That Jazz Craze & Harlem Unbound: Review and Keeper Advice

I’ve run the adventure That Jazz Craze from the excellent Harlem Unbound 2nd edition source book and adventure collection by Chris Spivey for Call of Cthulhu 7th edition from Chaosium. In this article, I will describe how That Jazz Craze ran for us, and the addition I made to its ending, and the reasons why. I will also provide some thoughts on the ‘source book’ part of Harlem Unbound, and why I think you should get it – because you should. It is great!

The other six adventures of the book, I will not cover in depth, as you don’t really get a good understanding of an adventure from simply reading them, you need to prepare to run them – and then run them – to see what really works and where you might experience some problems. 

I ran That Jazz Craze as the second adventure in a mini-campaign of three scenarios, before we got back to in-person gaming. For the first adventure, we played None More Black. The three characters were part of the detective agency Duke & Whitlock.

If you are normally a CoC player, you should stop reading, when you get to the: How I ran That Jazz Craze part. There will be spoilers!

What is Harlem Unbound?

Harlem Unbound is a beefy 368-page sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu and Pulp Cthulhu (or Trail of Cthulhu for that matter). The first part, about 100 pages, describes Harlem from around 1920 to around 1930 – the Harlem Renaissance – and the many important people and NPCs in it, and it helps you handle racism in your game. It also has new occupations, back story elements and 10 Talents for a Pulp game. The next 280 pages contain seven ready-to-run adventures, all of which are tied to Harlem, and which can be woven into a full episodic campaign.

The adventures use the locations and people described in the supplement and expand on them with more details and make them come alive, like the mostly obscure Harlem Hellfighters, an all African American regiment that served with great distinction and valor in World War I (despite incredibly demeaning behavior and racism from their country and the army they served in). 

Interspersed in the entire book are boxes with ideas for plots and additional information. 

The art is mostly in red, grey and black and white, like the historic photos. It enhances the atmosphere tremendously, and underscores Lovecraftian themes of madness and despair. Photos and art in this post is from the book.

“Submit! Submit! Plainly stated; life is “FUCKED!” Apologize! Smile more! You’re too aggressive! Know your place! Respect my badge! Serve! Submit! Submit! Submit! This is the message constantly played to African-Americans. Being black in America means an unending struggle of enduring racism. Bring them to heel!”

– Chris Spivy answering the question: what does it mean to be black in America?

High level review

The book is a top tier supplement, which I think belongs in every Keeper’s library. The first 100 pages gives the Keeper a solid foundation for running games in Harlem, and helps you run a game which deals with racism.

I am not the most experience CoC player or Keeper out there, but I really enjoyed (and so did my players) how different the setting felt, compared to most CoC adventures we have played. The vibrant, dark and mystical area of one of the biggest cities in the world, is very far from dusty New England manors. New England in CoC has a sense of decay, deteriation and of time standing still, to me. Of old families with old money and old secrets. Harlem is full of optimism, hope and culture, but flavoured with ancient secrets and powers and intense struggle between those who want to claim power ower their own lives and those who wish to keep their power over others.

For a white European, like me, the NPCs were especially enlightening. Almost all were new to me, except for a few I knew from university and pop culture. They represent a broad mix of people, but everyone of them are extraordinary in some way and made their mark on Harlem, often on the United States and sometimes the world.

I think it is a particular testament to the quality of the writing that I often can’t tell where the facts end and the fiction begins. It is really skillfully woven into each other, so I felt like I got a good historical perspective on Harlem and the black experience but with this subtle connection to the mythos.

The adventure I ran was really good, and I like the organisation of the scenarios, with the links between different scenes and locations clearly indicated at the beginning of each part.

There are also many great handouts and maps, which made running the game on Roll20 very easy.

As I haven’t run – and in some cases not even thoroughly read (GMs must be pragmatic) all of the adventures, I can’t judge them. But from what I have read, they are all of very high quality and drip with atmosphere. Further, I think it is a great strength of the book that I could read the synopsis of them all and pick the one that suited our mini campaign and characters well, and just drop it in there with great success.

The Hellfighters feature prominently in the book, and are a tremendous source of inspiration and interesting characters. As you may note, they wear French uniforms in this photo, because white Americans would not serve next to them, but the French were happy to. Soldiers from the regiment earned 171 Croix de Guerre in total, the highest French military honor.

Racism and diversity is at the core of the book. It discuss some of the issues your group might have with racism as a theme and how players and keepers of different ethnicities handle a game set in an area with Jim Crow laws and deep set racism.

The section contains very concrete advice for a white Game Master like myself, which I found very helpful. And it is useful and applicable to all role-playing games. For example, you can’t always have the white NPC disregard the black player character or have him thrown from the premise, because it is ‘whites only’. It wouldn’t be fun to play. So what can you do? Spivy suggests three different tiers of application of this reality, going from more casual to full immersion. I would personally love to play in a purist Harlem campaign with an American Keeper, who has lived racism. I’m sure it would alter my entire perspective on life and history.

It also has a simple (optional) system to reflect racism, called a ‘racial tension modifer’, where the difficulty of the roll changes when engaging socially with people from other races/cultures.

As our group isn’t American (but Danish), we don’t ourselves deal with the issues of oppressing ancestors of an enslaved population, civil war, dispossession etc in the same way in our own society (we have our own sins, like colonizing Greenland). That creates some distance, and makes playing an African American or an Asian woman in the 1920’s a little less risky, or perhaps less likely to create tension between the participants, I think. Although we probably are more prone to create stereotypes. Nonetheless, the advice given is great and universal, and it made me feel more comfortable stepping into this world.

Only one of the three players in the group isn’t white, but the scenario did spur a very positive talk about his experience with racism and, anecdotally, how his mom and aunt, who grew up with white men being considered the superiors, still always serves the white man at the table first.

The only choice in the book I disagree with, is the organisation of the locations described in the book. There are a lot of locations, but they don’t each have a header in the text (partly, I would think because some are mentioned briefly, and many headers would take up space), but I found it makes referencing them while you are running the game more tricky. I had to find the entry on the Harlem hospital during the game, and even with the good index in the book, I would still have liked clearer text markers.

All in all, it is the best historical RPG sourcebook I’ve encountered. It is very high quality, and has material enough for multiple campaigns, and it will both educate and inspire you. I highly recommend it.

How I ran That Jazz Craze

What follows is a summary of our game, including an explanation to some of the changes I made, and where I ran into some bumps that you might want to be aware of if you intend to run it. I also added an extended ending, which you can find at the end.

We played on Roll20, and I transferred the very good maps and handouts to the platform and plotted in the locations in the GM Layer, so I could reveal them later. I also added a couple of NPCs that I might have to roll for. Other than that, it was simple to familiarize myself with the adventure. But it meant that we ran it in short 2-hour sessions, which isn’t ideal for CoC short adventures, as the tension you build during the game is hard to rebuild in the next session.

The three characters were:

Trevor Jones: black Jazz musician and Harlem native 

Madame Akumi: medium and seer born to a Japanese crime family on the US West Coast, who fled east away from her family

Doctor Derald Heathe: MD. and mortician from an old New England family  

Session 1

To quickly summarize the plot, a Harlem musician named Wendell Young has recorded the first ever jazz record by a black musician. Unfortunately, he feared failing, and called upon the power of the Baron in Blues (an avatar of Azathoth), and anyone who listens to the record is cursed and loses the ability to communicate and make sense of the world – somewhat like late stage dementia. As all the musicians in the band are cursed they go missing; most simply wandering off. This is bad, but initially the characters are only tasked with finding Wendell.

The musician, Trevor, gets a call from Mr. Holstein, a Harlem gangster, who has invested in one of his old aquaintances: Wendell Young. Holstein has invested in Wendell’s recording. He can’t get a hold of Wendell, and he has heard that Trevor works at company renowned for finding missing people, and he is convinced that someone local with the right skillset best can manage this case. He also flatters him, by relaying how he saw Trevor play first trumpet at a concert at the local WMCA, when he had just arrived in Harlem – a big  band which Wendell also played in, but without as much distinction. Finally, he gives them the first two locations to visit: his home address and the recording studio address, so they have a place to start. 

Casper Holstein was born on the Danish Virgin Islands, hence his very ‘Danish sounding’ name (Holstein is a region in now northern Germany, but was once a dukedom under the Danish king). The islands were sold to the U.S., but was for me a ‘spot on’ link to our own slave owning past.

The characters take the job and drive to Harlem. They decide to stay at Trevor’s mother’s house – a house on Sugar Hill, which still shows signs of wealth, but which also has seen better days. The aged butler lets them in, they meet his mother and get some rooms. 

I played the mother as very happy to see her son, who doesn’t visit often, but I also made her very deferential to the white physician, which was a good RP moment. 

Trevor then begins to call around, and he also learns of the speak easy that Wendell normally frequented. I did this without dice rolls, as I was sure he could turn up that information, and I want them to find it. 

As it is late in the day, they decide to go out to the speak easy. They talk to the bouncer and the waitress, and it is a very atmospheric experience, where they get their first clues that something wasn’t right with Wendell getting drunk, talking about trumpets and such. Trevor also borrows a trumpet from one of the locals – he of course carries his own mouth piece – and plays a tune. As the character has 90% and rolls an extreme success, the audience is very impressed, and they have a great – and very atmospheric evening. 

The comment I got was: “I wish I could BE in that bar.” 

The next morning they go to Wendell’s flop. Here I changed things a little bit, as the adventure assumes that the characters will have to go through a locked door, but it seems to me like there would be quite a lot of other people hanging out there in some of the other rooms (as Harlem is crowded with migrants from the South and it is summer), and that they would know Wendell to some extent. 

So they get in without fuzz and find his place (I think I forgot the cigarette bud clue), and they find the keys to the rehearsal room. They go down there and see Wendell clanking away at his piano. 

And on that note, I ended the first session. 

Session 2:

For this session, I only had two players, so Dr. Heathe I faded out a bit, but he did influence the first scene. I’ve never found that this method strains verisimilitude. 

The characters approach Wendell, and they try to get something out of him, but this of course fails. Trevor shines, as he rolls an extreme success, when he examines the sheet music on the floor. And because of that level of success, I do provide him with the information that the music contains some kind of summoning – he does have mythos of 4%, so he is no longer completely ignorant of this kind of horror. 

I then use the doctor – temporarily and NPC – to provide his evaluation that Wendell looks like a person suffering late stage dementia. They then call an ambulance, and put him up at the Harlem Hospital, and I have Heathe ride along, as with a white doctor along, he is ensured better treatment (and I get him out of the action). They also recover the contract. 

The next stop for Trevor and Madame Akumi is the recording studio. I add a band smoking cigarettes outside the building complaining about having a recording time, but apparently the sound engineer hasn’t shown up. 

They go up and meet Cliff Perkins, who is annoyed and irritable and hard to talk to. They do get the information from him that he has new business partners and that he hasn’t heard the record Wendell recorded. The characters don’t have great social skills, so a charm attempt fails, but they do get the name and address of the recording engineer. 

Then they proceed to the engineers apartment and are let in by the janitor. The apartment smells, and they go in, while the janitor stays in the hallway. They find the body, the illegible suicide note and can asertain that no one have been there. They take the note, and then call for an ambulance. The scene is a dead end, but it serves to underscore that something is very wrong. 

They aren’t sure about the owner of the recording studio, so Akumi shadows him the rest of the day, while Trevor goes home to calls contacts to find the rest of the band members. Both efforts turn out to be dead ends. Perkins only goes out to get a new recording engineer – because I play him as a callous pure business guy. 

At the end of the session, in the evening, they go out to the production facility. They find the scene as described in the module, and after trying to engage the catatonic and crying worker and the one pacing without success, Akumi decides to engage the two arguing workers, who have now struck the first blow. This means a fight ensues, and that is where we ended the second session. 

Session 3:

At the beginning, I make the conceit that the third character, the doctor, has been waiting in the car, and Trevor goes to get help from him. We then have a big fight and, despite the workers being outnumbered and on par with the character’s combat ability, it is a hard struggle. A lucky punch drops Akumi and Dr. Heathe gets a major wound, but stays in the fight. When they get the first worker down, they have a bonus dice against the remaining guy, and despite Trevor’s meagre fight ability, they manage to get him down. 

They do first aid, but we quickly learn that being fully healed is a long way off, which influences the rest of the session. 

They search the workshop, and recover the mold and the important clue with the production record, but the rest is clearly thrashed. 

With the production ledger in hand, they go and check out the storage unit, but there is a guard there, and as everyone has a handful of hit points – at most – and one has a major wound, they don’t even want to tangle with a single thug. 

