemies and problems in many ways, which is close to your experience in a pen & paper game.
For my current D&D campaign I’ve not fully taken the plunge into making my own version of a coherent world where the campaign basically all takes within a dungeon. I’ve more tried to let myself be inspired by the design philosophy behind it. If I were to go all the way, D&D would not necessarily be a great system, as many of the spells would need to be modified. But any system would probably need to be modified, in order for the system to emphasize the way the world and campaign should work.
Playing at the World
This book is about the history of D&D and the games that led to this revolution. It led me deeper into the ideas in the original D&D and made me want to go back to basics – although without going back to some of the OD&D versions of the game, as I have a preference for the smooth mechanics of 5th edition. It is a massive book (600+ pages), and you will learn something you didn’t know.
One thing that I’ve taken directly to heart in both my home brew campaign and in our Temple of Elemental Evil game is that D&D originally had three core aspects: combat, exploration and logistics. Exploration is of course a cornerstone of my new homebrew. The last part I also find very interesting. I think it is quite apparent that among my players there are different preferences for these elements. Logistics is about how much ammunition to bring, what spells to select and dividing treasure. I have previously skipped this somewhat, but I will try to have it as a more intentional element, for example by using the construction rules from Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign.
It led me to buy many vintage modules online, and there are some great ideas in them as well.
“Into the dramatic structure of Dungeons & Dragons, the mode of logistics injects some much needed banality: after the suspense of exploring and the adrenaline of bloodshed, the chore of logistics, even when they border on tedium, serve as an important counterweight to adventures.” (In Playing at the World, by Jon Peterson)
The Scramble for Africa
Africa is a vast and extremely varied continent, and both its nature and
history is an inspiration to me. Recently I read this history of how the European Powers explored and carved up between them the many independent kingdoms and more or less inhabited wilderness of Africa. The exploration element is as always interesting to me – the hardship in traversing deep jungle and the couple of years that Stanley spent traversing the continent East to West. The brutality of the conflicts and of the rule of some of the African kings can also be used in D&D, as can the power play between the nations trying to grab as much land as possible.
“Stanley looked at the majestic brown river flowing past the tall square houses and the baobab trees. Its calmness seemed to him a kind of hypocrisy. It had robbed him of so many of his best men, including Frank Pocock, the last survivor of his three white companions. Even now Stanley felt the hollowness of his triumph. He had sailed from Zanzibar with more than 250 men, women and children. Only 108 would now return safely to their homes.” The Scramble for Africa, Stanley arrives at the west coast of Africa
The Italian Renaissance
Italy, before it became a nation and was a collection of city states, is so full of intrigue, war and conflict that period has near limitless potential for inspiration for almost any role-playing game – but for Warhammer Fantasy Role-play in particular. As there is so much surviving art and written works from the region and period, there is a lot of potential reading to do. I just needed an overview before a visit to Florence, and I picked up The Italian Renaissance. It deals with both a few central topics such as Women and Princes and the State, and has a chapter on each of the major city-states, and for someone growing up in a modern democracy; I find it helpful to be reminded of the attitudes, government structures and social structures of other people and other times. It can add some memorable tweaks to your NPCs and campaign setting.
“On this knowledge the Council acted swiftly and silently, for no public trials enlivened the Venetian scene, and there were no appeals. Once found guilty, the prisoner was sometimes quickly and efficiently strangled in the dungeons or thrown into a part of the lagoon reserved for the purpose, where no fishing was allowed; or hanged by one leg from the pillars of the Doge’s Palace; or quartered and distributed about the city; or buried upside down in the Pazetta, legs protruding; or beheaded – as a public spectacle – between the great pillars on which stand Saint Theodore, with his crocodile and the winged lion of Saint Mark.” – The Italian Renaissance, on how its Council of Ten kept power through its intelligence system.
The Dresden Files didn’t make it to the top-10 list, but I include it as an honourable mention, as I think it can teach you a thing or two when it comes to upping the stakes and making the stories more action packed. The Dresden Files demonstrates that you can always kick it up a notch!
I went to the board game and comics convention in Essen, Germany, a couple of weeks ago, and I came home with a bad cold, four board games, a couple of role-playing games and some new experiences.
It was the first time I went to The Internationale Spieltage convention (or simply Spiel). It is the second largest in the world with hundreds of board games being demonstrated and sold. I wish I had been in better health, but I did manage to play a number of fun board games, and I will provide a brief review/introduction to a couple of them here. And also discuss the two RPGs I got.
Rise of the Kage
A stealth ninja game. It had some very cool mechanics, great miniatures and awesome flavor. I think the stealth mechanics works really well, and it plays well both with 2 and four players. Basically three ninjas have to infiltrate a location and complete a mission before the sun rises or the alarm sounds. One player plays the guard, and 1-3 players plays the ninjas. Each time they fail an action noise is generated, which advances both the time and the alert level, and allows the defending player more actions, guards and so on. We’ve only played it a couple of times, but it has depth, a lot of missions, and thus replay value, and it’s just awesome playing ninjas. If I have to point out some negative things it is layout and design of the rule book, which I think is hard to use for quick reference. The fact that the different cards you use only have two different backgrounds, when they are to be in different piles that you draw from at different times, is very annoying and finally that the design of the box lacks space for the counters.
