Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Review: Adventures in Middle-earth Players Guide

I've been down with the man flu from hell for the last few days, and am only just getting back on my feet. During my period of enforced convalescence, I have been reading Adventures in Middle-earth from Cubicle 7. Seasoned gamers will know Cubicle 7 have the license for a roleplaying game based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and to this end have already produced an excellent RPG called The One Ring.

Cubilce 7 have gone further now, uniting the Middle-earth license with the mechanics of the Dungeons & Dragons RPG for the first time. D&D has been through a bit of a rough patch since the 4th edition of the game was launched, and it ended up being outsold by Pathfinder, still arguably the heir to D&D's mantle, given the amount of people who play Pathfinder steadfastly, both here in the UK and around the world.

However, D&D has taken a lot of inspiration from Tolkien's works as well as those of other fantasy fiction writers, but there has never been an official combo of the two. Many dungeon masters have set their games in Middle-earth on an informal basis, but for the most part official Middle-earth RPGs have steered their own course. Back in the glory days of early RPGs, it was ICE's Middle-earth Roleplaying (MERP) that many gamers turned to for their Middle-earth fix.

Adventures in Midde-earth is a lovely looking hardback book designed for players primarily. It is illustrated by a range of very talented artists, foremost among them John Howe and Jon Hodgson, who do an excellent job of capturing the essential feel of the realms of Middle-earth, so important in a book like this. The original MERP traded heavily on the awesome art of Angus McBride, and it is good to see that money has been spent on getting the art right. It is a truly lovely book.

Adventures in Middle-earth represents a very different feel to D&D campaigns - it takes much of its inspiration from The One Ring, in that the cultures of the heroes a more important than in vanilla D&D. Each hero is a combination of culture, class, virtues and backgrounds. Cultures here are a bit more varied than in the original One Ring, as new cultures like the Dunedain, the Men of Bree and the Men of Minas Tirith have been added. Cultures act like races in D&D, but even if you are human, you culture will set you apart from  other men in Middle-earth. For example, Riders of Rohan get +1 to their Wisdom score, and can also raise two other attributes by +1.

All the D&D classes have been replaced with new Middle-earth classes. No wizards or clerics here. Classes on offer include Scholar, Slayer, Treasure Hunter (Burglar!), Wanderer, Warden and Warrior. Because magic in Middle-earth is more understated and works in more subtle ways, there is less scope here for player characters to run around frying everything with fireballs. Some classes seem to have archetypes they can choose from, as in the 5th edition D&D - for example the Treasure Hunter can choose between Agent ("The agent relies on charm as much as stealth or wit.") and Burglar ("You employ your dubious, if highly useful, skills to acquire things that others possess.")

Virtues are additional boons granted to some characters at 1st level, those from mannish cultures, as compensation for the other abilities non-human races begin with. Many are culture specific. At 4th level players of any race can pick a virtue rather than the attribute increase that can receive within the core D&D rules. The same goes for 8th, 12th, etc. There are some open virtues, that any player can use, and some cultural virtues, which are specific to your cultural background. For example, the Dunedain can choose Dauntless Guardians, which among other things, lets them detect undead and makes them more resistant to fear caused by undead. There's quite a choice here - even the non-humans have a good selection. Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain can choose from virtues like Broken Spells, Durin's Way and Old Hatred, among others. There are some truly wonderful ones here, like Merchant Prince, a virtue of the Men of the Lake:

"Your family's fortune is rising with the reopening of the trading routes that lead to the markets of the South and the East. This increased affluence has started to positively affect your adventuring life, as you may choose a servant from those employed in your household and have him join you in your next endeavour."
As with 5th edition D&D, there are also Middle-earth specific backgrounds to choose from. These let you roll on a table to provide your character with further dimensions and some flavour with which to roleplay by. I love some of these; they really feel like backgrounds from the pages of Tolkien: Doomed to Die, Driven From Home or Emissary Of Your People are all good ones. Apart from skill proficiencies they also bring with them additional background elements. Take Oathsworn for example:

"You have sworn a mighty oath, one that is now indelibly associated with your name. The oath itself should be both suitably epic and possible to accomplish...A mighty oath carries its own legend and you often find yourself receiving aid from those who want to help the legend or even become embroiled in it."

There are a LOT of backgrounds here, which is excellent.

