Sunday, May 7, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Wilderland Adventures (Adventures in Middle-earth/5e OGL)

I’ve detailed before on the blog my relationship with published adventures. Most of my GMing career has consisted of making up my own stuff rather than using published adventures. Part of that is certainly due to the fact that, when I was younger, there seemed to be an unspoken aptitude test that existed. If you couldn’t figure out the overall narrative on your own, or realize why an encounter existed, maybe you shouldn’t be GMing this adventure.

Times have certainly changed, and while I have run published adventures more now than at the beginning of my GMing career, one of the primary reasons I like to get adventures for a game system is to get some insight from the game designers how they expect the game to be structured. Additionally, almost any adventure is going to have new subsystems, even if implied or unintentional, for running encounters unique to the adventure in question.

All the above is even more important when trying to approach adventures in a licensed property. Sometimes the excitement of playing in the Dresden Files universe, Star Wars, or, in this case, Middle-earth, can loom larger than your specific ideas of what to do with new and unique characters in that setting. The people publishing the game often have some good insights as to where the best play spaces might be found in that universe, giving  you some room to breathe, yet still feel connected to the overall setting.

With all that preamble firmly preambled, this time around I’m looking at Wilderland Adventures, the first published adventure (or adventure anthology, depending on how you look at it) for Middle-earth Adventures.

Of special note here is that this set of linked adventures is an adaptation of Tales from the Wilderlands, a series of adventures for The One Ring RPG. In case you aren’t aware of it, The One Ring is also a Middle-earth RPG licensed by the same company, but one that uses its own proprietary system instead of adapting 5th edition D&D rules. Given that this system is trying to appeal to D&D players who also like Tolkien, instead of Tolkien RPG fans that are all in on a game that is designed specifically to emulate the tropes of Tolkien’s work, there is some relevance to that later in the review.

What Has It Gots Betweens Its Pages?
This review is based only on the PDF copy of the product. The book itself is 160 pages long, and has the typical OGL license page at the end. There is a bit of flourish around the font used in the book, as well as implied parchment colors and a feel of scrolls and woodcuts to the sidebars in the book. The artwork is attractive and professional, but is more “folklore” and less “glossy high fantasy” that appears in many modern fantasy books. If you own the Tales from the Wilderlands, I’d say the presentation is just a bit cleaner, in the sense that there is a slight move towards lighter colors and greater readability. Overall, it fits the tone of the subject, and is an attractive volume.

The introduction is six pages long, and gives a general synopsis of each adventure and how they are related. It also calls out the emerging main villain of the piece, and has notes on how long it should take to complete the adventures, and where in the timeline they happen. Finally, there is a guide to awarding XP, and how the book will assume XP is awarded.

This last bit is important, as the Loremaster’s Guide doesn’t touch much on awarding XP, and the default stat blocks seem to imply that the “XP for monster killing” is the standard. That is the case, but there is a structured set of story awards for both individual roleplaying and for the party accomplishing goals that slightly de-emphasizes only killing monsters for XP.

Don’t Leave the Path
The introductory adventure sets up what we can expect in the other adventure chapters, with an opening that talks about what point in the timeline the adventure should happen, where the adventure is assumed to start, what the circumstances are, and who the important NPCs are.

One thing I like about these adventures is that important NPCs have their own boxes, separate from any stat blocks, that have tips on how to roleplay that character. This includes things like mannerisms to give them and expected responses to PC actions.

This adventure plays out largely like a tutorial. It’s not a bad story, but it doesn’t hook as much into the greater narrative as later adventures. Someone asks for help, you get hired, go on a journey with the journey rules, see what an interrupted Journey from the Loremaster’s Guide looks like, play out an audience, then end the adventure with a boss fight.

There is one part of the adventure that rubs me the wrong way. Essentially an NPC does something in front of the PCs, and they see him, but the adventure tells you they can’t stop him so that the next part of the adventure can happen. I totally get framing a scene between adventures. I do it myself. But in the middle of a journey, stopping and telling the PCs they can’t do a thing because the plot needs to happen, that just bothers me. Additionally, it’s easily fixed. The NPCs son comes along on the trip, so the son could easily tell the PCs that his father has gone off and done the thing, so that they aren’t right there able to stop the NPC.