They – wisely – try to parlay instead. They go and see Scarlotti, but he is a tough cookie, and – as mentioned – their social skills aren’t great. However, he does make them the offer of buying the records, but even though two of the characters are fairly well off, they can’t scrape together the money, and are unable to bargain him into do-able territory. 

Instead, they go back to Holstein, and agree to get backup from a couple of his tough guys. With those in tow, they jump the guard at the storage unit and get the recordings, and ensure that they are destroyed. 

Because time is running short, I narrate how they locate the missing band members over the following days. They get the newspaper clip and a handout I made myself – a photo of some of the bandsmen, with another soldier, who isn’t part of the original adventure. 

They go and find this Conrad Haywood, who owns a store of Music and curiosities in Harlem, and he tells them how Wendell was so nervous over his recording session, that he wanted some extra “help”. Haywood did not want to give him that insight, but he called upon their bond as soldiers, so he had to do what he could. He gave him the diary of a blues virtuoso, who reached new heights of perfection, which contained the spell needed to contact The Baron in Blues. The group buys the book, and gains some more mythos knowledge and closure. 

Final thoughts

All in all, it was a very good and atmospheric scenario. The mood around Harlem and its people was inspiring and powerful, and a great change of pace from more “traditional” Call of Cthulhu adventures. 

My players really enjoyed it, and I would be happy to run more adventures from the book, if we go back to CoC in the future. 

Of the NPCs I especially liked Perkins, the record label owner, because he isn’t evil, he is just a normal asshole boss casual racist, who doesn’t care about the art they record in his studio, just the money.

The no-name speakeasy is excellent and provided one of the top-3 atmospheric scenes of our 3-adventure mini-campaign.

I think Wendell’s flop is also very atmospheric, but it was detrimental to the scene, that it was the opening of session two, instead of the first big ‘beat’ of a 5-hour session.

I think the business aspect of the scenario is a bit fuzzy. Perhaps it is my ignorance, but why would the mobsters want to sell the records off a truck instead of letting the recording company sell it through regular channels – why does that make financial sense? Or maybe I missed something in the text? A possible change could be that Scarlotti is more visionary than he seems, and he understands that a jazz record by a black group will sell like hot cakes in Harlem, unlike the casual racist Perkins? And perhaps that being first, will enable him to jack up the price? This isn’t indicated in the adventure, and does not fit well with the tone I get for Scarlotti, but it could be an interesting reversal of expectations.
My group didn’t think too much of it, but I found him harder to play, because I didn’t fully understand his plan.

Scarlotti would never believe that it was “cursed”, so I liked that characters can’t convince him to hand them over, but can buy them, if they have the credit rating or cash.

Also, the financial deal between Holstein, who finances the recording and production, Wendell and the recording company – is a bit too vague for me to understand how he would get his money back from the investment, and why Scarlotti raids his place. 

The adventure does hinge a bit on the characters being altruistic, because “the job” of finding Wendell is quite easy – my players were like “hey, that was easy, job done!” when we ended the first session, but later understand the gravity (and play along).

I can see the arguments for the characters being unable to get an “explanation” – to not get closure. Keeping things in the dark and unknown adds that sense of mystery and danger. However, I decided to change it for two reasons: 1) I think my players would be more satisfied with it and 2) because the character Trevor’s background fit well with getting the temptation of calling on the Baron himself. As he couldn’t see the ritual from Wendell’s music, I needed to provide that final clue. Alternately, I could have let him understand the summoning ritual from the notes in Wendell’s flop.

You can find my notes for the additional content below:

A New Ending – The occult music shop connection

Wendell was in the Harlem Hellfighters band with Fred Kerns, and wandering mid-town he might get picked up and dropped off at the Harlem hospital. On him, he has a photo of himself, Wendell, and Conrad Haywood, who knew them both well, and who also played the cornet.

Conrad was cut off from his squad during a push in the Argonne forest, and he stumbled upon a German dugout, where he discovered a weird statue and two german soldiers, who were singing entranced at the thing. After that, he fought his way back, and was a bit crazy and had an infected wound in his thigh. He began mixing with the other coloured regiments from Senegal and North Africa and frequenting weird shops in Paris, after they were finally taken off the line after 192 days. When he came back to Harlem, he brought with him a lot of sheet music and curiosities. The man set up a shop in Harlem on West 142 st. The shop is called: Music, instruments and curiosities. 

In it, you can find many instruments, mostly of peculiar materials or construction, guitars with errie histories (found at a murder scene) or only possesion of a dead vagabond found in a closed train wagon. There is a lot of sheet music, and a decent collection of records of various kinds. 

Conrad has glasses and a limp. He was the one who showed Wendell – because he insisted – an old notebook, found in the hands of a dead blues virtuos, named Gentel Robins. The notebook speaks of the Baron in Blues, whom he bested in a horn cutting contest and gained a sublime moment and saw the road of blues ahead. Mythos tome 1%/2%. Teaches the Call Baron in Blues spell. 

He did not want to show it to him, as he didn’t think he had the skill, but he called upon their old bond, and so he had to show it to him. He didn’t let him take the notebook from the shop though. It is still there.

Twilight: 2000 – a preview of a great survival game

The last message you hear on the radio from the battalion HQ is: “You’re on your own now.” Then it’s just static. The 5th US Mechanized Division is no more. It is just you, the sarge, a befuddled lieutenant you dragged out of a fox hole yesterday, Ramirez and her SAW and a local Polish kid, who had been running errands in the company. And an ol’ beat up truck nicknamed Hauler. How the hell are you going to escape the advancing Soviets, let alone get home?

This is the premise of one of my old role-playing loves, Twilight: 2000, a World War III post-apocalyptic game in a future that never was, now being republished by Swedish Free League Publishing, using another custom version of the Mutant Year-Zero ruleset.

In short, I think they’ve done an excellent job adapting their ruleset to make an intense game about humans and survival in a scary and hard future. I would very much enjoy to play or run it, and it is currently tied with Alien as the game I would most like to run for my next campaign (after I finish my now four years long D&D game).

The game system has the right level of abstraction versus crunch (to my taste), the design seems very well executed and the art and layout are excellent.

Why should I check this game out?

  • If you like post-apocalyptic games
  • If you enjoy more down to earth RPGs with some crunch
  • If you enjoy alternate history and the Cold War
  • If you want to explore very human emotions, conflicts and scenarios
  • If you enjoy movies like Black Hawk Down, Fury, Apocalypse Now, Mad Max etc.
  • A lot of military veterans play it
  • Alien RPG players, who want more crunch for combat in Alien, can get a lot of ideas from this game.

One of the parts that made me love the 2nd edition of the game was Tim Bradstreet’s atmospheric pencil illustrations. They added that sense of the setting being in a gritty, worn real world. They remind me of Hermann’s excellent Jeremiah comics.


It is in Alpha

I got access to the Alpha-version as a Kickstarter backer, and I will in this article give an overview of my initial thoughts, and maybe convince you to check it out, or give fans of the old version a few insights. It won’t be a game for everyone, but it would be great if the audience could grow. The full game is released in 2021.

Given that it is an Alpha version, the final version of the game will obviously differ from how I describe it here, and there is content clearly left out, like more locations for the characters to visit, rules for making a base and the experience system to a name a few.

I should say that this is the 4th edition of the game. My first experience with the setting was in 8th or 9th grade, where we would play the 2nd edition at my friend Tonny’s house. I just loved it. We didn’t follow all the rules (which are complex and old fashioned), and back then I already found the skill system and character creation rules annoying, because it was impossible to make a young and skilled character. But it was where my love of the post-apocalyptic setting was established, and I was already lurking on Twilight 2000 fora when news of the new edition hit.

Tell me some more…

So, what is the game about? Well, the world has basically collapsed after the next world war. The war included significant exchanges of – mainly tactical – nuclear weapons between NATO and the Soviet Union. Nuclear winter and the collapse of infrastructure has caused wide-spread famine and disease and the and civilian authority has mostly broken down. It is a very bleak world, but Free League notes that you need to add some hope, or the whole thing becomes too depressing!

It is also worth noting that the designers clearly state that this is not a game about soldiers or the military, it is about survivors, which I really like.

The default campaign is that your unit was part of a last-ditch NATO offensive that failed, and when your division is defeated outside of a Polish town called Kalisz, you are simply let go. The group of characters are a few soldiers from this division, and maybe a couple of civilians or a CIA spy. They also might have a vehicle, but that is usually randomly determined at the start of the game. The immediate goal will be to avoid – ie flee – the oncoming Soviet troops. But then what? That it is really up to the players to decide, depending on their motivations and characters. They might try to get to comparative safety in France, or see if they can find a ship to take them home somewhere in Western Europe, or they might decide to settle down and create their own base, or perhaps follow the new meta-plot line of Operation Reset? What is certain is that it will be difficult to survive and there will be hard choices ahead.

The second campaign option in the book is playing in a collapsed Sweden, which got involved in the war. Free League is Swedish, so I find it a great addition. Especially since the Baltic Sea is a key theatre for a WWIII scenario involving Russia. Sweden has been nuked, has US Marines fighting alongside Swedish regulars and partisans against Soviet troops, and a wounded US aircraft carrier has been parked in Stockholm. A fine new twist.

The game comes with big hex maps for both Poland and Sweden.

Each hex is 10 kilometers (about 6 miles), and the referee will typically draw one encounter per hex.


Who can I play?

There are two ways to make a character: picking one of the archetypes or going through a Life Path. The key difference is the level of control you have over what your character will become. If you pick one of the archetypes (Civilian, Grunt, Gunner, Kid, Mechanic, Medic, Officer, Operator and Spook), you will have a high degree of control over the character you want to play, and they are equally skilled.

The second choice starts you out as an 18-year-old, and lets you pick the different steps in your career – both civilian and military. Each step will make you 1D6 years older, and at each step you gain skills and potentially specialties and promotion, but you also roll to see if your attributes drop or if the war breaks out, at which point you get a “final” War Career. This system is more random and can make your character both more or less skilled than the archetypes. It emulates the system the old GDW games, which Twilight: 2000 was one of and Traveller was another, in which – infamously – your character could die during character creation!

The Free League version is more abstract, which is also in line with the more stream-lined set of skills. It takes up six small pages, whereas the second edition has 12 full pages with for example 18 different officer careers – eg Naval Aviator Officer or Ranger Officer. In this edition they make do with one officer career. I think it is plenty for a core book, and for the fans who want a higher level of detail, it will be easy to make your own or – I’m sure – Free League will add new options in supplements, such as aviators.

I tried the Life Path process and ended up generating an American (you can also play a local or a Soviet), which grew up as a street kid, but who joined the military and became a medic (Combat Service Support). She only served two terms before the war broke out when she was 25 years old. Compared to the Medic archetype, she had one more stat point and three specialties versus one for the archetype, but three fewer skill ranks. Definitely a viable character, and the extra stat point she was lucky to retain, will be consistently useful, if she lives long enough in game!

The system
For the people who’ve played other Free League games, the Twilight: 2000 system will feel familiar, but there is still a significant departure in the core mechanic. I’m going to gloss over details here, but put simply:

The game has a dice pool system, but the core dice is one from your attribute and one from your skill. You need to roll a six or higher to have a success, but your rating goes from A-F. A is a D12, B is a D10, C is a D8, D is a D6 and F is nothing (which only applies to skills). Rolling 10 or higher counts as two successes. Modifiers increase or decrease the dice you use. It is reminiscent of the rules for artifact dice in Forbidden Lands – their fantasy RPG. So, you want to try to sneak past a sentry, and you have Agility B and Recon C, you roll a D10 and a D8 and try to roll a six. If you roll two ones, you have a mishap. As in other Free League games, you can “push” the roll once, and roll again, but this causes stress or damage.

So, that is the basics. You can also have skill specializations, eg Machine Gunner or Forward Observer, but there are no talents to add additional capabilities (at least yet, I hope they add them).

There are also a couple of new mechanics.

You have a stat called Courage Under Fire, which you typically need to roll when getting shot at. Furthermore, your unit has a morale equal to the highest Command skill level in the group.

When you fire a weapon, they’ve also added Ammo Dice as a mechanic – a D6. For each of the dice you roll you get an additional chance to hit by rolling more sixes. Additional hits can be applied to nearby enemies. If you roll ones, they contribute to the chance of rolling a mishap, which will degrade your weapon. When you are done, you add the D6 together, and that is the ammo you just used. Simple and elegant – at least on paper. I haven’t tested it.

In some of the other Mutant-Year Zero games, you also rolled dice for water and food every day, but in Twilight: 2000 you need to keep track of daily rations. It was an abstraction I liked, and I hope they will reintroduce. But, of course, characters in a modern world have more options for storing and carrying rations.