The equipment section is filled with some superb examples of Middle-earth specific items. Middle-earth functions on a reassuring imperial coinage system, with 12 copper coins to the silver penny, and 20 silver pennies to the gold piece. Tolkien would have recognised this currency. A frugal standard of living costs three gold pieces for a year. "Frugal folk usually sleep in comfortable common halls (or tents, if nomadic) and eat the produce of their own lands and pastures." Characters can also receive cultural heirlooms as a possible virtue (no magic shops in Middle-earth): these include the likes of the tower shields of Dale, the great spears of the Beornings or the Star of the Dunedain. You can pick up one-off items like this as a beginning character, but you cannot BUY them; they are considered priceless family heirlooms. They are also distinct to cultural backgrounds.



Everything in this book seems to work towards conjuring up the atmosphere of the books and films. Adventures themselves in this game are meant to follow the same course as in the One Ring - much revolves around a journey or mission, usually into the wild. The default setting at the moment is the wilderness around Mirkwood in the immediate aftermath of the death of the dragon Smaug and the Battle of Five Armies at the end of The Hobbit. Five years have passed since then, providing opportunity for both Laketown and Dale to be rebuilt, and for the dwarves to reoccupy Erebor.

There are mechanics here for journeys in the wild, but at the same time adventurers must keep an eye out for corruption by the Shadow. Corruption can be picked up in a number of ways, and replaces alignment. Anguish, blighted places, misdeeds, tainted treasure, all can gain you corruption. With it comes misery, madness and degeneration, something heroes must strive to avoid. Boromir and indeed his father Denethor are prime examples of this from The Lord of the Rings. Characters want to avoid becoming Miserable, as this is the first step on the way to madness, making them prone to bouts of madness and bringing with it other penalties, like automatically failing Charisma checks. It sounds nasty, but it works to keep characters on the straight and narrow and beats the usual "Hey, you can't do that - you're Lawful." Instead a character picks up a few corruption points. Coward, thief, plunderer? Have three Shadow points. Once Shadow passes your Wisdom, you become Miserable. Oh yes. Thus it boils down to players what path they choose - they are not circumscribed by an alignment system but they take a risk in becoming more degenerate.

Each adventure in Middle-earth is considered to take the course of a year - characters are not full time adventurers. As in Glorantha, they are meant to be members of their communities as well. They have families and a stake in the world. They are not travelling murder hoboes for hire. They adventure, frequently, for a reason, even if they come from disparate backgrounds. Between adventure years, there is a fellowship phase. This boils down to rest and recovery at a nominated sanctuary:

"A number of locations in Middle-earth are considered Sanctuaries; special, safe places particularly suited to rest, recovery and training, usually overseen by a host willing to welcome travellers. At the beginning of a game, the only place the player heroes may consider a Sanctuary is the town of Esgaroth on the Long Lake..."

Fellowship phases are intended also to cover between adventure activities, like training, gaining new traits, healing corruption and researching lore. Generally this matches the winter phase, a time when characters will stick to civilised areas, when snow is on the ground and wild wargs are on the prowl.

Rangers of the North, by Jon Hodgson


The book concludes with some pre-generated characters to get you going. These are all 1st level examples of the new character classes, ready to go. If you want to actually run a game in Middle-earth you will also need the Loremasters Guide from Cubicle 7, which is now also out in print, as well as the current D&D Player's Handbook. You won't require the other core D&D books however, although they could come in useful.

In conclusion I really love what Cubicle 7 has achieved here. One of my criticisms of D&D as it currently stands has been the emphasis on combat to the detriment of other areas of high fantasy. This was very much the case with fourth edition, and while I appreciate the way fifth edition has embraced the generic, 'game for all games' model it needed, I'm delighted to see products like Adventures in Middle-earth really taking things to the next level. I'm looking forward to further releases in this line. If there is something that would bring me back to running D&D, Adventures in Middle-earth is it...

2 comments:

  1. How do you gain experience in this version?

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  2. Aha. Just discovered this post! The Loremasters Guide is useless on this matter. It states "While the precise system.... is up to you, and the topic is beyond the scope of this supplement (me thinking 'er no... this is the Loremasters Guide!!!! Hello?!!).. the beginning phase of a Fellowship Phase is an ideal time to make major XP awards....'!!!!

    Thus I guess: use the 5e system of xp per encounter or by milestones or GM fiat.

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