Saturday, September 10, 2016

Adventures in Middle Earth classes

Cubicle 7, who publishes a well-regarded Tolkien-based RPG called The One Ring, has just come out with the PDF version of Adventures in Middle Earth (AME), combining their licenses for Tolkien's much-loved ur-fantasy setting with the latest version of the world's most popular role-playing game. The result, I understand, is the first time we've seen published support for playing D&D in the world of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

I think Tolkien is a treasure, and I certainly wouldn't mind role-playing in Middle Earth, but what attracted me the most to AME was the prospect of adapting its rules to heroic yet low-power D&D; that is, a world where fairly ordinary heroes meet fantastical challenges, and where the heroes are assumed to be heroic, not amoral murder-hobos. There are some interesting new rules adapted from The One Ring which have some promise for this end, but which I haven't dove into yet; instead the first thing I looked at were the new classes. I love class design more than anything in RPGs, and the previewed class list was very intriguing. So what follows below the fold is a look at these classes. I may do more in-depth reviews of each class, but for now we'll just offer a quick preview of each.


The first important thing is that all but one of the six new classes AME offers is an adaptation of a core 5e class. I was a little surprised by this, and perhaps you are too! I actually think this is totally fine; the adaptations are still quite useful, and even the most straightforwardly adapted classes have archetypes with largely original rules and ideas. The idea is to tweak the D&D classes only as much as needed so they better fit Tolkien's world.

Most of what you'd expect to find in a D&D class is found here; 20 levels, skill and tool proficiencies, proficiency in a "strong" and "weak" save, etc. Some different or new rules exist. In place of Ability Score Improvements, we have "Character Improvements," which either boost ability scores or offer "Virtues," which are essentially feats (in other words, the same as core 5e with different names for the same rules). Your starting equipment is determined by your Standard of Living, which is a feature of your chosen Culture (your race, essentially). Also, each class gets a Shadow Vulnerability, which ties into AME's Shadow Track system (whereby your exposure to darkness and your own misdeeds affect your character during your quests and adventures).

The Scholar

This is the one AME class that isn't obviously based on a core D&D class. It fulfills the role of many magic-using classes in fantasy gaming, especially the healing cleric, but the structure of the class is completely new. Most surprising is just how much of a part healing plays for the Scholar. They get a sort of mundane Lay on Hands ability that heals hit points or removes conditions, plus proficiency and expertise in Medicine, and that's not even considering the Master Healer specialty. Other core powers include some party support, some social talents, and many ways of gaining or using knowledge. Many of these latter powers give the Scholar some control over the story: one such power lets the party describe a new way around a given obstacle, while another lets him retroactively declare himself prepared for some situation in some way. You might imagine, as I did, that such abilities require a pretty high degree of cooperation between the player and GM.

Archetypes: Scholar archetypes are called "specialties." The Master Healer specialty bolsters the Scholar's healing focus even further. Your healing is more effective, and you get access to healer-related powers, like access to special herbal concoctions, a sneak-attack-like ability, a Song of Rest type ability, plus some interesting social abilities related to your reputation as a great healer. The Master Scholar's powers are nearly all "Secret Lores," which are related to gaining new proficiencies and using those proficiencies with advantage or without some usual penalties. The high-level powers include a mundane version of the Commune spell and a neat semi-magical "Words of Command" ability that lets you create effects based on the Secret Lores you've accrued.

The Slayer

This is the AME version of the Barbarian. Apart from renaming many abilities, the core of the class is exactly like the 5e Barbarian; rage is called "fury," for example. The renaming is of course cosmetic but not insignificant; unlike Barbarians, Slayers aren't necessarily noble savages, though the flavor does suggest they aren't quite as civilized as other classes.

Archetypes: Slayer archetypes are called "paths." These are unique to AME, and since the core of the Barbarian and Slayer are the same, you could easily use one class with the archetypes of another. The Rider path is pretty clearly intended for the Rohirrim, but could be used for many other horseman-type characters. Most of its abilities only work while mounted, though the high-level "Horns Wildly Blowing" lets you grant some of your Slayer powers to your allies, which is cool. Somewhat confusingly, the Mounted Combat ability grants you extra damage "if you take the Dash action in combat...for the first attack you make that round," which is usually impossible; I believe they meant, "If your mount takes the Dash action in combat."