Of Leaves and Stewed Hobbits
This adventure starts out low-key, with the group helping some hobbits that own an inn, but there is one encounter that I would love to run, which involves a band of goblins imitating hobbit table manners.

Like the previous adventure, however, there is a part of the plot that relies on something happening to an NPC in front of the PCs that they can’t stop. This time, there is a sidebar telling you what to do if you want the PCs to retain some agency in the adventure, which amounts to skipping some of the best parts of the adventure. In addition to the above, there is an item that the PCs can’t use their skills on, because it was forged in ancient days by the plot.

It seems like it would be easy enough to have the PCs find out about the kidnapped hobbit after the battle, Merry and Pippin style, by finding something identifiably his on the ground near some goblin tracks. This eliminates the need to tell the PCs they can’t do anything in the moment. Additionally, I’m not sure why the ancient manacles must be immune to lock picking, since the point of the scene is to stall off the goblins until the PCs can affect a rescue, and forcing one specific resolution seems like it may kill some of the fun.

Kinstrife and Dark Tidings
I greatly enjoyed this adventure. The importance of investigation and roleplaying is a nice change of pace, as is the primary villain being human. This is also the first time that you get to meet a “patron level” NPC, in this case Beorn, and I like the interactions that they have structured with him.

There is also a nice moral quandary about this adventure that is challenging for the PCs to work out, and yet doesn’t turn Middle-earth into a “shades of grey” setting.

(Total aside, but this is where the differences between the Hobbit movies and The Lord of the Rings movies strike me, because I can’t picture movie Beorn in this scene at all—and that goes for another NPC later in the adventures—yet every character that showed up in The Lord of the Rings movies still sits comfortably in my head as representative of the character)

Those Who Tarry No Longer
This adventure is kind of a roller coaster ride for me. As written, even if the party doesn’t have an elf in the group, they may get entrusted with a very important elf-centric mission, which seems unlikely. The eagle interlude in the adventure is written in such a way that anyone that has ever thought eagles should have solved all Middle-earth’s problems will continue to wonder why they don’t do so. But the dream sequence and the way of introducing lore from previous ages in first person is wonderful.

If I were running this series of adventures, I’d probably hint strongly that an elf PC would be a good thing to have in the party, and instead of having the eagles show up and save their bacon, I'd allow a chance to have an audience that might give them a future intervention, I’d probably have them find a wounded eagle, and let their treatment of that eagle lead to a potential positive audience with the others.

But when you get to the dream sequence, where all the PCs get drawn into a vision of the past, not only does this feel very much like Middle-earth style magic, it’s a great way to introduce elements of the past into the game without saturation bombing the party with lore. It’s also a nice direct introduction to the big bad guy that gives a degree of separation from him at the same time.

A Darkness in the Marshes
In general, I like this one, but I’m a bit concerned about the climax. The PCs need to get close enough to an evil fortress to find out some useful information, then run away to share that information. There are cues in the adventure about the importance of this being a scouting mission, but it does need to be stressed that this isn’t a “search and destroy” scenario.

There is an interesting element of the subtleties of magic, how much it will help, and how much it could potentially hurt, at play in this adventure, but it might get lost in the other plot elements.

In all, I don’t think it’s the structure that concerns me, just the stakes if the PCs don’t pick up on the importance of getting the information and running. If they confirm that the bad guys exist and where they are, the Loremaster may want to drop some other clues to the bigger plans in a later encounter, rather than forcing them to walk the fine line between caution and “kill them all.”

Given that a named big bad evil orc eventually has a showdown with them, it shouldn’t be too hard to get him to brag about anything they didn’t manage to overhear earlier, just to make sure they understand how this adventure plays into the overall story arc.

Oh, and, all that stuff I said about Beorn earlier? Totally not picturing the Hobbit version of Radagast here.

The Crossings of Celduin
The core concept of this one is to have the PCs travel to a village and rally the folk to hold off invading hordes until reinforcements can show up, because King Bard’s warriors have all been incapacitated. This will involve talking the village into taking a side, dealing with potentially duplicitous leaders, and deciding how long the group can realistically hold out against waves of attackers.