Combat:

Combat is quite tactical, and the default assumption is that you use a hex map (10m a hex) and the counters that comes with the game. This is where most of the crunch comes in. You need rules for various weapons, from knives to mortars to phosphorous grenades. You need to know how mines, barb wire, chemical weapons and explosions work and you need to get vehicles, from motorcycles to main battle tanks, into the mix.

The dangers of combat are accentuated by a nasty critical hit system. If you get a critical hit in the head or torso, they will nearly all be fatal, unless you get medical attention. Just moving a fatally wounded will force a Stamina roll to avoid death – a mechanic I’ve never encountered in a game. I won’t explain the system here, but I like it. It fits with the game.

The system is very deadly compared to other current games, as there is no way to mitigate getting hit using “Fate Points”, “Luck Points” or the like. A medic will be a critical component to a group.


In addition to suffering damage, you can also suffer Stress, like in the Alien RPG. It happens when you push, see a mate get critically injured or if you experience other traumatic events. If you reach zero, you are incapacitated by fear, and someone with the Command skill needs to revive you (like in Alien), but there is no “panic roll”. You can risk long term effects though, like phobias and alcoholism.

The system is less complex than previous editions and has the right level of abstraction for me.

For comparison:
In the second edition of the game calculating the Concussion Effect of demolitions, you needed to “divide the DP value of the charge by 2, extract the square root of the result, and multiply by 5.”

I prefer not using a calculator, when I play RPGs.

In this edition, you look at the map, and roll a number of base dice depending on the blast power of the explosion, and for each hex beyond the center you reduce the dice with one step.

The vehicle rules are where I see the most complexity.

In this, and previous editions, vehicles play a significant role. You need to maintain them and find or make fuel (from an alcohol still), and you need to repair them if you can, when they get shot at.

The vehicle can have different armor on each side, which means its facing on the map matters. Furthermore, a hit that does not penetrate the armor might have an effect, and a penetrating hit might continue to damage other parts of the vehicle. This includes the crew and passengers of course, and as a GM I am a little concerned by the likelihood of a TPK if their vehicle is hit with an explosive shell that penetrates the armor. It is realistic – but not that much fun – if 75%+ of the group is killed by a T-72 hidden behind a road-block…

Equipment
Your kit is essential for your survival, so the game spends quite some pages on various guns, vehicles, accessories, grenades, explosives etc. Compared to previous editions there are fewer small arms, fewer vehicles and less details on equipment in the core book. The section takes up more than 40 pages in the Alpha edition (versus 78 in 2nd edition), so it isn’t like they breeze over it, especially compared to other current games.

What I loved then – and now – is that all the vehicles and weapons each have an illustration – in color in this edition.

To me, it seems a bit excessive that the Polish weapons get so much space, as they are basically identical to the Soviet weapons, but with different names.

There are no aircraft and only a few boats. However, especially the maritime aspects Free League has promised to follow up on, as sailing down the Vistula river to the Baltic Sea (and then home?) has always been a key part of the game.

Sand box play
True to the original, the game is a ‘sand box style’ game. The new edition core books does a better job supporting that style, however.

The original did have a solid section on Encounters and some adventuring sites, but the originals were more generic, whereas Free League has organized them to be drawn from a regular deck of cards and include intentions and drama to many of the pre-written encounter. The referee can then add additional meaning to by including references to the different factions that are also described in the game or play off on previous events.
For example, if the referee draws 7 of Clubs, it will be a group of angry starving refugees, but if it is 7 of Hearts it will be three orphan kids in a house and marauders approaching.

There are also a few encounters that feel too similar, and won’t work close together, such as the four different nuclear craters, which differ very slightly. I hope they beef them up a bit.

The game also includes random radio chatter, two pages of “mood elements” and a list of rumors, which is highly useful. It also has a solid system for survival, making camp, scrounging and trade.

That said, although the events and random encounters of previous edition aren’t as “ready to play” as this version, because the Referee will need to roll additional dice and check more tables, there is plenty of inspiration to be drawn from them.

In the Alpha edition there is only one premade location, but they should include four in the full game. The style will be familiar to people who owns or plays Mutant Year Zero or Forbidden Lands. The description contains a map with locations and brief descriptions, NPCs with motivations and rumours and plot hooks.

There is a Meta-plot about Operation Reset, but the Alpha-edition has few details on it. In the previous editions there were also actual “adventures” with a plot-line like you will find for most RPGs. I assume they will reappear.

The Backstory
The 1st edition of the game was published in 1984, when the Cold War was still a thing and the year 2000 in an unknown future.

As it turned out, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were a lot weaker than they appeared. Therefore, when you in 2020 make a game, where you start with the original conclusion (a clash between NATO and the Soviets in the middle of Poland around year 2000, and a global nuclear exchange) and go backwards to write an alternate history to get to that point, you will inevitably strain realism.

I am completely fine with that, and ultimately, for most games, the details of the backstory won’t matter the slightest, because it has little to no impact on the game – just like the ancient lore in most fantasy games has very little relevance to the actual game – so who cares what China did? Or if Israel was attacked by a coalition of Soviet and Middle-Eastern forces? You have more immediate problems!

There are however a minority of long-time fans, for whom creating a “realistic” backstory is almost a sub-hobby in it itself, and – funnily enough – most of them claim to have made a backstory that IS “realistic”, from their perspective. They are right of course in saying that the Soviets would never have the capacity to invade the UK, much less supply their troops there. But that won’t matter to the vast majority of players. I say this, to flag to newcomers that there are some vocal critics out there.

If am I to criticize the current backstory a bit myself (ironic isn’t it), I think the brief backstory needs to touch on what China and India are doing in this conflict, as they are the two most populous countries in the world and nuclear powers to boot.

To me, Free League, strikes a balance where the die-hard fans of the previous editions can still recognize the game that they love and making the game relevant and accessible to new players

Conclusions & concerns
The problem with the old editions were – in my view – that they were very simulationist and not very playable for more casual players. What Free League have basically done is to take their default system, which is already meant for survival-games, and use modern game design conventions to make the game enjoyable for the more casual player.

It is still the most complex – crunchy, if you will – iteration of the Mutant Year-Zero ruleset, and I think one of the reasons is that you still need to provide game mechanical variety in a game with nothing supernatural. It is just humans with guns, motivations – and sometimes tanks or mortars – that you need to worry about. Therefore, there must be a meaningful difference between a Soviet T-72 and T-80 tank.

The Alpha edition seems very well done to me, and most of my points of critique are minor or a matter of taste.

To me, Free League, strikes a balance where the die-hard fans of the previous editions can still recognize the game that they love and making the game relevant and accessible to new players. Hopefully, that means that the veteran players will see an influx of “new blood”.

It will however be important for new players to “manage expectations” when they join a group. There are many current fans out there, who are experts on weapons and military life and who enjoy debating various Soviet tank configurations. Some seem to be very focused on “realism”, which I’m sure may include everything from extensive details on various ammunition types to the inclusion of slavery and sexual violence in the game. If lots of logistics or very dark topics are to your gaming taste, go play! But others with different perspectives on gaming might not, and I think in this game in particular, a solid conversation on what the game will feature and what it won’t, will be critical.

In my experience, even the sand box style of gameplay can be hard to manage and is not to everyone’s taste.

I will certainly look forward to this game, and I might even be able to convince my usual group to give it a go. If you’ve read this far, perhaps you will too?

ALIEN RPG – a review

I have loved the ALIEN franchise, since I saw Aliens with my father when I was maybe 10 or 11. It is still my most memorable movie experience. So, the ALIEN RPG, from Swedish Free League, was a must buy when it came out in December 2019.

I’ve played it for a total of around 15 hours (on Roll20), and I now finally have found time to write a review.

The game won a Gold Ennie at 2020’s virtual GENCON, so it is fair to say that it is very well made game! But picking up a role-playing game also comes down to taste, personal preference and just what game you wish to run right now. So, in this blog post, I’ll try to answer: is this a game for me? You will get the short and sweet points first. In the second part, I go into more depth on the mechanics and content of the book. In a future post, I will write my thoughts on the scenario Chariot of the Gods.

In Short: What is the Alien RPG?
The game is a retro-future horror role-playing game built faithfully to the franchise (and officially licensed). It uses the Year-Zero game engine, which is a dice-pool system – like most Free League RPGs.

The game is designed for two modes: cinematic play and campaign play. The cinematic play emulates an ALIEN movie and is a single adventure in three acts. It means, each character has a secret motivation, they can’t trust each other, are likely to do irrational things and aliens are probably going to kill some – if not all – of the them.

In the campaign you are likely to play either colonial marines, space truckers or colonists, and alien life forms aren’t meant to be introduced right away. Instead, the game features more mundane missions and jobs among corporate giants and working class grunts trying to make a living.

The book is around 400 pages and about half is system and the rest is lore, Game Mother information, a short adventure and a location.

The system emulates the stress and horror of the alien universe and it is fairly simple. Combat and action are cinematic, but there are enough character options for a short to medium-long campaign.

Ripley is the greatest female action movie protagonist of all time, and is an almost unique figure in the 80’s movie landscape.

What do I think of the ALIEN RPG?
The game looks amazing, has a great atmosphere and was a lot of fun to play.

The game enables you to immerse yourself in the Alien universe; a scary, uncaring, capitalistic future where no-one will really care that you scream you lungs out or have your skull pierced by a xenomorph tail spike.

The game has a fairly narrow scope, which I think works to its advantage. The system has been tailored to create the Alien-experience, primarily adding stress dice to the player’s dice pool, when they exert themselves or things go wrong (more on that below).

Because of the relative simplicity of the rules, the widely known universe and the cinematic style, I think it is one of the best options out there for introducing new players to the hobby .

Characters will die in ALIEN. A weapon and some armor might save you… but don’t let the xenomorphs get close.

The artwork and art direction is fantastic, and the book is easy to read and make sense of. However, I have read and played other Free League games, which makes the system familiar to me.

There is enough background and lore in the book to really get my creative juices flowing and I wish I had the time to run an extra campaign using Alien.

That said, I’m sure it isn’t a game for everyone. It is science fiction. It is dark. It is easy to lose a character. It is about body horror and being fairly insignificant in a world of grey and questionable morals. The system is also not very granular. So, not everyone’s cup of tea.

Why should I buy the Alien RPG?

  • You want to play a space-horror game
  • You want to run shorter adventures with a cinematic style for your group
  • You would like to introduce D&D players to another genre/system
  • You want to introduce new people to role-playing, but they aren’t into fantasy
  • You love the Alien universe.

Why should I pass on the Alien RPG?

  • You want a crunchy game that tries to simulate life in space and combat between people in the future
  • You want a game with a vast scope that you can use for any kind of science fiction game
  • You want a game that can support a years-long campaign

AN IN DEPTH LOOK AT THE ALIEN RPG

Below I will go into more depth with contents of the rule-book and the rules. My views are mixed in between and I end with a conclusion. If you have questions or want to discuss the game, post in the comments or reach out on Twitter (@RasmusNord01).

The System

Characters
The players can pick from nine different careers. These are mostly well-known types from the ALIEN franchise, such as Colonial Marine, Company Agent, Kid, Medic and Officer. They are broad in scope, so the Officer could be a Colonial Marine Officer, a Navigator or Captain on a ship or a colony leader-type.

You can also play a colonial marshal, which looks to be inspired by the 1981-movie Outland, where Sir Connery plays a “space sheriff” on Jupiter’s moon Io. The look of the film fits very well with the ALIEN universe, and if your players haven’t seen it, you can steal the plot…

The game only has four different characteristics (Strength, Agility, Empathy and Wits), and each is associated with three skills. This means 12 broad skills and keeping it simple.
For example, Mobility covers stealth, dodging, jumping and risky climbs, which in some systems would be three separate skills. Piloting covers all kinds of driving and flying, so you don’t need separate skills for driving a quad bike, flying a drop ship and driving a tank – for power loaders you do however need Heavy Machinery.

Each career has access to three talents unique to them, and all characters have access to about 30 general talents. The career talents are what enables characters to do something none of the other characters can do.

The special talents are interesting, and some are unlike what you see in most games. For example, the officer can get the Pull Rank talent, and with a successful roll can force both PCs and NPCs to do as they are told. The Company Agent “Rat Fuck Sonofabitch” has his personal safety top of mind and can make another character the target of an attack aimed at her (with a successful manipulation roll).

The Pull Rank talent is one example of how the Year Zero system has in-built mechanics for social interaction, which I think works better than fluffy “diplomacy” or “persuasion” in other games, where the actual outcome is often left to the GM.

There are also rules for synthetics … excuse me, artificial persons. They are in most ways better than a human PC, but they also have a few limitations.

