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

Sunday 3 March 2024

The Lay of the Lone-lands

There are certain parallels to be drawn between Tales from the Lone-Lands and Tales from Wilderland. Both are, of course, supplements for The One Ring, the roleplaying game set in Middle-earth between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and both are by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan. Of course, Tales from the Lone-Lands is for The One Ring: Roleplaying in the World of Lord of the Rings, the second edition published by Free League Publishing, whereas, Tales from Wilderland is written for The One Ring: Adventures Over The Edge Of The Wild from Cubicle 7 Entertainment. Both have companion volumes which greatly expand upon the regions where they are set. Thus, Tales from the Lone-Lands has Ruins of the Lost Realm, the regional guide to the lands of southern Eriador, and Tales from Wilderland has The Heart of the Wild, the regional guide to the lands bordering Mirkwood, which is also a companion to the campaign, The Darkening of Mirkwood. Further, Tales from the Lone-Lands and Tales from Wilderland are both campaigns that work as anthologies. In other words, all of their scenarios can be run separately, but to get the absolute best out of them, the Loremaster should run them as a campaign. Lastly, both Tales from the Lone-Lands and Tales from Wilderland present ancient threats from the north.

Tales from the Lone-Lands is actually the first collection of adventures for The One Ring: Roleplaying in the World of Lord of the Rings, as Ruins of the Lost Realm presented a number of major Landmark locations replete with important individuals at each, and the grand plots that will play out and befall the region if the Player-heroes do not get involved and nothing is done to stop them. Instead of pre-written scenarios then, Ruins of the Lost Realm contains numerous plots, both immediate and long term, that the Loremaster can use and develop for her campaign. Tales from the Lone-Lands contains six adventures, each of which should provide two or three good sessions’ worth of play, which together will take the Player-heroes back and forth across Eriador—and beyond. Together, they will locate and confront the Hill of Fear, an ancient and blighted site where the Witch-king of Angmar performed foul rites to darkness, and as Third Age wanes and great evil waxes once again, the shadow cast by the hill promises to rise up and engulf all of Eriador. A hero once swore to defeat the darkness that is the Hill of Fear, but his courage failed and he fled, and though he sought inspiration and guidance to return, he never did. Thus, his oath remains unfulfilled, but there is another who may be equal to the task, who will discover his ancestor’s intent and take up the oath, make the journey to the far north, defeat the darkness, and so become a hero worthy of his ancestor, if not more. This will be a Player-hero, who as part of the play of Tales from the Lone-Lands becomes ‘the Heir’. Ideally, this should be a man or woman, either of Bree or a Ranger, although alternatives are suggested for a Dwarf or Elf Player-character. The aim here is not for the story to focus on ‘the Heir’, but on the fellowship he is part of as its other members aid him in his quest. Indeed, whilst the campaign acknowledges ‘the Heir’ at certain points, it does not focus on him very much.

The anthology opens with ‘A Troll-Hole, If Ever There Was One’. It begins in Bree, at the Prancing Pony, with the Player-heroes being inveigled into accompanying a chirpy Dwarf and his dour and bedraggled Man companion to locate a buried treasure hoard. The question is, can they be trusted? Well, of course not. However, neither Man nor Dwarf are exactly villainous and there is a lot more going on than simple villainy. The scenario does not take the Player-heroes very far, but it serves up nasty monsters, desperation, and a chance at redemption. All of which takes place in a rain sodden, boggy valley. One of the issues with the scenario is that the players and their heroes are unlikely to trust either NPC, but the scenario addresses this, suggesting how the NPCs might react under the questioning of the Player-heroes. It is a solid start to the collection.

‘Messing About In Boats’ takes the Player-heroes and The One Ring: Roleplaying in the World of Lord of the Rings in totally unexpected direction—to sea, and in doing so, it begins the campaign proper. Heading to port of Lond Dear on the southwest coast of Eriador, one of the Player-heroes is grabbed by one of the kingdom’s champions, a Hobbit knight, and dragged before the queen. Not because he has done something wrong, but because he has been seen in a vision by a local seer. This is of the Player-hero—‘the Heir’—standing on the shore of lonely island, a great dark sword in his hand. The queen decides that this warrants investigation and the Player-heroes are ferried up the coast of Eriador and out further than they would have ever imagined travelling (unless they were an Elf) by a fisherman who has motives of his own, wanting to find his missing daughter. Their destination is the Isle of the Mother, and here the Player-heroes will encounter hunters from the very far north, a long-abandoned Númenórean fortress, and the first signs that the reach of the Hill of Fear is greater than they had imagined.

‘Kings of Little Kingdoms’ returns the Player-heroes to land and a small, but engaging scenario that plays on the reputation of Gandalf. Back in Bree, the Player-heroes are accosted by a woman complaining that as adventurers they have done nothing about her son and worse, they probably know Gandalf. Her problem is that her son ran off to join the wizard, who was hanging around Bree two weeks before, on promise of the discovery of buried treasure and has not returned. Of course, the Player-heroes are going to look bad if they do nothing and so upon investigating, begin to realise that something is amiss. The trail leads east of Bree, to an isolated farm and its family headed by a cantankerous old man who is definitely not pleased to see the Player-heroes, even if they do offer him help with attacks his farm is under. Numerous options are given as what might happen, but alongside the mundane, if slightly silly plot of the young man having run off in search of adventure, there is something much darker going on—the spreading influence of the Hill of Fear which plays upon the personalities of the NPCs.

