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

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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

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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

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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

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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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What Next for 5th Edition?

Wizards of the Coast

On Monday, Wizards of the Coast revealed that their next product would be Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, a collection of new rules and character options in the vein of 2017’s Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Tasha’s Cauldron promises to include new subclasses, new spells and magic items, new rules for running sidekicks, and some intriguing guidance on how to run a session zero, as well as some reprinted material from Eberron: Rising from the Last War (including group patrons and the artificer class). Judging by the responses on social media, fans generally seem to be pretty excited about this.

Thinking about this new sourcebook, I asked Twitter and Reddit for what people would like to see from D&D over the next couple of years. After 400-plus comments, there are definite trends emerging: some expected, some rather surprising.

Spelljammer confirmed’

Giff Playable Race | New Player Option for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition  – FREE Fifth Edition Monsters, Maps, and More

Wizards of the Coast

Calls on D&D forums for a new Spelljammer book are the RPG equivalent of ‘Play “Free Bird”!’ at rock concerts. The setting which introduced the idea of D&D in space was born in 1989 and hasn’t been given any official rules support this side of the millennium, yet there is clearly a diehard group of fans who would be overjoyed by a new Spelljammer book and are hanging on Wizards of the Coast’s every word. There have been teases, perhaps – neogi were introduced in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, giffs in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, and illithid ships makes appearances in both Dungeon of the Mad Mage and the upcoming Baldur’s Gate III – but there hasn’t been anything official, yet.

Maybe it’s not Spelljammer’s time. Either way, there is clearly an appetite for a non-Faerûnian campaign setting. Planescape is a common request, as is Dark Sun, which was revived in 4th edition, but Greyhawk, Ravenloft, and even Nentir Vale have been put forward. Frankly, even somewhere outside the Sword Coast would be a breath of fresh air. So far, Chult is the only other part of the Forgotten Realms we have seen in an official adventure, and Ghosts of Saltmarsh is the only adventure to be set outside Faerûn (although Curse of Strahd takes place almost entirely within its own demiplane, so that probably should count, too).

Another popular request is non-European fantasy, especially settings that are Middle Eastern, Mesoamerican, East Asian, or African in flavour. However, this would need to be handled carefully, and Wizards of the Coast are probably wary of insensitivity. Tomb of Annihilation has been criticized for stereotypical tropes, and older sourcebooks like Oriental Adventures – still available for sale on DriveThruRPG, despite the disclaimer – are even worse. Regardless, the demand for such settings remains high.

The return of the module?

‘Campaign-adventures’ like Curse of Strahd and Storm King’s Thunder have become the norm in 5th edition. These hardback tomes run to 250 pages and cover at least two tiers of play (usually), offering potentially hours of material. But it wasn’t always thus. Before 5th edition, ‘modules’ were often much shorter, not to mention cheaper: softcover booklets of 32 pages or so, and normally just a single dungeon like The Sunless Citadel or The Forge of Fury. There would be enough content for one or two levels of play, and if the adventure was event based, the plot would be simple and fairly linear.

While the unveiling of a new ‘storyline’ is always a big event for Wizards of the Coast, there is clearly some fondness for shorter, more modular adventures. They’re quicker to read, kinder on the wallet, and easier to slot into an existing homebrew campaign. It feels like Wizards may be listening to fans on this as Ghosts of Saltmarsh and Rime of the Frostmaiden, two of the most recent adventures, are designed around a series of shorter, more self-contained adventures that can be run separately or as a longer, connected narrative.

Interestingly, D&D’s closest competitor, Pathfinder, made extensive use of shorter modules throughout its first edition, and seems to be following a similar approach in its new, second edition. While some of these adventures had a tendency to be a bit railroady, a number of them were very well liked, and two, Rise of the Runelords and Curse of the Crimson Throne, ended up being released as special hardbook editions. Maybe there’s something for Wizards to take note of here.

More character options

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Wizards of the Coast

Other than new settings, the most popular request on Reddit was for more options: feats, spells, classes, subclasses, races, subraces, monsters, magic items. Tashas Cauldron of Everything, then, is much anticipated!

Several users have noted that despite multiple treatments in Unearthed Arcana, including a new ‘mystic’ class, psionics has still not appeared as official content. In both 3rd and 4th editions, rules for psionics were released relatively early, in 2001 and 2010 respectively. Yet in 5th edition, the game designers haven’t been able to make the mystic work, and it’s looking increasingly likely that psionics will appear as subclasses of existing classes (a psychic warrior fighter, for example) rather than a whole new set of mechanics. Given the importance of psionics within the world of Athas, a Dark Sun campaign setting would be a fitting place to publish them.

It has also been pointed out that 5th edition is relatively light in terms of its support for higher level play. For example, only two of the official hardback adventures so far have covered the fourth tier of play: Rise of Tiamat and Dungeon of the Mad Mage. There are reasons for this: 90 percent of D&D campaigns never progress beyond 10th level, and encounter balancing gets increasingly unwieldy the higher up you go. As time rolls by, though, there are only going to be more and more groups gaining access to high-level play. A Manual of the Planes for 5th edition – Leomund’s Guide, perhaps? – could tie in well with this. There has been some kind of planar guide in every edition except 2nd, so a 5th-edition equivalent would be welcome. It would also be interesting to see whether 5th edition could return to the paragon paths and epic destinies of 4th edition: player choices which, like subclasses, had a significant impact on the growth of a character over time.

6th Edition?

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The sapphire dragon for D&D’s 45th anniversary

There seemed to be a firm consensus that another edition in the next two years was neither likely nor necessary. 5th edition is probably the most popular edition of Dungeons & Dragons ever. It took several years to playtest and has one won over thousands of new players, and won back plenty of others who jumped ship to other RPGs after 4th edition left them disappointed. Wizards of the Coast have deliberately avoided rushing out new products and have generally stuck to a model of one or two campaign adventures a year plus one or two sourcebooks. Generally speaking, this has kept quality high and helped to aoid the ‘rules bloat’ that came to define 3rd edition and games based upon it. A new edition would probably alienate more players than it would win over.

That said, it’s clear that there are fundamental problems with the skeleton of 5th edition which can’t be ironed out with house rules and other hacks. The issue of linear warriors, quadratic wizards remains. Encounter balancing is a bit of a mess. The game is supposedly built around the three pillars, yet the rulebooks have whole chapters on combat and next to nothing on exploration and social interaciton. For some players, D&D is ‘broken’ enough to make them explore other RPGs, whether it’s Old School Revival retroclones like Old School Essentials or crunchier systems like Pathfinder 2e. For most people, though, it seems like 5th edition succeeds more than it fails. At least, that’s what the sales would suggest.

Unless D&D stops making money or its popularity starts to wane dramatically, 5th edition is here to stay. But who knows? Maybe ‘5.5’ will be announced in time for the 50th anniversary in 2024. D&D: Gold Edition?

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