Several of us bought this fun family game. Each player has two witches who has to deliver potions to a board full of wizard towers and dispel clouds to score points. The colour of the potions you deliver has to match the colours of the towers. There are no dice in the game, which is great. Each round each player gets to pick 4 out 10 cards, which you use to move your witches, gather new ingredients, produce potions and deliver the potions to score points. All the players have the same cards, and when the player who’s turn it is plays a card, everyone else who has picked the same card has to play it, which can really mess up your original plan. As your plans are often dependent on the sequence you play your cards, the game play is very much about figuring out what the other player’s intentions are and foiling them, or avoiding getting screwed by other people’s actions. The art is fun and attractive and the game play is simple, but has a lot of depth.
Light of Dragons
I didn’t buy this very deep but simple looking game, and I only played it once. It is a two-player game, also without dice, and only takes 20-30 minutes two play. You play with 6-side pieces, basically dice you don’t roll, where each face of the dice represents a monster with special abilities on the simple square board. You score points by killing the other player’s monsters, and with each action you have, you can either move a piece or evolve it to the next level of monster. You quickly realize that the way the different abilities interact in play is simply brilliant, and results in a host of available strategies. It could easily be used as a chess-equivalent game in a fantasy RPG campaign. I highly recommend it.
Two new (old) RPGs
I bought two new role-playing games as well: Ars Magica (2004 for the 5th ed.) and Night’s Black Agents (2012). I know I won’t be playing them for a long, long time, but I took the opportunity to buy them anyway.
Night’s Black Agents is a thriller game with spies going up against vampires. Think the Bourne films or Ronin, but with big vampire conspiracies. Unlike the Vampire game from White Wolf, you can only play the human underdogs. The reason why I really wanted to pick this up, was because I heard the author, Kenneth Hite talk (on this podcast), about his newly published campaign, the Dracula Dossier, and it is just really, really cool idea. You should check it out (here). Furthermore, it looks like the system handles investigation much better than the old basic roleplay version of Call of Cthulhu or the White Wolf games. It would still be at least a couple of years before I project my D&D campaign to finish, but a man can dream.
Ars Magica speaks to my strong interest in history and in making long campaigns with big story arcs. But it would require a big effort from me to actually create the campaign I would want to play, and that won’t happen for several years. But the dream of a several years long campaign with every player having several characters and slowly developing their Chantry through the political and religious turmoil of the 13th century is very appealing.
I was in Paris this weekend, and was recommended by my friend Adrian, who is also one of my player’s in my own group, to go to Rue Dante and check out the comic book stores there. It was a great suggestion, and I dragged by girl friend to a number of them, while looking at the great French and American comics and graphic novels (not that there is clear verbal a distinction in Europe), as the French, Dutch and Belgian artists have always made comic books for both children and adult audiences, with some stories very adult.
I was exiting a store, when my eyes fell on an art book, which struck a chord, and I open it, and I see the illustrations from one of my favorite dark fantasy comic books The Black Moon Chronicles (also available in English). The artist is Oliver Ledroit, and it turns out he only did the first few albums, but has done a number of other things since then. It was his first job as an illustrator and got it by showing his portfolio at a convention, when he was only 17.
Inside the book I learned that there is a whole line of miniatures for the setting, and that Ledroit, was inspired by the early Conan comics and has worked on role-playing games and the video game Heroes of Might and Magic
He has these vast tableaus of thousands of troops, and is mentioned to be inspired by Prince Valiant, which is also clearly evident.
“If you ask him to represent 5,000 guards, you will get an outpouring of millions of men.”
(author of Black Moon Chronicles, Marcela-Froideval)
I can’t say that my own games are directly inspired by these stories directly, but I would recommend them to any fantasy fan. Even after Ledroit left to pursue other projects the artistic style has been retained, and it is really epic, where the good-guy templars are cast as the bad-guys.
The art book was reduced in price from 50 to 20 euros, and was a bit of a steal, in my view.
It has also left me wondering about the French role-playing scene. It turns out the author of Black Moon Chronicles also makes role-playing games. What does that look like? What other games do they make? How big is it? Are any of them in English? It is a big market, and a country like Sweden, which is significantly smaller, has a number of very successful home-grown games, like Drakar och Demoner (which I’ve played a lot!), which leads me to assume that France must have many.
When I return from Internationale Spieltage in Germany, I will have to look into the other projects Ledroit has worked on, such as the science fiction SHA and the noir story XOCO and perhaps I will see some new RPGs at the convention in Essen.
I will conclude this post with a few more samples from the book. But it is full of awesomeness, so I recommend to check Ledroit out yourself.
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
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.
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 friend, and sometimes Game Master, Johannes, described some of the books that inspire him as a GM on his blog Sort Forsyning top 13 books (it’s in Danish). That in turn inspired me to share some of the books that I find are great inspiration for role-playing games. I think it will be a (current) top ten. I hope you get inspired too!
