The review was done using the writers personally owned copies of the product.
This is part 2 of a 2 part review focusing on Adventures in Middle Earth by Cubicle 7. If you missed the previous portion of the review you can read it here.
Adventures in Middle Earth part 2: The Player’s Guide
Welcome back! Let’s pick up where we left off. We ended the previous portion of the review covering Virtues. Now, we shall move on to the next section Backgrounds.
Backgrounds – What you have done, who you know and what you think will kill ya!
5th edition introduced the concept of Backgrounds to Dungeons and Dragons. The idea that your character does not spring into existence, They concept is not new to Dungeons and Dragons or gaming, but mechanically, was truly understated in previous editions. 5th edition options for Backgrounds are fairly light but functional. Personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws paint a general picture of how to roleplay your character. Cubicle 7 took a look at this system and asked one very important question. How can we make this fit Middle Earth?
First off, as in other sections Cubicle 7 renames the categories of Backgrounds. However, this is more than just a cosmetic refacing. Backgrounds are bought as packages. Each one of these categories gives a special feature (like a mini virtue), 2 skill proficiencies, and suggested characteristics. While players are freely able to mix and match special characteristics, the characteristics truly do match the background category. Characteristics consist of 4 areas. A Distinctive Quality, a Specialty, a Hope, and Despair.
If your thinking this sounds pretty familiar…
You would be right! With the exception of Despair which has a slightly more ominous function than Flaws in standard 5e, this is more clever Middle Earth centric renaming. Each entry is certainly geared towards middle earth gameplay, and it does not take much imagination to look at some of the categories and find a direct correlation to popular middle earth character. This is not about reinventing the wheel. It is about giving a reasonable approximation of what Middle Earth should feel like. I think overall the Backgrounds section of the book really helps to flesh out the flavor of Middle Earth while adhering to the formula introduced by 5E.
The Player’s Guide packs in the following new Backgrounds, each with their own tables of qualities, specialties, hopes, and despairs.
- The Loyal Servant
- Doomed to Die
- Driven from home
- Emissary of your people
- Fallen Scion
- The Harrowed
- Hunted by the Shadow
- Lure of the Road
- The Magician
- Reluctant Adventurer
- Seeker of the Lost
- World Weary
I am betting on the titles alone most of you can picture a Lord of the Rings character the background is emulating. Some of them even have optional changes to further help with fleshing out the narrative.
Who doesn’t need some good equipment?
Adventures in Middle Earth does not skimp on their equipment section. First thing folks have to understand is, this is a low magic setting. It is also a setting where plate mail does not exist. While there are certainly Pauldrons and heavy helmets, it truly sticks to the Tolkien Lore, and most characters at best will walk around in scale hauberks or ring mail armor. There are no street vendors selling healing potions (at least not real ones). Right up front this section establishes currencies, standards of living and the effects those standards have on what characters can purchase.
Cubicle 7 also introduces a few new weapons and armor pieces, such as Great Shields, Mattocks, Great Spears and Heavy scimitars as just a few examples. If Tolkien mentioned an item in a book, it made the list. Details are given about Dwarf forged weapons and armor. Dwarves will not make just anything and always charge a hefty price for their work. I specifically found it interesting they included Dwarven Toys and Dalish Fireworks. I can think of all kinds of possibilities to employ those as faux magic of sorts.
Where this section truly shines is in the Herbs, Potions and Salves section. It lists off many herbs, which can heal certain kinds of damage, bestow good fortune, and increase combat prowess. What book on Middle Earth would be complete without discussing pipes and pipeweed? Smoking a pipe in AiME imparts various beneficial effects, especially when doing intelligence based tasks. Slowing down to ponder the world and make smoke rings can save the world!
Cultural Heirlooms = Middle Earth magic items
Cultural Heirlooms cannot be bought. You most likely will NOT find them in a trolls treasure horde. They are gained through taking a virtue that bestows them or by the rare chance a leader of a people is so ingratiated they part with some relic of their people’s history. Heirlooms are not magic per say, instead they gain bonuses due to their history and craftsmanship rather than some magic dweomer being cast upon them. They are very rare or should be anyway. One problem I think folks have in relating to Tolkien is the fact the Fellowship and to a smaller extent, the party of 13 were legendary heroes. The heroes that are made by players are aspiring to be the same. The Lord of the Rings epic would constitute an entire campaign from start to finish.
Dungeons and Dragons games tend to have quite a bit more beef to them. Players expect to find magical items, go through dozens of dungeons like Moria, and with luck campaign long enough to be part of political or world-shaking events. AiME has a deliberately slower pace and this is evident even in the equipment section.
Journeys – Wilderness Encounters on steroids!
