Governor Erin de Vin had recently shorn her red hair to prepare herself for the fight to come. They needed every edge they could get. There wouldn’t be room for mistakes. She was annoyed she kept thinking of how her mother used to braid it. That was a long time ago now. And in a distant land.
She was standing in the new gate tower looking towards the forest fully armored. It smelled of fresh sap. A yellow piece of cloth was blowing gently in the breeze from the sea from a branch at the edge of the forest. There was noise of chopping and digging from the work parties.
“And the elves?”
“I sent ambassador Faenar to parlay with them, but they aren’t telling him much. He is only half elf,” Oaktender said. His eyes narrowed.
“You don’t trust them?”
The halfling, long worn by weather and sorrow, shrugged.
“I think we can trust that the hobgoblins are their mortal enemies. But even I can’t sneak very close to the elves, and I only understand a bit of their hand signals anyway. They are weary of us, for sure. Like we are of them,” he said.
The governor sighed.
“Wouldn’t you be?” she then said.
Then she was silent a while, looking at the Royal Engineers and settlers working hard on their defenses. Thinking. Planning.
“Still camped. But growing stronger.” The halfling spat with a practiced show of disdain. The glob of phlegm sailed over the edge of the tower.
“Whitefeather counted two ettins and at least four dozen goblins, who were new arrivals, some of them riding giant spiders. But we can’t see what their sorcerers are doing. They have obscured their camp with some kind of magical fog.”
“How do you view our chances?” The governor looked the halfling straight in the eye – don’t sugarcoat it.
“Our morale is low after the troll attack. Most have recovered physically, but many are brittle beneath. Tulh and his men will give them pause, but he will run out spells long before our enemies run out hot bodies to throw at us, and he will be an obvious target – and hard to protect. Bakhta the Bearded is a good fighter, I think, beneath his bravado, and he is cunning, but his team is too small and too inexperienced. Without Jarn and his crew, we lack striking power, and we will at a minimum face crippling casualties. It is likely we would have to abandon the settlement, if any of us survive. Even if they return in time, the odds aren’t great,” the halfling said, reporting like he used to do with his superiors in the military, and not to someone who had come to be a friend and comrade over the past three years.
They could both hear measured footsteps from below the tower and then the sound of someone climbing. The thin face of Tulh Dweomereye came through the hatch, and he proceeded to climb deftly up next to them, retaining most of his dignity. He wore his dark blue robes today. The ones with the embroidered fire elementals on the sleeves.
“You have news?” the governor said. Her words came out a little too quickly.
“Indeed,” said the wizard with a thin smile.
“Did they succeed? Are they on their way?”
“It appears that they have succeeded, yes, yet again. I wonder when their luck runs out? In any case, they are bringing back our people and will be here in a few days. It sounds like they will have quite a story to tell. Let’s hope we will get to hear it, at some point.”
“Thank the Mother!” The governor gripped the battlement hard with both hands and smiled fiercely.
“But there have been losses, I understand,” Dweomereye said. “It appears Claire didn’t make it.”
Oaktender sighed deeply and looked down, mumbling a prayer. Then he took a deep breath and drew himself up.
“I shall go spread the word. This will bring back some spirit.” He forced a thin smile. “Then I will go give the bad news to Whitefeather,” the halfling said.
“At least, now we have a fighting chance,” Erin de Vin said and looked to the vast forest beyond the clearing again. What kind of strength would the enemy assail her with? What did the elves come to offer? She cast her doubts aside, grinning inwardly. Whatever else happened, the hobgoblins and their damned giant allies would get a big kick in the teeth.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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
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-
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.
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.
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.
I’m running all seven Wilderland Adventures with my group of 7 players. You can also read reviews of other AiME products on this blog (and other D&D stuff). These adventure blog-posts are part review and part suggestions for Loremasters on how to run or adjust the adventure, based on my experience of running it. And to provide context for those two things, I will also describe what happened during the adventure. Art is copyright Cubicle 7 and pulled from their material.
