Sunday, March 26, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Adventures in Middle-earth Loremaster's Guide (OGL 5e)

After reading through my copy of the Adventures in Middle-earth Player’s Guide, it was with great anticipation that I started my long wait until I could dive into the Loremaster’s Guide. I skimmed it as soon as I received my PDF, but I’ve only recently been able to give it a cover to cover read.

The Pages Between the (Virtual) Cover
This review is based on the PDF of the product, which is all that is available currently (March 2017). The PDF is 160 pages long, which includes an errata page for the Player’s Guide, a multi-page index, an ad for another Cubicle 7 product, and the OGL itself.

The pages have the same wood and brocade borders at the top and bottom, and parchment colored pages. The artwork continues to be of the professional, but more simple design that most of the Tolkien products (that aren’t associated with the movies) have utilized. There are common assets with The One Ring line, although I can’t speak to the number of reused pieces without going through all the products in the line. Given that this is essentially an alternate way to experience the same “setting within a setting” that is defined by The One Ring, this makes perfect sense. The overall appearance is impressive.

Setting and the Tale of Years
The opening of this book details the timeframe that the game is attempting to detail—the years between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The core products also assume the Wilderlands setting, essentially the region traversed by Bilbo and the dwarves in the events of The Hobbit.
Just about every region that this section touches on has adventure hooks, and they do a very good job of coming up with exactly what adventurers would be doing in the setting. They feel like worthwhile enterprises without becoming alternate quests to destroy Sauron a few decades early, and they help to highlight how wide a region just this section of Middle-earth is.

Lake-town gets an especially large section, as it serves as an example of where to start out new adventures in the game. The various sections of the town itself also have a few adventure hooks sprinkled throughout. The only real downside to these hooks is that they do feel distinctly low to mid-level in nature. I’m sure this is somewhat intentional, since Cubicle 7 has longer term campaign adventures coming out for the system.

Before the Game
This section gives a few guidelines for how a Middle-earth centric game might be different than other fantasy games involving levels and adventurers. Essentially it points out the underlying themes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings explicitly and mentions having PCs operating as agents of a patron to point them in the right direction from time to time.

The Adventuring Phase
This chapter has some useful information, but it’s oddly named and organized. In game, the Adventuring Phase is the part of the game where people travel from place to place and have what would be in D&D terms the main adventures happen, while the Fellowship Phase is the section that is largely guided by the players that explains what the characters do in their downtime. However, this chapter has general rules information, Loremaster advice, and optional rules. I mean, I guess all of this is more relevant to the Adventuring Phase of the game than the Fellowship Phase, but it’s also pretty much general Loremaster information.

The first half, called The Loremaster, deals with running the game, best practices, how to evoke the feel of Middle-earth, and a discussion of Tolkien canon and how to rely on things like unreliable narrators to give you some leeway in your game (for example, The Hobbit is essentially a translation of Bilbo’s account of the journey, so it may not be 100% accurate).

After mentioning that you should be flexible with canon, however, there is an area of this advice I find I disagree with. They mention that the person in the gaming group that is the most well versed in Tolkien-lore should probably be the Loremaster. I cannot more vehemently disagree with this. In fact, there is one paragraph where this advice is given, and the sections on Tolkien canon and getting the feel of the setting right seem to pretty much throw this idea right out the window.

The second half, called Adventuring Rules, is a bit scattershot as well. It is all valuable information, I’m just not sure why it is included in this chapter, organized this way. There is information on unsuccessful journeys (further elaborated on in the next section), Inspiration, Multiclassing as an optional rule, and optional Cultural Virtue rules for three of the virtues presented in the Player’s Guide. I didn’t go back to look at the original forms when reading this, but having optional versions without explaining why you may want to use this version of the virtue seems to contribute to the random feel of this section of the book.

Journeys Expanded
As you might expect, this section elaborates on the rules for Journeys presented in the Player’s Guide, and gives some more Loremaster facing rules to modify those rules to a variety of needs presented by a given adventure.

One question I heard when presenting Journeys to my players in a standard D&D game was “what happens if we end a Journey early?” which is one of the things this chapter addresses, along with interrupting journeys with scripted encounters to further the plot, and a discussion of how to modify the results on the table for specific Journeys in an adventure.

