In Praise of Adventures in Middle-Earth

I was very sad to learn (belatedly) that Cubicle 7 would no longer be publishing new material for their excellent Adventures in Middle-Earth roleplaying game, created by Dominic McDowall and Jon Hodgson. 2019 was Cubicle 7’s most successful year to date, and Adventures in Middle-Earth won the 2017 Origins Award for Best Role-Playing Game, but the Irish company, which also publishes the fourth edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, has chosen to end its agreement with the licence-holder over contractual differences.

Adventures in Middle-Earth (AiME henceforth) is based on 5th edition D&D but makes a number of tweaks to the system to better incorporate the themes of Tolkien’s storytelling. This article will highlight some of the most innovative changes and consider how they might work well in other D&D games.

New classes

Cubicle 7

I have long been a fan of low-magic fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, conventional D&D is a lot of fun, too! But for me, the less overt fantasy there is in the setting, the more wonderful and fantastical it becomes. Thanks to the addition of bonded accuracy, 5th edition feels like a better fit for a low-magic setting than earlier versions of D&D might.

However, in 5th edition, most classes are spellcasters or have the option to be. Spellcasters have much more freedom over the spells they can cast: cantrips can be used at will, and Vancian magic has largely been replaced with spontaneous spellcasting. To all intents and purposes, magic is now routine. It might make spellcasters easier to play, or more fun, but it’s a stumbling block for those looking to create a world where magic is subtle or hidden.

There is little in the way of ‘blatant’ or ‘showy’ magic in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and, to recreate this atmosphere, AiME uses six new character classes. One, the scholar, is a loremaster and rudimentary healer (more on healing later). The other five, to a greater or lesser degree, are modelled on existing D&D classes, with a Middle-Earth twist: slayer, treasure hunter, wanderer, warden, and warrior, modelled on the 5e barbarian, rogue, ranger, bard, and fighter, respectively. (On a side-note, I do wish they hadn’t chosen three classes beginning with ‘w’.)

An experienced D&D player might look at these classes and think they are ‘weak’ or ‘broken’, and yes, if you were to drop them into a regular D&D game, they might feel under-powered, the scholar especially. However, this is because these classes are not designed for conventional D&D. Journeys and exploration play a far greater role in AiME, and what might seem like ‘fluff’ or ‘flavour’ at first glance could become vitally important in a long period of exploration. More on this later.

Cultures embedded in the setting

New Line Cinema

By my reckoning, there are now close to 40 playable races in 5th edition D&D, including seven kinds of elf. Some players love this. For me, it’s system bloat. To paraphrase Keith Baker, creator of Eberron, I prefer to focus on fewer races but make sure that each one has a strong place in the setting. I don’t want my taverns to resemble a Mos Eisley cantina.

This is something AiME does really well. There are eleven cultures, most of them human (‘men’): the exceptions are, unsurprisingly, dwarves, elves, and hobbits. Your choice of culture affects not just your ability scores and racial features but also the way other NPCs respond to you: the Dúnedain, for example, are considered somewhat suspect by Bree-folk, hobbits, and the people of Minas Tirith, whereas hobbits are openly welcomed by Bardings, Bree-folk, and dwarves. Your culture also affects your starting equipment: wealthy dwarves begin with the better equipment than the more frugal Woodmen.

AiME also replaces feats with virtues, only five of which are open to all cultures. The others are culturally specific, meaning that only elves can take ‘Deadly Archery’, for instance, and only the Rohirrim can choose ‘Born to the Saddle’. Each virtue comes with a quote from Tolkien’s work, so you feel like your choice of culture matters and you are part of a wider world.

There and back again

Lord of the Rings - Choose Your Own Adventure

New Line Cinema

5th edition D&D claims to be built upon three pillars: combat, exploration, and social interaction. When you experience D&D in play, though, you could be forgiven for thinking that only the first of these mattered. After all, the Player’s Handbook devotes an entire chapter to combat: exploration gets maybe a couple of pages.

In AiME, however, journeys are more important than dungeons. As the rules themselves say, ‘travelling is not simply a means of getting to a destination, nor something to be undertaken lightly.’ Heroes have to make a number of ability checks along the way, and depending on their successes, the DM’s die rolls, the length of the journey, and the difficulty of the terrain they are crossing, the company can arrive at its destination inspired and invigorated or crushed and exhausted.