Those Who Tarry No Longer was one of the adventures I really loved when reading it. Unfortunately, it has some issues as an adventure when you run it.
The story involves the characters in protecting an elf noble lady who is going to the White Harbor and into the West. The characters are to deliver her to the High Pass, but unfortunately, the Big Bad Evil Guy wants to destroy her.
The adventure invokes a strong sense of Tolkien and captures the mood of the diminishing world very well.
But, the adventure is very railroaded. It depends on the players how big an issue the railroading is for the group.
My players have bought into the fact that we (more or less) run these seven adventures and nothing else, to reduce my prep time for a period and to check out Adventures in Middle-Earth. Despite that, a few of them were bored with how little actual agency they have on the adventure. Other players just enjoy the ride.
How it played out:
The adventure took 2½ sessions to play, partly because I had a large group for the two first sessions – 6 and 7 respectively.
I – rather ham-handedly – narrated how they had decided to hunt the white stag of Mirkwood, and during the hunt encounter Legolas escorting Lady Irimë. I had to spend some time describing the emotion she instilled to get the players to see, how their characters might react – despite knee jerk murder hobo reactions of scoffing at pansy elves. I both described her in Middle-Earth terms, but I also equated the meeting with how we might react, if we suddenly meet a global celebrity or politician, whom we might not agree with or who’s work we don’t care fork – Beyoncé or Obama for example. You may not care for them, but it would be impossible for most people to blow them off or make fun of them. That seemed to work.
We then had a fun time role-playing the mood of feasting with the elves and travelling with her – where she gives insight of the things long gone.
It works really well that they are travelling through areas the group passed by before in previous adventures. The way she provides new layers of understanding to the history of the Old Ford for example, gave the players a sense of all the things that were forgotten, which they didn’t learn from previous Lore rolls.
After the Old Ford they begin to encounter orcs, which led to the major fight on the hill top, where they are rescued by eagles and brought to an eyrie. The seven characters held off the orcs for eight rounds and with only one character down. Then I brought in the eagles, to not drag it on any longer.
They laughed a bit at the cliché. But it is very thematic, and the meeting with the eagles afterwards I think was quite cool.
The second session of the adventure began with the players being dropped off by the eagles and settling in to the ruins of Haycombe. They camp and a caught in the dream world when Irimë fights the shadow that attacks her.
Initially, they liked the mystery of being transported to Haycombe and trying to figure out how to get home. We roleplayed in the inn and had fun, but when the master arrives and a fight breaks out, it quickly becomes clear that they have no real options. They can fight until they are forced to surrender, by the threat of burning down the inn. So, they surrendered.
We ended the second session after they had been marched to Dol Guldur.
The final part in the dungeons of Dol Guldur had fine role-playing opportunities, the mood was dark and the dwarves of the group had fun trying to fight their way out (I simply described how their attack ended up in severe beatings). The result was that when one was picked to fight the hill troll, it wasn’t the dwarf slayer – who might have had a chance – and instead it was the Dunedaín warrior, who was killed, and woke up – but I didn’t give him all the shadow points, as it was more a narrative death, to show them what was going on in the real world.
Their wanderer took the place of the boy in the next fight against the hill troll but was only beaten unconscious.
Finally, the shadow comes for the elf, all the characters make their saving throws, and they return to the world, with Irimë alive.
Elrond’s sons then arrive (and it was nice having the Rivendell Guide, to add extra flavor to that part), and Irimë made them Elf Friends.
How was the adventure?
It is a very railroaded adventure.
It is also an adventure with a great atmosphere, and there are some really good role-playing scenes in it. The core idea is strong, but the execution has several flaws, in my view. It seems like the author has a story to tell, and the point is to show the players the power and magic of the elves and give them a chance to experience Dol Guldur. It succeeds at that. I think there is a chance the author had something greater in mind but couldn’t fit it within the space he has in the book.
If your players simply want to experience and ‘live’ Middle-Earth and just want to help you tell this cool story, they will most likely enjoy this adventure.