‘Not to Strike Without Need’ begins with the Player-heroes on the road to the water-logged city of Tharbad in southern Eriador, which is fully detailed in Lone-Lands has Ruins of the Lost Realm. They are escorting a criminal to the city in the hopes of exchanging him for a visiting merchant who is currently imprisoned there for non-payment of fines. Yet it turns out that the criminal might actually have changed his ways because he has been aiding the Rangers including getting messages in and out of Tharbad where the Rangers are greatly mistrusted. Which sets up a dilemma for the Player-heroes. Are they willing to let a possibly reformed criminal suffer the ill-justice to be found in the city in order to arrange the release of another? There is the possibility too of the Player-heroes being imprisoned for non-payment of the random fines levied by the city guards, so essentially, the scenario becomes a break-in and a break-out as the Player-characters sneak into the partially ruined Fortress of Garth Tauron, locate the prisoners, and get out again. However, the prison is so large, it has to be explored to find the location of the right cells. This is done in narrative rather than by running a dungeon-type crawl. Once the Player-heroes have escaped the city, preferably with the latest message from the Rangers’ spy in Tharbad, the scenario switches to a hunt for the subject of the message—a Man travelling in lands that even the Rangers tend to avoid. It will be revealed that he has some interest in the Hill of Fear, but what they interest will remain a mystery.

The Player-heroes are asked by a Dwarves friend, Floki, to deliver a message to his brother in the fifth scenario, ‘Wonder of the Northern World’. In the far northwest of Eriador, they discover tragedy as the brother and his settlement of fellow Dwarves has been sacked and spoiled by an Orc warband as part of the opening plans of Sauron to defeat all the Free Folk. The scenario is more open than the previous ones, with the Player-heroes having multiple courses of action rather than a more obvious one. There are some great set pieces in the scenario—a chase across the Lone-lands after the Orc warband, a great council with the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains, and an attack on the Fort of Blood, an ancient fortress from the days of the Witch-king of Angmar, now home to a servant of Sauron! This can be done by force of arms if the Player-heroes mange to raise a Dwarven host in the council, or they can use stealth. There are rules for both, but at the end the Player-heroes will learn that that the servant of Sauron—who of course, gets away—has plans of his linked to activities that they will already be aware of.

The sixth and final scenario in Tales from the Lone-Lands is ‘The Quest of Amon Guruthos’. This takes the Player-heroes into unknown territory once again. This is Forodwaith—the northern waste—and it requires a great expedition rather than the simple toing and froing of the previous scenarios. With the help of the tribesmen that they met on the Isle of the Mother in ‘Messing About In Boats’, the Player-heroes can track east in search of the Hill of Fear and then a way to approach it successfully from yet another unexpected source and an utterly unexpected encounter! This is with the scenario’s villain and is a great moment in the campaign, giving the Lore-master a fun NPC to portray and a chance to portray him in a situation other than the big final encounter and when he and the Player-heroes are on equal footing. The scenario and the campaign will come to an end with the Player-heroes first approaching and then descending into the Hill of Fear. This a foul place, once from which they are unlikely to return from unscarred such is the malevolence of the Shadow here. As they are assailed from within and without, it is likely their strength of character that will save them, though numerous methods are suggested as to how the Hill of Fear might be defeated.

Tales from the Lone-lands works better as a campaign than it does as an anthology of scenarios. Really, only ‘A Troll-Hole, If Ever There Was One’, ‘Kings of Little Kingdoms’, and ‘Not to Strike Without Need’ work effectively when run on their own. The other scenarios are key to the campaign and cannot be effectively untied from it. So there is scope for just an anthology of scenarios, all unconnected, still. The format also leaves room aplenty for the Loremaster to insert her own scenarios and that does not take into account the plots given in Ruins of the Lost Realm that she interweave between that of this campaign. That may prove to be helpful since the campaign as a whole does feel quite short and it does feel as if it should be longer. What the campaign does fail to address are the consequences of the Player-heroes’ actions. What happened if they succeed? What happens when they fail? These are really the only issues with Tales from the Lone-lands. Other than that, there is good Loremaster advice throughout and there are notes on adjusting the starting points of each of the scenario’s depending upon the Player-heroes’ locations and patrons.

Physically, Tales from the Lone-lands is a fantastic book. It looks great and the artwork is very, very good. The depictions of moments where a Player-hero hides behind a pillar in a cellar as a wight hunts him and a mighty troll lolls on a lakebed as she stretches her arms up out of the water to attack a raft full of Player-heroes are both genuinely scary. That said, the maps are not often as good as they could be, the Loremaster often wanting more detail. In many cases, the maps given, all of them Landmarks, so representative rather than mapped out to the inch, will be used narratively rather than mechanically.

Tales from the Lone-lands captures the bleakness of the period between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, when the darkness was again growing and spreading across Middle-earth. The Player-heroes have a chance to hold some of that back with Tales from the Lone-lands, far removed from the traditional manoeuvrings of the Dark Lord of Mordor, but that attempt will be grim and terrible and the likelihood is that even if they succeed, the Player-heroes will come away scarred and marked with the Shadow. Being a hero and helping to save even some of the land is not without its consequences.

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