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

Monday, 11 May 2015

Foreshadowing The Lord of the Rings

One of the promises of The One Ring RPG, published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment is that the Company—the group of player characters—has the chance to affect the fate of Mirkwood. The Tale of Years, as related in the game’s core book, tells of how in the years following the Battle of the Five Armies and the White Council’s casting out of the Necromancer from his stronghold of Dol Guldur in southern Mirkwood, a shadow fell upon the forest once again and threatened to spread fear and despair amongst all the free peoples of the North. Although the strength of Elves will eventually prevail, many will perish or disappear if those true of heart do not stand against the darkness that has once again returned to cast a pall under the trees…

This section of the Tale of Years is known as the Darkening of Mirkwood, which is also the name of the campaign that details this threat to the northern realms. The Darkening of Mirkwood is the companion campaign to excellent The Heart of the Wild, the supplement that details the lands, peoples, and environs of the river and the forest—the Vale of Anduin and the trackless forests of Mirkwood. It takes place between the years 2947 and 2977, presenting annual opportunities for the heroes to venture forth and explore and adventure, to make names and reputations for themselves, to find both friends and their places in north, to uncover its true secrets, and at the very least, hold back the shadow.

To properly run The Darkening of Mirkwood the Loremaster will also need a copy of The Heart of the Wild, for much of background and setting material relevant to the campaign is published in that book. The Loremaster's Screen and Lake-town Sourcebook  may be of use should the Company travel that far north, whilst the Loremaster can use the scenarios from Tales from Wilderland as extras to those detailed in The Darkening of Mirkwood—at least at the start. As it progresses, the Company will become more involved with the campaign’s events rather than the relatively minor details of the adventures given in Tales from Wilderland.

The campaign is structured into five parts. They are ‘The Last Good Years: 2947-2950’, ‘The Return of the Shadow: 2951-2960’, ‘The Gathering Gloom; 2961-2966’, ‘The Years of the Plague: 2967-2974’, and ‘The Darkening of Mirkwood: 295-2977’. The campaign is then further broken down year by year, with each year organised in similar fashion into three sections—Events, the Adventuring Phase, and the Fellowship Phase. The first of these details events far and wide pertinent to the campaign. Some of these the company will learn about the same year, but others it will not find out about for years, unsurprising given that travel across Middle Earth is primarily by foot and then mostly by traders rather than average farmer or craftsman. This both adds to the sense of isolation of the regions in and around Mirkwood and enforces one of the company’s roles—bringing news.

The Adventuring Phase takes up the majority of each year. They vary in terms of both length and complexity, their possible activities also varying widely. One year the company might find itself hunting with the Elves, another dealing with mad Dwarves, another helping out one of the wizards—typically Radaghast the Brown, and so on. Increasingly, as the campaign progresses, the company will find itself more and more involved in the affairs and activities of the Woodfolk, the politics of the region, and more, missions that take it back and forth across Mirkwood. Given that the campaign covers thirty years of game time, The Darkening of Mirkwood gives some thirty of these adventures, all of them presenting a good mix of roleplaying and gaming challenges.

At the end of each year comes the Fellowship Phase when the Company has a chance to reflect upon the events of the year just gone. Some years nothing special will present itself during the Fellowship Phase and a Companion might simply adhere to Undertakings such as rest, attempt to resist the effects of the Shadow upon his heart, improve his Hope, or perhaps increase a skill. Yet during the Fellowship Phases of other years a Companion might have the opportunity to establish a Holding and thus find a place in a community—typically in one of the Woodfolk settlements, to research the history of certain events, to consult with wizards, to gain a companion, and so on.

Rounding out the campaign is an appendix containing an expanded bestiary. This is in addition to the beasts and foes described in The Heart of the Wild and certainly includes some major additions. Not just Forest Goblins, Hunter Spiders, and Wood-Wights, but also the primary agents of the Necromancerand by this we mean the nazgûl! Theirs is a growing presence throughout the campaign, understandably one that the Company would be wise to avoid.

In addition to the stats for the new creatures, The Darkening of Mirkwood also provides rules for Holdings, properties that a Companion can own and develop. They might be a farm, a tavern, a smithy, or land worked by others. For example, Bilbo Baggins’ Bag End can be treated as a Holding, as can Sam Gamgee’s gardening job. Each of these two Holdings—and every Holding—will typically generate enough income for a Companion to maintain his Standard of Living. Roll high enough though, and a Holding will generate Treasure and even a minor boon! Holdings are yet another means of tying a Companion into the campaign, because they grant said Companion a stake in the fate of the region. Conversely, the growing threat presented during the campaign will impinge on the capacity of Holdings to support the Companion, and indeed, anyone who relies upon it for his Standard of Living.

Physically, The Darkening of Mirkwood is well presented and maintains the standards set by previous books in The One Ring RPG line. As a campaign, The Darkening of Mirkwood starts out slow and builds, nicely presenting an incredibly dangerous threat that creeps into the region and grows ever so slowly until the heroes and armies of the free peoples of the North have no choice but to confront it. This is accompanied by a shift in tone, from relatively low key up to something verging almost on high fantasy in which the player are roleplaying not just Companions, but also heroes. Not of the stature of the Fellowship of the Ring of course, but heroes nonetheless. In doing so the campaign presents some thirty adventures and thus months of potential gaming time. The Darkening of Mirkwood is the campaign that The One Ring has been waiting, ably developing what amount to mere footnotes in Tolkien’s writings and involving  the player characters the holding back of the Shadow until the One Ring can be found.