This section is a nice elaboration on the basic rules presented in the Player’s Guide. There is still a bit of advice I disagree with. When interrupting a Journey with a scripted “plot advancing” encounter, the section advises the Loremaster to roll some dice and act as if this was a random result that came up as part of the Journey’s normal progression.

I’m increasingly less happy with GM advice that tells you to ignore rules and deceive players. It hearkens back to a time when the GM role was at least partially adversarial, and games pretended to model real life with their rules, so dice rolls on table had to appear inviolate. If you are running the game, and you feel this encounter needs to happen now, run it. If the PCs think it’s on the table, fine. Tell them or don’t, but I’m not sure you need advice in a GM section to say to fake a die roll and act like it was all random.

Despite all of that, this is section does a good job of more fully explaining the Journeys rules and how and why they are structured the way they are.

Non-Player Characters and Audiences Expanded
When I first read the Audiences section of the Player’s Guide, I was a little disappointed, because the system felt like a standard version of a D&D “Influencing Attitudes” chart, with the addition of shifting the chart down by one row if the PCs blow their Cultures check.

This section goes a long way towards making the Audience rules feel a lot more like what I was expecting out of them. There are example NPCs given, and those NPCs have things they expect, and things they want, and depending on the approach the PCs take, they get bonuses or penalties to their final checks.

While I’m not normally a fan of lots of negatives and bonuses being tallied up on the same roll, when it comes to a social encounter, it makes a lot more sense than in combat. It also introduces the element of finding out more about the NPC to avoid what offends them, play up what they like, and offer the right gifts (if any).

NPCs have multiple items that might give a bonus or a penalty, and you can’t hit the same “note” more than once. For example, if the NPC values bravery, and one PC favors bold action, the final roll will get a +1, but if someone else also talks about facing down danger, they don’t get an additional bonus. If that next PC mentions that there may be treasure involved, however, and that’s something the NPC is interested in, that’s another +1.

In addition to these items that might grant bonuses or penalties to the check, several NPC types that the PCs may negotiate with are fully fleshed out with stat blocks. Since some of these include archetypes like Thug or Outlaw, this means they have some utility beyond just the Audience section of the rules.

Adversaries and Battle
This section is a treasure trove of rules widgets even if you aren’t running a Middle-earth based game. While there isn’t a huge range of creatures given (multiple variations of orcs, wolves, spiders, bats, vampires, werewolves, and trolls), the sections on scenery in combat and creature actions and abilities are amazing.

Essentially scenery in combat involves creating “templates” for different battle scenes. For example, if there are lots of twisted roots, it may not count as difficult terrain, but it may cause you to make a dex check to avoid sprawling on the ground if you move more than 10 feet in a round. You may cause spores to shoot out of mushrooms you disturbed that could impair you, or you might gain levels of fatigue from fighting in certain terrain after a few rounds of combat.

Creature actions and abilities are similar to monster templates. A monster might be larger than normal for its kind, and a creature that doesn’t normally have a bite attack might have one because of its individual oddities. Some traits are general for all potential adversaries, and others are particulars that can be added by type, with a few special actions reserved only for orcs and goblins, and others for trolls, still more for spiders, and some for wolves.

This section wisely advises you to avoid more than a few extra elements in a scene that have rules elements attached to them, and to avoid adding too many extra abilities to a monster. They also mention that you can have extra abilities “shut off” under certain conditions, such as once a creature takes damage, or once they no longer outnumber their opponents.

While I know this RPG and The One Ring are firmly focused on recreating the feel of the books, I couldn’t help but notice that you can very easily create unique orc captains and chiefs not unlike Shadow of Mordor using these rules. They even mention that if an orc escapes the party, it might come back later with one of these abilities added to their stat block.

Wondrous, Legendary, and Healing Items
This chapter has an odd opening. I realize that zooming out and thinking about it, it is addressing that in some forms of d20 level based fantasy gaming, you can get gold and use that to buy magic items. But without directly addressing that, jumping into the opening topic is a little strange.
That opening topic is kind of a mixed message. While it’s appropriate to have characters that are motivated to be treasure hunters, wanting gold is something you are to teach the players is wrong, because Thorin and Smaug. I guess.

