Monday, September 12, 2016

Adventures in Middle-earth Player's Guide Review (1)

The Adventures in Middle-earth Player's Guide is the vanguard book in Cubicle 7's new line that aims to bring Tolkien's beloved fantasy world to the rules of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. Let's take a look at how it attempts to marry the world of Middle-earth to the current rule set of the world's most popular fantasy roleplaying game, as well as how well it succeeds at that task.

First things first: I would be remiss if I didn't note that the interior art is leagues better than the cover of the book. I'm not sure why they went with "Gandalf as arsonist fleeing the scene of the crime" as the face for this line of products, but rest assured that the interior illustrations--which I gather are from Cubicle 7's other Tolkien rpg, The One Ring--are lovely and give an excellent taste of the atmosphere you would expect from a game set in the world of the Lord of the Rings novels.

Second things second: the book begins with a nice introduction to and overview of the recent history, peoples, and places of the Wilderland in Middle-earth. If you've got your heart set on playing in some other corner of the setting, you aren't going to find much support for that. If you're totally new to Middle-earth, you shouldn't be lost after reading this section, but I imagine it wouldn't hurt to supplement the information presented here with a bit of Tolkien's fiction.

Essentially, Adventures in Middle-earth bends D&D to Tolkien's fantasy epic to in two ways: 

  • it changes up most of the facets of character creation to produce characters tailor-made for Tolkien-esque adventures
  • it adds new rules subsystems to tilt the game in favor of the fantasy conventions Tolkien relied upon in his fictive work

In this part of the review, I'm going to focus on the former. How does this book guide you toward making characters who live and breathe in the same world as Bilbo, Aragorn, and Legolas?

Instead of choosing from D&D's standard list of race options, a character created with these rules will instead choose a Culture:

  • The Cultures function similarly to 5e's races, granting Ability Score bonuses, Skills, Languages, special abilities, etc. Indeed, the cultures of the Dwarves and Elves look very similar to their counterparts in the D&D Player's Handbook
  • However, one notable difference is that the Cultures in this book differentiate between the various cultures of Men you can choose from. Where D&D makes "human" a generic category, in AiME each human culture is designed to feel different in play. For example, Men of the Lake are naturally charismatic and are proficient in Persuasion since they belong to a culture that values trade. 
  • Each Mannish culture also begins play with a Cultural Virtue, which is essentially a feat that further emphasizes how each region has its own distinct flavor. (More on Cultural Virtues below.)

Adventures in Middle-earth completely eschews the standard D&D Classes and offers its own options in their place.

  • Characters in AiME can be Scholars (healers and loremasters), Slayers (barbaric warriors), Treasure Hunters (thieves), Wanderers (rangers), Wardens (magic-less bards), or Warriors. 
  • What is immediately evident is that AiME has no interest in D&D's usual level of magic-saturation; with no D&D-style spellcasters available, the game definitely falls more into line with Tolkien's fiction--magic is a rare and mystical thing beyond the reach of even most adventurers. 
  • The classes in AiME are definitely not balanced against those in the D&D Player's Handbook; 5th edition D&D characters all tend to be basically competent in combat, but here there is a greater disparity between classes designed to excel in combat and those that are designed to excel at other parts of the game. 
  • Some of the fighting options in AiME might even be better than their counterparts in the PHB; for example, one Slayer option gives you access to rage while in heavy armour!
  • Folks who have been hoping for a magic-free ranger take note: with a bit of tweaking, the Wanderer class might make for a solid framework to add that kind of character archetype back into D&D.
  • Many of the classes presented here also make more use of the Inspiration mechanic than in default D&D, using it to power some of their special abilities. It appears that the assumption is that Inspiration will be a more free-flowing commodity than D&D generally allows for.
Virtues replace D&D's Feats

  • Virtues come in two types: Open (any character who meets their requirements can take them) and Cultural (only characters of a matching Culture has access to them).
  • The way Cultural Virtues are used in AiME is very interesting: they essentially take variants of common feats and make them exclusive to certain types of characters. This isolation of certain bonuses and abilities to specific cultures really does an excellent job enforcing niche protection and making the game conform to Tolkien's vision of Middle-earth. 
  • For example, If you want to play a great archer, you're going to want to be an Elf of Mirkwood, Man of the Lake, or Bardling. And yet, the variety of the Cultural Virtues between those three Cultures will also give a different feel to a character; stacked up against each other, archers from those three Cultures are not going to feel the same.
  • The closest you're going to get to magic in AiME is in the rune-based Cultural Virtues of the Dwarves or the Cultural Virtues of the Elves.
Other changes:

  • AiME uses its own Backgrounds. These function almost identically to 5e D&D's Backgrounds, though they use Distinctive Qualities, Specialties, Hopes, and Despairs in place of D&D's Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws.
  • Where D&D's Backgrounds are very general and encompassing to fit generic fantasy worlds, AiME's are geared toward replicating the kind of backstories present in Tolkien's fiction.
  • There are a handful of new Skills to handle situations that are more likely to crop up in Middle-earth than in, say, the Forgotten Realms. (More on this when we talk about the new systems that AiME adds to the game.)
  • AiME has its own equipment lists, giving new weapons and new armor. Since Middle-earth doesn't feature plate mail, the new heavy chain and great shield help shore up the armor classes of martial characters to keep them within the expected parameters of 5e's bounded accuracy mechanic.

Overall, the net effect of AiME's modifications to the way modern D&D generates characters will certainly produce characters thematically-consistent with Tolkienian adventure. This is an objective the game sets itself that is clearly achieved.

However, not everything in AiME is an unqualified success; in particular, there are a few places that seemed to have been written by someone who wasn't as familiar with the 5e rule set as they should have been:

  • For example, the Scholar class has the option of taking proficiency in the "healing kit" (presumably they mean the healer's kit in the PHB, as there are no separate rules for a healing kit to be found in AiME). The problem is that the healer's kit doesn't require a roll to use--anyone using one does so automatically, which means that proficiency in the kit doesn't actually do anything. NOTE: this was fixed in an update to the pdf.
  • Similarly, one of the Wanderer's special abilities regarding the exhaustion mechanic cites an example that doesn't match up with the actual rules for exhaustion. (Maybe we're getting new exhaustion mechanics in the Loremaster book?)
  • And why do the stats for servants in the game note that they are lawful neutral when alignment doesn't appear to be used anywhere else in the book? (The table of contents says that alignment is replaced wholesale by the Corruption mechanic.)  NOTE: this was fixed in an update to the pdf.
None of these issues is game-breaking, but since these are just the items I found on a casual read-through I'm left wondering what other gaffs lurk in the text. NOTE: Cubicle 7 has made a great attempt to fix typos and mechanical gaffs, which is commendable.

All in all, though, finishing the section about AiME's alterations to baseline 5e D&D made me want to make a character and explore Middle-earth. So far so good; next time, we tackle the new mechanics that the Adventures in Middle-earth Player's Guide offers. Ere the sun rises!