Things I’ve Learned After Running Three ‘Adventures in Middle-earth’ Games

I’ve now run three ‘Adventures in Middle-earth’ game sessions. I love it! It is a fantastic and very faithful adaptation of the Tolkien material.

There were a few things I got wrong the first time I ran it, and there are some different game-style assumptions that require a slightly modified approach to get the most out of this new, wonderful 5e setting. Here’s my advice to new gamemasters (called ‘Loremasters’) who are thinking of running a Middle-earth campaign using’Adventures in Middle-earth’ (or AiME).

My First 'Adventures in Middle-earth' Game

My First ‘Adventures in Middle-earth’ Game

Journeys and Mapping Are A Key Activity

Journeys are a big part of each game. Players are going to spend more time than you would think having fun strategizing over routes to take, who is going to take on the role as ‘Guide’, and other activities involved in planning and taking a Journey. The mechanics are new but after a couple of sessions things flow pretty quickly.

There’s so much fun looking over the map and seeing places everyone has some familiarity with. ‘Hey, those are the Barrow-downs!’ ‘Say, Amon Sul is the same as Weathertop — that’s where Frodo and company were attacked by the Nazgul!’. It was interesting to play in a world so familiar and rich with history. It felt like we were in a campaign that everyone had been playing together for 20 years.

Journeys Aren’t Like Traditional Hex Crawls

Journeys can be long. You can easily take a journey of 150 or 300 miles before you get to your main destination. As such, the rules don’t follow traditional hex crawl procedures. My traditional hex crawl method was (doing this for each and every hex): enter a hex ➞ roll for encounters ➞ rest for the night ➞ see if anything happens while you’re on watch ➞ travel to the next hex.

In AiME, by default, although you plan a route through a dozen ten-mile hexes or more, you don’t track where you’re at on a specific day. Instead, you may have a Journey Event that takes place at an abstract time and place during the journey. For example, the Loremaster might say: “several days into the journey as you enter the bogs, you encounter a band of orcs”.

I got confused by this the first game I ran a Journey. Worked much better when I didn’t track exact days and distance the following session.

Players Dig Kingdoms, Titles, and Sanctuaries

From day one, you’re immersed into a ‘kingdoms’  focus that feels somewhat like the ‘strongholds’ end-game of the old White Box / BX / 1e D&D days. During the Fellowship Phase players can do things like receive Titles and create Sanctuaries. Sanctuaries end up being a big deal — if you have to routinely make a long journey with no Sanctuary in the middle to stop and recover, you’ll have more negative Journey Events, more enemy encounters and such. Build a Sanctuary mid-way and split that route into two Short journeys and you’ll have much easier travels.

The fact that months or even a full year can pass during a Fellowship phase infuses a grand, epic air into your activities. Very Tolkienesque, even when players are low-level characters!

Different Lands or Eras Requires Extra Effort

The books and maps work best if you run your campaign in the era between the time of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and place your campaign in or around Mirkwood. If you wan to try running adventures in a different land or time period, you’ll have some additional work. Personally, I like the year 1640 in the Third Age (centuries before The Hobbit) since I can pull out and use my many MERP modules (old Iron Crown ‘Middle-earth Roleplaying’ adventures that used the Rolemaster system).

You’ll have to tweak a few things and use a different map, but I’m doing it and it’s working fine with a bit of effort. See my house-rules and map resources for doing a TA 1640 campaign.

The ‘Wanderer’ class has a ‘Known Lands’ feature that you’ll need to take into account if you use a different map than the one they provide in the Player’s Guide.

Player Abilities Drive Story

One thing I was surprised about was the intense sandbox gamestyle AiME fostered due to features built into the characters. For example, there is a background feature ‘Foreknowledge’ plus Fellowship phase activities ‘Research Lore’ and ‘Meet Patron’ which end up letting players ask questions and get answers at the beginning and end of games. Characters end up asking questions and generating patrons or quests which drives story lines that are entirely of the player’s origin. I love it! Using ‘Dungeon World’ style fronts is a great approach to driving adventures after a session or two of play.