If your players want to have real agency, they are probably not going to like this adventure, unless you change it – a lot.
I think a key issue is the fact that the players can’t see what their objective is, and the mechanical parameters aren’t visible. That means the choices they actually can make which have an impact on the final outcome aren’t clear, which means the players can’t make any meaningful choices (see game designer Sid Meyer’s view on that). They can of course roleplay their character – to some extent – but if their character would flee Haycombe at the first sign of trouble or they have a great plan to avoid being captured, they can’t really execute on it.
An example are the two big battles: the outcome is given for both and in the second case there is little penalty for death. But neither is there any advantage from holding out as long as possible. They might as well just surrender at the beginning, or you can narrate the whole encounter at the inn. It makes no difference.
There is not really any advantage in figuring out what is going on, either. And very little to ‘investigate’, which was my player’s initial approach. They just have to wait for the ride.
In Dol Guldur all their actions help decide the final DC of the saving throw they have to make. But the players don’t know that – although in my case I gave them enough information to their characters that they figured it was a spiritual battle about not giving in. As they did all the right things, the final DC was not hard. Is a single dice roll for each character the best way to resolve the climax? I’m not sure…
What could you change?
It would be a significant amount of work to make the adventure less railroaded. Below I have some ideas as to how players could get more agency within the current framework. I would love to get comments with other ideas.
In the battles against the goblins, I would have Irimë tell them that she will signal the eagles, and that they would have to hold out until they arrive. I would then progressively make each round significantly more difficult, using wolves, archers and perhaps a hill troll at the end. I would also wait with the star light from Irimë’s magical ring, until they came under big pressure. It might also grant them a HD in hit points. If the group fails to hold on for the given number of rounds (it says six in the book), Irimë would be killed, and the Eagles would come and take them all away.
The fight at the inn is the biggest problem. I almost think the best solution is to simply narrate it and get on with the story.
You could give inspiration for lasting through both waves at the inn as a reward, but it is still very railroaded. Fighting to let others escape the town is another option, because that would feel like a victory of sorts, but then why would the key NPC’s not be among those who escape?
In Dol Guldur, the DC of the final roll changes depending on what their characters do. Do they tend the dying man? Do they convince the minstrel not to join the Necromancer?
To make a less railroaded version, I would keep the first part of the adventure, and the core idea for the dream and the spirits attack but make it into a (longer) more open adventure, with more freedom, requiring more investigation to figure out what is going on and more proactive means of defeating the spirit. But that is a significant amount of work.
All in all, the mood and role-playing in the adventure is great. But the players are mainly along for the ride. It depends a lot on your players if they would enjoy this.
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.
[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 referen on it, or – like on my original D&D screen – assist you 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
Every time I use the Starting attitudes, I get annoyed that they didn’t also 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.
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
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.
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…
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?
I’m running all seven Wilderland Adventures with my group of 7 players. You can also read reviews of other AiME products on this blog. These adventure blog-posts are one part review and one part suggestions for Loremasters on how to run or adjust the adventure, based on my experience of running it. And to provide context for those two things, I will also describe what happened during the adventure.
Our first adventure had a somewhat fragmented group. We began late December, and due to vacations, illness and work, I had 3-4 players when running the adventure, but in different constellations, so I had to do some narrative adjustments to keep it logical.
How it played out
The first four players made their characters, and we began the adventure. I followed the adventure and had them wander along Long Lake, when the young Belgo comes running, and tells them that his father is being attacked by his guards. The group rush after to help him and drive off the thugs with a well-aimed attack and a solid intimidate roll. They agree on helping him getting through Mirkwood, travel with his elven friends on rafts to the Halls of Thranduril and manage to convince the elves that they can stay and get some nice supplies, while they rest. They still feel that they are rather an unfriendly lot, those elves.
