Adventuring in Middle-Earth With Dungeons and Dragons

First impressions of Adventuring in Middle-Earth for Dungeons and Dragons by Cubicle 7 and Sophisticated Games.

Is it possible to play in Middle-Earth using the Dungeons and Dragons rules? As a fan of both I have always wanted it to be so, but never thought it was possible. Perhaps, once, using a modified basic version of the game, but not today. I concluded long ago that the styles are too different, they are two different fantasy subgenres, it can’t be done.

Publishers Cubicle 7 and Sophisticated Games thinks otherwise. Here are my thoughts. This a first impression, not a playtest review.

An Unexpected Party

I reluctantly picked up the Adventures in Middle-Earth Player’s Guide (2016) and Adventures in Middle-Earth Loremaster’s Guide (2017) on a whim when I saw the books in stores, spurred on by The One Ring’s reputation, the publishers’ other Middle-Earth game using a different rules system, and my own interest in low-magic fantasy.

Just picking up the books makes me tingle. They are sturdy tomes with beautiful covers, and interior art, the Wilderland map in the Player’s Guide resemble Christopher Tolkien’s maps,  and the layout is good. The fonts are a bit unusual compared to modern gaming books, and the headings may seem odd to casual readers, but they reference Tolkien. The books and presentation are perfect for Middle-Earth. Well done.

I’m Going On An Adventure

Looking closer on the cover you soon realize that the books use the OGL, and does not teach you how to play the game, and requires the Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition rules set. It does not explicitly say so, presumably for legal reasons.

The free version of the Dungeons and Dragons rules are available online.

Adventures in Middle-Earth is a D&D variant in the spirit of Tolkien, with heroic characters, Free Folk fighting the Shadow, so tracking down Aragon and kill him just for the heck of it is beyond the scope of the game.

The Player’s Guide includes everything I need to create my own Middle-Earth character using D&D mechanics: cultures, classes, virtues (feats), backgrounds, and equipment.

Middle-Earth Classes

The classes of Adventures of Middle-Earth are:

  • Scholars are a healer and loremasters, specialized as Master Scholars or Master Healers.
  • Slayers are barbarian-like fighters with rage, specialized as Riders or Foe-hammers.
  • Treasure Hunters are rogues, specialized as Agents or Burglars.
  • Wanderers are rangers specialized, as Hunters of Beasts or Hunters of Shadows.
  • Wardens are bards, specialized as Councilor, Herald or Bounder.
  • Warriors are fighters, specialized as Knights or Weapon Masters.

There is magic, of course, but there are no straight up spellcasters, and the books do not assume you use any classes from regular D&D.

Middle-Earth Rules Expansions

The remainder of the book deals with journeys, the shadow, audiences and the fellowship phase.

  • Adventuring in Middle-Earth involves lots of traveling, called Journeys. This phase emphasis the importance of travel in Tolkien’s work, beyond simple random encounters. It may seem redundant, but it grounds the game in Tolkien’s work and is fitting.
  • The Shadow is the evil of Morgoth and Sauron, and how it affects the rest of the world. The Shadow corrupts, and the reckless and unwary may succumb to the shadow. Would-be Aragon slayers beware!
  • Audiences expand social encounters with Middle-Earth flavor. Again, this may seem redundant, but it fits the setting. This also includes cultural attitudes within Middle-Earth, which can be a good reminder of how the setting works.
  • Fellowship phase is the time between adventures. Downtime could be another word for it, but remember tales in Middle-Earth should be epic tales spanning years, so this emphasis is appropriate.

The Loremaster’s Guide, although not required to play, should be useful as it offers more information on the Wilderlands after the events in the Hobbit, and delves deeper into some topics from the Player’s Guide. Adventuring, journeys, NPCs and adversaries, items and magic, and the fellowship phase gets more pages here.

Both books are well written, and the tone seem appropriate for Middle-Earth.

My precious!

Out Of The Frying Pan And Into The Fire

“We are plain quiet folk, and I have no use for adventures. Nasty, disturbing, and uncomfortable things.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

So are there any problems? I would certainly want more material if I were to run a campaign in Middle-Earth,  but that is hardly an argument unless we get more pages and a higher price point.

The question is, why would you even want Adventures in Middle-Earth? Well, it depends on what you want.

Limited Scope

Adventures in Middle-Earth focus on the Wilderlands after the events in the Hobbit. If you want to play in other parts of Middle-Earth or time periods, you may not find what you looking for here.

There are not that many options here, being just one book, so I imagine this is not a game for folks who like to tinker with character builds. Which is ok for me, that is not what Middle-Earth is about.

Using Your Other Dungeons and Dragons Books

How does Adventures in Middle-Earth mix with your other Dungeons and Dragons books?

There may be balance issues if you plan to use your D&D library extensively in your Middle-Earth game, the extent is hard to say for sure unless you actually play the game.

Middle-Earth was never about monster-bashing, but you will need credible villains, and the Loremaster’s Guide only provides a handful of opponents, so pulling out the Monster Manual to spice up a Middle-Earth game.

How will an 18th level party consisting of a scholar, warden, slayer and a treasure hunter hold up against a pit fiend?

Adventures in Middle-Earth use the challenge rating system and the people and monsters in the Loremaster Guide follow their counterparts in the Monster Manual closely.

However, the books do not really address the standard D&D importing monsters, so the Loremaster must study the legendary weapons section in the Loremaster’s Guide closely at the very least.

On the other hand, if you do not plan to use your D&D library, it seems like you have to make your own protagonists when your Player-heroes hit mid-level.

D&D 5e relies less on magic items than some previous versions of the game, and the low-magic nature of Middle-Earth should extend the usefulness of low challenge monsters further.

For Use In Your Dungeons and Dragons Game

The utility of Adventures in Middle-Earth for a D&D game may also be questionable. The real takeaway, in my opinion, is the fresh take some D&D tropes, which may make sense since as some claim Gygax never cited Tolkien as a major inspiration for D&D.

Races are referred to as cultures, magic items are cultural heirlooms, and feats are now virtues. You bet a handful of Middle-Earth appropriate backgrounds as well.  All are deeply rooted in Tolkien and showcase brilliant worldbuilding using the D&D rules.

You do not get stats for Sauron, the five wizards, the Ring-Wraiths or the One Ring in these books. The rest of the people and monsters in the Loremaster’s Guide is covered in the Monster Manual or should be easy to make on your own.

Is It Nice, My Preciousss?

Well, yes. I am not a reviewer and would have wasted time writing this unless I liked the books. The concerns above are in my opinion valid but is not concerns for me.

I cannot say which version – The One Ring or this D&D-based of Middle-Earth – is better.

However, I can say that those who want to play in Middle-Earth and prefer to stick to the D&D core mechanic, can do so with these books. It should play like a low-powered version of D&D and yet feel like Middle-Earth, which I assume was the whole point of its publication.

You need the Adventures in Middle-Earth Player’s Guide and the Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook (2014) to make characters and play the game, and the Loremaster may need more creatures.

I believe that previous experience with D&D will help you get started in Middle-Earth. I do not see any conflict between D&D and the new subsystems. In short, Adventures in Middle-Earth may inspire you, but offer few “crunchy bits” for your D&D game.

The movie soundtracks are a must for all. But you knew that.

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