Review: Adventures in Middle Earth Player’s Guide

photo-2016-09-14-11-57-23-pmPublished by the British RPG studio, Cubicle 7, the first book in the Adventures in Middle Earth product line is the Player’s Guide. Cubicle 7 current publishes of the One Ring roleplaying game also set in Middle Earth as well as the licensed Doctor Who RPG, both using a house system. Adventures in Middle Earth is different in that it used the OGL and 5th Edition ruleset developed for Dungeons & Dragons. It’s 5e Middle Earth.

The Player’s Guide is a 224-page product, currently available as a PDF but soon to be available as a physical book. It’s full colour book that features eleven cultures (read: races), six classes, thirteen backgrounds, and sixty Virtues (read: feats), and is presented as the sole book required for characters. While a 5e Player’s Handbook is required to play the game and for the rules, the only options you’re expected to take are in the AiME Player’s Guide; it doesn’t expect you to mix-and-match classes or backgrounds or feats from other sources.

The Good

photo-2016-09-14-11-58-25-pmThe book focuses on “the Wilderland”, the region around the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood forest, which lies north of Rohan and south of Angmar. It’s the region all of The Hobbit takes place, and both the opening and ending of Lord of the Rings. The book assumes campaigns are set in the period 5 years after the death of Smaug (the end of The Hobbit) and 55 years before the start of Lord of the Rings, give or take (as campaigns are assumed to sprawl over several years). This is a familiar era, where there’s still a looming threat, but allows the PCs to be the hero of their story.

There is excellent art throughout the book, with drawn illustrations instead of the movie stills of past products. The art has a very classical/ traditional feel: it reminds me of assorted Tolkien/ Art of Middle Earth calendars. It’s lovely in a way that is unlike typical Dungeons & Dragons books, focusing as much on the landscape, terrain, and buildings as people in armour. Most of the art in the book is in colour, but a few are black-and-white illustrations, but this typically seems stylistic and not a limitation of budget. It’s a beautiful book. Personally, I’m rather glad I have the PDF, as I can screenshot a few choice images for use as reference pictures for my home game.

Cubicle 7 knows their Tolkien. Having written their own RPG set in Middle Earth, they’ve had plenty of time to do research and hunt down quotes and passages, and this shows. This book is filled with lore from The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. (But not The Silmarillion, which has never been licensed; the book is limited to content found in the Appendix at the end of Return of the King.) The authors know the material, and know it well enough to easily summarize and relate it to the reader. The book is informative without reading like an encyclopedia.

Going hand-in-hand with the above, the 5th Edition ruleset has been reworked to match the assumptions of Middle Earth. For example, weapons and armour were altered to match the world. It’s small but important, as plate armour wasn’t mentioned in the books, with mail and chain referenced instead. Similarly, there’s no spellcasting per se. The book makes no attempt at a wizard class or offensive magic user. Some small magic is added via virtues/feats, but this is small and not particularly flashy. This is the big revision to the rules, but potentially useful for anyone wanting a magic-lite game system, even those for other worlds such as a Song of Ice and Fire.  

While the Player’s Guide uses the term “men” for “humans”, it at least acknowledges the sexism of this and admits doing so as that’s the term used in Tolkien’s works. Every time I see “men” in place of “people” or “humans”, part of me winces slightly, but I can respect trying to stay true to the source material rather than rewriting an author. (I’m also aware “men” actually does mean “people” and we’ve just gotten lazy and omitted the prefix “were” for male humans, but that doesn’t change the modern connotations.)

The book adds a few new rule subsystems: Shadow, Fellowship phase, and the Journey. Shadow deals with corruption: being drawn into the darkness, succumbing to inner frailty, or being worn down by continual exposure to horror and tragedy. This might be useful for lots campaigns. The Fellowship phase aspect could be very useful, serving as a variant on the downtime days rules. It’s a tempting addition. The Journey subsystem is also interesting, easily slotting into other campaigns. It doesn’t replace random encounters or events during an exploratory expedition, but adds some random chance for the tone of how the journey starts and ends, as well as the number of encounters. Rather than periodically rolling for random encounters every so often, a roll at the start of the journey determines how many encounters occur.   