The group begins the journey through Mirkwood with the merchant Baldor and his son Brego. With two of the original four players missing, and two new players participating, and one still not able to make it, I create an encounter, where the two new characters are fighting two attercops, and the third – still unnamed character – has been poisoned and is unconscious. The two ‘old’ characters come upon the battle, while leading the small caravan, and throw themselves into the fight. During the fight, the non-present characters ‘guard’ the ponies, Baldor and Brego against other attercops. The two groups agree to travel together for safety (obviously).
For the journey we rolled Feast for Kings for Embarkation and two journey events. I decided to place the journey events in between the fixed encounters, and they arrive at the sink holes, a place touched by the shadow, before the Castle of the Spiders.
Baldor drinks from the stream, and the present characters chase after him, while the non-present two characters remain behind to guard Brego (felt fitting with the story, actually).
They follow his trail and arrive at the castle of the spiders, where they successfully rescue him, after a tense and fun battle. I had one of the absent PC’s arrive, a world weary Dunedaín, to provide bow cover-fire for their escape.
After the battle, Baldor and a dwarf player character have a great role-playing exchange on Baldor’s experience of the death of Smaug and the reclaiming of the Lonely Mountain.
I introduce the second journey event, and the group comes across Tauler, one of Shelob’s children, but they manage to avoid him without being seen, but gain a few shadow points, and run for their lives.
The unconscious (7th) characters wakes up, but due to unusually low attendance, he only has two active travel companions. I narrate how the absent characters are so exhausted and mentally drained from the trip, that they stay around the Baldor and Bregor to guard them. The new character is a Wanderer, and as the group really needs a long rest, he activates an ability, to lead them to a hideout, where they can have a long rest.
After the rest, I introduce an additional journey event, where they find warg paw prints at a potential camp site, and the wanderer shines again. Then comes the storm, they fail their audience with the hermit, and a thrown out of his home.
Finally, they arrive at the well, the Dunedaín fails his save, and jumps into the well. They fight the Thing in the Well and survive.
As we still have good time left, Baldor tells them of the rumour of the new Easterly Inn. They head for that location, we role-play the arrival, have a fellow-ship phase, and I introduce the hook to the next adventure. We end the session when they depart to find Dindoas Brandybuck.
How was the adventure?
It was a strong adventure, and it played better than I had expected. After reading all seven adventures, I considered this the weakest of them all. But it was dramatic, had a strong mood and reflected the dangers of this journey well.
My players have had different play experiences, because of the fragmented group. But, overall, they are happy that there is action, but a greater focus on role-playing than in my home brew campaign. A couple of them did fear that the setting was too – how shall I say it – light and too focused on pure narrative role-playing drama. They want to roll initiative and fight orcs. And they still get that!
One of my players also told me that he really liked that he knew that everyone is a hero. In regular D&D, he must consider everyone’s true motives, but in AiME, they can fundamentally rely on each other.
The mood inside Mirkwood was excellent. The journey events enhanced the mood really well. In the second session I did change one of the random events from an encounter with more attercops to the ‘place of shadow’, because they were fighting attercops when I introduced the new characters. For pacing reasons, I had four journey events (including the attercop attack in session 1), and it worked well.
The oppressive and exhausted mood that is the essence of the journey played out very well. Particularly, after the group rescued Baldor, and he told his story of losing his wife and home, wishing the dwarves had never woken Smaug, we had one of the best role-playing scenes in recent years. The frayed bond between father and son also gave the last part of the adventure a shadow of sadness, which I think worked well.
Good & bad encounters
The Castle of Spiders was an awesome encounter. It was very tactical, because of the terrain. It was tense due to constantly appearing spiders, and it looked like the players had a great time. The small things, like 25 ft. movement, and wielding a spear with reach, was important.
The Thing in the Well was not quite as interesting a battle. I had to boost its hit points, despite there only being three characters, as they had reduced it to half hit points, before it had a chance to act.
At first level there is a lot of luck involved in combat, and one blow can fell a character. So, on one hand, the encounter is very dangerous. Characters falling down the well, or who are hit more than once, have a good chance of going down, and that will quickly turn the tide. Particularly, if they have spent their powers already, they will be in great danger. On the other hand, the Thing has AC 12. With starting characters having +5 or +6 on hit rolls, it means it is likely that 3 out of 4 attacks will hit it the first round. Three attacks can quite easily do 20+ damage. As written, it is unlikely the combat will last more than 2 rounds.
