In 2011, Cubicle 7 released The One Ring, a completely new RPG based on the literary version of Tolkien's work. The line has been very attractive and well received by just about everyone that is inclined to pick up the books.
Earlier this year, Wizards of the Coast released an OGL for the rules that underpin 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons.
Surprisingly, adding those two things together gets us to an announcement that, after years of inspring lots of people that had played Dungeons and Dragons, Cubicle 7 was releasing Adventures in Middle-earth, which will feature much of the material from their The One Ring line converted over to the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition.
What Has It Got In Its Pockets?
The Adventures in Middle-earth Player's Guide is 224 pages long, and at the time I'm writing this, the physical books are not yet available, so all of my review is based on the PDF file. The book has very nice formatting and artwork. The artwork is much less action oriented than comparable RPG artwork, and utilizes more muted colors, as does the book itself, with wood colored borders at the top and bottom of pages and parchment colored paper. Overall, the look sets the tone for the material very well, but it certainly gives you more of a feel for the published version of the setting, rather than the movie adaptions.
Now that we've looked at how nice the package is, let's look at what's wrapped up inside.
A Note On Fiction
I've said it before, and it's time to revisit my personal issue. There is "in game" fiction in this book, introducing each chapter. This is one of the best ways I've seen it used, and I actually kind of like what Cubicle 7 did in this instance. Each chapter is introduced by a letter, written by someone in the setting to another character, touching briefly on a topic related to the chapter's contents.
Additionally, at the beginning of the sections, there are paragraphs quoted from various works of Tolkien. The snippets of fiction are just long enough to put you in the right mindset for the source material, and just short enough that my "game brain" doesn't get confused about whether it's reading a narrative or game rules. Well done, Cubicle 7!
Curiously, the book opens with a chapter that is explaining the setting of the RPG, the Wilderlands area of Middle-earth, in the time between the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. This kind of introduction initially seems a little strange, but it helps to frame all the information presented later on. and does a good job of giving a pretty wide overview of Tolkien's setting at that point in time without being too intimidating.
The overview serves as a summary of what the various parts of the book will cover. This section makes it known that if the rules are mentioned in this book, the rules in this book take precedence over your usual 5th edition D&D experience, but otherwise, they aren't revisiting what's already in the base rules. they also make a note that they include only items that are mentioned in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, meaning, no plate armor, no crossbows, and the like.
After mentioning their personal constraints, they also mention that it's your game to flavor to taste, and that they expect you to throw some of the 5th edition d20 tropes back into the game if you want to see them, as well as modifying the setting to look more like your favorite adaption.
Finally, they mention new skills: Riddle, Lore, Shadow-Lore, and Tradition. These all have specific uses that get mentioned later in the rulebook, but each is summarized in a sidebar here as well.
Cultures are what replace race in the D&D rules. Thus, you have many examples of the races of Men (and if they follow through on adapting other material, it means other elf and dwarf cultures may appear as well). Culture does what you would expect race to do in D&D, but in addition to stat bonuses and some minor abilities, your culture gives you access to Cultural Virtues, which are essentially feats geared directly at the culture your character has taken. Many of the more over the top abilities attributed to various cultures in the book can be found under these virtues.
Cultures also introduce the culture's standard of living. What isn't spelled out in this section is that your culture's standard of living will influence the kind of starting equipment you end up with when you chose your class later on.
There is a section in each culture which mentions what languages they speak, and common names and naming conventions. While many games do this, keeping the tone of Tolkien's work means knowing what people's names should sound like is an important matter, and the only thing that is a bit disappointing is that for almost every culture the list of female names is very truncated.
The Men of Minas Tirith, the Rohirrim, and to a lesser extent, the Numenoreans are a little out of place in the default setting, which clings much closer to the areas explored by Bilbo and the dwarves in the Hobbit, but I suspect the name recognition of these cultures merited their inclusion (in The One Ring, they appear in later supplements that more detail lands more associated with their cultures).
Regarding portability, most of these cultures are too well grounded in Tolkien's works to be directly portable, but they can serve as a template if you want to rework races in your own setting to more closely resemble cultures.
All classes presented in this section have a Shadow Weakness, something that, if they go insane, will color the form that insanity will take. All of the classes have multiple entries for starting gear, depending on the standard of the character. There is no mention of multi-classing, or how that would affect a character's Shadow Weakness. It could be that this matter is addressed in the forthcoming Loremaster's Guide.
Scholars fill a niche that crosses wizards and clerics, but without spells, channel divinity, and other class features that emphasize the supernatural, they aren't close parallels of either class. They are excellent healers, they get lots of tricks for boosts to their knowledge skills, and depending on what archetype you take, they might be even better healers and be able to produce more effects with herbs and the like, or they may get to do things like telling wood to catch fire, and, well, it will listen. There is no flashy spellcasting involved, but at higher levels, the class does have some very magic-seeming abilities.
