Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Adventures in Middle Earth, a review

I bought Adventures in Middle Earth, the D&D 5th edition sourcebook for Tolkien's Middle Earth produced by Cubicle 7. Cublicle early published The One Ring RPG after securing the Middle Earth license. I have PDFs of the first two books of The One Ring. It OK but not really my style as it has to much narrative/metagaming mechanics in it and abstract in other eras like combat. It seem to me more focused on creating stories set in Middle Earth than experiencing what it is like to do things in Middle Earth. Which is what I want out of an RPG I referee.

So I was eager to get a crack at a D&D 5th edition sourcebook because if they make a honest effort at being a sourcebook there only so much storytelling metagame they can try to jam in. And the good news overall, they do a good job. It is a solid 5th edition sourcebook.

So lets get that out of the way. Adventure of Middle Earth isn't a clone it is a source book. You will need the D&D 5e core book, the 5e SRD, or the 5e basic rules on hand to run this. The Loremaster supplement looks like it will extend the Dungeon Master side rather act as a replacement.

The Wilderlands

The default setting of The One Ring and Adventures in Middle Earth is set in the Wilderlands (the area in which Tolkien's Hobbit took place) after the death of Smaug and before the events of the Lord of the Ring. Now that Smaug is dead, people are resettling and reclaiming old homes and building new ones. But evil still lurks and Sauron's hand still reaches out from the darkness of Mordor.

But Cubicle includes enough of the rest of Middle Earth that you could pretty much set your campaign anytime after the downfall of Numenor in the 2nd Age. Perhaps even back to the end of the first age if you know your Tolkien lore and proficient in D&D 5e. The only major thing that is omitted are the high elves like Elrond and those who live at Rivendell.

The first section is devoted to fleshing out the Wilderlands and its inhabitant. It is a travelogue full of high level details. You will have to work at fleshing a specific area in order to start a campaign. If your know your Tolkien already it serve as a useful summary of what they are planning to cover.

Adventures in Middle Earth is not focused on race but rather cultures. Races are wrapped up in this sections so you can play a Dwarf of the Lonely Mountain, or an Elf of Mirkwood. Men of Bree are treated a little different than Men of the Lake which are not the same as the Dunedain. The full list is Bardings,Beornings, Dúnedain, Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, Elves of Mirkwood, Hobbits of the Shire, Men of Bree, Men of the Lake, Men of Minas Tirith, Riders of Rohan, Woodmen of Wilderland. Like I said before the only major omission are the Elves of Rivendell.

I am all for the culture based presentation as when I run my own Majestic Wilderlands, I focus on the adventure that rises out of the clash of culture, religion, and politics. However I am little disappointed in the write up of the elves. My own version is largely taken from Tolkien's writings. Here they are pretty D&D 5e elves with a few changes to make them into Middle Earth woodland elves. I think they were afraid to present an "unbalanced culture" even though that would better reflect Tolkien's source material.

But this a minor nitpick in otherwise good job in this section.

I have to say that classes and how they all mesh together is pretty sweet. In my view this is the definitive low fantasy presentation of D&D. There is still magic but it is very low key. Here an example of a 17th level Scholar ability
Words Unspoken
At 17th level, you may convey your thoughts without speaking aloud. When dealing with high-level Scholars, Elves, Dúnedain or other folk of power, you may hold a full conversation, speaking mind to mind. Others have a sense or intuition of your words, but cannot reply, and may misinterpret your thoughts as their own. You cannot read the minds of others with this ability. Once per long rest, you may send brief snatches of your thought over great distances, conveying a single word or short message in dreams.
Here the list of classes and their specialties Scholar (Master Healer, Master Scholar), Slayer(The Rider, Foe-Hammer), Treasure Hunter(Agent, Burglar),  Wanderer(Hunter of Beasts, Hunter of Shadows), Warden(Counsellor, Herald, Bounder), Warrior(Knight, Weaponmaster).