Mechanics & Stress
The system is made up of dice pools of D6s. You add your relevant characteristic with the right skill and possibly ‘gear dice’ if you have the right tool and then you try to roll a 6. If you fail, you can try to ‘push’ the roll one time by describing the extra effort (you have the same idea in Call of Cthulhu 7th ed) and re-rolling the dice.
However, when you do, you get a stress level. Each stress level adds a stress dice, and if you roll a 1 (a Facehugger on the custom dice) on one of those, you risk going into a panic.

The stress mechanic is a key part of the way ALIEN simulates the films and the horror in them. My players named them – sardonically – ‘Hero Dice’, because they do enable you to accomplish greater feats, but they can also make things go very wrong.

If you push, and still fail, there will also often be a negative consequence, including damage to your characteristics, broken equipment and so on.

In our cinematic game, the problem was that, as things spiraled out of control, we rapidly tried all the different outcomes of the panic roll.

The intention is that you roll rarely – only when it is dramatic. One of the reasons is that there is only one retry. After that, the characters will have to do something different to reach their goal. The added bonus is that it keeps the game moving forward.

ALIEN also has a feature I’ve not seen in other Mutant Year Zero-games. Each skill comes with a number of Stunts players can pick, if they roll more than one success. For a ranged attack roll that could be an extra point of damage, but you can also pin down your enemy, the target drops a weapon, is pushed back or drops down. Or in Comtech, you gain additional information or are able to hide your tracks in the system. I like that, and it is very player facing as they get to pick the stunt.

Panic is rolled with 1D6 and adding your stress level. If you roll a total of 6 or lower, you keep it together. From 7-15 bad things happen – you can freeze, go berserk or flee, for example, and often increase the stress level of nearby PCs through your erratic behavior.

In our cinematic game, the problem was that, as things spiraled out of control, we very rapidly tried all the different outcomes of the panic roll. Thus, you become familiar with it – as a player – much quicker than a long critical table, and that was a criticism from my players: the results of panic were quickly unsurprising. That is one of our main criticisms of the system.

Combat & gear
Combat in ALIEN is very lethal – especially against Xenomorphs. I’ve killed a character with s couple of dice rolls (xenomorph attack, character was unable to parry, the space suit armor didn’t stop it (second roll) and the attack happened to be an auto-kill crit to the head).

People firing guns at each other using cover and with armor is a little less lethal, but still deadly. Rifles and shotguns do a minimum of two or three damage points, so characters who aren’t particularly strong will be “broken” if they are hit and have no armor. If you are broken, you roll on the critical table, which can be everything from a minor cut to a broken leg or pierced skull. There are no Fate Points to avoid a killing blow, no Death Saves or re-rolls on the critical table. If you get a bad critical, you need to make a new character.

Xenos also have their own critical table, which means they might get blown away when they reach zero health, or they could be playing dead, or lashing out in a final berserk move. That mechanic works well, although I wish it had more than five outcomes.

Unlike some Year Zero Engine games, the characters have Health Levels. In other games, the damage is taken directly from the Strength characteristic. I’m not sure why they’ve made this design decision? Damage to character’s strength can lead to a death spiral, but since melee combat is less prevalent in ALIEN, compared to Forbidden Lands or Mutant Year Zero, it seems less of an issue.

A great design feature is that monsters don’t follow the exact same system as a character. Xenomorphs have their own list of six random attacks they’ll use – usually twice per round, as they have more actions than humans. The system is also used in Forbidden Lands and works very well with the iconic killing blows of the xenomorphs.

This section also covers the many (bad) conditions you can suffer from, such as radiation, drowning, fire and vacuum.

The gear section is robust and has all the gear you recognize from the movies, plus additional items, such as various drugs.

The vehicle section only has six vehicles, all recognizable. That seems a bit light, but can easily be fleshed out in a supplement.

My only real gripe here is a lack of information on how the weapons for example work in zero-g. Can the rifles fire in space, where there is no oxygen, for example? They do include rules for hitting the hull with shots from your pulse rifle and the potential resulting explosive decompression…

Colonies typically have shit weather, shit food, boring backbreaking work and lousy pay, but at least the coffee is good – and free!

Hard Life Among the Stars
Between the sections on gear and spacecraft, there is a section on life in the ALIEN universe, which is very player facing. It includes the basics on how space travel works, but also covers topics such as media, salaries, entertainment, religion and law enforcement. It is fairly short, but important.

I would have liked – and it could be placed in this section – more how zero gravity, low gravity, radiation and other similar aspects of living in space is dealt with.

Spacecraft and space combat
The space ship section has examples of iconic crafts, like the Sulaco, and a modular system to build your own ships or upgrade existing craft.

ALIEN RPG is the first interstellar science fiction game, where the size of cargo ships makes a bit of economic sense. In many games, characters will be doing interstellar travel with just a couple of dozen tons of cargo – around the capacity of a big modern truck. In contrast, modern bulk carriers or crude carriers have 300,000+ tons of ore, grain or oil on board.

Even current coastal cargo ships have much greater cargo capacity than what you see “traders” typically haul in games like Traveller, Fading Suns, Space Master and so on. I really like that, as it fits with the gritty economic system of the game.

Space combat is described as quick and deadly – which would fit with the rest of the game’s approach to design. The system does have a couple of fun features, but not a ton of detail. It resembles the system used in Free League’s occult Arabian nights inspired science-fiction game Coriolis, but has been simplified.

I like that the captain on each side (a player and the GM) secretly picks his orders for each “role” on the ship. On top, there are four different roles for the various crew members: gunner, pilot, engineer and sensor operator, who have a total of 14 different actions, such as Target Lock, Accelerate, Maneuver, Fire Weapon and Launch Countermeasures.

I haven’t tried it, but with 14 actions split between the four roles, it seems like it doesn’t offer a lot of options – and how often do you want to ram another space ship, really?

On the fun side, there are however a lot of different component damage options, split between minor and major, like: coffee maker malfunction (!) and Intercoms disabled to AI offline and critical crew injury. These malfunctions are also used outside of combat, and are cool.

On a side note, the game and the adventure Chariot of the Gods doesn’t really take into account the mass and speed space craft must move with, and what would realistically happen if they collide (megaton explosive events).

All that being said, I doubt that space combat is what you play ALIEN for. I guess, in a Colonial Marine campaign, you could have multiple space battles, but in most games I would suspect it happens once or twice, if at all. The risk of losing your ship – if that is the “base” of your game, will also radically change the trajectory of your game.

The Alien Universe

The final part of the core book consists of advice to the GM, a decent section on the various governments, corporations and organizations. This is followed by a description of some of the key systems, planets and colonies.

The central tension of the world is between The United Americas and The Union of Progressive Peoples – a Cold War analogy – with various skirmishes, proxy wars and covert operations happening out in the rim.

In my view, there are a lot of interesting plot threads woven into all this lore, and plenty to get some solid ideas for campaigns and intrigues.

For example, the Interstellar Commerce Commission representative, Paul van Leuwen, who chaired Ripley’s tribunal, found out that a team of colonial marines along with Ripley were sent to LV-426 to investigate and now also has disappeared. He has launched his own investigation into what is going on, and he might need passage, or some freelance investigators to help him out…

The game takes place in the year 2180 and adheres to the canon of the movies and the excellent video game Alien: Isolation. It means the that the events and technology of Prometheus and Alien Covenant are part of the book, as is everything up to and including Alien 3. Alien Resurrection happens more than 200 years later, and is therefore not a part of the lore.

I think the lore sections gives you precisely enough info to spur your imagination, leaving plenty of room for making your own systems and colonies.

Along with lore, there is a detailed map of known space, which is featured inside the cover of the book. You can also buy a digital copy or on print.

The Weylan-Yutani Corporation is can be both employer and enemy. There are several competitors also featured in the book.

Economics is out of whack
One of my few issues, is with the fictional economics of the game, including the population sizes on the colonies in the core systems.

According to the lore, some planets have been completely strip mined. This fits with the themes of greedy corporations and horror, but seems very implausible.

Earth has been intensively mined for more than 100 years and though we have caused plenty of damage, we are very, very far from having strip mined our home planet. Australia alone is estimated to have deposits of 24 billion tons of iron ore left.

Even if earth has depleted its own resources, and you need to build infrastructure in space, it doesn’t seem like there is enough population outside of earth to generate sufficient demand for strip mining entire planets. Nor the technology or manpower to actually accomplish such a task. But now I’m nit picking!

Alien Species
The section on aliens is 40 pages long and is detailed enough for you to run a campaign.

It begins with details on the Engineers and alien technology, and then moves on to the various xenomorphs including other Extra Solar Species.

Especially the Xenomorph XX121 gets a lot of love, with information on all the different stages of its development, signature attacks for all of the stages and some hints about Empress and Queen Mother stages.

Cinematic Adventures
Alien can be played in cinematic mode and campaign mode.

Free League has, as of now, published two cinematic adventures: Chariot of the Gods and Destroyer of Worlds.

Cinematic mode is meant for “short” games, one-shots and conventions. A cinematic adventure has three acts, like most movies, and a key feature is pre-generated characters, who all have a personal agenda – a goal they need to achieve. The agendas increase the drama and make players take classic horror-movie style sub-optimal actions – like going off alone to the medical bay to steal drugs or go searching for the cat in an abandoned cargo bay, while a xenomorph is on the prowl.

In Chariot of the Gods, the characters even get new agendas in each Act, to push the action forward.

I must note that it took my group five 3-hour online sessions to get through Chariot of the Gods, and I skipped parts. I have though read online that others have done it in four hours and had fun.

Creating Campaigns
There are three potential campaign frameworks laid out: Space Truckers, Colonial Marines and Frontier Colonists.

The chapter on campaign play is, mainly, a lot of charts that lets you generate your own star systems, plants, jobs, missions, colonies and so forth.

I experimented with it, and I have to say that the tables allow you to generate some inspiring combinations that really spurred my imagination.

However, unlike Forbidden Lands and Mutant Year Zero, I don’t think you can simply run a game based on the results of these random jobs and missions. Alien does not have a list of interesting random events like Forbidden Lands, nor several detailed locations. It only has the example of Novgorod Station and a handful of accompanying events at the station, which could be enough to get you started, but my players would expect more.

Especially for colonists and space truckers, the jobs seem too mundane for them to be really exiting. Even with the random complications and plot twists, you need – as a GM – to flesh out things a bit more in advance based on that random input. You have to make sure there is enough details on the intrigue and drama and probably a main protagonist to make it interesting.

A trip to deliver 2000 heads of cattle to a small colony station two parsecs away with the complication that “problems at the destination means they can’t get the cargo off – and perhaps the characters can help speed things along?” is cool, because it is mundane and “feels right”, but the real adventure orbits around the problem that “something is wrong” at the destination, which is hindering their delivery, and that characters must get involved in that. And I’m not saying it is xenomorphs – it could be malfunctioning Seegson droids, a weird AI, UPP infiltrators or something else entirely. My point is: you need to make that adventure, the NPCs, the plot and the location in advance to whatever detail suits you. The tables will only get you so far.

How does a job salvaging parts at the shuttered Fury 161 facility sound? All rumours about a “space dragon” are completely unfounded. Double pay? Done!

The random colonial marines’ missions naturally lend themselves more to being interesting and dramatic on their own: e.g. a Raid on a Sensor Site with a company agent along, who is meddling to secure corporate assets with the twist of sabotage on board with a UPP frigate on an intercept course. That sounds action packed, but you still need to craft the details: the map of the sensor site, the NPCs, the complications and so on – but at least the framework of something interesting is there already.

In my view, you also need to make a campaign arc that propels the characters towards meeting a xenomorph threat – a grand intrigue of some kind – that can connect the plots and adventures into a satisfying whole. The game doesn’t say a whole lot on that front, which is a bit disappointing.

As the game is deadly, it could make sense to have a bit of an ensemble cast. For example, the space trucker crew could be eight people for four players, with each player having two characters. Or the rest could be NPC’s until someone dies. It also leaves NPCs to put in danger – or kill horribly – for dramatic effect. Having 10 characters available for a squad of marines also makes sense, as some characters deaths seems to be inevitable.

The book ends with a short cinematic adventure, that takes place in the same location as the Aliens film: the colony Hadley’s Hope. The characters arrive back from a job at a processing plant (before the colonial marines and Ripley arrive) to find the colony deserted and a warning message sounding over the intercom. The characters must investigate and survive to catch a shuttle off the infested base.

The short adventure can be played in a couple of hours and comes with nice floor plans, PC’s and NPCs. A great place to start, if you want to introduce new people to the game, the genre or, perhaps especially, to role-playing games in general.

Alternately, the floor plans could be reused for your own adventure or campaign.

Conclusion

The ALIEN RPG is a fantastic game. It is tightly designed and sticks to its core themes.

The rules are designed to make the game feel like you are inside a piece of ALIEN fiction. It evokes the atmosphere and style of the franchise perfectly.