The Foe-Hammer path is all about using your Slayer powers while heavily armored. Not only can you fury while armored, but you eventually get special extra unarmed attacks you can make with gauntleted fists. It's a very colorful take on the basic Barbarian idea, one that I'm surprised I haven't seen elsewhere.

The Treasure Hunter

This is the AME version of the Rogue, though unlike the Slayer, it is somewhat different from the class it's based on. Many core abilities are the same, such as Sneak Attack, Cunning Action, Uncanny Dodge, all the way through to Elusive and Stroke of Luck. They have a few different powers that make them stealthier, plus a "Luck-Winner" ability that lets you invoke luck to change the story in some way, sort of like the more story-based Scholar powers.

Archetypes: The two Treasure Hunter archetypes are the Agent and the Burglar. Since you gain archetype features at the same rate as the Rogue (including two abilities at 3rd level), you could use Rogue archetypes with the Treasure Hunter and vice versa. The Agent has some more Scholar-like abilities for gaining knowledge, plus non-magic versions of the Charm Person and Dominate Person spells. The Burglar bolsters the Treasure Hunter's stealthiness, plus improved Sleight of Hand to pick pockets or disarm, and Perception to notice traps and ambushes. Burglars, amusingly, are permitted to steal with a lighter Shadow penalty than otherwise.

The Wanderer

This is the AME version of the Ranger, fittingly without spells. There have been lots of homebrew versions of the Ranger class (including my own!), so I was interested to see how Cubicle 7 handled it. One of the weaker core Ranger abilities is Natural Explorer, which many found a too-situational throwback to the 3e ranger class' "favored terrain." It's a bit of a tricky problem to solve though; if you just get rid of the situation-ness entirely, it's a bit too powerful and uninteresting. AME's solution is straightforward yet clever, taking advantage of how Natural Explorer is really a suite of powers. Some of these are spun to a "Known Lands" ability that applies to a generous set of geographical regions in Middle Earth of the player's choosing. The others are now "Ways of the Wild" and work no matter the terrain or territory you're in. Nicely done! I should also mention that these and a few other abilities are adapted to work with AME's "Journeys" system, which I haven't checked out yet. If for whatever reason you don't want to use Journeys, it'd be pretty easy to backdate these abilities to their core D&D counterparts.

Many other abilities are just ports of Ranger abilities, some renamed, some not. Fighting Style, Hide In Plain Sight, and Vanish are all there (Land's Stride isn't, for some reason). Primeval Awareness is now "Rumour of the Earth" and works off a skill check instead of spending non-existent spell slots. A few new abilities fill spaces that missing spells, many of which are based on Journeys or other AME systems. The original Ranger's capstone ability, the very weak Foe Slayer, has been replaced with "Deadly Foe": instead of adding your Wisdom modifier to damage to certain enemies once a round, you now just always deal max damage. Quite a change!

Archetypes: The two Wanderer archetypes are Hunter of Beasts and Hunter of Shadows. Since you gain archetype features at the same rate as the Ranger, you could use their respective archetypes interchangeably. The Hunter of Beasts gets expertise in Survival, a bonus ranged attack whenever initiative is rolled at 7th level, and a choice from a small selection of tracking or ranged attack related-powers at 11th and 15th. The Hunter of Shadows basically gets Favored Enemy: "servants of the Enemy," which includes Orcs and "any other creature that willingly serves the Lord of Mordor." Obviously this is very setting-specific, but I could see it being adapted for other settings. They also get melee-related powers and a few others that can be chosen from a list. Many of these are adapted from the core Ranger's "Hunter" archetype.

The Warden

Just from the name, I thought this might be a Middle Earth paladin, but it's actually AME's version of the bard, again fittingly without spells. "Warden's Gift" is Bardic Inspiration, and "Campfire Tales" is Song of Rest. They scale and improve just like their counterparts in the Bard class. They also get Jack of All Trades, Expertise (called "Talented"), a few different applications of the Warden's Gift ability, and a high-level ability to change any die roll for a Charisma check to a 15.