Because of this, and because of the Journey and Fellowship phases, game session structures are quite different than in my traditional D&D game. After three games, here’s how a game that ends up with a Fellowship Phase might pan out for a four hour session:

  1. Resolve Fellowship Phase from last game: 25 minutes
  2. Roleplay Adventure Hook Scene: 35 minutes
  3. Plan and Take Journey to Adventure Locale: 45 minutes
  4. A couple of exploration/roleplay scenes and 1 big fight: 1:45 minutes
  5. Take Journey Home from Adventure Locale: 30 minutes

Note the items in bold — these are gameplay phases that I would often skip or run very quickly in a traditional D&D game. In Adventure in Middle-earth, they can be about half a game session!

Journeys include encounters that can be things like an Orc Band, a Troll, wandering group of singing Elves, or an opportunity to hunt down Herbs or Food (that give mechanical benefits; they’re sort of like magic items). Journeys and the sandbox adventuring that spring out of them are a big part of the game, and also take a chunk of game time. A good thing, but you should budget game session time for these things 🙂

Tracking Journey or Fellowship Phase Information

There are some Journey related modifiers, as well as Fellowship phase events, which can carry over from session to session. I’ve now started to use a publicly visible whiteboard to take note of Journey modifiers as they come up during the Embarkation and Journey Event phases. Helps me not lose track of something.

Ramping Up on Tolkien Canon

You can plunge in to running AiME without being a Tolkien scholar. That being said, it helps to re-read the books (or watch the movies) before or as you run a campaign. I’m found myself gaining interest in reading up on various Tolkien topics.  Some resources I’ve found helpful:

Youtube has some great videos you can give to players. In twelve minutes, you can learn just about all you need to know! Have players watch these two videos (second one is if you’re running TA 1640 campaigns):

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4 Responses to Things I’ve Learned After Running Three ‘Adventures in Middle-earth’ Games

  1. Robert "Commander" Miklos December 14, 2016 at 3:44 pm #

    The campaign so far has been a favorite of mine. And set during the twilight of Arnor makes it even better for me. We may save the kingdom for now, but the shadow looms over all.

    • Stan December 14, 2016 at 3:56 pm #

      I’m loving it too!

  2. The Dale Wardens January 8, 2017 at 12:51 am #

    Stan,

    I really like that you are setting the game in a different period. For most people this time in Middle Earth would be a bit of a mystery and hence undiscovered country for the players. For me there seems to be a bit of determinism when the game is cast in the Hobbit to LOTR era. Unless someone is getting deep into the lore of Arnor, most the events are going to be completely new experiences.

    I am a big AD&D guy, and I like 5e (although not enough to switch my campaign game) buut I have not played it a lot. I have a couple questions for you:

    What do you see preferable in 5e over TOR? Were your players more open to 5e than learning a new system? SInce it is a D&D, are they seeing money in a different light than the abstracted way TOR does?

    “I got confused by this the first game I ran a Journey. Worked much better when I didn’t track exact days and distance the following session.”

    I am right there with you. 🙂 I actually started using a small calendar to mark of travel times because of confusion! Once I know how long the journey takes I just blocked out the travel days. Does it need to be done? Naah. But I have always found an attraction to little bits of crunchy data. For me it puts things in a more “historical” context.

    Then I found this little website that may help if yo are interested…:
    http://calendarhome.com/calculate/convert-a-date

    You can put a month, year, and date in and it will tell you what day of the week it is. We have not had a game in a couple of weeks, so I have not used it, but it could be a handy little tool for those inclined.

    David S.
    Minnesota, USA

    • Stan January 9, 2017 at 7:40 am #

      >> What do you see preferable in 5e over TOR?
      5e is the most play-tested, battle-hardened RPG in history, and its resources and community support is the largest on the planet. The combat in 5e is solid, and I (and my players) really like it. TOR combat reminded me of Mouseguard’s combat, and while it might be OK, I didn’t see anything to recommend it over 5e. I’ve seen many make comments about TOR combat leaving them less than excited.

      >> Were your players more open to 5e than learning a new system?
      It’s a combination of both me and my playing not wanting to learn another system simply for the sake of being different. In my experience it takes at least 4 games, many more, to master a system as a player. Maybe 6-10 games to master a system as a gamemaster. If you’ve already mastered 5e, it’s hard to make the case to learn a new system when there is a perfectly good setting in 5e that does what you want (AiME in this case). Our group plays a lot of games, and we’ve settled on Savage Worlds and flavors of 5e (with maybe the occasional Fate RPG game) as our systems of choice. The bar is high to get us to buy new books and spend months mastering a new system.