Inside the book, you will find everything you need to run a game, although the custom yellow stress dice with Facehuggers on, I think would make it run more smoothly (and you probably need two sets).

The art is great, and the book is easy to read – however during combat with xenomorphs, you do need to reference tables scattered all over the book. The rules are quite simple and very player facing.

That said, the style and themes are probably not for every gaming group, but I would argue that even for die-hard D&D/fantasy fans, an ALIEN cinematic adventure could be a great change of pace or palate cleanser between campaigns.

I would love to run a campaign in ALIEN, and I think it could easily stretch over 7-10 adventures – for me – a short to medium long campaign. But probably not more than that. The amount of character options and room for advancement would simply run out (see my calculation below) – unless you kill characters very frequently, which isn’t fun in a campaign.

The only real critique point in the rules are the amount of variation in the panic rolls and for critical hits on xenomorphs. I think the lack of variation could be a problem, especially in a campaign, and the panic roll mechanic is not easy to change.

My other slightly negative points are ultimately nit-picks, and every supplement for the game will be a ‘must buy’ for me.

Let’s say you play for 25 sessions, with on average 3.5 xp per session, which would leave you with almost 90 xp. At a cost of 5 XP per skill point or talent, that would purchase you:
12 additional skill points (on top of the 10 a starting character has)
2 extra career talents
and 4 additional general talents.
At that point, a group will be extremely competent and covering all bases.

Adventures in Middle-Earth Reviews

AIME1
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.

Reviews:
Player’s Guide to Adventures in Middle-Earth
Loremaster’s Guide to Adventures in Middle-Earth
Loremaster’s Screen and Eaves of Mirkwood
Mirkwood Campaign
Wilderland Adventures
Rhovanion Region Guide
The Road Goes Ever On

Game guide:
Wilderland Adventures 1: Don’t Leave the Path
Wilderland Adventures 2: Of Leaves and Stewed Hobbit
Wilderland Adventures 3: Kin strife and Dark Tidings
Wilderland Adventures 4: Those Who Tarry No Longer
Wilderland Adventures 5: A Darkness in the Marches
Wilderland Adventures 6: The Crossings of Celduin
Wilderland Adventures 7: The Watch on the Heath

Minis perfect for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

IMG_1713
I’ve painted the burgomeister mini. Unfortunately, I don’t have the kind of photo equipment needed for minis. He is placed next to a Hero Forge mini for scale. 

If you use miniatures for your Warhammer game (or Zweihänder or other similar games), the Dunkeldorf line of minis on Kickstarter are perfect. The minis are of mundane characters, which can be hard to get, or you have to pay a fair bit of money for Oldenhammer minis or for the Mordenheim line, which is pricey today.

The line consists of 12 minis (plus 3 – or more -additional minis from stretch goals being unlocked). All of them look like people you can meet in the Old World. There is a barber-surgeon, a rat catcher, a burgomeister (mayor) a courtesan and so on.

I noticed the project before the Kickstarter was launched, and when the call went out for bloggers to have a look at the early casts, I threw in my lot. Nicki, who is one of the people behind the project, was nice enough to send me three samples. So, I got three minis for free, and I’ve already backed the Kickstarter. I don’t consider myself biased, but now you know.

You can find it here: Dunkeldorf minis

In any case, below I’ve written some thoughts on the minis.

Minis with personality

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Here are the three sample minis I got. I only had time to paint one, as time is my most limited resource.

What I really love about these minis is that they have a lot more personality than the Citadel or Reaper minis that I usually get.

Their faces and body types are much more varied. The Citadel faces tend to be much more ‘standard handsome’ in my view, whereas these are angular or corpulent. That really makes them stand out.

I’m no expert on minis, and no great painter, but the three I got, are nicely – but not overly – detailed and straight forward to paint, with the exception of the rat catcher, which has a lot more small details – she looks more like an adventurer.

They are clearly for ‘low fantasy’ as they don’t carry fancy items and weapons, and they have the beard, dress and hairstyle of a classic Warhammer game.

The minis are also about 50% women, which is another plus for me, as there is a clear gap in my collection when it comes to female minis that can be used for PCs or NPCs.

As stretch goals, you also get some other ‘dressing’ like an anvil and a cat, which are nice, but something I will use less frequently.

My only ‘criticism’ is the barber surgeon. His profession is a bit harder to identify just from the mini. He could also have a sling bag or something, to make him look a bit more like an adventurer. That would improve his usefulness to me a bit. 

Low Risk

The Kickstarter was launched be a couple – from my native country if Denmark as it turns out – which already runs an online gaming store (King Games). That is a big upside, as it lowers the risk of the practical aspects of a kickstarter tripping them up. As they have an online store, they also have a registered company, are used to administration and the logistics of sending packages around. It is also not a hobby projects – as such – which means the risk of ‘work’ getting in the way, is low.

You have until April 4 to get your hands on the minis.  The kickstarter is already more than fully funded, but I wouldn’t mind more stretch goals being unlocked.

My Twitter handle is @RasmusNord01. I would love to see other people’s painted versions of these minis – and hear about the games you run. 

 

Is Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay for me? – A Warhammer Primer

Warhammer front pages
I’ve played and run Warhammer since 1st edition. We finished a more than 90 sessions long campaign in 2nd edition in 2015.

Dungeons & Dragons has brought a tsunami of new players to the table-top roleplaying game hobby. That is fantastic. But there are other games out there – games that appeal to different tastes or can add variety to your gaming-life. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP) is one of the other classic games out there. I love both D&D and WFRP. This article will help you decide if WFRP is for you? The game was released in a fourth edition in late 2018 by Cubicle 7, so it is a perfect time to start.

As this is meant as a primer to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, I will not go into a deep comparison of the new edition versus older editions. But I will compare the fourth edition to other current games. In a later post, I hope to go into a more in-depth review of the 4th edition.

Before I go into the details, let me note that WFRP is not one thing. The setting has evolved over time, from edition to edition, and each group will play it in their own way. There is no ‘right way’ to play WFRP. That said, the current edition is not designed to emulate the high fantasy universe of the more well-known Warhammer Fantasy Battle, by Games Workshop. The rules and setting are close to the 1st and 2nd edition, but with a number of changes.

What is special about WFRP – in a few bullet points:

  •  The Warhammer role-playing universe has many of the common fantasy tropes like savage orcs, stubborn dwarves and prideful elves, but is set in a fantasy Europe in approximately the 16th century. There is gunpowder.
  •  Warhammer is known among many as ‘grim dark fantasy’. Violence is more explicit, magic is less prevalent and more adult themes and elements are common. You can expect gore, plague and diarrhea, bad teeth, amputated limbs from critical hits and drug-using sex cults (but which elements you include or focus on is ultimately up to you and your game master).
  • The ruinous powers – chaos – is the main enemy of most games. It is both an outside military threat, but also an insidious internal threat luring men with its power and corrupting player characters.
  • The game has a lot of humor as a contrast to the tragedy, violence, poverty and ugliness of the setting. In our group, it is often the quirky, down on their luck, sometimes pathetic, characters forced to make bad decision by circumstance that add a lot of laughter to the game.
  • Combat is violent and can easily result in amputations or death
  • It is low magic. You can play wizards and priests with spells. Characters ARE special in that way, but in the wide society that magic is rare. There are no magic items in the core rules, which is an indication of how rare they are.
  • Your character probably doesn’t know how to read and write
  • The social status of the characters matters a lot. An adventuring group of mercenaries, tomb robbers, river wardens and peddlers are unlikely to be admitted to the count’s court, despite having “vital” information about an orc invasion.

D&D is essentially a game about fighting monsters and finding treasure. You can see that, looking at the three core rulebooks, one is about fighting monsters, one is about monsters you can fight and about a thirds of the final book is about the treasure you can find.

If you look at the Warhammer rulebook with the same lens, I would say the game is about struggling to achieve a better life in the face of adversity, poor luck, vengeful gods and an unforgiving and unfair world.  The adventures also happen in between your ‘regular’ life as a cavalry soldier, rat catcher or merchant – few hunter monsters or loot dungeons as a ‘career’.

What characters can I play?

IMG_1644
The servant is a classic career. Perhaps you accidentally burnt down the inn you worked in and ran away, or maybe you are the loyal servants of one of the other player characters, who is of a more lofty position?

The character creation method and advancement system are one of the unique aspects of WFRP. Your character has a job (a career), and it is typically not glamorous, or quite the opposite, and you start at the bottom. There are 64 careers in total, each with four tiers in their ‘career path’. You can for example start the game as a peasant, a pauper, a dock hand, a body snatcher (digging up corpses, to sell them to physicians trying to learn anatomy (or is he really a necromancer…?)), an apothecary’s apprentice or potentially a noble scion or apprentice wizard. You can select what career you want – but you get bonus xp if you let the dice decide.

As you go on adventures, you both become more skilled (you improve your abilities and skills) and you advance your career – for example from pauper to beggar king or student lawyer to judge. Or you can break to new careers. Perhaps your Townsman is down on her luck and becomes a Pit fighter. Or you have an unfortunate adventure and your Boatman ends up as Outlaw. But essentially, the only restrictions on how you build your characters, what skills you take or talents you learn is set by the game master.

The game is excellent for a thematic game group: a cursed travelling circus, the crew of a river barge, a squad of watchmen, a criminal gang or the henchmen of a baron exiled to the Border Princes.

The amazing thing about this system is that it works as an internal story engine for each character. Each character’s development becomes its own cool story, partly driven by the trappings you need in your career. You may, for example, need to acquire a river boat to become a merchant or get your own gang of thugs to become a gang boss – all excellent role-playing drivers.

Clearly, your starting character is less competent than a D&D character. Furthermore, a D&D character will move from more mundane adventures to high fantasy at around 5th level in a few sessions. In WFRP you will stay much longer as more mundane and killable characters and may never move up to shape regional or world events.

What adventures will we have?

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Fighting orcs in a dungeon is also a common experience in WFRP, but also far deadlier one…

A Warhammer game can be about exploring dungeons, kicking down doors, killing monsters and finding treasure. There are certainly plenty of fallen dwarf strongholds, ancient tombs and necromancer’s towers around. But the survival rate is likely going to be low.

More common adventures would be investigating strange murders that lead to a chaos cult, which has infiltrated the local town council. Or perhaps recovering the cargo of a stolen river barge or stealing a mysterious artefact from a local collector. It could also be the classic escorting a caravan across Axe Bite Pass or less D&D-like instigating a peasant uprising in the neighboring barony – all depending on what kind of characters you have.

It is likely, as you advance your careers, the goals and adventures become loftier – with a burgomeister (mayor), spy master and a cavalry officer in the group, the adventures will quickly turn political or very personal.

Because characters don’t have the repertoire of spells and special abilities of D&D, more investigation  focused adventures are easier to pull off, while combat heavy adventures are more difficult. You are not going to have 4-6 encounters in an adventuring day, as a critical hit can easily shatter your hip or crush your elbow, effectively crippling the character. Wounds like that takes 30+D10 days to heal, and you may need to find a surgeon to get if fully fixed. Let’s just hope the wound doesn’t get infected…

What is the system like?

The fundamental system is percentile – roll D100 below your percentage chance, which is a combination of your attribute and your relevant skill. An example would be a character with Dexterity 38 and Lockpick 15 for a total of 53%. You just have to roll under to succeed (in a simple scenario).

However, in this edition, there are more opposed rolls, which means you need to keep track of how well you succeed.

Compared to D&D, the characters are simpler with fewer complex combat options. The game has the equivalence of Feats, called Talents (examples are Nose for Trouble, Seasoned Traveller, Holy Hatred and Berserk Charge). There are more than in D&D, but many aren’t combat focused.

That said, there are some fiddly bits that I’d wager most people don’t remember in their first few sessions.

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Expect your characters to get badly hurt and develop ‘the galloping trots’ after eating ‘Mystery Meat Pie’ while on a stakeout – for the merriment of everyone. In Warhammer you are frequently faced with the smell of shit – and sometimes it is your own.

In combat the system works with more modifiers to attacks than D&D, most rolls are opposed and hit locations are important. It reminds me a bit of D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder in that way, where you often had to add and subtract multiple modifiers.

Critical hits are also more important than in D&D and you can fumble – including fumbling casting a spell. Furthermore, weapons and armor have qualities that influence each encounter.

All taken together, that makes the core of the combat more crunchy than D&D and a bit fiddly – but WFRP does not have the hundreds of complex spells, which at higher levels can bog down the game.

You can’t get resurrected in Warhammer, but it does have a system of Fate Points, which you can spend, if the dice turn against you or you did something stupid, like hunting skaven in the sewers beneath Altdorf. You might have 2 or 3, so deaths are likely over time.

