Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 6 February 2015

A Wilderness Expanded

All good RPGs need a campaign—and none more so than The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild, the Middle Earth-set RPG from Cubicle Seven Entertainment. After all, this is the RPG set between the events described in The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, there is a known time line and thus a framework for a campaign. So we want to see how the ‘events’ of the future after the Battle of the Five Armies play out. Now The Heart of the Wild is not that campaign, but it is a companion to The Darkening of Mirkwood, which is that campaign. It is also a standalone supplement that details two thirds of the wilderland that is the focus for The One Ring—the Vales of Anduin along the banks of the Great River and the trackless forest of Mirkwood.

In detailing such a vast area, it expands upon the information given for the Loremaster in The One Ring, particularly the lands of the Elves of Mirkwood, the lands of the Woodmen, and the lands of the Beornings. As well as detailing the homes of the cultural origins open to player characters, they are also potential Sanctuaries for all player characters. Thankfully they are not the only ones described in The Heart of the Wild. Conversely, the supplement also describes some of the worst places in Middle Earth, none no worse of course—in Mirkwood at least—than Dol Guldur, the ‘Hill of Sorcery’ that for centuries was the refuge for the Necromancer. The supplement also includes an expanded bestiary and several new options for player characters.

After giving a history and an overview of the region, The Heart of the Wild takes the reader through the regions of the Vales of Anduin one by one and then it does the same for Mirkwood. For each region it gives a more detailed overview, a description of its typical wildlife, some notable characters, presents its notable places, and lastly presents various supplementary facts and relevant game information in sidebars.  So for the Vales of Gundabad where the waters of the Anduin rise, we are told that it is home to goats, rabbits, wild horses, and cattle—all hunted by hungry goblins when the heavy fogs roll in; the sparsely populated region is primarily home to goblins and orcs underground, and to wildly savage Hill-men of Gundabad above ground; and it is also home to trappers like Amfossa whilst with the death of Bolg, son of Azog, there is at last a new Orc prince—Gorgol, son of Bolg. The notable places in the region include the City of the Éothéod, the most northern outpost of the ancestors of the Rohirrm, now hollow ruins occupied by Orcs and Trolls; a secret outpost of the Dwarves, Hidden House, originally built to spy on  the Éothéod, but still used as a waystation by the Dwarves; and the Hill of Skulls, a lonely mound surrounded by stakes upon which rest the skulls of Orcs and Wargs, Dwarves and Men, and others, though no-one knows why… Sidebars cover the Hill-men of Gundabad and their sorcery, a Fellowship Phase undertaking, and the origins of the grudge that led to the construction of the Hidden House. From this, the Loremaster can draw out details as well as adventure and encounter ideas. 

Naturally, more attention is paid the settled areas around the Halls of Thranduil, the house of Beorn, and the three Woodmen settlements in the eaves of Mirkwood as well as to a certain extent, Dol Guldur. Notably, the Loremaster is directed to the core rules for more information on Beorn and whilst some may find this irksome, there really is no need for the repetition of information from the core rules. The book does suffer a little from repetition from one region to another, mostly in terms of the mundane details—the wildlife and the weather. This though is more of an issue if you read the book from start to finish, when really The Heart of the Wild is a reference work meant to be dipped into as needed. Such as for example when preparing to run and then running The Darkening of Mirkwood.

In terms of character options, The Heart of the Wild offers variations upon existing Cultures rather than new Cultures. This makes sense, since there are few Cultures and few Races in Middle Earth, at least in terms of those that can be played. The two Cultural variants are  the Wild Hobbits of the Anduin Vales and the Woodmen of Mountain Hall, both of which feel somewhat underwritten. The Wild Hobbits in particular probably could have warranted with their own Backgrounds as the ones given in the core rules are rather bucolic and cozy which is at odds with the reserved and secretive nature of the Wild Hobbits—Sméagol was after all a Wild Hobbit. For the Woodmen there is the Cultural Virtue of ‘River-blooded’, meaning that they have River Maiden ancestry, whilst ‘The Call of Mirkwood’ is for those Elves who have taken a greater joy in life and in doing so have accepted that they will fade rather than go into the West.

Rounding out The Heart of the Wild is a short bestiary. This adds new foes that are particular to areas presented in the supplement—Basilisks, Forest Goblins, Grim Hawks, Hunter Spiders, and so on. It also includes the stats and short write-ups for the individual foes described earlier in the text.These include Gorgol, Son of Bolg, Maghaz, Orc-Captain, the New Great Goblin, and the Children of Shelob. These are all useful additions to a game and setting that really does not need much in the way of monsters. After all, slaying monsters is rarely the point of The One Ring.

Physically, The Heart of the Wild is well presented. Just like the core rules for The One Ring, this supplement is done in earthy tones, both the graphical design and the illustrations that do much to capture the feel of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The maps are decent, being mostly simple affairs. The map of Dol Guldur though is done as an illustration and has a pleasing air of menace to it.

The Heart of the Wild is of course the companion to The Darkening of Mirkwood and throughout the supplement references are made to the campaign. These are not overdone, though doubtless there may be more information contained within the campaign’s pages about specific locations. Yet it is also a companion to Tales from Wilderland, the anthology of scenarios for The One Ring, since The Heart of the Wild covers much the same area.

Whilst The Heart of the Wild is disappointing in one place—in its treatment of its new character options—it is a well written supplement. Where another publisher might have overwritten this and swamped the reader with unnecessary details, The Heart of the Wild feels appropriately sparse and light. After all,  it has to cover swathes of wilderness where there is little in way of civilisation or notable features, and this The Heart of the Wild does well.