As I considered the Thing a bit of a boss encounter, it was a little bit disappointing.
What would I do differently?
I would change the hook:
The hook is rather weak. I understand they want to introduce the action quickly, but if I were to run it again, I would start the adventure in Lake Town at a tavern. I would let the thugs be competitors to the characters, which would create tension in the first scene. It would also give the characters a way to introduce themselves, the can haggle with Baldor, and intimidate the thugs. Later on, the thugs can follow them, and try to attack them at night.
I would introduce scenes:
When Baldor drinks of the enchanted stream and runs off, it is one of several cases, where something happens during the Wilderland Adventures, where it seems like the characters can act, but the outcome is basically certain, if you want a fun adventure.
The problem is that the characters think they can catch Baldor, before he runs into the forest, for example with a skill roll. I mean, Baldor is an older, not very fit man. It seems plausible, but there is no indication of how far Baldor is from the watch, when he goes crazy. That can create frustration with players. My player just shrugged it off.
The same can basically happen, if Brego is the one enchanted by the Thing in the Well, and throws himself into the well, and a similar situation occurs in the next part of the adventure.
The solution is to me – suggested by a player, who also DMs – that I tell them there is a scene, and I then describe what happens in a dramatic way. They are cool with a fun story unfolding, and that way there is no ambiguity to create frustration.
I would change the final encounter:
I think the final encounter could use some more terrain to make it more interesting. If the well is inside some kind of ancient structure, just with some walls and perhaps a couple of rooms, it would create more tension when they explore it.
After a series of adventures, the group heads home for their first ’Winter Holiday’. To make sure the settlement evolves and grows, I decided early that every winter the characters would rest and work on other tasks until the next group of settlers arrive from the ‘old world’.
This blog post describes some of the activities (so that we can remember them), and I have a couple of thoughts on the system (or disregard for the system).
The Pathfinder way discarded
I had planned to use some of Pathfinder’s rules on downtime. I thought it would be cool to use the rules from Ultimate Campaign on building a house, and later strong holds, and so on. But it turned out that:
1) my players weren’t really into that level of bookkeeping
2) I wasn’t into that level of bookkeeping and …
3) the wizard picked spells like Wall of stone and Fabricate, making the need for materials partially irrelevant.
So, I’ve skipped it completely. And fundamentally run downtime as a narrative, with some skill rolls.
What did the characters do?
It had turned out that, Jarn, the paladin/ranger had made one of the two serving girls pregnant. The player decided that he honestly did love the girl, who was a no nonsense scrappy city-girl, and they decided to get married. The druid of the group officiated and gifts were presented. Each character came up with a gift for the couple, including a bridal suite in their new house with a clock, platinum rings for the entire group and his wife, jade figurines and a donation of blood from the scary half-orc fighter.
During the months they built a sizeable house with a small tower, a glass blowing workshop and smithy and the gnome constructed a ballista for the tower. They craft weapons and armor and train the militia.
The druid also started training an apprentice, the elf Sekhlas, and he went to negotiate for dragon scales, to build an armor, but unfortunately failed in his diplomatic effort.
I also let several characters learn languages, skills and tools, because, why the hell not?
As the new settlers arrive in the spring, some characters receive mail and messages, and they finally get some plate mail. Their leader, Jarn, gets news that his father – who is the head of a knightly order – is sick from enemy magic, and that his mother needs assistance. She has in return sent his father’s medallion, which protects against fey charm. The druid, Weylyn gets a letter from a friend, which relates the story of a kidnapping or defection by a great boat wright to the Hrran Hegemony.
The group was already worried about spies, and they are watchful, but also decide to lay a honey trap. They spread the rumor that they have hidden powerful war machines in the forest, and use awakened beasts to patrol the site – and wait. I think it is a good plan, which I will definitely play to.