It is common in any game for characters to travel some considerable distances. AiME takes this to a high art form. Despite modern pop culture poking fun at Tolkien lore in such movies as Clerks 2, the point made is valid. The Middle Earth books truly are about long journeys. AiME breaks down the journey into 3 steps. The Embarkation, Journey Events and Task Rolls, and The Arrival. All events are modified by the peril rating of the area of Middle Earth the players are currently venturing. The Player’s Guide has a map on the inside cover that shows different peril ratings based off of the level of shadow activity or influence in that area.
I am not sure where I stand with this. I feel like some of this is something that should be done for any game, but on the other hand, I recognize it is necessary to do a little something more than the standard encounters in a Lord of the Rings scenario. Consider the books themselves. The three trolls were an event. The spiders in Mirkwood and the Elves were an event. Even the arrival at Rivendell in both books was an event. We clarify some of them as random encounters in D&D terms, but it is fairly easy to see where Tolkien influenced one aspect and it has since come back full circle to influence Middle Earth game.
During Embarkation phase, the players divide tasks for the journey between themselves. These tasks are Guide, Scout, Hunter, and Look-out. At first, I was kind of taken aback by the naming, as frankly, they all seem to have a similar theme. With the exception of the Guide position, a player can take on more than one task. The players will roll skill checks to see if their portion of the Embarkation phase goes smoothly or not. The worse the rolls the more exhaustion will build, penalties will accrue and bad things happen. Poor planning produces poor performance, and that is exactly what this phase exemplifies. Exhaustion can produce disadvantage on rolls so it is definitely something to avoid.
The Guide plans the journey and tries to forsee obstacles. The Scout looks for trouble on the trail and does their best to circumvent it. The Hunter keeps the party safe from more bestial threats and fed. The Lookout ensures the camp site is secure and safe. While many a heroic tale has one person doing all these tasks, it certainly makes sense in the Tolkien frame of mind to split them up. Gandalf was the Guide, Aragorn the Lookout, Legolas the Hunter and Frodo/Bilbo the Scout.
Journey Events and Tasks
Journey Events are the middle part, the journey itself. Depending on the length of the journey, the number of events or “encounters” will raise. Short Journeys produce 1-2 events, Medium Journeys 2-3 and Long Journeys 3-5. Events are not necessarily monster encounters. They could be a band of traveling Dwarven merchants, a landslide, or an orc war party. Events are randomly rolled for by the Loremaster and roleplayed out. Sometimes, it will fall on a single party member to beat a challenge and ensure the journey continues. In practice this can lead to some pretty nail-biting moments, at least it did at my table.
The Arrival is more about what the journey did to your characters. Rolls will be made and modified by events that occurred in the prior two phases. Did you have a setback as a landslide took your wagon off track and forced you to dump half your provisions? Were you set upon by orcs that harried your trail for league after league providing little rest and leaving your party exhausted? Perhaps your scholar had the foresight to know part of the pass would be blocked and set up arrangements for you to meet a dwarven caravan along the way and save your feet some wear and tear. This is where your guide has their moment to shine because the roll they will make is dependent on how they did on the embarkation roll and the journey events themselves.
It would not feel like Middle Earth were there not a sense of impending doom lurking about. Through character creation, actual game events and lore, the threat of Mordor, Sauron and Morgoth to a smaller extent is always present. Players are adventuring in a doomed land. A land which is struggling to survive in its present incarnation. This is quantified in game terms by the addition of Shadow Points. Think of them as being a crap meter. Once that meter is pegged out, people lose their proverbial poo. The noblest hero can have moments of black despair.
These points built as the character confronts the shadow, loses companions, travels to blighted places where the shadow has a solid foothold, or they commit misdeeds that go against being a hero. There is no alignment system in AiME. All players are expected to be heroes. With that in mind, they are fallible heroes. Conditions such as miserable place disadvantage on all attack rolls and forbid the use of charisma based checks due to the character’s demeanor. Worse yet this can lead to bouts of madness which cause the character to react in all sorts of unfortunate ways. Quite frankly, reading this section just made me feel depressed, which I guess is kind of the point.
Think of Boromir trying to take the ring from Frodo. He had a bout of madness brought on by his despair, which made him try to take the ring forcibly. Once his madness was over (made his save) he realized the error of his ways and then resolved to protect the ringbearer by giving his life. The Shadow is a nice narrative device, that if used correctly can add a lot of impact to the game itself.
Audiences – Ya got to please em’!
This section is basically a how-to guide for the various cultures of Middle Earth and how they deal with each other. It discusses the need for a certain amount of decorum when visiting say Saruman the Wise. One does not simply burst into Saruman’s tower and say “WASSUP!”. The players have to navigate the very political waters, and the natural racial enmity that exists. Dwarves are not overly fond of Elves. Humans distrust Dwarven Merchant prices. Hobbits think Humans are loud and noisy bothersome folk. This little section further provides instruction for players to peruse, to ensure they have the right mindset when asking that powerful figure for assistance.
