Wilderland Adventures: Of Leaves and Stewed Hobbits

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 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. 

Mirkwood full cover
If you are interested in running a longer campaign, fx to follow-up on Wilderland Adventures, this campaign is excellent, which I wrote about here: Mirkwood Review

Our second adventure had 5-6 players present for the two sessions. The group includes a dunedaìn warrior, a men of minas tirith scholar, a hobbit treasure hunter, a hobbit warrior, a woodman wanderer, a dwarf slayer and a dwarf warden (two cousins).

Of Leaves and Stewed Hobbits is a relatively light-hearted adventure which has a tone closer to the Hobbit than to the Lord of the Rings. The adventure is a rescue mission. A hobbit couple have opened the Easterly Inn, close to the Forest Gate of Mirkwood. The brother of the proprietor, Dindy, was sent back to the Shire, to purchase supplies, but his small caravan is running late. The characters are sent to get him, if he is in trouble.

How it played out

Session 3

We had completed the arrival to the Easternly Inn in session 2, had a Fellowship phase, and played through the hook of the adventure. That meant we were ready for the journey when we sat down for session 3.

Easterly inn
The Easterly Inn is a nice warm inn with some fun NPC’s. A good place for a Sanctuary.

The journey itself was relatively uneventful. They got shelter from a thunderstorm, was blessed by a wandering Saruman and avoided a warg lair. They pass the Old Ford and go up to the foothills of the Misty Mountains.

The first scripted encounter was in the ruins of Haycombe, and old mannish town. When they spend the night, a shade captured the sleeping hobbit treasure hunter, but was then discovered by the dwarf warden on watch, and they defeated the shade. The caught hobbit found himself captured in the mud of a nearby riverbed, but wrestled free, and later found the treasure of the shade.

Up in the pass they come upon the caravan at an old ringfort. The caravan is beset by goblins and orcs, and they help defend it. They fight heroically, and only the scholar goes down in the final round of combat. At the end Dindy is kidnapped by the goblins and dragged off into the mountain.

Session 4

We begin the session by having a short rest, before pursuing the goblins into the caves. I do the goblin song, as best I can, and then they have a harrowing trip through the dark. They get a little lost, but avoid any serious encounters, before they find the goblin hideout.

They sneak up on the drunk guards, kill them, and find Dindy peeling potatoes. They help him out, kill the next guards, sneak down to the stored alcohol and spike the drinks of the goblins.

They get roaring drunk, and, disguised as goblins, the two hobbits steal the key to Dindy’s manacles, as well as the goblin chief’s silver mug. Then they rescue Dindy, and travel home to the Easterly Inn.

Note: As the goblin cave only took a couple of hours, we started on the next adventure during the session.

How was the adventure?

It was a very fun, dramatic and entertaining adventure. The mood is very close to the style of the Hobbit, and it seemed like my players enjoyed it a lot. They particularly noticed that the encounters are very well thought through and serve a purpose.

I think it is a well-paced adventure, with a natural climax in both parts of the adventure.

The defense of the caravan is classic Tolkien and is the first climax of the story. The second climax is the rescue of Dindy. You could argue that there is a difference in mood and tone between part one and two that might throw some people off a bit.

Udklip
I used a napkin as a prop playing the drunk, pompous goblin chieftain. Great fun!

The wicked light-heartedness of the goblin caves was a point where I think the players really felt they were playing in Tolkien’s world.

The goblin song is quite clever, as it really sets the tone for the second part of the adventure, because it is different from the serious battle defending the caravan. Dindy and the goblins were very fun to role-play, and all in all, we had a great time.

The total play time was probably around 6 hours. So, a little under two whole sessions.

My biggest disappointment was that the ringfort wasn’t among the colour maps for the adventure. I don’t understand why it wasn’t included, as it is such a tactical encounter.

The goblin cave worked well overall. The treasure hunter was puzzled, though, when I told him he was unable to pick the lock on the chains. Dindy has obviously been placed at the entrance of the cave for the setup of the adventure to work smoothly, even if it isn’t entirely logical. I could have let him roll, but if he rolled a natural 20, it would also have been disappointing when he still would fail.

Running the adventure

What did I change, or should I have changed?

Not much.

I used the Rhovanion Region Guide to flesh out the stop at the Old Ford. That gave a bit of colour.

The battle at the ringfort was the only place, where I had to revise things on the fly. The One Ring, which was the original system, is more story focused, compared to D&D, and my D&D players, who are more tactical, needed a slightly different approach.

ringfort
Defense against overwhelming numbers is classic Tolkien. 

My player’s expect more information to defend their position in the best way possible. They expect an number of opponents and an exact range they could begin firing at , to reduce their hit points as much as possible. That is very reasonable, as several players have made ‘ranged builds’, and it would be unfair to them, not to let them gain an advantage from that focus, to reduce the danger of the encounter. But the encounter isn’t built for that, so I added a couple of orcs for balance.

I had also given the dunedaìn player a premonition of this battle (due to the Foresight of Kindred virtue), and he guessed that goblins would be coming from the side. Even without hints, your players might plan for guarding the flanks. But in the adventure the goblins just suddenly appear. The character on guard did perception checks to spot them, and I had to add how many rounds they would need to climb the hillside (3 I think it was), and I added an extra goblin, as I expected a couple to die on the way up.

The adventure says that the leader attacks after the first orc soldier goes down. But that is too soon. The orcs had a hard time getting past the entry point, so the leader and a couple of extra orcs came when most of the first wave was gone.

I had planned on having the players run the NPCs against a smaller group of orcs, but time was against me, and I discarded that idea. I do think it would have made the battle even more interesting, as they characters might have needed to reinforce a failing second front. It also often creates a closer connection to the NPCs if the player’s have run them in combat.

Tricky Night-Wight encounter

The encounter with the Night-Wight could be tricky for smaller groups. There is a risk of a TPK. The shade has about 50% chance to sneak in and kidnap characters. With four players there is a real chance that it will get two or even three players. If one or two characters face this shade at level 2, they could easily get killed, before the other characters awake and break free.

With six players it wasn’t a big risk for me. But watch out, if you have a small group!

Random events/encounters
The journey events worked well (again). I really love that system.

They also added six potential random events for the journey under the mountain, and I didn’t need any of them, when I followed the adventure.

In hindsight, I should have used one or two.

There were two challenges though: the characters were already under a lot of pressure (they only got a short rest at the ringfort) and the journey itself caused 1 exhaustion level for the two scouts of the group.

Furthermore, the events are quite dangerous and damaging.

I should have reduced the consequences of the encounters, and had them run into a couple.

All in all, a very entertaining adventure, and I can’t wait to run the next session tomorrow!

Wilderlands Adventures: Don’t Leave the Path

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

Session 0.5:
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.

Adventures-in-Middle-earth-Wilderland-Adventures-cover-900
A book of 7 linked adventures for Adventures in Middle-Earth by Cubicle 7. 

Session 1:
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.

Session 2:
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.

Dark mood
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.

IMG_0092
I’ve had the battle maps printed. It adds an extra dimension, for sure.

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:

MAtt C Tavern
 You can listen to Matt Colevilles arguments for starting in a tavern, here.

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.

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.