Archetypes: Warden archetypes are called "expressions." Wardens get one more Expression ability than the bard gets College abilities, so the two aren't as readily adaptable as other AME/Core D&D pairs. The Counsellor is the social character, obviously inspired to some degree by Wormtongue. They can make any creature friendly, grant advantage (or disadvantage!) when handing out Warden's Gift dice, get a Scholar-like ability to get info from the GM, and even compel any enemy to engage in truce discussions (with no guarantee of the results, of course). The Herald is a sort of warlord archetype, with some great in-combat uses for Warden's Gift, Extra Attack (at 7th level instead of the usual 5th, interestingly), and an ability to Frighten a creature once per long rest. The Bounder is not a rake or rascal, despite the name, but a sort of Ranger in the Tolkien-esque sense. They can grant disadvantage to enemy attacks, deflect attacks toward you and away from allies, gain "a permanent pool of temporary hit points" (an oxymoron! but one that makes sense if you know what temporary HP are), and even cause all enemy attacks to fail for one round.

The Warrior

You perhaps guessed that this is the AME version of the Fighter. As with the Slayer and the Barbarian, the core Warrior abilities are almost exactly the same as the Fighter's. The only difference is the "Defender of the Fallen" ability, which let's you Dash toward an ally as a bonus action if that ally is reduced to 1/5 their hit points in battle. Very thematic, though I think maybe making it a reaction instead of a bonus action makes more sense.

Archetypes: The two Warrior archetypes are the Knight and the Weaponmaster. Since you gain archetype features at the same rate as the Fighter, you could use their respective archetypes interchangeably. The Knight can declare a Charge, a person or place you swear to protect and whose proximity grants several protection-themed abilities. Knights also get "Marks of Honour," a hefty selection of various knight-themed powers, some social, some combat-related. The Weaponmaster is of course built around weapon-themed powers, including a Style Focus that enhances your Fighting Style, plus a suite of "Masteries" that enhance your weapon in various ways. The coolest of these may be "Birthright," which lets your weapon "level up" along with you, sort of like a magic item but less gonzo and much more in the spirit of Tolkien.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the five adapted classes are all solid re-interpretations of core D&D classes. They certainly feel right for the setting, but could also work for similar low-power settings. The Wanderer (with a bit of work) and the Warden in particular could scratch the itch some players and GMs might have for spell-less rangers and bards but are otherwise uninterested in Middle Earth gaming. I also see no problems mixing archetypes between these AME classes and their Core D&D counterparts where possible, as I've indicated.

The wholly original Scholar class is okay, but I think a little disappointing. A lot of its powers are pretty open-ended in their application, either counting on the GM to grant world information or letting the player change the story in some way. These abilities seem like they'd put a lot on the GM. If the way they adjudicate is too uninteresting, then they really might as well be skill checks instead of special powers. But too far the other way, and you risk derailing the campaign. This consideration goes for similar powers found in other classes. This sort of thing might work great for certain groups, or be a familiar aspect of playing The One Ring, but it's a little out of place for D&D I think. (A potential alternative Scholar class is being developed here, for what it's worth.)

There's also the question of magic, as by design, none of these are magic classes. The only "wizards" in Middle Earth were either supernatural Istari or evil villains, so magic isn't really something most heroes ever gain. But the developers left open the possibility of using Core D&D magic classes in AME, though I'm a little skeptical that they'd be balanced. A better tack might be new archetypes for each of these classes, maybe using cantrips and rituals instead of the normal spell slot system. Who knows, this may prove to be an interesting project for a budding 5e homebrew blogger, if ever he finds the time.


  1. Great summary! We are about to transition our TOR campaign over to this. I linked this to my PCs for them to use setting up their characters! Have you had time to read over the Journey and Shadow rules? What do you think?

    1. Great, I'm glad you appreciate it!

      I did eventually read up on the Journeys and Shadow systems, though it's been a while and my recollection may be a bit foggy. I liked Shadow because even though there were a lot of specific things that can inflict Shadow points, it's a loose enough system that GMs can add or ignore Shadow as the story demands. I think the Journeys system could have used some of that looseness. As it is it kind of feels like the Events phase of a Fantasy Flight boardgame. It seems very gamey, like traveling is its own mini game rather than a cohesive part of the story. I think I'd prefer something like 4e's skill challenges; handled poorly, they could also be very gamey, but handled well, and kept in the background, they gave a mechanical hook to non-combat events without breaking immersion. Journeys seem so structured that I don't know how they could be kept in the background like that.

      Of course I haven't tried them yet, so maybe my impression is completely off base. I'm guessing TOR also has a Journeys system? Have you tried it out before?