Slayers are very similar to Barbarians in D&D, but their archetypes better reflect the setting, with choices between being a rider or a heavily armored killing machine. Treasure Hunters, likewise, are very much like re-flavored Rogues, but the archetypes have you choosing between being more like Bilbo or Grima Wormtongue. Wanderers are essentially spell-less Rangers who get a few more tricks when it comes to their favored terrain. Wardens are very much like spell-less Bards, and their archetypes have them chose between a support role, a combat role, or a more defensive role. Warriors are very similar to fighters from D&D, with archetypes of the Knight and the Weapon Master.
The classes are directly portable to other D&D games, although a few of the class features are going to be more useful when used with rules similar to the assumed baseline of Adventures in Middle-earth. For example, the Wanderer gets a few tricks that are very useful for the Journeys phase of adventuring, which, if something similar doesn't happen often in the campaign, will make those class abilities feel less useful.
These are very similar in structure to backgrounds in D&D, but with a few subtle differences. All four sections of backgrounds in D&D are meant to give the player some roleplaying tools, in part, so they can earn Inspriation, and in part just so they have a handle on who their character is.
In Adventures in Middle-earth, the first part of the background is the distinctive quality, the second part is the specialty, the third part is the character's hope, and the fourth is their despair. So you have an overview of what they are, what they do, what motivates them, and what crushes their soul. It's made a bit more clear when Inspiration should trigger, and the specialty gives the extra bonus of either allowing them to add a proficiency bonus when they wouldn't normally get one in very specific circumstances, or, if they already get one, rolling with advantage.
In some ways, I actually find this setup for backgrounds a little bit nicer and more focused than how they exist in D&D. It wouldn't be too difficult to swap out one of the current background's entries and add a specialty, although between spells and magic items, D&D characters have other ways to boost their ability to make checks.
On the surface, virtues serve the same function as feats, and the times when you can take them mirror when you can take them in D&D. That said, some virtues are multi-step. You don't need to take it more than once, but each time you spend a Fellowship phase working on the abilities granted with that virtue, you get another bit of functionality. Other virtues grant a cultural object, which may seem odd, since a feat to get a magic item in D&D would be out of place, but these cultural objects are assumed to be available to the character from that point on, and even if they break, they should be able to spend a Fellowship phase to repair them.
It's also worth noting that getting a cultural item as a gift is a nice way to avoid the fact that looting tombs will likely get you assessed a few points of Shadow, which is generally a good thing to avoid.
Overall, I'm not sure I would consider "ported-in" feats equal to some of these virtues, and making similar feats in D&D would require some baseline assumptions for the setting that may not be true of most D&D settings (like limited magic items). It might be something worth playing with to see if standard feats play well with the setting over time, but it's hard to tell just from reading them, and it almost seems a shame to take a standard feat instead of some of the very setting-specific virtues listed.
Nothing especially exciting here, other than noting again that only items that were mentioned in The Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings are included on the lists, and a sidebar mentioning the inspirations that Tolkien drew from in his work, in case people wanted to fish around to add something that feels right even if it's not explicitly mentioned.
Also, the exchange rate is a bit more like real world exchange rates between copper, silver, and gold, in that it's not just multiples of ten, so it might take a while to get used to the conversion between coins.
This is probably one of my favorite parts of the book. While they mention that you can map a certain number of miles per day if you need to know, essentially you determine how many hexes characters travel through, which will determine if the trip is short, medium, or long, which in turn determines how many noteworthy events happen before they arrive at their destination.
The Loremaster rolls at the beginning of the trip to set the tone of the trip, which can create modifiers for the various checks needed during the trip. Notable events are listed on what is essentially an "encounter" chart, but it includes things like food going bad, moving obstacles from the path, weather, and more standard encounters like NPCs and monsters. These can add levels of exhaustion, and journeys don't work the same way long rests do in "standard time," so you keep everything you accumulate on the trip until you reach the end.
Finally, you make an arrival roll, which determines how much wear and tear the trip cost the adventurers. They may arrive demoralized, exhausted, or upbeat and energized. While that sounds like a bit of work, it's actually a lot less work than rolling day and night random encounters for a normal trip in D&D, and leads to a more cohesive narrative of the journey.
Like many aspects of the game, Journeys can be ported to other d20 games, but you will likely have to edit and modify parts of the chart that deal with Shadow and agents of the Enemy to better reflect a setting that doesn't have one looming threat or one where there aren't regions of corrupting, soul sapping influence.
Alignment isn't used in the game. Instead, characters track how much Shadow they have accumulated. When it is greater than their Wisdom score, there is a chance that they lose control and follow their Shadow Weakness. If this happens, they get permanent Shadow points that they can't get rid of, and if it happens too many times, they become someone lost in their weakness, and no longer a player character.