The downside, none really. I didn't spot any obvious mistake and they all convey the flavor of Middle Earth. I can them seeing working with the traditional 5e classes in another setting. Even they are "weaker" than standard 5e classes when it comes to combat, they will probably do quite well in terms of the life of campaign setting. Probably better than most of the standard classes as they feel more organic.

Now this is a clever use of feats. On one hand Virtues are nothing more than 5e feats with the additional provision that some are limited to specific cultures. Just like feats you acquire them in lieu of an increase in ability scores. (4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th level).

They work for Adventures in Middle Earth as they all been rewritten to fit in the Middle Earth setting. For example this for Dunedain
Endurance of the Dúnedain
"Hardy is the race of Elendil!"
The Dúnedain have long endured war against Mordor and the forces of the Great Enemy. They are slow to weary and endure burdens stoically. In battle they are fearsome foes, often able to fight on against overwhelming odds and in spite of grievous wounds.
When a blow reduces you to 0 hit points, but does not kill you outright, you may spend Inspiration to automatically stabilise, remain conscious and continue to take actions.
I read one interesting suggestion by a fan that all characters of a given culture should automatically get their cultural virtues. That might something you want to try.

All specific to Middle Earth and pretty much have the same effect as they are in the D&D 5e core books. Of course this specific character mechanic was meant by Mearls and crew to be customized for ones campaign.

The backgrounds are 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, Oathsworn, Reluctant Adventurer, Seeker of the Lost, and World Weary.

The D&D 5e equipment list modified and rewritten to fit Middle Earth. The most interesting thing are culture heirlooms which function as roleplaying macguffins and minor magic items. You get them either by taking the Cultural Heirloom virtue, maybe as treasure, and perhaps as a result of a successful audience
Númenórean ArrowsFor many long centuries, the “Men of the Sea” sent cohorts of archers to deluge their enemies under a rain of steel. Their long, black-feathered arrows can still be discovered inside burial mounds, among the tall grass of Eriador or where long-forgotten battles were fought across Gondor.
You start each Adventuring phase (see pg. 198) with a number of Númenórean Arrows equal to half your proficiency bonus (round up). When you attack using a great bow, you may declare that you are using one of them. If you succeed on your attack roll, the arrow does additional damage equal to your Wisdom bonus; moreover, your target’s next attack is made with disadvantage.
At the end of the battle you can recover your used arrows if circumstances allow it, unless you rolled a 1, in which case, that arrow is lost or broken beyond recovery.
I want to note that I like the section on Middle Earth herbs. It fits well with the low fantasy feel of the product.

Now here is an interesting section where they give you some mechanics for making journeys interesting. If you read the book, you know the character travel a lot. This is their way of fitting that into a Middle Earth campaign. It is consist of three main things. First, the conditions at the start of the journey, a way of generating what your encounter on the journey. And then your condition at the end of the journey.

It is the latter that will probably get ignore by traditional 5e gamers because it requires you to roleplay how your character feels. Many if not most players react poorly to mechanics that dictate how they must roleplaying. It one thing to read a cultural or race description to use as a starting point, it is another to have a specific mechanics that says
3. Arrival in Poor Spirits
They are beset by foul moods and short tempers that they must work hard to throw off. They are considered disadvantaged on all rolls pertaining to social interaction, until such time as they succeed in one of these rolls. This penalty will apply if they seek an Audience at the destination. If there is a single upside to this dark mood, it is that they are so spoiling for a fight that each member of the company receives advantage to their Initiative rolls should they find themselves in combat at the destination.
It not that that this can't work in a campaign, but it will have limited appeal. While success at overcoming the various challenge during the journey has an impact on the final rolls. I will have to try it and see how it works but it may be too random. The system for generating encounters however is solid.

Keep the roleplaying aspect in mind as move forward. Aside from the occasional use of 5e' Inspiration mechanics there is little in the way of anything involving metagaming or narrative mechanics. There however a whole lot of what I would call roleplaying mechanics. Think how people play being charmed, under the effects of a confusion problem, suggestion, etc. Some groups roleplay it quite well, others don't.

