The review was done using the writers personally owned copies of the product.
Adventures in Middle Earth part 1: The Player’s Guide
It is not surprise to most of us that The Lord of the Rings has long been a benchmark of fantasy literature. Tolkien was as close as any of us could get to a mainstream fantasy back in the halcyon days of roleplaying yore. It was the one fantasy book series we could have in our backpacks that did not provoke a sneer from adults. It was also one of the few of the genre that did not exploit sexist themes to its target audience. Every wizard was compared to Gandalf. Every halfling thief was thought of as Frodo or Bilbo. I would argue that prior to Dragonlance or the Sword of Shannara series there were very few “group adventure” stories out there.
Love it or hate it, Middle Earth’s tales were the first of their kind. They were also the litmus test for all others to be compared to. How many times have we picked up a new fantasy epic to see some quotes from some other author equating this new book to Tolkien? Sure folks love to tear it apart, and to them, I say, “If that is the case, let’s see what you have written that fueled a genre.” Love it or hate it, it has undeniably fixed in our minds a certain expectation. In that Tolkien was a pioneer. Cubicle 7 now attempts the same thing themselves with Adventures in Middle Earth.
What Middle Earth is not!
I came into this review series without first recalling what makes Middle Earth so much different from say, Midkemia, Azeroth, Eberron, Toril or any other fantasy world. I also came in remembering ICE’s classic MERP game. This game in no way attempts to be MERP. To try to compare the two products is like comparing apples to oranges. Same world, but vastly different concepts of how to approach the idea. MERP was more of a light simulation while trying to be as robust magic wise as other competitors of the era. Players could use magic, and there was quite a bit of flexibility in terms of the era of gameplay. The lore was always at the forefront but many liberties were taken with that lore to establish an almost alternate view of Middle Earth. Cubicle 7’s vision is much different.
If your only reference for Middle Earth comes from the movies, Cubicle 7’s vision of Middle Earth will surprise you. Movies are made to entertain us. They also have a habit of translating an author’s works to fill box office seats. Elves sliding down war mammoth tusks shooting arrows. The overabundance of jokes and nerd culture fantasy references. These aspects and many more do not fit the Adventures in Middle Earth ideal.
So what is this vision for middle earth you speak of?
If you honestly go back and look at the works as a whole, Middle Earth is a very low magic place. It is not that magic does not exist, it does. But most forms of magic have been corrupted by the Shadow through Sauron and before him Morgoth. Even the Wizards, Saruman, Radagast, Gandalf, Morinehtar, and Rómestámo (the latter two being the blue wizards) were actually more angelic servants than a true wizard. They served to protect the free peoples and advise them, but never to match Sauron or others power for power. The Istari did not run around with spell books and neither did they take on apprentices. They were keepers of ancient knowledge and advisors to the free peoples.
There is not a pervasive religion in Middle Earth. Eru Ilúvatar is seen as the one god, but no mention of temples or worship is found in the works of Tolkien. Melkor is the Devil to Eru Ilúvatar’s divine creator. But readers are never given a full understanding of how day to day worship works. This means there are no clerics either!
So if you are still with me, that means no wizards roaming around blasting spells. No clerics smiting evil. Oh and the best armor around is mail. No plate mailed paladin types roaming around either. Magic Items while they do exist, are almost impossible to find and usually are very doubled edged affairs.
How Cubicle 7 portrays Middle Earth
Middle Earth through Cubicle 7’s eyes is as close to the vision of the author as one could get. I do not make this statement idly. In fact, I was taken aback at first by the game. I had to read the Player’s Guide three times while referencing the four original books. The danger of the movies is that they cloud how we remember the written story. One example is Beorn. Beorn is said at the end of the hobbit to have “become a great chief of men, and ruled a wide land between mountains and wood”. As such Beornings are a culture in Cubicle 7’s version that is playable. I had Beorn fixed in my mind as the last of a dying race. One has but to read the conclusion of the hobbit to see Cubicle 7 has the right of it.
Cubicle 7’s Middle Earth takes place mostly in the Wilderlands. The timeline is 5 years after the Battle of the Five Armies, 70 years before the Fellowship of the Ring. The shadow is slowly rising once again. While the free peoples are perhaps as united as they have been in many years, most races are on the decline. Even some aspects of man are declining from what they once were. Think of Tolkien’s Middle Earth as a post-apocalyptic fantasy realm. Magic still exists but it is waning and a ghost of what it once was. Most cultures have lost what once made them formidable. Darkness once more creeps into the world, and the players are the few brave souls willing to fight against it.
What does the Player’s Guide provide?
