Adventures in Middle-earth is more than a game. It is a reunion of two franchises that in many ways directly created the modern conception of fantasy wholecloth. Whatever Gygax may have said about the matter, Tolkien’s influence on him was clear, yet in the decades that passed since Chainmail we have seen a stark divergence in how fantasy is presented under the two legacies. Middle-earth was a place of somber melancholy, where magic was the lost and mysterious art of a dying history. D&D’s magic is vibrant and constant, and using it as a mechanism of empowerment is now a core tenet of the game. When Cubicle 7 announced it would adapt its flagship, The One Ring, into the engine of D&D Fifth Edition, I was both excited and bewildered.
As similar as the two franchises are at first glance, their differences now set them profoundly apart. By making this change, Cubicle 7 artfully opened itself up to a new audience that could more easily adapt their understanding of 5E than learn the new engine of The One Ring. This adaptation would of course exact a price, as certain flavor had to be lost to fit Middle-earth into the more streamlined, universal 5E system.
While Cubicle 7 didn’t remake 5E entirely, it did use the existing tools in remarkably intelligent ways. Middle-earth is a grittier, less survivable setting than the Forgotten Realms or Eberron, and Cubicle 7 chose to represent this difference by making every aspect of the system more valuable, and more difficult to come by. Equipment and armor proficiencies or the ability to heal are more or less glossed over in 5E. Adventures in Middle-earth (or AiME) deals them out sparingly, forcing you to choose carefully when generating a character.
At first glance, the classes are analogues to those of 5E, albeit without access to magic and with fewer and more difficult to access bonuses. In some ways this feels like a let down, seemingly only slight changes to what is already familiar. However, the classes have been modified to fit the setting, each filling a better thematic niche than “guy with sword who gets incrementally better at swinging said sword.” Magic is entirely absent from these classes, replaced by smaller, thematic abilities that help each class fulfill its function within the frontier society they inhabit: the scholar, slayer, treasure hunter, wanderer, warden, and warrior all have their place as more than combattants. While 5E remains a combat engine first and foremost, and does dilute The One Ring by focussing so heavily on it, the classes have more options to help you with exploration and social encounters.
The scholar, for instance, cannot slap hands on an ally and bring them back to full health. Rather, scholars are more learned in herb lore, and can augment the restorative properties of herbs you find or purchase. The slayer, meanwhile, is essentially indistinct from a barbarian until you gain a few levels and start getting the use of its archetypes. Much of the excitement is taken away from classes because of abilities like these, but in its place are thematic and creative abilities. The only serious issue with classes is one of layout: each has a shadow weakness which causes it to gain corruption, but that weakness is only explained in a separate chapter. When making a class, you want to understand its strengths and weaknesses, and this shift is an unfortunate oversight.
Alone these changes would not feel like enough. The few abilities each class possesses, while unique and thematic, feel too limited to excite you the way 5E’s would. However, characters in this game are made up of more than their class. Where D&D makes class the determining factor in a character’s abilities and playstyle, Adventures in Middle-earth gives far more focus to Culture and Backgrounds.
Cultures do include local dwarves and elves, but largely consist of a range of Men from many leanings and beliefs. AiME uses the term Men for humans, taking after its inspiration, but the art makes clear that many badass female warriors are ready to step into the fray at a moment’s notice. These cultures are more than just a set of bonuses, and help inform you about the setting, and your character’s origin, and the diversity of beliefs that humanity can offer. Each class includes a few precious proficiencies, attribute bonuses, and unique abilities to set them apart. Interestingly, each Culture also has a standard of living, which affects starting equipment for each class. This small change is a balancing factor, removes a headache, informs you of the culture, and gives you a point to build on. It’s an interesting way to enforce this setting.
Unfortunately, proficiencies don’t have much effect in 5E, so AiME needed something else to make character generation engaging. Cultures also have access to Virtues, which they receive at 1st, 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 20th level. The Virtues are essentially feats in concept, but are unique to each Culture. I appreciate this change greatly, which keeps your choice of Culture relevant however long you play a character, rather than a one-off choice you end up forgetting. You get few Virtues throughout the life of a character, but each one is game-changing. Some are basic bonuses, such as the ability to roll two damage die and use the higher, but the more narratively engaging ones could make an enormous impact on their own. These include oracular visions, limited astral projection, and bonuses only when you are outclassed in combat.