There is no alignment in Adventures in Middle Earth. There is however corruption. The basic idea is the more evil acts you commit, the more evil you experience, the more open you are to the corruption of the shadow that is Sauron. This is basically Call of Cthulu sanity mechanics adapted to Middle Earth and crafted to fit with D&D 5e. Like Coc insanity mechanic, successfully using this require player willing to roleplay. The part with the least appeal will be where even exposure to evil cause corruption. While true to Tolkien's presentation of Middle Earth, many players will not find this appealing. Particularly as it runs up against the player's tendency to thrust themselves into danger in pursuit of their goals.

Another feature of Tolkien's stories is that the adventurers will occasionally encounter the great and mighty of Middle Earth mostly in the form of audience where they either have to explain themselves, or ask for a favor. This short section gives some rules and guideline for making this work during the course of a Middle Earth campaign.

The Fellowship Phase
Ars Magica was an RPG released around 1989 that focused on players roleplaying mages living in a secret magical society within the confines of otherwise medieval Europe. Pendragon is another RPG focused on roleplaying in the setting of of the legend of King Arthur and features, among other things, playing characters across generation of a family. Both of these games devote a portion of their rules to laying out system of time keeping to reflect how character live their lives within each setting. Unlike many D&D campaign, the time adventuring is the exception not the norm. Both RPGs have rules that flesh out the other parts of the character's lives.

The Fellowship rules does this for Adventures in Middle Earth. The idea is that at the conclusion of an adventure the fellowship disbands for a time and the character return to their lives to recover, heal, or to undertake long term projects. Then the fellowship is reformed when the course of events require everybody to adventure again. An important use of the Fellowship phase to recover from corruption.

Adventures in Middle Earth pretty glosses over the details and references the upcoming Loremaster book. It also mention sanctuaries which I assume are places like Rivendell where players find safety. It also mentioned that it not totally devoid of action or important events. For example Elrond's Council in LoTR, Lothlorien, or Elrond helping Thorin and Company in the Hobbit.

Overall I am pretty happy with this product and eager to see the Loremaster book. I hope to run a campaign provided my players are interested in the roleplaying aspects.

Addendum - Inspiration. 
+Douglas Cole asked what they have to say on acquiring inspiration which has a brief mention in the core rules of DnD 5e. Inspiration plays a major part in various specific abilities. And they do give more specifics on how to earn inspiration. Although at its heart it remains a judgment call on the quality of roleplaying done by the player.
From the General Overview
Roleplaying your character in accordance with your background grants Inspiration. Inspiration not only allows Adventures in Middle-earth a roll with advantage, it can also be spent to trigger certain special abilities, representing an effort of will or the use of an innate power. Finally, while a character has Inspiration, they may avoid the worst effects of being Miserable.
From Backgrounds - Distinctive Quality
Distinctive qualities define a Player-hero’s personality traits and physical peculiarities, whether inborn or developed during their upbringing. Highlighting one’s most distinctive quality is generally worth the awarding of Inspiration.

Distinctive Qualities are one of the four tables for  each background and have entries like
2 Fair-spoken. You have a pleasant speaking voice that puts your listeners at ease.
3 Honourable. You are the consummate diplomat and have garnered a reputation for being respectful with your foreign peers.
While they don't say it outright I get the feeling that the Loremaster Guide will be covering the awarding of Inspiration.


Douglas Cole said...

You mention the rules saying you have to spend inspiration to do something - are there enhanced rules to gain inspiration? I've had it pointed out that the basic rules are more or less "sometimes you gain inspiration!"

Scott Anderson said...

It sounds like this is a pretty big endorsement, since you are so good at developing setting. You should let the creators know how much you like it.

Also: I'm totally not a robot

Dr. Inknstain said...

Thanks for the review. As someone who likes D&D but prefers the low-end power level, this seems really interesting - maybe not for playing straight as such, but as inspiration for my own campaign world.

Doc Savage said...

Bit of a letdown that it's not an actual game. Really can't see using D&D mechanics in that setting.

Matt C said...

Buy The One Ring, their counterpart game. It was created from the ground up for use in Middle-earth. Very similar, but the mechanics are developed specially for the setting