Cubicle 7’s Player’s Guide covers all the rule conventions needed to make a character set in Middle Earth. Many of the terms used will sound alien but in all honesty, they have mostly reskinned terms from standard 5th edition ruleset. It is highly encouraged that player’s make their class selections from the unique middle earth classes. This is both to help maintain the theme of the game but also to ensure the power scale remains consistent. 5th editions take on magic with the use of cantrips can often feel like a tabletop simulation of an MMORPG. Wizards are immensely powerful and the rules as written just would not fit a Middle Earth campaign. This is not to say a LoreMaster cannot allow them. Rules are given in the LoreMaster’s guide for just that purpose.
Cultures replace the concept of races. Most cultures belong to various groups of mankind, however, Hobbits, Elves, and Dwarves are also present though specific to the region of Wilderland. There is no alignment system as all players are of goodly intent. Notice I say intent. Players will gain despair as the shadow grinds on them over the course of their travels. This can lead to bouts of madness and bad decisions. Virtues replace feats, with virtues being much more closely tied to the culture of the character and less open-ended than feats. Let’s take a more structured break down look at these features.
Cultures – Races renamed or something more?
Races in standard D&D have always been part aesthetic, part meta-decision. Some players like myself enjoy roleplaying a particular culture with all its many stereotypes (Dour taciturn Dwarves, Melodious, aloof elves, mischievous but light-hearted halflings). Other players will choose a race for some perceived in-game gain. AiME (just to avoid typing Adventures in Middle Earth over and over) places a lot more emphasis on your culture. I would even go so far as to say your choice of culture has as much in-game impact as your choice of class. Cultures dictate ability score adjustments, traits, and virtues. Virtues are lore specific feats by another name. Traits can be proficiency bonuses or innate abilities.
Virtues I will discuss later but in some instances, this can even curtail into cultural heirlooms specific to a region of the culture. I recognize that some of my readers don’t like when I use the term balance. I understand that in 1974 there was no concept of balance because frankly there was no concept of these games. Roleplaying games, however, have come a long way since 1974. With so many to choose from and so many examples, I feel like we purchasers can be a bit more nitpicky about balance. I will make this blanket statement and take it for what you will. Not all cultures in AiME are balanced. It took my band of meta gamers about 20 minutes of reading through culture choices to pick out winners.
I do like the various mannish cultures. It is both refreshing and definite nod to the lore to separate them out as Cubicle 7 did. There was one choice though that felt a little weak which was the Men of Bree. I am not sure a town qualifies as a whole culture to itself, though I admit the intermixing of hobbits with men in this area could potentially give rise to this.
Classes – 6 to rule them all
Cubicle 7 stepped outside the normal campaign setting humdrum by choosing to create their own original classes. Well when I say original, that is not quite accurate. Perhaps D&D classes tailored to be more reminiscent of the setting itself. All in all, I do not think this was a bad choice. Especially since there are no spellcasters of any kind to be found in AiME. With the glass cannon and the holy band-aid gone, I must admit I went into reading this section with some serious reservations.
After all, was there not examples of magic in the books? Glorfindel saved Frodo at the Fords of Bruinen, and arguably used some kind of magic to hold the ringwraiths in the river until they were hit with the floods from Rivendell. (not to mention the fact Glorfindel was himself close to being an Istari like Gandalf and the others) Gandalf and Saruman both wielded powers mystic.
Ultimately, none of this matters. Players are not Istari. They are commoners, minor nobles and craftsmen conscripted into adventure and in truth to confront the shadow and protect their homelands. This is done by drawing on archetypes that are both familiar and different than their D&D counterparts. I will break it down as best I can below.
An expert in both past lore and knowledgeable in healing. At 3rd level, they can expand upon this to become Master Healers and masters of herbalism or font of wisdom capable of greatly affecting other classes, and unraveling the shadows plans. The Master Scholar can speak with animals, unravel runes of power and even command others with their mere presence. This class feels about as close as one can get to Gandalf or Radagast and replaces the cleric for all intents.
At first Glance, the Slayer bears a strong resemblance to the Barbarian class in standard D&D. They were light or medium armor and until the level, 3 paths have little to separate them from the barbarians at all. At 3rd level, they can choose to become The Rider (think Riders of Rohan) with abilities stemming from horsebacks such as spear throws and inspiration abilities with their horns. The Foe Hammer is essentially a berserker by another name. They wade into the thick of battle with abilities that allow them to shatter defenses heedless of their own peril. Honestly, the slayer is the weakest entry for me.
The Treasure Hunter is a rogue by another name. Tolkien was much more refined about his thieves and the Treasure Hunter is a great expression of this. Many of the aspects are the same with a few standout abilities such as night vision increased stealth and avoidance of traps. At 3rd level, they can choose from Agent, a spy/information gleaner, fast talker or Burglar, which further extends the thiefly aspects of stealth and guile.