Each time the PC succumbs to madness, they pick up a new negative trait. That sounds bad, but roleplaying this negative trait essentially gives them another avenue for gaining Inspiration that they can use later in the game.
I really like this system, and I think it could be ported over to great effect to games where long term corruption is more logical than tracking adherence to law, chaos, good, or evil. While some monsters and cursed items impart Shadow (and won't show up until the Loremaster's Guide gets here), there is also a chart that gives examples of other things that cause Shadow points to accrue, either immediately or with a failed Wisdom save.
When I read the description of this chapter, I was kind of excited, but it's probably the chapter I'm most disappointed with. I was expecting a kind of subsystem similar to Journeys, where all kinds of things could happen if you try to petition a visit with one of the "important people" in the setting. Instead, it outlines what feels a lot like social interaction in various version of d20 games past.
The biggest difference is that you need to start with a Tradition roll to use a proper greeting, and if you don't, you may be using a less favorable chart. The charts are nice, because they give you examples of what you might expect for each level of how you are viewed depending on what you might be asking for, but they don't feel as developed as they could be.
One thing that this section reinforces, however, is that adventurers are not treated like rock stars in the setting. You are dangerous wandering thugs until you prove otherwise. If you want to be viewed as a hero, it's going to take doing some heroic things, and making sure the right people hear about them.
The downtime between adventures is assumed to be significant, and more quantified in the game. You have several options for what you want to do with that downtime, but for a "normal" span of downtime (usually a season), you can only pick one thing. For an exceptionally long downtime (say, a year or so), you might be allowed to pick more options.
Downtime can let you heal conditions, petition to get a patron (which isn't detailed in this book), manage your holdings, open up a Sanctuary (essentially getting entry to a really safe and well stocked location to rest in that gives you extra benefits for the other options you pick for your Fellowship phase), and potentially pick up a title here or there. You can also add options to some virtues that your character may have.
I like this formalized aspect to downtime, because it gives the players some space to describe what they do between adventures, and because it allows PCs to work at things that would be nice for the PCs to have (land, title) without some of the tedium that might come with doing that when time is tracked in hours instead of months.
It also reinforces something that people often don't think about in settings like this one, which is that winter travel is generally a really bad idea.
The book has a few pre-generated characters as well a a one page summary of some of the special rules used just for this setting. The summary is nice, but I wish there were a few more pregens, covering some of the other cultures listed in the book.
A General Note on Rules
There are several rules that are introduced as giving players a +1 or -1 on rolls, or advantage or disadvantage in a given situation. There are also several rules that allow characters to spend Inspiration in ways not detailed in the base D&D rules. Exhaustion is used as a consequence for many of the failed rolls in various sequences.
Overall, it's nice that they were consistent with bonuses and penalties, and kept them simple. It is also interesting to see existing rules such as Inspiration or Exhaustion put to use in more ways than the base D&D rules assume. It good to see existing rules expanded rather than reinventing the wheel for a new subsystem.
The d20 system isn't the best system for Tolkien's works. It's hard to picture Eowyn or Merry as being particularly high level, but I suspect in game terms it would be hard to model what happened with the Witch-King otherwise, as an example.
Many of the classes have class features that revolve around being a supporting character, or being good at skills that don't involve combat, and while the game does a good job of having structured rules for travel and interactions, that still may not feel as rewarding as being effective in a fight.
Many of the best ideas to port to other D&D games will need some tweaking on the part of the GM before they are stripped of the very specific Middle-earth flavor attached to them.
Remember that bit I said above about d20 not being the best system for Tolkien? Well, regardless, this is probably the best d20 treatment you could hope for as far as creating the tone and feel of the setting. Cubicle 7 took what may not have been a perfect tool and made it really close.
Remember when I said that there are class features that shine outside of combat, but that may not come up often enough to feel rewarding? The subsystems for things like the Fellowship phase and Journeys means that they are probably going to come up a lot more often than they would in a standard D&D game, which means the game is wired to get you doing more than just slaughtering orcs.
Those ideas that would be great to port, but are really specialized to the setting? Well, they are really specialized to the setting, and seem like they will work really well in the setting they were built for. The heavy flavor is definitely a boon if you are using as intended.
. . . And My Axe!
What's the final verdict? I really, really wanted to give this one a five star rating, and the only things holding me back are the fact that not everything is easily ported to another setting, even if they spawn some great ideas, and d20 isn't 100% perfect for the setting, no matter how well this set of rules manages to shave off the rough edges.
Despite those misgivings, I don't think you will be disappointed with this purchase if you even passingly appreciate Tolkien and have any kind of interest in 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons.
**** (out of 5)