The adventure does have a few things in it that got under my skin. One items is that the treasure promised to them for a contest is cursed, and the adventure seems to think it’s okay to surprise punish them for wanting what they earned, if they earned it. I get punishing greed, but telling the PCs they get something for doing a thing, then punishing them when they want that thing, feels wrong. Additionally, there should be some kind of Shadow Lore check or something to determine that there is a curse on the treasure way before just walloping the PCs with Shadow for wanting to get paid for a legitimate contest that they won.

As written, the adventure makes it unlikely that the party will discover the duplicitous merchant’s plot, but that would actually work better for the adventure, and it would be super easy to have a certain pointy hatted wizard casually ask where the merchant is to let the PCs stumble upon him and chase him, keeping them away from the feast. Not having them get poisoned at all seems better than having them potentially resist the poison or be the only ones to get cured because they are the PCs, rather than Bard’s closest allies that he knows better.

Despite all the above, I like the resolution for the various festival events, like the melee and the archery contest. I also like the idea of “preparation dice” that represent planning before an attack and using them to aid the PCs at critical times, giving them a tangible reward for their efforts, without creating an overly complex model to measure their successes.

The Watch on the Heath
I enjoy this as a conclusion to this series of adventures. The undead mastermind is a great villain with a background that is firmly rooted in Middle-earth, Witherfinger is a great “Gollum-like” character without being too derivative, and negotiating with a dragon (and getting to see another form a dragon than what Smaug represented) is a suitable capstone for the adventure.

The biggest issue I can see with this adventure is that there is an optimal plan to get the dragon to follow, and that may not be easy to arrange. On the other hand, if the PCs manage to get to the end of an adventure where they get between a former servant of the Necromancer and a dragon, the stakes should be high, and it is going to feel like a proper Middle-earth adventure.

This appendix provides the lineage of all the NPCs and the backstory of their forefathers, to provide context to the adventure you just played. I’m kidding. It is totally not that.

What it actually does is provide some tailored Journey results that you can substitute for the broader Journey results from the core rules. It’s nice to have these, so that the trip doesn’t feel like it would be the same regardless of context.

In This Hour, I Do Not Believe that Any Darkness Will Endure
This adventure does a great job of walking new Loremasters through Audiences and Journeys, and even interrupted Journeys. There are a lot of highlights that feel very Middle-earth, and yet aren’t derivative of any one element from the setting. The NPC roleplaying guides are great. The dream world that shows PCs the past is a brilliant way of highlighting the importance of history in the setting. Scenes like the goblin feast are just begging to be run. The Gibbet King is a great villain for the piece.

Short Cuts Make Long Delays
Any time you instruct a GM that they need to tell PCs that they can’t use a skill that they have, when it’s obvious they will want to use that skill, it might be worth it to figure out how to rework the scene so that meta-game denial isn’t needed. In a few places, where there are “guiding NPCs” that could nudge the party in a certain direction, the adventures still default to a “script” that the PCs can’t change to advance the plot. The Loremaster’s Guide makes meeting “Patron Level” NPCs seem like something that happens from time to time over the course of a career, but this adventure leads the
party from one to another (6 of them, unless I missed one) by the time the party is 6th level.

All’s Well that Ends Better
It may not be entirely fair, but I don’t think you can entirely ignore the fact that this is a Middle-earth roleplaying game adapting 5th edition D&D rules. You can expect the rules to be different to emulate the setting, but there are still a certain baseline assumptions, and those baseline assumptions include things like being able to use a character’s skills at the appropriate time and getting some degree of reward for a fairly agreed upon circumstance.

The narrative is strong in the back half of the story arc, and the whole thing does a good job of exuding an aura of Middle-earth. It is useful to people that want to see how these new rules are supposed to look in action, and what the stakes for this game should be. For someone that is a D&D fan first, and a Tolkien fan second, however, the adventure may need at least a few tweaks to smooth over the fact that the rules and the setting need to meet one another in the middle.

It’s a good product, and I think a heavily invested Tolkien fan would kick themselves for passing the adventure up, but it still falls a little shy of “must have” for someone with more D&D love than Tolkien love.

*** (out of five)

1 comment:

  1. Very nice overview. Yes the extensive appendix on the lineages will be useful in audiences (just kidding). Planning to start a group through soon on a trail run of the system - luckily unknowningly they included an elf. Reading your review helped see a few things that I hadn't fully understood on my previous preparation read throughs.