What books do I need?

Shadows over bogenhafen
The Enemy Within Campaign is widely regarded as one of the best campaigns published for any RPG. Cubicle 7 may publish a 4th ed. version, as it is set in the same timeline as 1st edition.

For fourth edition you only need one book: the core rules. It has all the rules, 30+ pages of setting information, 25 pages on religion and a solid selection of monsters – enough for many, many games.

A starter set is out on PDF (should be out in print in June 2019). It contains more information about a specific town called Übersreik (a solid 65 pages), a long adventure and several short adventure ideas (48 pages), handouts and some premade characters. The starter set is meant to teach newcomers to the hobby to run the game. It has situationally specific boxes on the rules you need with examples.

The core rulebook is – in my view – not written to introduce new players to Warhammer. So, if you’ve never played WFRP, I think the starter set is a good option.

Do I need minis?

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You don’t need minis to play WFRP! But here are some of my Warhammer minis.

No. The game is less grid-focused than D&D, mainly because you have less need for spell area of effect and the like. But if you like miniatures, there are 30+ years of minis to pick from. Although, the old vintage ones can be pricey.

Where can I learn more?

There are dozens of books from the previous editions available. Some are classic campaigns and source books, like the Enemy Within, which still command high prices in good condition. But you can probably get many 2nd edition books cheaply.

There are also a large range of novels to get inspiration from, although the newer ones from Games Workshop are more related to the Fantasy Battle version of the setting.

My personal recommendations would be the original Gotrek and Felix short stories Troll Slayer (which you can find in the First Omnibus, containing Troll Slayer, Skaven Slayer & Demon Slayer ), the novel Beasts in Velvet as well as the collection of short stories Ignorant Armies – which are out of print. But the Ambassador and the other parts of that series is also a fine grim dark read.

Wilderland Adventures: The Watch on the Heath

I’m running all seven Wilderland Adventures for Adventures in Middle-Earth with my group of 7 players and writing about the experience. 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 our play-through of the adventure. Art is copyright Cubicle 7 and pulled from their material.

We had a blast with the conclusion of Wilderland Adventures. The adventure lasted two sessions, with the second session almost wholly taken up by the final climactic battle with the Gibbet King.

The adventure is fairly straight forward with a cool location and interesting battle at the end. That said, I had to do quite a bit of prep to make the final part run smoothly, as there isn’t much advice for running it as tactical combat.

How it played out:

After returning to Dale and getting a just reward, they are approached by Oin, who takes them to the Lonely Mountain. Under the mountain, in the Chamber of Marzabul, they meet King Dain and the sage Munin, who tells them of the theft done by Lochmand.

LEgendary items
I made a list of weapons and armor for the characters to choose from. It seemed more interesting to hand them out in the beginning, as opposed to a reward when the game is done.

They complete the audience with great success and gain access to the armoury of the Lonely Mountain and get the book about Zirakinbar to study along the way. I had prepared a list of Legendary Items that they could sort of choose between, to make each item more memorable, and not just a free for all.

Here is the list I made (use if you like):
Legendary Weapons

After the audience, and some provisioning, they travel north to the Grey Mountains. Along the way they meet Witherfinger, and gain some valuable information, in an enjoyable role-playing encounter.

They are somewhat confounded by the strange landscape, and gain both an exhaustion level, and some of them several shadow points (for the first time in the campaign).

When they reach the mountains, they traverse the area with ice trolls, and wake up a single one of them. The four characters wipe it out before it gets it second initiative round.

Reaching Zirakinbar, they see the dragon approaching, and meet the ghost. I changed it to Lockmand instead of the old Master of Laketown, as that historic figure had not previously had anything to do with the campaign, and they’ve spent little time in Laketown. I also changed the treasure to be the one that Lockmand escaed with from Dale, which seems much more appropriate. It is still cursed gold and there was quite a bit of it.

With the information from the ghost, the players figure out that the Gibbet King probably plans to capture the dragon to either inhabit it (a great idea) or use it as mount.

As they have decoded the book, they enter the dwarf outpost from below and kill the two orcs working the furnaces, after which we end the first session of the adventure.

The Final Fight

The climax of Wilderland Adventures we played with five characters present. They sneak up through the fortress and avoid the entrance hall (wisely, it turns out).

They burst through the door to the Gibbet King, and it is initiative. A lot happens over the next 2½ hours and seven combat rounds, and it is hard for me to relay in the right order in writing.

But overall, the most combat effective characters focus on the big orcs, while the less combat effective focus on closing the doors (particularly the Scholar).

The slayer moves up to the Gibbet King and throws him into the big fire in the second round (given the information earlier, I think the players – reasonably – expected a bigger effect from that).

In the same round, I think, Raenar arrives through the northern tunnel (which is quite important, as if he arrives in one of the tunnel where they need to close a door, it could spell trouble).

One of the orcs then push the cage out of the fire, and the Gibbet King begins to mesmerize the dragon.

When the fire doesn’t kill the Gibbet King in the second round, he uses his legendary weapon to pry open the cage and destroy the body, but the Gibbet King switches to one of the orc corpses, which I ruled caused the spell to falter.

Meanwhile, the Warden uses his Grim Visage dwarf helmet ability, which causes some of the Mordor orcs to flee, and the warrior and wanderer slays the orcs holding the chain, and the ones that come to replace them.

As Raenar is now free of his spell, he in annoyance breathes down on the area where the orcs with the chain were, which includes the Gibbet King and Fegor, the woodman Wanderer, and Raddu the dwarf Slayer. The dwarf resists well, but Fegor is down to one hit point.

Raenar now demands that they all kneel before him, and Fegor does so and throws all his gold out to him. He rolls high enough to be spared the wrath. And more characters kneel before him.

At this point they get the final door closed, and the reinforcements from the 1st floor begins to arrive, which the Dunedaín holds back.

The sound builds and the characters kill the troll reinforcement, and the rest of the orcs pull back, seeing the carnage and a dragon.

The characters then flee to rooms with doors and to the Raven’s Perch, and I judge that Raenar retreats. My reasoning is that he so weary of their legendary weapons, given his back story, and the damaging sound, which he is unfamiliar with, that it deems it wiser to retreat.

I’m of course also aware that after many rounds of combat, the group would stand no chance against him.

How was the adventure?

Journey
It was a fun and fitting adventure to end the series. I’m not sure the overall plot completely makes sense, as the “diversion” of the attack at Celduin, seems a bit overkill to sneak past Dale and the Lonely Mountain in the vast wilderness surrounding it. But, never mind!

Dragons, dungeons, ancient artefacts and dark magic. What more can you ask for in an adventure!?

I think the mood set was very well done and the places and characters very suitable for Middle-Earth and the stature of the heroes.

It is timed well to move the characters into a very dangerous area with lots of opportunities to gain shadow, which they know from the previous adventure, is bad, when facing the Gibbet King. That is good foreshadowing.

The dragon adds real drama, as it is an almost insurmountable challenge at that level. It also helps show that there are still great threats and adventures for characters of mid-level.

As we won’t be coming back to Middle-Earth anytime soon, when this campaign is done (I’m running a homebrew final adventure), it was great that they got to see the Lonely Mountain and meet King Daín in this ‘tour de Middle-Earth’.

The Secrets of Mazarbul mechanic, with a character gaining exhaustion to gain useful information, I really liked. I think the adventure would be less interesting, if the players don’t get the information in it.

A few nit pickings:

Why, oh why was the Chamber of Winds not part of the pre-made battle maps in the book? A baffling choice, as it is one of the maps that will be used with 100% certainty, and which is the most complex to draw. It would have made the battle even more memorable and made my life a bit easier.

Lockmand, as written, dies in his cell, killed by the Gibbet King, making capturing him even more pointless. I think my change makes a lot more sense (see below), if I do say so myself.

The guard rooms in Zirakinbar suddenly have 1d6+1 orcs. That is a weird change in design all of the sudden. It all the other adventures it has been x amount of orcs per character and the difference in difficulty between rolling a 1 and a 6 is very significant.

What changes did I make?

Not many significant changes, but I made a lot of notes for the end to run smoothly. Some of them I think would have been nice to have in the published text.

I imagined that Lockmand joined Gibbet King on his journey with the gold and was rewarded with a stab in the back when they arrived. He is now the ghost they meet, who more realistically has useful knowledge of their plot. And the gold was the treasure he used at the feast. The old Master of Laketown may feature a lot in the One Ring products, but this campaign does not take place in Laketown, or makes him part of the story in any way, so my players would have had no idea who he was.

Zirakinbar
I ruled that closing a gate was one action. I placed the bonfire north west of 9. 

Based on the playtest feedback, they must have a good sense of how long the final battle would last, and when the dragon should arrive and so on. I made a plan and adjusted a little bit on the fly. It looks like this:

End of round 2: Raenar arrives in the northern tunnel. You can adjust the difficulty, by letting him arrive in one of the tunnels he needs to close.

Round 3: Raenar approaches the Gibbet King, who now has him under his spell

Round 4-5: The orcs try to place the chain on Raenar

Round 6: Reinforcement orcs arrive from the ground floor (if they aren’t dead)

I let the other orcs try to lift the chain as well, but they did not last against the characters.

I also placed the big bonfire mentioned in the text on the map, in the middle.

In the adventure, the noise takes six (!) rounds to build to a damaging level, but that is way too late for it to have an effect on the battle, so I let it build for a round or two, before I began dishing out damage.

In Conclusion:

A worthy end to a generally strong series of adventures. My players enjoyed it, maybe because it goes to the core of the game: Dungeons & Dragons – but in Middle-Earth style.

I will write an overall review in the beginning of the new year. The next three sessions were a homebrewed adventured in Eriador, and I will cap this series of blog posts with some final thoughts on Adventures in Middle-Earth.

Wilderland Adventures: A Darkness in the Marshes

I’m running all seven Wilderland Adventures for Adventures in Middle-Earth with my group of 7 players and writing about the experience. 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 our play-through of the adventure. Art is copyright Cubicle 7 and pulled from their material.

A Darkness in the Marshes is the first of the adventures in the series that is tightly connected with the storyline of the main bad guy of the seven adventures – the Gibbet King.

Radagast
I really like how Radagast is used in this adventure. I think the blessings he provides should have been used more in the Mirkwood campaign.

In the adventure, the characters are tasked by Radagast to find out what it is that stirs in the west. It is an information gathering mission – not search and destroy (to my player’s later frustration). He sends them to Mountain Hall, a woodmen settlement in the mountains, where the chief knows a lot. From Mountain Hall they can find their way to the old evil fortress Dwimmerhorn and learn something about the evil that threatens the area.

The adventure has a lot of atmosphere, and – as always – the style and mood of the adventure is closely aligned with original Tolkien canon. However, my run of it was not as successful as I had hoped and anticipated. The reasons lie partly with the adventure, partly with my players and partly with me.

On the one hand the adventures is good because the characters can fail to get to the key scene and the information at the end. The problem is, if they fail, the finale of the adventure will be unsatisfying, and you will miss the foreshadowing before the final adventure.

A second problem is mechanical, primarily with the chase system used if the characters are discovered. It didn’t seem to work – at least the way I understood it.

Thirdly, the fortress they have to investigate, appeals differently to more traditional D&D players. There are monsters to kill and human slaves they ought to rescue. Being unable to do those things doesn’t sit well with players who like being heroes, kicking down doors and slaying orcs.

To review the adventures, I intentionally keep fairly close to the adventure as written. For a better play experience, I could have customized it more to accommodate my player’s style.

How it played out:

The adventure took two sessions and a bit. For the first part I had six players and for the last part I only had four. All of them were 5th level.

The adventured started of really well. They meet Radagast and ask most of the questions anticipated in the adventure. They get their answers and are offered the blessing. My players declined a blessing, because they didn’t fear the more mundane dangers much, so they wanted to avoid being noticed by a greater danger.

In the adventure, the group is supposed to be guided by a local scout named Banna. I declined to use her, as my group already has a Wanderer, who has special knowledge of the area they travel in. I wanted him to shine, and the journeys are – so far – more than easy enough. And as far as I can tell, she has no real function in the adventure.

Mountain Hall
The Mountain Hall village has some threads to other plots and adventures you can use in a wider scoped campaign.

They arrive at mountain hall after a couple of unsuccessful journey events with an exhaustion level. As they have a woodman with them, it is fairly easy to gain access and they are led to Hartfast, the chief of the settlement.

The audience with him goes well. The dwarves offer assistance with his goblin problems and with the mining operation – as is noted in the adventure is an option, which is a nice touch – and the adventurers get descent lodgings.

The Dunedaín of the group discovers the goblin saboteurs and with a pretty astonishing amount of natural 20’s all the goblins are quickly killed, the missing guard is found, and the group are accepted as heroes.