Malazan Book of the Fallen
These 10 books have so many cool ideas that it is mind boggling. It shows in the stories that the author has a background in anthropology and archaeology, as cultures and lands have layers upon layers of history, with different technology levels and magic. The world building was very interesting to me. It is very far from the traditional Gary Gygax medieval knights world.
I love them, but the books aren’t equally great, and were hard to read as they came out, as the amount of people and plot lines you have to keep track of is staggering. That said, I’ve lifted a number of ideas from these books straight into my current D&D campaign. I also wanted to replicate the magic system, where each “school of magic” (sort of) is drawn from a particular plane. But it was too much work for D&D spells and planes are so heavily integrated into the rules.
It is also dark, gritty and funny. The second book, Dead House Gates, and its story of the Chain of Dogs, remains the most riveting and gut wrenching fantasy story I’ve read.
Duiker was well past astonishment at anything he saw. Like the Tithansi tribesmen he’d occasionally exchanged words with, he’d begun to believe that Coltaine was something other than human, that he had carved his soldiers into unyielding avatars of the impossible. Yet for all that, there was no hope of victory. (Deadhouse Gates)
Bernard Cornwell has written 21 novels with the hard as nails British soldier Sharpe, who has his career during the Napoleonic Wars – mainly in the Peninsular Wars under Wellington. They are great adventures, full of good plot ideas, and they were the main inspiration for my Warhammer campaign. Cornwell’s insight, that to make the story interesting, he had to make enemies and obstacles on Sharpe’s own side just as big a feature as the enemy, is something I used. I also drew a lot of inspiration for the military campaign side of things, with the size of the army train, the unwieldiness of the artillery and the chaos and confusion of battle that Cornwell describes so well. Being part of a military organization is obviously also a powerful motivator for going on ‘missions’. Cornwell writes great action, and there are a lot of skirmish battles with company sized units, that I also drew upon for my campaign.
“Powder smoke spurted from the orchard, showing that Dragoons [no, not dragons!] barred that escape, yet it was his only hope. He shouted up the ladder. ‘Come down!’ He turned to Harper. ‘We’ll take the Spaniards with us. We are breaking southwards. ‘They’ll catch us.’ ‘Better that than dying like rats in a pit. Fix swords!’ (Sharpe’s Rifles)
Lord of the Rings (and Silmarillion)
It needs no introduction. For years it was one of the few fantasy novels available to me, because we had it at home in Danish. When I became better at English as a teenager, they whole fantasy field opened up, and I’m still trying to read through all the Fantasy Masterworks. But Tolkien will always be there, with the magic, orcs and journeys, and I still love ancient dwarf keeps full of secrets, treasure and ancient evil (and so does many of my players!). Don’t think I’ve ever made a fantasy campaign without a lost dwarf keep.
“The orcs have often plundered Moria; there is nothing left in the upper halls. And since the dwarves fled, no one dares seek the shafts and treasuries down in the deep places: they are drowned in water – or in a shadow of fear. (Gandalf, in the Fellowship of the Ring)
The Fall of the Roman Empire – A New History
This book is fantastic. It really inspires my world-building in many ways. Fundamentally, it provides insight into how that empire was ruled, from a variety of perspectives, including logistically and politically, and how half of it ultimately collapsed. Some of the key points I have taken from it are: rampant corruption, civil war every 20 years, high level of autonomy because of the limits of the administrative system, and the size of armies that could disrupt it -around 10,000 displaced tribal warriors settled in the Balkans created a domino effect that contributed heavily to the fall of the Empire.
Then there are some practical details around travelling, where I think in most fantasy games the logistics and time involved is underestimated. Theophanes had to travel from Egypt to Antioch (in Turkey). The trip was on great roman public roads, which made it very quick – he travelled 40 kilometres (around 25 miles) per day. With him, he brought a group of slaves, and soldiers for parts of the trip. This meant that the journey lasted almost a month. For his slaves he bought 160 litres of wine for the return journey, and bought two bottles for the same price for himself (obviously a better vintage). As he hardly knew anyone along the way, he also had to bring dozens of valuable gifts for other important Romans that he met.
“Running the Roman Empire with communications then available was akin to running, in the modern day, an entity somewhere between five and ten times the size of the European Union.” (The Fall of the Roman Empire – A New History)
This is the story of the legendary Meriwether Lewis who, together with William Clark, Sacagaewea and their party, was the first to cross America over land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It is an adventure of the highest order, and really gave me a lot of inspiration for exploration of the untamed wilderness, and you see how resourceful humans can be. It is a direct inspiration for my current D&D campaign, where the characters help settle a new an unknown land.
“Together, under the leadership of the captains, they had become family. They could recognize one another at night by a cough, or a gesture; they knew one another’s skills, and weaknesses, and habits, and background: who liked salt, who preferred liver; who shot true, got the cooking fire going quickest; where they came from, what their parents were like, what dreams they had…They would triumph, or die, as one.”
In the next part I will be touching upon The Song of Ice and Fire, a book about Africa and a video game, among others.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.