The settlers that arrive include two adventuring groups. One is with the rival guild, and another accompanies the dwarves, who have come to run the iron mine, which the characters find.
Furthermore, the wizard, Thul Dweomereye, has apprentices and guards coming to expand his position.
What worked well?
Down time is essentially a chance to role-play and create more context and relations for the characters.
I think everyone got to do interesting things and the wedding and the news from home ground the characters in the setting. It creates a greater attachment to the world around them, and meant that I think they found pleasure in having a lot of gold they can send home and to the war effort.
I hope that the war in their homeland will come more into focus in the next leg of the campaign.
The players have fun when they use their spells creatively to create a home and survive, and there was no reason to take that away, because I had imagined we would use a more ‘mechanistic’ system for it.
And just for fun, I’ve decided to add the text of one of the two hand-outs here:
The Letter to Weylyn:
I hope that you are thriving? I have thought of you many times in the last couple of years, but finding an opportunity to actually sending a letter has been difficult. This winter I finally returned to Finrod after what feels like a life-time of conflict. I have spent much time in Burndeth and helped our ancient kin and allies there. Pentath is now besieged by folk of the wild tribes of Lest, but they learned to fear the forest. So, they burned much of it. I have grown stronger in my struggle, and as we know, adversity and challenges makes you find new strength within you.
I write, not solely out of my desire to convey my thoughts and experiences to you. During the last couple of months here in Finrod, it was impossible not to hear rumours of this expedition and the ships going out to sea. I couldn’t help myself from paying close attention to these stories, as I had already understood from Deekin Chass that you were no longer on the Isles. It therefore troubled me that I stumbled on information that the great shipwright Amhlaidh Tod disappeared from his shipyard last year. The Council and the Circle have been keeping it under close lid, but you know how it is here – everyone knows everybody. The point is, they think he might have been kidnapped, or worse, been bribed to go over to the enemy. If that is true, the Hegemony might soon field a fleet of ocean going vessels. Their seafarers will not rival our own, but in my battles with Hrran, I have learned that its leadership is very resourceful and flexible in their thinking.
I have sent this letter to Moss Keeper Clearbrook, and I hope that it will find you soon.
The player’s guide for the Dungeons & Dragons version of a Middle-Earth role-playing game is perfect for a fan of Tolkien’s world. The designers basically nail the atmosphere and feel of the setting and demonstrate that the D&D 5ed. rules can be reworked to fit a very different style of play.
Adventures in Middle-Earth is very true to the original material and is therefore a very low magic game. There are no spell-casting classes and the abilities the players do have can be heroic, but the magic in them are always subtle – just like in Tolkien’s novels.
The game is published by Cubicle 7, who also makes the One Ring role-playing game, and Adventures in Middle-Earth is their D&D interpretation of that game. It is clear that the designers already have a deep understanding of the lore. All the classes, cultures and virtues are clearly grounded in the source material and the book is filled with relevant quotes from the books.
I was so inspired by this book that I began re-reading the Lord of the Rings (for I don’t know which time), and this is the first role-playing supplement that I’ve read cover to cover since D&D 3.5.
The setting focus on the 70-year period between the events of the Hobbit and the events in the Lord of the Rings. The default area for the game is the Wilderlands, which covers the area from the Misty Mountains in the west to Erebor in the East. The death of Smaug, the return of dwarves to the Lonely Mountain and the rise of Dale as a center of trade has created a cautious surge in optimism, and Bard of Dale calls for adventurers to help them rebuild the land.
The most significant mechanical innovation is the Journey system the game has and the game also features corruption of the character’s spirits through Shadow Points. That said, all the fundamental elements, such as class, races, feats and equipment have been re-worked to fit the setting. That creates – in totality – almost a different game entirely.
I look at some of the major features below.
Making a Character
Each player picks a culture instead of a race, such as Men of Bree, Men of Minas Tirith or Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain. All of the cultures are flavorful and has long lists of appropriate names. Mechanically they are similar to the races of the PhB, but with fewer fantastic abilities. They mainly provide stat increases and skills, and – importantly – define which virtues (feats) you can pick.