The Dunedaín also use his foresight virtue to get a premonition that Magric the Trapper, who was offered as guide to Dwimmerhorn, is going to betray them.

They see the Horn of Warning, meet Magric and move into the marsh. The escaped slave Walar comes running, and they have the encounter with orcs and wolves. I added a couple of wolves to the encounter to make it a bit more challenging.

As they are forewarned of Magric, they are ready for his treachery and quickly slays him. It is weird that there are no stats for him. He isn’t even given – as far as I can see – one of the standard profiles from the LM Guide.

After the encounter we finish the first sessions.

A dungeon! But not quite…

Dwimmerhorn
Dwimmerhorn is an adventuring location with a lot of atmosphere, but you might need a more fleshed out dungeon below.

The characters speak with the escaped slave, Walar, and learns a few things about Dwimmerhorn and they get a rough map of the place.

They decide to all sneak up via the hidden path. After a few failures, and some falling damage, they get to the top. From there they can see the temple and that orcs feed a prisoner to the wargs.

The group is kind of split between those who want to burn down a building and/or help the slaves escape and kill the leader of the orcs, and those who want to simply investigate.

They sneak forward to one of the storage rooms and wait to see what happens. I let Ghor the Despoiler walk from the ruined keep to the temple with a couple of hooded cultists (hoping they will follow). Instead they debate and decide to sneak into the ruined keep to look for information (which isn’t an unreasonable expectation), despite knowing there are human servants in there, but overlooks the risk of a fight that warns all the orcs.

In any case, they fail at sneaking undetected into the keep. When discovered, they again debate what to do: Continue to the keep and defend it and hope the tunnel to the dungeons is there, go to the temple instead and hope for a tunnel down to the dungeons below the fortress or simply escaping over the wall?

They decide to go into the keep. I place a handful of servants in there and they dispatch them and bar the door, while orcs surround the building. This gives them a couple of rounds to search, and as they find nothing, they decide to climb to the top of the ruined keep, jump down to the encircling wall and escape down the cliff, with a few extra arrows being short at them due to the route they took.

Fleeing from Dwimmerhorn we use the chase system in the book, which I can’t see works as intended. My group decides to use the forced march option back to Mountain Hall and they only get one journey event. As far as I can tell, that effectively means they can’t be caught by the orcs (more on this below), and they arrive at Mountain Hall.

As Magric was killed, there is no confrontation at the gate, as scripted in the adventure, and they are let into the settlement, where they can rest.

The adventure concludes with Ghor and some orcs sneaking into the settlement to assassinate them. I added two additional Snaga Trackers (against four characters), but they killed them all fairly easily. Partly, the reason for them handling this encounter easily is that their main melee character is dwarf slayer, which means he fights without armor and has advantage against poison, and both features are big advantages in this fight.

How was the adventure?

The adventure is pretty good overall, but our playthrough was far from optimal, for various reasons.

  • When you put a dungeon in front of my players they want to investigate it. As a game catering to D&D players looking for something different, I think there is a bit of misalignment of expectations between regular D&D players and the location as presented.
  • The chase system doesn’t work, in my view, and fails to bring a sense of danger and pursuit to the adventure. I wanted there to be a real chance that a character had to sacrifice himself to hold off the pursuers, as that would have been epic, but there was zero chance of that.
  • The missing dungeon I had recognized as a problem, but due to time constraints I didn’t add that to the adventure. I should have found a map online and had it with me (more on that below).
  • It is in the spirit of Middle-Earth, but the adventure sets the characters up to eventually be discovered, so they have to flee. The reason is that they want the evil mastermind to vacate the fortress, so the plot can go on. Not every player will enjoy that. It is a bit railroady.
  • We failed to get to the big pay off at the end. We will see how that affects the rest of the campaign.

The betrayer, Magric, seems kind of obvious, but it is in line with the world. He seems fair but feels foul. The adventure has him almost automatically escape. I let them kill him, particularly since the Dunedaín had used an inspiration on his Foresight of the Kindred virtue to foretell his betrayal.

If you’ve had a different experience, I would love to hear about it in the comments!

What would I change/do differently

Make a dungeon

I would definitely have a large dungeon map ready with some detailed locations and monsters for a regular dungeon crawl with pursuers behind them. Or I could have made a couple of events including some dark slimy monsters to meet below the fortress for a more cinematic approach.

dysons
For some cool maps, you could for example go to Dyson’s Dodecahedron.

When my players fled into the keep, I should have let the entrance to the dungeon be there and winged a couple of encounters and let them struggle all the way to a secret underground exit, after which they would have to sneak past sentries posted around the fortress to keep them from escaping.

The chase system needs to be reworked to a greater or lesser extent, unless you wish to avoid a greater risk of character sacrificing herself to slow the pursuers. At the minimum, the characters have to be caught unless they take some action to avoid it.

The chase system

wolves
I think it is quite important you add some actions the pursuing orcs take to catch up to the PC’s. It will make it more dramatic and prompt the players to take counter measures.

As written, the characters get a Lead of 2, if discovered inside the fortress. Each failed roll made to resolve the journey decreases the lead by 1. But, they only get 1D2 journey events. Already, the risk of capture is low. Unless, if I understand it correctly, they get a journey event that requires each character to roll, then the risk increases substantially.

However, if the characters attempt the force march option the lead increases by 2 for each of the two attempts – they don’t all have to make the constitution save.

On top of that, they can attempt to throw off pursuers by eg. Covering their trail. If they succeed they increase the lead, or decrease it, if they fail. If you forced march, the negative consequences outweigh the positives.

To correct it, you can increase the journey events to 1d2+1.

I would also add some proactive actions the orcs take to catch them, which I think would also spur the characters to take countermeasures. If you do that, you might keep the journey events at 1d2-

For example:

  • Wolf scouts are sent to harry them, and they are ambushed, with the wolves targeting any mounts or wounded they might have. It also decreases their lead by 1.
  • The orcs march through the night (effectively also use the forced march option to decrease lead by 2). The characters can hear the howls of the wolves growing closer.
  • The orcs blow horns which summons a patrol from another direction or a flock of crows to watch them.

I should have narrated the chase more, but I didn’t have much to attach it to. They had such a big mechanical lead that it was hard to make it sound dramatic.

Additionally…

I should have had Walar, the escaped slave, hint at that they are keeping something of great importance in the temple. Perhaps the coffin with it arrived and he saw it being brought into the temple? Had they known that they would have investigated it.

great orc
Ghor is CR 5, but a Great Orc is CR4. The main difference is that Ghor has about 20 more hit points and does a little more damage, but great orcs have a massive AC of 20. 5 more than Ghor with AC 15. I think Ghor needs more AC to last through a fight, and perhaps a second special ability to make things interesting.

The final encounter with Ghor was not as close nor as interesting as it could have been. It also has some mechanical silliness. The DC to hear the orcs, while sleeping, with passive perception, is 12. 12! Perception is probably the most common skill in any party. I had them roll with disadvantage instead against DC 15, but most still made it.

As mentioned, I added a couple of Snaga’s, and I boosted Ghor’s AC to 17. But the characters defended a house, and could keep the dwarf slayer in front as the main target, and he is very hard to kill.

Also, would they try to assassinate the characters, when they didn’t see the Chain of Thangorodrim or the Gibbet King?

All in all

I think this can be an epic adventure. It just wasn’t when we played it. The first part ran well with roleplaying that oozed atmosphere and Tolkien-vibes.

But half of my players for the second session wanted action and they wanted to be heroes by killing Ghor, rescuing slaves and perhaps setting the orc barracks on fire. It is a very typical D&D approach, and I’m often like that myself. They were fundamentally not in the mood for ‘information gathering’ and that happens. Sometimes you just want to kick in the door and roll initiative.

If I had added a chase through the dungeon, and spotted the flaws in the chase system, and corrected them, I think the session would have been more memorable (and it would expand the adventure to three sessions).

In a couple of days we move on to the Crossing of Celduin, which I hope will run more to my (and my player’s) expectations.

 

 

Review: Eaves of Mirkwood

Eaves
Eaves of Mirkwood also contains pre-generated characters.

Eaves of Mirkwood is a combination-product for Cubicle 7’s Adventures in Middle-Earth. It contains a Loremaster’s Screen and an introductory adventure which contains brief versions of the rules unique to Adventures in Middle-Earth and some pre-generated characters. You can therefore play Eaves of Mirkwood without the Player’s Guide to Adventure’s in Middle Earth.

I’ve now run the Eaves of Mirkwood adventure and used the Loremaster’s Screen on several occasions (running Wilderland Adventures) and will below provide my point of view on the product, and give a little advice on running the adventure.

Overall, we enjoyed the adventure a lot. The Loremaster’s Screen is more of a mixed bag.

Odd product combination

Eaves of Mirkwood costs 20£ in Cubicle 7’s online store. I think that is a very reasonable price, comparable with the 15$ for a regular D&D screen. That said, I find the product composition weird. I don’t understand why you would package an introductory adventure, that is supposed to pull new players to the game, with a screen, which is something that Loremasters that play regularly needs?

I think the screen fits much better with the Road Goes Ever On product (a collection of inspiration, journey tables and other things, which you can read about here). I would have made the adventure and ‘light’ version of the rules freely available for download, to get more players, and thereby more revenue.

As a note, I can see the screen came with a Laketown sourcebook in the One Ring Game – the game Adventure’s in Middle-Earth was converted from.

The Screen

part of screen illustration
This is most of the illustration used on the screen (without the text box).

[EDIT: Below I have some critique of the screen, which Cubicle 7 really couldn’t do, so it isn’t quite fair. I would like info from the core game, but to print it on the screen, they also had to print the full OGL text on the screen itself, which is obviously unfeasible. I stand by most of the core points though. To make the ultimate most useful screen, you need to rework the screen a bit – or make your own.]

To me the core product is the screen itself. The cover art is a beautiful illustration of Laketown. If you look carefully, you can see the Lonely Mountain and the ribcage of Smaug sticking out of the water. It fits very well with the campaign that Cubicle 7 supports.

You could argue that a more generic illustration of typical Middle-Earth landscape, heroes and monsters would suit a broader spectrum of groups, who might play in different ages of Middle-Earth or different geographical locations. But it certainly looks good.

What is a good screen?

The core purpose of a screen is, in my view, to help the game master run the game more smoothly. Therefore, it needs the information you most commonly need to reference on it, or – like on my original D&D screen – assist your common improvisational tasks, such as deciding encounter distance, which happens often in regular D&D. So that is the curve I’m grading on.

To be fair, my regular D&D screen is also not perfect, in my view.

The screen has four panels.

  • 1 is Starting Attitudes and Degeneration.
  • 2 is Anguish, Blighted Lands, Misdeeds, Tainted Treasure and Page References.
  • 3 are rule summaries for journeys, Audiences, Corruption and the page numbers for Fellowship phase undertakings.
  • 4 are raw embarkation and arrival tables.

To me, it seems like the team at Cubicle 7 has stretched to use all their own tables, with not enough regard for what a Loremaster needs.

What do I use:

I use the Starting Attitudes in every session. It is a matrix with more than 100 results, so it is impossible to remember.

I could have used the journey rules summaries in the beginning of the campaign, but I remember the rules now.

Why aren’t I using the rest?

I run Wilderland Adventures, so I don’t need to invent my own journey events. Therefore, it is difficult to say if I would find the raw tables helpful? I think some Loremasters might find them quite helpful for improvising journeys. But I can’t say for sure.

All the information on misdeeds, degeneration, tainted treasure, blighted lands and shadow points seems misplaced to me. The misdeeds chart might be useful, if I didn’t run a published adventure, and I ran over a long period of time. The other overviews look so rarely used to me, that I would much rather want other information available.

The page references I don’t use, because I have a pretty good sense of where to find things in the books after having played 8 sessions.

Listing the page numbers for the eight Fellowship phase events seems particularly as weird filler, as the first page is already in the page overview and they only cover three pages in the book.

What am I missing

conditions
There are many Conditions in D&D and it can be hard to remember which one has which game effect.

Every time I use the Starting attitudes, I get annoyed that they didn’t also include the Final Audience Check DC chart, which is the reason why you need the culture matrix in the first place!

Secondly, I’m slightly annoyed they didn’t include an overview of the different Exhaustion levels. It is on my regular D&D screen, but it is a much more prevalent mechanic in Middle-Earth.

I would argue that most of the Conditions should be included.

In a thread in the Adventures in Middle-Earth Facebook group, I mentioned this fact. Jonny Hodgson from Cubicle 7 was very nice to answer that they weren’t included due to the space they eat up [EDIT: because of the OGL, which wasn’t clear in the post to me].