A few Virtues have abilities that trigger if you spend inspiration or hit dice, and I wish Cubicle 7 had leaned into this as a concept. This way of recontextualizing a familiar mechanic could have remade 5E, and set the game apart even better. If each class had special ways to spend inspiration or hit dice, they would feel far more distinct from their D&D counterparts. Regardless, the Virtues are fresh additions, and remain useful outside of combat, and help to highlight the new Journey and Fellowship phases.
Characters also each have Backgrounds, which have seen a major upgrade from their 5E version, and mostly for the better. They have been formalized into two skill proficiencies, a Distinctive Feature, a Specialty, a Hope, and a Despair. The features are useful add-ons while specialties are areas of knowledge that might help or grant advantage, such as lore of a specific terrain type. Using these specialties in creative ways gives you inspiration, so their use is only limited by circumstance and your own creativity. Hopes and Despairs are basic character strengths and flaws, and only exist as a source of flavor. Backgrounds include personality types as well as upbringing, which help give you ways to set your character apart from the pack.
Equipment is also more sparse, as AiME consists of a more grounded economy. The mundane equipment doesn’t feel special, and the list seems very similar to that from 5E. The interesting differences largely come in the form of heirlooms, which have minor though important effects to help you survive. Magic items are extremely difficult to find, replaced by high quality cultural heirlooms with, once again, minor though critical enhancements. These all feel awesome, even if their abilities are less powerful because of the low fantasy setting. Because they are heirlooms they are also tied into distinct cultures well, functioning appropriate to their points of origin. These items don’t really have a ranking system, like 5E’s Rarity, but that was a conscious choice. All magic is supposed to be rare and unapproachable in Middle-earth, and you are left to eyeball the power level of each item.
As new as all of this feels, none of it can completely escape being an adaptation of a game that was never made with Middle-earth in mind. Proficiencies are important, but not in the way they need to be to have the truest impact. It’s in the new abilities that AiME makes its mark, but also in the way it presents Middle-earth.
Apart from system, I also have concerns as to setting whenever I imagine gaming in Middle-earth. Because of the monolithic cultural landmark that was Lord of the Rings, so many aspects of the setting are set in stone, down to its own climax. Whatever you do, you know it will be one step along a predetermined path towards an end you cannot change. To help with this issue, the setting of this game is not the whole of Middle-earth but a small section that became habitable just after Smaug was ousted from his horde. The dragon dead and necromancer gone, this appears to be a time of growth in the Wilderlands, the area where the game is set.
The Wilderlands are only now being tamed, and many factions vie for their control. Their fate is not settled, and the Shadow of Sauron hangs over them still, an ever-present force threatening their stability. It is for your characters to reclaim this land from the darkness that consumed it, and hangs over it still. You are set on smaller, more personal mysteries. While you cannot escape knowing that Sauron is their true origin, you can get lost in the many machinations and plots that will come your way and threaten the little you hold dear.
You have many ways to explore and change the fate of this small setting; instead of being slotted into Gondor or Rohan you can make your own way in this unsettled land on the borders of the darkness. The struggles are smaller, yet political strife remains, as the four houses of the Wilderlands and the nearby kingdoms of dwarves, elves, and men vie for its resources.
Nonetheless, some of the setting has an overemphasis on reminding you of the established lore, whether it makes sense or not. Radaghast and Beor are somewhat major forces in the Wilderlands, despite both being notorious recluses.
All while it relates its setting, Adventures in Middle-earth is suffused with style. The text is peppered with quotes from the source material, leaving you with the sense that its authors held a genuine respect for the source material. While this was first written decades after the Tolkien met his end, it fits organically into his world, where magic is slowly making its exit and a new age is soon to dawn. The art is appropriate to fantasy, but with a dark and mysterious edge that keeps you from ever feeling entirely safe. The maps are both lavishly rendered and highly useful, each of them full of both useful information and an overhanging sense of foreboding. Rest assured, you will not feel empowered when you venture forth into the unknown.