It’s worth noting that, by default, heroes may only take short rests while on the road, and, of course, as befits the rest the low-magic atmosphere of Tolkien’s work, there is little magical healing. The mechanics of the game encourage players to find allies and build friendships on their travels in the hope that they can rely on their hospitality. Thus, the new rules for ‘audiences’ (social interaction) and ‘the fellowship phase’ (downtime) become very important.

The Shadow and corruption

I came, I saw...: Fog of War, Part 12: Mordor & Barad-Dur

New Line Cinema

AiME does not use the alignment system. Player characters are assumed to be heroes (and are referred to as such in the rules), and every hero has a Shadow Weakness: a failing in their character that the Shadow seeks to exploit. This is based on their class: thus, a slayer might succumb to the curse of vengance, becoming spiteful or cruel or murderous, whereas a warden or a warrior can feel the lure of power, becoming arrogant, overconfident, or even tyrannical.

Characters can acquire Shadow points from behaving dishonourably, from experiencing distressing events, or from crosing an area tainted by the Shadow, as well as from taking possession of a cursed treasure. Overtime, this corruption can lead to degeneration and bouts of madness. Eventually, a hero who falls under the Shadow’s influence can be removed from the game. An elf of Mirkwood must sail to the West, and a character from any another culture will either starve to death in a solitary place, forsaken by men and beasts, or threaten others to the extent that they must be killed.

Deceit, theft, murder, even violent threats will quickly inrease your Shadow points, and once your Shadow points exceed your Wisdom score, you start to suffer bouts of madness. There are no murder hobos in AiME.

The road goes ever on and on

Virtual Tolkien Is A Free VR Recreation Of An Iconic LOTR Film Scene

New Line Cinema

With a bit of tweaking, AiME could work for any 5e game. I could see it as the basis for a low-magic Game of Thrones campaign or a D&D version of Legend of the Five Rings, where taint and corruption are a key part of the story. It’s a real shame the line has been discontinued, but with multiple region guides out there and even entire campaigns, there’s plenty of material on offer to help you get started. Give it a try.

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Using Published Campaign Settings

Wizards of the Coast

Making your own homebrew campaign setting can be a daunting undertaking. World-building can be very time-consuming, and if you’re not really that interested in cartography, demographics, cosmologies, pantheons, and so forth, you might find yourself reaching for a someone else’s work.

How should you go about using a published campaign setting?

Where to start?

A published campaign setting can be overwhelming because of the sheer volume of lore you are drawing upon. The Forgotten Realms Campaign Set was released in 1987. Greyhawk, Gary Gygax’s home setting, was created at least a decade earlier. Even Eberron, a relative newcomer on the D&D scene, is now 16 years old and has appeared in three different editions of the game. It can be hard to know where to start.

Here are my tips.

1. Choose your flavour

Published D&D settings can be very different. Think about the general ‘vibe’ you’re going for, and go from there. To summarize a few:

  • The Forgotten Realms is the official campaign setting of 5th edition and probably the most widely played. It is a fairly ‘vanilla’ fantasy world.
  • Greyhawk, too, is something of a ‘generic fantasy setting’. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course!)
  • Eberron might best be described as ‘magitek’ or ‘dungeon punk’, drawing its inspiration from pulp advenure stories and film noir.
  • Dragonlance, based on the novel series of the same name, is a bit more high fantasy. The balance of good and evil is a key theme.
  • Ravenloft is dark fantasy or gothic. Curse of Strahd gives you a good sense of its tone.
  • Dark Sun is a godless post-apocalyptic desert world with sword and sorcery elements.
  • Planescape centres around Sigil, the City of Doors, a strange metropolis that lies outside the multiverse and a hub for a vast network of magic portals.
  • Spelljammer is . . . D&D in space.

You’ve also got the Inner Sea region, the excellent setting of the Pathfinder RPG, and the various Magic: The Gathering crossovers, if that’s your thing.

It’s worth mentioning that only two of these settings have received substantial 5th edition support: Eberron and the Forgotten Realms. It’s also worth setting that many of these settings have many different flavours within them. Eberron, for example, could be a Raiders of the Lost Ark–style temple run in Xen’drik, a Chandleresque hard-boiler in Sharn, a Lovecraftian cosmic horror story from the Far Realms, or something else entirely.

2. Start local

Storytelling in All its Forms: The Dragon of Icespire Peak Campaign Diary -  Episode 1 - Welcome to Phandalin

Wizards of the Coast

This is the approach of Lost Mine of Phandelver and Dragon of Icespire Peak, both set in the small frontier town of Phandalin and its environs. ‘The Forgotten Forge’, the 1st-level adventure in the original Eberron Campaign Setting, takes place entirely in Sharn. There is no reason to cover the whole world at once. Start small and build out from there.