I understand making sure that players are--at their core--heroic, even if motivated by wealth. I’m not sure you need to make them think ever getting monetary reward is bad. I think it’s one place where the book overcorrects for trying to make sure they aren’t just “D&D with Tolkien proper names.”

The section on wondrous artefacts is fascinating in its open-ended nature. Essentially, they give a bonus to a skill check, and maybe even advantage on those checks, depending on how powerful they are. However, there are guidelines for spending hit dice to power more impressive effects when successfully making a check. Have a magical ring of Animal Handling? Spend enough hit dice, and you may be able to convince a horse to ride back to Lake-town with a scroll in its mouth and drop it at the feet of an important NPC to warn them of impending doom.

I like the feel of the Legendary Weapons and Armour section. In general, you could give PCs a powerful ancient weapon or shield at low level, and its abilities “grow” with them, with just the base levels available to start. This removes the need for multiple items, and gives them a reason to hang onto Orc’s Lament for their entire career.

That said, some of the example traits can get fiddly. “In this instance, the bonus is this, but under this circumstance, it turns into this, but then in this specific circumstance, it is this plus a wider crit range, but only at this particular time.” It feels a bit cumbersome to track. Given the fact that PCs won’t be tracking spell effects most of the time, this might free up some cognitive space.

While those stacked abilities may feel a bit fiddly, I’ll certainly give them credit that they feel very Middle-earth. There are some qualities that are native to Numenorean items versus qualities that Elvish items would have, which are distinct from qualities that Dwarven items would have.

There is also a section that expands on the healing items presented in the Player’s Guide. This adds a few more options for items that are rare, but might be given as a gift from the appropriate source. These are items that can heal and remove fatigue under the proper circumstances.

The Magic of Middle-earth
This section discusses what magic usually looks like in Middle-earth, how powerful it usually is, and who typically wields it. They describe the tone and feel that you should aim for with overtly magical effects, to keep within the guidelines provided in the source material. There is also a list of Middle-earth appropriate spells from the core 5th edition D&D rules.

The base assumption is not that you will allow spellcasting classes in the game (although it mentions that you can do this if you want to), but to give an idea of what NPCs or magic items that produce more traditionally defined effects might do, without going too far afield of Tolkien’s stories.

The Fellowship Phase
Unlike the Adventuring Phase, this section stays focused on that aspect of the game. It explains how the Fellowship Phase is more player driven, how long they should last in game, what sanctuaries are, and what patrons are for. There are also some optional undertakings--special rules elements that a PC can work on during the downtime of a Fellowship Phase.

Much of this advice is about the pros and cons of having people go back to their homes during a fellowship phase, coming together at a sanctuary for the start of a new adventuring phase, and what it means to get a patron that can point them in a specific direction. There is also a sample of important NPCs in the setting that can serve as patrons in the game.

I personally like the emphasis on patrons, not only because they are NPCs that can direct PCs in a given direction, but because it is a tie to the setting, as well as consistent with the source material. Gandalf serves as a patron in both The Hobbit, and the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, nudging the characters in a direction, even if they move that direction in their own time and in their own way.

The World is Indeed Full of Peril and in it There are Many Dark Places
There are a few places where the advice seems a bit strange, especially in the modern era of RPGs. Some of the organizational choices are a bit confusing. Some rules reintroduce the multitude of minor pluses and minuses largely removed from 5th edition.

Yet Dawn Is Ever the Hope of Men
The rules do a wonderful job of utilizing 5th edition rules like Inspiration, Fatigue, and Hit Dice in new ways. The scenery in combat and creature abilities and actions section is a treasure trove for any D&D 5th edition game. All the things that I was hoping would get more detail from the Player’s Guide have gotten those details. The rules have a firm grasp on the feel of Middle-earth, and the campaign sections have some great adventure hooks and advice on how to structure the game to support play in the setting.

The Tide Has Turned!
If you are a Tolkien fan that wants to experience the setting through the familiar lens of D&D, this is a great resource (coupled with the Player’s Guide). If you are a D&D player running games, and want some solid advice on how to utilize more subtle magic, or you want some great rules to supplement combat and monsters, this is a source you may want to check out as well.

**** (out of five)

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