This is the experienced traveler, with many traits in common with a 1st edition AD&D ranger. It is clear that Aragorn was the inspiration for this class, and I think Cubicle 7 does a good job defining the skills one who took to constantly travel would need to survive. Wanderer’s skills come into play for the Journey aspect of the game which we will discuss later, as well as being pretty decent combatants. At 3rd level they can choose to become a Hunter of Beasts, specializing in outdoor tracking, though it seems very slated towards bow use despite the wanderer being able to select specific fighting styles. The Hunter of Shadows hunts orcs, goblins, trolls and other servants of shadow. The Hunter of Shadows path seems much more tuned to melee, making me wonder if the paths are not just a little too limited.
This class represents as close as one can get to a jack of all trades. It is a far more martial bard. Their words can inspire healing around the campfire, steel a comrades blade, and quicken companions steps during travel. At 3rd level, they can take the path of the Counselor. As Counselors, they can gift other players dice to help in tasks they need to complete. This even lends itself to giving advantage past the 7th level with Worthy Counsel trait. They get anticipate which gives them bits of knowledge to help unravel the loremaster’s finely crafted plotline. The Herald Path is close to a skald mindset wise singing in battle and using their song to inspire allies and break the wills of their foes. Finally, The Bounder seems clearly inspired by the shire, as guardians and policemen types who seek to protect the people under their watch.
I found it odd that that Warden got three classpaths. The Bounder does not really fit the mold of the other two paths. It feels like it belongs to the Warrior class.
The Warrior is the traditional Fighter class. They train as soldiers and have fighting styles just like the Wanderer. Were it not for their martial archetype at 3rd level it would seem like a less than subtle renaming of the fighter. However, at 3rd level, the class comes into its own.
Players can take the path of the Knight, tired directly to a liege lord. Knights swear oaths to protect charges. Charges can be another player or an NPC. They gain temporary hit points as long as they hold true to the vows of protection. They receive cultural heirlooms (pseudo magic items in a way, closer to superior crafted items that grow in power as the legend of the knight grows). It is also possible for their deeds to pass into song fueling increased npc relations with various cultures affected by the good deed. Essentially, Cubicle 7 found a way to capture a knight’s essence and abilities without the paladin holy side attached. Bravo on this path design!
The second path is that of the Weapon Master. Once again much like the Knight they have found how to take a semi-expected fantasy trope and put some middle earth flourishes. Weapon Masters, of course, dig deeper on specific weapons netting advantages in combat. What is more interesting is the Birthright option which gives a weapon with a history to the warrior that only builds as their talents increase. This adds magical qualities to the weapon without the need of magical weapons. After all, in the lore of Middle Earth, there are plenty of examples of this, blades with histories that inspire fear in enemies at the mere sight of them.
Overall, The Warrior class really shines as a fresh take on what is otherwise a tired fantasy trope.
Final class tidbits
All classes have a shadow weakness. How this breaks down into gameplay is as the game progresses and players are increasingly dragged into encounters with the servants of Sauron and evil, in general, it begins to take a toll. This is in keeping with the spirit of Tolkien’s Vision. There were not a lot of smiles in the original text. The journey to defeat dark voices cloud the souls of many of the heroes and as such Cubicle 7 reflects this by pairing shadow weaknesses to professions. From a narrative GM standpoint, this allows for some great player interaction and story building.
A nurse constantly confronting death every day has to build a thick skin in order to do their job. A police officer seeing the crimes humanity perpetrates upon themselves can become mistrustful or sour. Even a small hobby shop store owner constantly confronted by the need to compete with online vendors to keep his customer base can become resentful. It makes good sense that heroes in a Tolkien inspired tale would suffer the same. I will discuss this more in the Shadow section.
Virtues – Feats by another name or something more?
AiME has taken the 5th edition system and tweaked it to better fit the lore of Tolkien. Virtues are more than just Feats, instead of being intrinsically tied into the very fabric of the culture of the character. Virtues are separated by culture, with each and every culture having its own choices. There are also a handful of open culture virtues, just in case, you cannot find something to suit your tastes within your own culture.
Virtues are flavored heavily by the culture they are part of. For example, Bardings have the ability to sort of see impending catastrophe’s. Beornings can make their skin have resistance to piercing damage as long as they wear no armor. Dúnedain can spend inspiration to remain in the battle once their hit points are reduced to zero. These are just a few examples of the various virtues and not even the best ones by a long shot.
Overall, Virtues are an interesting take on racially based feats. While not the first setting to do this, I feel Cubicle 7 did a good job of interweaving lore into rules. My only wish is that all cultures felt equal, and sadly they do not. There are clear winners, which once again my meta gamers found quickly. Thankfully, I do not see AiME truly making the wish list of many meta-gamer types. It is just not that sort of game.
End of Part 1
Well, this wraps up Part 1 of the Player’s Guide review. Join me in 7 days for Part 2, where I will round up the rest of the book and give my final opinion on the Adventures in Middle Earth Player’s Guide.
Until Next time,
Keep rolling them bones