The classes are where the rules begin to diverge significantly from a regular Dungeons & Dragons game. There are six available classes: Scholar, Slayer, Treasure Hunter, Wanderer, Warden and Warrior. Some of them are mechanically quite similar to the core classes. Fx the Slayer is similar to the Barbarian and the Treasure Hunter is similar to the Rogue. But all the spell casting classes are gone and replaced by the Scholar, who is both healer and keeper of lore.
The two or three archetypes for each class also sets all the classes apart. These are closely molded to the Middle-Earth setting and blurs some classic distinctions. For example, the Warden has Counsellor, Herald and Bounder as archetypes, and they are part bard and part fighter, depending on which one you pick. What I love about them is how well they fit the setting. The Bounder for example, if you don’t know, is referenced in the Lord of the Rings, as the halflings that keep the Shire safe.
Mechanically, it is hard to judge, without playing the game, how well they are balanced.
In place of feats there are a number of virtues, and most of them are tied to the character’s culture. Thus, only wood elves can learn Wood-Elf magic – which gives you the “awesome” power to enchant an arrow, and, if you pick the virtue three times, make a victim fall asleep! I love how low magic that is. And again, they fit the setting perfectly.
A few of them seems to be a bit over-powered. For example, Bardings can pick Swordmaster. It says: when fighting with either a broad sword or long sword, add your proficiency bonus to your AC. I can’t see myself not picking that Virtue. Even if it added half your proficiency modifier, I would pick it. That indicates an imbalance… (P.S. and I’ve now noticed that one of the pre-generated characters has this Virtue, and he only gains +1 to AC, so perhaps they made an error in the write-up?)
The backgrounds have much more flavor, compared to the PhB, and again connects well with the setting. Examples include Doomed to Die (You know your life isn’t going to end well, but soldier on anyway), Loyal Servant (as a squire or gardener or close kin) or Hunted by the Shadow (the Shadow is constantly after you and your family, as you are renowned foes of the Enemy).
The equipment chapter is short, but mechanically relevant. All the armor and weapons are found in Tolkien’s world, so there are no great swords or plate mails on the list. Particularly, when it comes to AC, that can influence gameplay. Heavy mail provides the highest AC, which is 16. They’ve added Great Shields, which gives +4 to AC, which is probably to close that gap. On the “magic item” side, they don’t compare to the regular DMG. Cultural Heirlooms can be gained as a feat on level 4 and on. It could be a weapon, like the Dalish Longbow, that gives +1 to attack and damage, and +1d8 extra on a critical hit. On one hand, I like that player’s can add cultural heirlooms ‘off screen’ so to speak. But will they? And if they do spend a feat on an heirloom, how do they feel about another player finding something similar in a treasure hoard?
Journeys and rest – adding meaningful encounters:
The most significant ‘new thing’ in the game, in my view, is a system for journeys. I won’t go into the detail of the rules, but whenever the group needs to travel to an adventure location, they need to use the journey rules, in place of the regular overland travel and random encounters described in D&D.
Each map area has a difficulty level (color coded), and the start of each journey the group pick characters for a number of roles: Guide, Scout, Hunter and Look-out. Embarkation dice are rolled and modifiers added, and depending on the roll and the land they travel through, they may have a number of Events. The events can be combat events or obstacles, but they can also be beneficial.
The tough part is, when the characters arrive at their destination, they roll an Arrival roll. If that goes badly, they might gain exhaustion levels or Shadow Points. Both are bad.
Furthermore, travel connects with the rest and healing rules of the setting. Long Rests can only be had in a Sanctuary – like the House of Elrond or Beorn’s home. Therefore any damage or exhaustion they acquire from encounters or bad luck may be hard to heal when you reach the destination.