The Bad

photo-2016-09-15-12-00-04-amAt $20, the PDF is a little steep, especially for a game that expects you to have a number of other products (i.e. all the other 5e material), and likely at least one other Adventures in Middle Earth book aimed at gamemasters (the forthcoming Loremaster’s Guide). The price moves it out of the realm of impulse purchases, instead it’s a book only purchased if you’re certain it will see use.

The Player’s Guide doesn’t mention “5th edition” D&D. At all. Or even “the 5th Edition of the world’s oldest RPG” and that the book requires the use of the 5e Player’s Handbook or ruleset. This might be on the back cover, which was not included in the PDF I purchased. Given this book doesn’t include the full rules for play, this might easily confuse a casual gamer purchasing this product in a store. It’s not a big problem as the D&D Basic Rules are a free PDF, but this isn’t communicated in any way.

I wonder if this product was written prior to the release of the SRD in January of this year. It seems likely some work was done prior, as it was released less than a year after. This product having been planned earlier might explain while so much content is rewritten (all the classes and subclasses, all the feats, etc). And maybe even why elements like feats became virtues, and the terms for personality traits in backgrounds all needlessly changed. Especially as this design change unfortunately makes the backgrounds more difficult to use in other worlds or campaigns, limiting the use of the book.

Virtues are so-so. Most don’t quite feel as good or comprehensive as 5e feats, and thus aren’t great replacements for ability score boosts. A few also assume the use of the various subsystems, making them harder to use in a generic setting. I can’t fai

While I like the idea of the corruption system, which also serves as a replacement for alignment, it’s a pretty harsh system. It quickly renders you less effective in combat before you start gaining more flavourful flaws, which feels slightly backwards. And recovering from corruption can only happen during a Fellowship Phase, or between adventurers. This could be a long time.

The Fellowship Phase is interesting, but does its own thing separate from downtime days. The authors chose to convert their own system into 5e rather than adapting or expanding the existing rules. Building onto the downtime days system would have made the system feel more apart of 5th Edition, and also allow DMs to bring in other uses of downtime days from other sources.

Similar to the above, the information given to Journeys feels slightly anemic. It’s a few tables, making it easy to exhaust the options or get the same option repeatedly. Rolling for the start of journeys is also curiously designed, being a d12 + Survival + ½ Wisdom. Which feels clumsy when it could have been a Wisdom (Survival) check, with an expanded table.

Included in the subsystems is a chapter on Audiences, which is effectively an expanded section on diplomacy/ persuasion. It has a lengthy chart on the various reputations and interactions between races, establishing how dwarves feel about elves, and elves feel about hobbits, along with DCs to interact with people based on these opinions. It’s a little codified for my tastes. Hard DCs for Diplomacy checks are a 3e-ism I was glad the game moved away from: fixed DCs tend to benefit Min Maxers more than the narrative and just result in book flipping.

The game seems to assume variant rules, especially with healing, but this is unclear. The product feels incomplete. I imagine the Loremaster’s Guide will help with this, and some of that rules content might be included there, along with monsters and advice on creating a campaign, but that’s some time away. It feel like I’m trying to judge an unfinished product.

The Ugly

photo-2016-09-14-11-59-06-pmBalance is an issue throughout the book. It doesn’t feel like the authors really had a solid idea of how 5th Edition runs or how to design content for that rule system just yet. 5e is fairly loose in terms of balance compared to 4e, 13th Age, or other balance-orientated systems, but is pretty steady compared to almost any other RPG, where character power level (especially in combat) can vary wildly. This book feels like it was designed like the latter type of RPG, with the option of designing characters that are ineffective in battle. If planning on running a campaign that is combat-lite, this shouldn’t be an issue. If you plan on running a more typical D&D game in Middle Earth, then this will be an issue.