My thoughts on this product
I will admit to only having passing familiarity with the One Ring product line. I played a ton of Middle Earth Roleplaying in my younger years, roping some of my friends and neighbors and relatives into playing it with me, crit tables and all. When I heard a version was being made using the 5th edition rules I was skeptical, to say the least. 5th edition RAW is a high octane, fast-paced game. While it has little touches that pay homage to the past, it also embraces the current as well. It is clearly obvious from the rules in 5th edition they borrow heavily from both MMORPG’s and from other current Roleplaying products, such as Savage Worlds and Hackmaster to name a couple.
Marrying Middle Earth to that kind of mindset seems ludicrous. I honestly feel like, given the engine, Cubicle 7 has done a marvelous job of doing it. I do feel this was at the expense of slowing 5th edition down. With no spellcasters spewing cantrips like laser pistols, a large chunk of the damage dealing is gone from the game. Without clerics using divine aid to repair wounds, a lot of the support was removed. This makes for a more deadly game and throws just about everyone into the martial role.
So what kind of group is the game for
I would have to say the target audience for this adaptation of 5th edition is going to be die-hard Tolkien fans, mature groups that love a heavy narrative, or just as a sourcebook for a low magic setting, such as Lankhmar or Conan. It did not do terribly well with my younger table of gamers. They quickly pulled apart the meta pieces and like a prophecy writing itself, I had 3 barding weaponmasters, 1 Beorning Slayer, and a Dwarf Scholar. All of this was done custom picking over every mechanical application. By 3rd level and sub class choices, power creep was already bleeding through. You may ask why I let this go down? The simple answer is because I am testing the product. I want to see it function as it is written before I make balancing solutions.
With my older group, their choices were far more based on preferences and appreciation of the lore itself. I will admit the game was far more enjoyable with them. We had a hobbit treasure hunter, A Dwarf Slayer, a Men of Bree Scholar, a female Elf Warden and a Minas Tirith Warrior. The Journey system went over well with this crowd, and our short adventure to transport a block of mithril from one artisan to another was a smashingly fun success. Because mechanically the game is still 5th edition the combats and abilities usage went smoothly. This leads me to posit that if your target group is a bit older and more on the narrative side Adventures in Middle Earth could go over quite well.
The Hardcover version of Adventures in Middle Earth is a fantastic product. If you are a Tolkien fan this book still has a lot to offer you. Fantastic little bits of lore and gorgeous artistic renderings fill this book. It clearly borrows from the movie adaptation and the MMORPG on some visuals, but this is not a bad thing. Translating someone’s imagination to a visual format is a hard enough task. Drawing inspiration from successful adaptations is only common sense. You will not find any issue with the artistic renderings present here.
The binding of the book is solid and firm. This book can travel without fear of falling apart. The organization is clear and flows extremely well. I think it is has a better layout sense than the 5th edition Player’s Handbook for instance.
Rule Changes or expansions?
Adventures in Middle Earth does a lot of renaming. In some cases, this is necessary for fitting the lore, but in many, it is merely cosmetic. Do we really need a Slayer class that is so clearly taken from barbarians? Probably not. Does it occasionally feel as though the authors simply tossed something in just to meet some kind of balance standard? Yes, it does. That being said, nothing is done to the detriment of the 5th edition game. If anything, Cubicle 7 does a great job of making the 5th edition rules like inspiration and advantage/disadvantage shine. I found the usage mechanics wise to be borderline genius in ideal and practice. It works and works well without adding a lot of extra fluff.
The most important thing about this product though is, IT IS ALL USEFUL. I am tired of buying products that are about 45 pages of useless repetitiveness and frequent wastes of space in a 200 page product. Other than artistic splash pages, everything in this product is attached to gameplay. It has a purpose and the book truly seems to be for players. As you will see from my future LoreMasters Guide review, Cubicle 7 does not pull the age-old repetition to increase page count. I really appreciate that.
To buy or not to buy?
If you are looking for a break from the MMORPG style gameplay that 5th edition CAN (it does not have to be) devolve into, consider picking up Adventures in Middle Earth. It is by no means perfect, but I think it adds quite a bit of flavor and distinct gameplay to warrant a read through. Specifically, it showcases how you can really take 5E and make it your own. It does look like viewing the math, by 7th-8th level encounters may trivialize, but that is only viewing current content that is available. A clever DM can fix that without issue.
Keep Rolling them Bones,
Please join me in two weeks for my review of the Adventures in Middle Earth Loremasters Guide!