All in all, I’m fond of the art, but somewhat disappointed with the information presented on the screen.

The Adventure:

Snorri
Snorri is one of the NPC’s the characters meet in Eaves of Mirkwood.

I ran Eaves of Mirkwood as part of a homebrew quest for one of my characters. I had three characters of levels 3 and 4, and I only had to make minor modifications to make it work.

It is fundamentally a very fun and thematic adventure, which a Loremaster could easily turn into an adventure lasting two or three sessions.

In short, the adventure is a journey through Mirkwood, where the characters encounter some dwarves fighting orcs. After the fight, the dwarves invites the characters to feast on roast pig. One of the dwarves took it from where it was tied in the woods. It turns out that a nearby village had tied it there in order to sacrifice it to a great warg. The villagers are pissed and capture the players, while they sleep after drinking too much beer. During their audience with the village chief the angry warg attacks with its orcs, and the characters have to defeat it.

How was the adventure?

We had a great time playing the adventure. The feast with the dwarves and the final battle are particularly well done. When the characters meet the dwarves there is an extended scene for the feast. It includes a smoking game (blowing different smoke rings), there is a riddle contest and the text of a dwarven song. The smoking game rules are worth a third of the product price on its own in my view!

The warg and the final battle is very well described, and the players thought the talking warg was a scary and cool bad guy. The battle is also quite hard.

Warning to new Loremasters

warg
The Warg’s ‘Pack Tactics’ ability makes it even more dangerous accompanied by a minion or two.

The last encounter looks extremely volatile to me.

If you are new to the D&D system you should be aware, that the Warg is an incredibly tough opponent against a 1st level party for a number of reasons.

First of all, the warg’s attack does so much damage that almost any 1st level character is likely to go down from one hit. The average damage is 11, and only two of the six pre-generated characters can withstand more than one average damage hit. And, when a character goes down it can quickly turn into a death spiral.

The warg also has a fear aura, which the group’s melee types are likely to fail their saves against half the time, making the encounter more volatile.

Eaves minis
Our setup of the final boss encounter.

The adventure advises that with more than four characters the Loremaster should add one orc per character. That makes the warg even more dangerous. Its pack tactic ability will ensure that with allies it is likely to hit around 75% of the time.

I added three orcs against my group of two 3rd level characters and one 4th level character, and it was still a tough encounter that could have gone both ways.

I love the fact that the encounter has a lot of tactical elements and that they get to roll saving throws. It makes it very dramatic. But I worry that the very cool boss is too ‘swingy’ an encounter.

One option is to have the dwarves participate in the fight and add an orc or two on top. The Warg attacks a dwarf first and wound him grievously and throw him to the ground. That way, the players see what they are up against, and you create drama by wounding or killing their allies – a classic game master trick.

I didn’t have time to include the dwarves. But with experienced players, you could have the players control the dwarves.

Expanding the adventure

If you plan to use this to play more than one session, or a longer session, you could expand the adventure a bit.

It would be natural for Eaves of Mirkwood to be the first part of the adventure. Instead of defeating the Warg, the characters manage to kill some orcs and drive it off. You could divide the action in the village into two – first they run down and face orcs that have climbed the palisades and then they have to run back and fight the warg, which is about to eat the village elder.

As a second part, you could have the characters go to get allies in order to defeat the warg and the orcs in their lair. This could be wood elves or woodmen in another village. That would require an audience and perhaps a small quest to demonstrate that they have the ability to lead such an expedition.

The third part would be the characters leading an expedition on a short journey to the warg lair – a ruin in Mirkwood or a series of caves – where they have to face the orcs, together with the three dwarves and the allies they’ve been able to muster.

That way the characters would be third level when they face the warg and its allies. A much less ‘swingy’ fight, and you get much more mileage out of a very cool big bad evil guy (wolf).

And if you want to homebrew after that, the warg could always be a lieutenant of something worse…

Final words

All in all, it is a solid product, and I’m glad I got to use the adventure. The adventure captures the mood of Middle-Earth perfectly and I’m confident newcomers to Adventures in Middle-Earth or newcomers to roleplaying-games will enjoy it. But I do think combining a screen with an intro adventure is a bit odd. The screen itself is useful, but not perfect.

If you’ve used the adventure as an introduction to people, who’ve never played with the D&D 5e rules or who’s never played and RPG before, I would love to hear from you on how that went? Was is accessible? Too complex? How did the final encounter go?

Wilderland Adventures: Kinstrife & dark tidings

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.

I had 4-5 players for this third adventure in the series.

Mirkwood full cover
If you want to run a longer campaign in Middle-Earth, I’ve written about this long campaign – which can be combined with Wilderland Adventures.

Kinstrife & dark tidings is an adventure with a darker mood and more focus on investigation, particularly compared to the second adventure. It has some action in the second half of the adventure. The adventure centres around a murder inside a family and the escape of the murderer – a young conflicted Beorning. Can the characters catch him, and can he redeem himself before Beorn’s judgement?

I think it was a good adventure, with a great atmosphere, but the second half didn’t play out quite as well as I had imagined. It partly depends on the group of course, our engagement on the day, my decisions, time left etc., but it is in the second half I would make a few modifications.

We played it over two and a half sessions. I would probably stretch it to three, and modify it a bit, if I were to run it again.

How it played out

Session 4 & 5:

Beorns home
Visiting Beorn’s home and the role-playing around it was probably my favourite part of the adventure.

We played the introduction to the adventure at the end of session 4. The characters stumble upon a boat with two dead Beorning warriors and discern that it would be the right thing to bring them back to Beorn’s house. They bring the bodies to Beorn and are relatively well received, they participate in the wake for the warriors, the Dunedaín of the group speaks of the ancient heroics of men, and the audience goes well. They are invited for the funeral and tasked with finding the murderer.

They find his tracks along the river, and the wanderer uses his special ability to gain almost magical insight, if he rolls high enough.

He rolls a 23 and I describe how he can see that the footsteps is of a man who has a heavy soul, a soul that weighs him down, and that worked very well. It was very Tolkinesque.

They encounter some travelling dwarves, fail a persuasion check, and learn little. Then they pass the Old Road and reaches a house where the murderer, whom they learn was named Oderic, stayed.

A day later they reach Stonyford, the village where Oderic came from, and they are grudgingly admitted. Here the warden employs his special ability to gain information, and they learn of Oderic’s fosterfather and his foster sister and the circumstances of the murder (as understood by the villagers). They manage to get into the angry foster fathers house and talk sense to him, and they get a good portion of the story from his foster-sister Brunhild, and learn that he was indeed there and took a boat to get across the river.

The group follows and tracks him to a small forest, finding clues and a dead merchant along the way. They find the bandit camp, which Oderic has joined, scout it, and understand that he is a ‘guest under guard’.

When he slips into the forest, and is followed by two guards, they attack the guards. They defeat them, Oderic bursts into the clearing, they invoke Brunhild’s name, he calms down, and that is where I ended the session.

Session 6:

file
I ran the final battle with minis, using the beautiful battle maps that comes with the adventure. I think that was a mistake.

We start the session with confronting Oderic and convincing him to return with the group. With some wrangling and rolling they manage to convince him that the bandits are evil and he reveals that they mean to attack the Beornings.

The group marches quickly to warn Beorn. They encounter a group of bandits on the way out of the woods. They get to the Old Ford, start warning the Beornings about the approaching bandits and get to Beorn’s house. Here they rest while Beorn gathers his troops. The next day they march to face Valter the Bloody and his bandits. The armies meet at the Old Ford, the group break through the shield wall and fights Valter, and slay him, when Beorn comes and finishes the fight. Afterwards they find the mummified head in his pack.

Finally, Oderic gets his sentence, and I thought that had a cool mood. The characters speak for him, and he is sentenced to paying a man’s worth to Brunhilde and afterwards he is to become a ward with one of Beorn’s men, to teach him better ways.

How was the adventure?

The mood was great. The interaction with Beorn worked really well, and the first part of the adventure had a very strong Tolkien atmosphere. The second part presented some challenges to me, partly because of the conversion to D&D 5e.

The investigative part is quite well done. There are multiple versions of what happened in the village, and the great thing is that there is no doubt that Oderic killed his foster-sisters husband (or is there?). Therefore, the players can deal with the motive, which in many ways is more interesting than ¨’who dun it’, and it never leads to a blind end. The success of the investigation is never in doubt, as it doesn’t rely on a dice roll or players asking the right question. That is good design.

Furthermore, both the Wanderer and the Warden really gets to show off their special abilities, such as Ever Watchful, which makes them shine, and I can tell the players enjoy.

I think tracking Oderic and the events along the way also works well and adds to the mood.

Valter the Bloody
Valter the Bloody is actually a cool bad guy. But he doesn’t get much screen time.

When the characters encounter the bandit camp, which was around half-way, things become a little less smooth.

Scouting the camp and getting to Oderic worked ok. But I think there are a few ways I could have made the bandit camp more interesting. I think it is a shame, for example, that the villain, Valter the Bloody, isn’t set up to meet the characters. It can happen, depending on how extracting Oderic happens. It is worth considering not making him an easy target. If he stays within the camp, the characters will have to disguise themselves, or offer themselves up for service to get to him. That could lead to some interesting role-playing and let them understand Valter better.

A couple of weak points

The conclusion of the adventures has a few weaknesses, in my view.

Mainly, Oderic should get more ‘screen time’ before they get back to Beorn. There is a long description of his personality in the adventure, and the different aspects of his persona needs time and space to play out.

There is an option to force march back to Beorn to warn him, which makes sense, but there are no benefits in the adventure for doing so. There are no rewards for that risk (getting exhaustion levels), and it requires DC 15 con saves every day, so it is a gamble.
There is no set timeline with consequences, depending on their speed, and there is no discussion of what Valter does as a response to Oderic escaping/being kidnapped.

In my case the characters achieve the ‘normal outcome’ and has to fight Valter’s forces at the Old Ford, but in reality fighting at a river crossing is a massive disadvantage for the attackers as it restricts their movement.

The way to set up the battle on a grid with minis isn’t really supported either. There are no suggestions in the text on how to run it. It is clear that in the original adventure it is more a ‘story event’. I used minis in two long lines facing each other, where the characters had to break through, and it was ok, but a somewhat wasted opportunity to use the terrain to make it interesting and tactical.

Lastly, Beorn shows up as a bear. It is very thematic, but – and the players were quick to point this out – why didn’t he just show up sooner to decide the outcome of the battle and probably spare the lives of many of his men? I think the underlying premise is that Beorn never openly transforms into a bear, and that is fine, but why show up at the last minute?

What did I or would I change?

My changes were in the second half of the adventure, but in hindsight, I could have added things to Stonyford.

rumours
There are many rumours in Stonyford, which is a great help to the Loremaster. 

The small village Stonyford has an old ruined watchtower. Because it is mentioned half the group went there. I should have made something for them to find. A small dungeon or something. That would have improved the pacing. They would have like a bit of action at this point.

When the group finds Oderic, I added that Oderic had heard Valter speak to some kind of unseen advisor in his tent. I think the mummified head is a bit too vague a clue, so I wanted to underscore that a bit. They’ve not connected the dots yet anyway, and I didn’t expect them to.

I would add more events and opportunity for interaction after Oderic joins the group. He has been built up by stories, but he needs more play time to display his faults and qualities to the characters. It could be that they meet Beornings at the Old Ford who wants to expense justice right away, or simply shames him – how does he react to that? A second combat encounter with his new allies can also reveal his character.

With five characters I also added a second bandit warrior to watch over Oderic, to make the encounter a little tougher. It worked well.

Make a timeline and consequences

I added degrees of success to the Forced March mechanic. Basically, in the final battle, the enemy would have surprise if they didn’t force march, the characters would have a surprise round if they succeeded with one day of forced march, and advantage for 1d4 rounds if they succeeded with two or three days of forced march.

I didn’t have enough time to do this, but I think you could develop more of a timeline with Valter’s actions, after Oderic’s disappearance, and combine that with the forced march rules. You could merge that with a timeline of how many warriors Beorn can gather in a day. The more days Beorn has, the stronger a force he can assemble, and getting the word to him early would become more meaningful.

I have paid to have the battle maps printed, but in the situation, I should have either: improvised my own map to manage the design of the terrain, or run the battle as a story. In my experience the story method works well, because the miniatures doesn’t really capture the chaos of battle well. That way you can also add bits of narrative events for each character in between.

All in all, it was a good adventure with a good atmosphere. But with a little effort the second half could be made more dramatic and interesting. 

Last week I ran Eaves of Mirkwood combined with a home brew adventure for a side quest. Will write about it soon. Next time we will begin Those who tarry no longer, which I really look forward to.

Happy Easter and happy gaming!

/Rasmus