For example, the warden is a spell-less bard without remotely enough class features to replace lost spellcasting. It’s pretty much just the bard without spells, *slightly* better weapon choices, and the ability to hear rumours. The scholar, which ostensibly replaces the wizard and cleric, is pretty anemic. Meanwhile, the warrior looks comparable to the fighter, if not tougher. Which, amusingly, seems to make the game match the movies, as people are really encouraged to be martial types who attack with a single big weapon. For anyone hoping to use this book as a method of getting low magic classes for a campaign setting, this is a bit of a disappointment.

The Dúnedain culture/ race is just outright better than all the other human races: it has better stats (four pluses rather than three) and an extra skill. This sorta matches the books but doesn’t seem suited to a game. You don’t want to penalize players for picking a different race.

There’s no open content in the book. Coming off the incredibly open Pathfinder and the surprisingly open 5th Edition, the fact this entire book is labeled as “closed content” is a surprise. It’s also unfortunate, as it means no one can expand on the few options provided in the book, making new scholar subclasses or Journey tables. (Or for people looking to expand/revise on the low magic options in the book.)

The Awesome

photo-2016-09-14-11-59-54-pmEach class has a weakness associated with it, associated with a particular Shadow corruption. It’s a neat way of divvying up weaknesses without having that be a separate step or random. I enjoy the idea that a character’s strengths also determine their weaknesses. It’s a very Shadows of Esteren idea.

Starting wealth is tied to race, which provides different class packages. While it shifts the balance of some races, it’s is a neat idea and reinforces each race’s place in the world. I enjoy that not every character starts with the exact same amount of gold. (I wonder if backgrounds might have been a better way of making wealth variable…)

The equipment section includes both fireworks and assorted herbs that have mechanical effects. Being able to offer names for herbs used in salves is a fun idea, and this section will be stolen for use at my table.

The book introduces new mechanics tied to inspiration, where you can spend the inspiration for this other bonus rather than just advantage. It’s an idea I rather like (and used once myself in my Ravenloft document). I think a few of these are a little strong, as advantage is equivalent to a +5 to a roll against an average DC, but as inspiration is dependant on the DM, it’s easy to control usage of the ability and correct imbalance.

Cubicle 7 is affiliated with the Bits & Mortar program, which allows participating stores to collect e-mails when they sell a hard copy, contacting Cubicle 7 who then sends out free PDFs. You support local game stores and get the digital product. For free! Very slick. (A semi-local store is even involved in the program, which I will have to remember this in the future.)

Final Thoughts

When I heard about this book I was excited. Partly because there’s two types of Middle Earth fans now: people who like the books and people who like the movies. There’s room for two stylistically different Middle Earth RPGs: one that focuses on the journey and wonder and magic, and one that’s more action orientated. In much the same way The Hobbit is a more traditional fairy tale and Lord of the Rings is straight high fantasy. There’s room for the stand alone literary One Ring RPG and the 5e OGL monster killing RPG. But I’m not sure this product really works to fill that second niche.

This is the big flaw in the  Adventures in Middle Earth Player’s Guide. It adapts 5th Edition to work with Middle Earth but doesn’t really work to the strengths or design goals of the system or accommodate any existing material. Too often it tries to remake the wheel rather than work with existing frameworks. Which also makes the book a less desirable purchase for fans looking for more 5th Edition content, or hoping to use the book as a sourcebook for homebrew low magic games. I was personally hoping to find some neat optional rules, such as an expanded downtime system, interesting dwarfcraft weapons and armour rules, new backgrounds, and corruption rules that might be potentially useful for my homegame. But I’m not sure how much content here is useful.

For fans of Middle Earth looking for an RPG experience, the One Ring game is still the better choice. For people who want a Middle Earth RPG who dislike the One Ring, I’m not certain this product is different enough. This book is best suited for people looking for a Tolkien experience but unwilling to learn a new ruleset (possibly for a mini-campaign or as part of a break in a regular D&D campaign).If you’re not looking to adventure in Middle Earth using a variant of the 5e rules, than this product probably isn’t for you.

 

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