The rules will add danger and flavor to the game, and they can be used in other campaigns with a little modification and work. In my current regular D&D campaign, with 9-10th lvl characters, one random encounter should either be very dangerous or have a deeper purpose, such as providing clues, potential allies or add depth to the setting, because it won’t drain resources or make their lives significantly more challenging, as they are back to full power the next day, unless I want to spend several hours just running random encounters. I think this system solves that issue – you basically want to avoid wolves or orc raiding parties – because they can impact if you are able to succeed in your greater goal or quest.
Of course, it also adds a lot of flavor, and, as the group has no magical aid – like Purify Water, Good Berries or Leomund’s Tiny Hut – the journey will become something dangerous the group must consider closely.
The game has a system for gaining corruption. It can happen through sorrow, blighted places, misdeeds and tainted treasure. The results are negative psychological traits (Shadow Weakness) and ultimately a complete fall into Shadow. Boromir is the obvious example from the novels.
It is hard to judge how big a threat it is to the characters over a campaign. But I like the mechanic and, again, it feels right for the setting.
In accordance with the fiction, not everyone welcomes travelers from afar, and the game therefore has a system for Audiences with the various rulers of Middle-Earth. It is basically skill challenges modified by how various cultures see each other. Not everyone enjoys a system for a role-playing encounter, but I can see why it is included. It can certainly add drama and consequences, and again fits the game setting perfectly. In the published adventure Wilderland Adventures, the mechanic is used frequently – but more on that in a future review.
The Fellowship Phase:
This down-time system also fits well with the setting. The assumption is that you adventure and travel in the spring and summer, maybe autumn, and settle down for the winter, perhaps to help bring the harvest home, to research ancient lore or to open a new Sanctuary. It is also a way to regain hit points and exhaustion levels, which might be sorely needed, given the trials that the characters can go through.
It is certainly a much more interesting down-system compared to the original D&D rules, but without a whole lot of clunky mechanics added.
Final Thoughts on Adventures in Middle-Earth:
I would love to run a campaign in this game and setting. It is very well done, and it feels like you can really play a Dúnedain ranger, a dour dwarf of the Blue Mountains or a hobbit off seeing the world and stride right into Tolkien’s pages.
I don’t think it is for everyone, though. It is probably the least magical fantasy setting I’ve encountered, certainly in D&D, unless you go for an actual historical or near-historical setting.
As a DM (or Lore Master I should say), my greatest concern is that I doubt the setting works well with characters above 7th level or so. I could be wrong, but I think making stories with fitting enemies and drama at level 8+ will be a challenge within the Middle-Earth setting – partly because the most epic plots have been told by Tolkien. But these concerns are for the review of the Loremaster’s Guide, which should arrive at my door soon… and perhaps the upcoming campaign: Mirkwood.
It can be hard to judge if the game is well balanced, and particularly how well the different classes and cultures compare to each other. Player’s really dislike if one class or character build outshines every other, and almost every group has a player who will spot those ‘killer combos’ in an instant. And as there is little or no enchanted equipment, except for heirloom items and good dwarven steel, the player’s AC and attack modifiers, will generally be lower, compared to standard D&D. It is hard to tell how they stack up against monsters?
Exhaustion can also be crippling and it is hard to remove. Are the journey rules too hard, if you don’t have characters built to be good at survival, perception and so on, or if they are plain unlucky?
Why should you buy this book?
If you love Tolkien’s world and want to play in it.
If you plan on running a low magic campaign. It will have many things you can lift.
If you are a newcomer to DM Dungeons & Dragons this game is in some ways easier than regular D&D, as there are fewer spells and so on to keep track of, and the setting will be familiar to most people. However, … see below
If you want inspiration for your own campaign, such as classes, feats and backgrounds.
Why shouldn’t you buy this book?
If your players want plenty of cool spells and magical gear, Adventures in Middle-Earth isn’t for you.
The murder hobo, kick in the door play-style is also a hard fit with the setting. This is a game of heroes and often tales tinged with sadness.
A newcomer DM might find it hard to deal with the game, if it turns out there are imbalances, whereas core D&D is quite robust.