To help this sense of unease, AiME introduces a Corruption system that threatens your character’s sanity the further they go into the darkness. Every character has a Shadow Weakness, determined by their class, which the Shadow (Sauron) seeks to exploit. I don’t know why a character flaw like this would be tied to class, except perhaps as a balancing factor. You slowly gain corruption as your characters experience despair, fall prey to their Shadow Weakness, are exposed to the taint of the Shadow (such as places or items), or commit evil yourself. A successful Wisdom save can stave off this corruption. When your Shadow points exceed your Wisdom, you become Miserable, granting you disadvantage on attack rolls and instant failure on Charisma checks. If you make a subsequent check and the result is below the difference of your Shadow points and Wisdom, you go briefly insane and the Loremaster takes control of your character. This resets your shadow points but makes you Degenerate, gaining a permanent mental flaw. These flaws get aggravated over time, representing a slow transition downwards.
Wisdom is clearly given enhanced utility by the Corruption system, but Charisma and Intelligence are useful in other areas, namely the Journey, Audience, and Fellowship phases.
The Journey system is a codified set of rules for long journeys. Rather than completely glossing these over or forcing you to go through them, they break these down into the planning phase, the events on the journey, and the final arrival. The mechanics involve you deciding on the route you will take, giving your party tasks during the journey such as scout, guide, and lookout, or who will make tests throughout the journey to keep you safe and supplied. Different paths will be more perilous, making the map provided with AiME a crucial tactical tool. The end result is a roll, which affects the rest of the Journey. There will be events on the journey requiring the action of different members of the party. There rules are simple and unobtrusive, and help make a long stretch of time feel significant. While it boils down to a few rolls and the opportunity to roleplay at preset points, it keeps everything simple but makes for meaningful choices when planning your travel.
Audiences are meetings with the great lords and powerful figures of the Wilderlands, such as a powerful Elf who spends too much of his day doing his hair. These rules are once again unobtrusive, but function as a creative way to simulate a familiar feature of Tolkien’s works. It also reminds you of your place in the setting, meager nobodies scraping your way by and trying to survive. These Audiences are affected by how various cultures view one another, and are heavily tied into roleplay and social skills. Adding in a person’s inherent trust or distrust of your party, each NPC has very reasonable boundaries as to what they are willing to do for you.
The Fellowship phase determines what your characters will do in between their journeys. AiME assumes only one or two adventures per year, owing to long travel times and the need to recover from each development. This is basically downtime, and grants each player the chance for roleplay and some small bonuses. Recovery is rare in this game, even more so than in 5E, so these moments to relax are all the more important. You can rest and recover, train yourself to become better at certain virtues, heal corruption, conduct research, change traits in recognition of the journey affecting you, and more.
There are only a few new skills, and apart from one they are welcome additions: lore replaces arcana, because knowledge of magic is relegated to almost no one, traditions govern social conventions, and shadow-lore is exactly how it sounds. Riddles is poorly named, as it represents a character’s ability to speak while concealing information. This should more logically be called subterfuge or intrigue, but it seems the authors wanted to shoehorn in whatever references they could.
Adventures in Middle-earth ends with a group of pregens, which is very much appreciated. It gives new players a starting off point and helps save time if you want to jump into the game. There are no monsters to help you get going, or much in the way of GM advice, which has been relegated to the Lore Master’s Guide, a separate release.
Adventures in Middle-earth Player’s Guide
Published by: Cubicle 7
Developed by: James Brown, Paul Butler, Walt Ciechanowksi, Steve Emmott, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, Jon Hodgson, Shane Ivey, Andrew Kenrick, TS Luikart, Dominic McDowall, Francesco Nepitello, James Spahn, Ken Spencer
MSRP: $19.99 (PDF)
Adventures in Middle Earth
Adventures in Middle-earth has less of the flair of The One Ring, but remains an engaging and exciting experience. Adapting itself to the 5E engine has diluted it in a few ways, but has mostly given us a fresh, intelligent way to experience Middle-earth. The good design choices far outweigh the questionable ones, resulting in a stylish, exciting, dark mystery that I am eager to experience.