This is a good tip for any campaign, frankly, especially if you start at 1st level. The world that matters the most is the world you build with the players. However, there does come a point where you want to increase the scope. As a rule of thumb, consider expanding out a little with each tier of play. Go to Xen’drik in Tier 2. Have a big bust-up between nations in Tier 3. Walk the planes in Tier 4. Or mix it up. The Dungeon Master’s Guide has some good guidance on pages 36–38.

3. Steal, steal, steal

One of the advantages of using a published campaign setting is the abundance of material you can borrow from, so take advantage of it! Raid old modules, ask questions on subreddits, consult the Dungeon Masters Guild and DriveThruRPG for sourcebooks old and new. The biggest campaign settings have wikis that are fairly reliable, and creators like Ed Greenwood and Keith Baker (to name but two) are fantastic for regularly sharing their thoughts about their settings on Twitter and their own websites.

What can you steal? Maps, art, monsters, NPCs, dungeons, artifacts, storylines, lore. In short: anything! It’s your campaign, and the published material is there to make your life easier. There’s no shame whatsoever and borrowing liberally from any sources you can find.

4. Drill down the ‘aspects’

This is a trick from Fate Core that I find handy.

‘Aspects’ are Fate’s big thing. An aspect is a phrase that describes something unique or noteworthy about whatever it’s attached to. If you find the copious background reading on your campaign setting to be a bit much, try reducing the setting down to a series of aspects.

Silver Marches | 5th Age Campaigns' home rules | Obsidian Portal

Wizards of the Coast

For example, let’s say we’re running a campaign in the Forgotten Realms. One of my favourite parts of the Realms is the Silver Marches, sometimes called Luruar. At kingdom scale, I might pick out eight to ten key sites that want to remember and then reduce them to ‘aspects’. It might look something like this:

  • Silverymoon: beautiful city of culture and magic
  • Everlund: mercantile city ruled by council of elders
  • Sundabar: harsh fortress city
  • Citadel Adbar: massive dwarven fortress
  • Citadel Felbarr: reclaimed dwarven citadel
  • Mithral Hall: dwarven mining stronghold
  • Beorunna’s Well: ancestral home of the Black Lion barbarians
  • The Evermoors: vast, foggy, troll-infested bog

This might be a bit minimalist for some, but for time-pressed DMs, it can be a useful shorthand. You can then improvise around these descriptions and make the setting your own (see the sixth point, below).

5. Three big schemers

Published campaign settings are not just a series of locations: they are also filled with people and organizations. And sometimes, the sheer number of forces at work can be a little intimidating for someone new to the setting.

My tip: restrict yourself to three big movers and shakers at any one time. In the Forgotten Realms, your campaign might revolve around the Lords’ Alliance, the Arcane Brotherhood, and the Kingdom of Many-Arrows. For Eberron, you might focus on the Aurum, the Dark Lanterns, and House Cannith. Obviously there’s no need to make this an absolute rule – by all means throw in a fourth or fifth if you want – but too many factions can lead to gambit pileup. Give your players a chance to learn more and more about the factions they know well and let the others slip into the background.

6. Break canon: kill your darlings

Wizards of the Coast

One of the biggest problems with a published campaign setting is the feeling that you have to honour it in some way. ‘What if my players know the setting better than I do?’ ‘Is my Sharn “accurate”?’ ‘Will the players want to meet Drizzt Do’Urden?’

Don’t let a published setting overshadow your own creativity. Ed Greenwood doesn’t want you to do that. Keith Baker doesn’t want you to do that. Your players don’t want you to do that.

More important than any of the other tips in this article is this one: make the setting your own. Do you want to run a Waterdeep campaign with Victorian-era technology? Go for it. Do you want an Eberron campaign where the Lord of Blades won the Last War and machines rule the world, Terminator style? Sounds fun. Fancy a Rime of the Frostmaiden–Dark Sun mash-up, with a post-apocalyptic tundra instead of a blasted desert world? Give it a try.

Whatever game you run, make sure the heroes at the heart of it. If you want to introduce Volo or Elminster or Drizzt or Mordenkainen, feel free to. But its your heroes’ story, not theirs. Treat a published campaign setting as a starting point, not an endpoint. If you want to rip it up and do your own thing with it, do. Make whatever changes you want.

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