I’m excitedly preparing to run Don’t Leave the Path from Wilderland Adventures for Adventures in Middle-earth (AiMe) at the Twenty Sided Store in Brooklyn. As I’ve written before, I have an abiding love of Tolkien’s work and am a huge fan of Cubicle 7’s original foray into Middle-earth roleplaying, The One Ring Roleplaying Game (TOR).

With AiMe, there’s an opportunity to bring the world’s greatest fantasy setting (in the form of Cubicle 7’s fantastic work) to a much broader audience — namely players of Dungeons & Dragons, the world’s greatest roleplaying game.

Part of my preparation has me revisiting the default setting originally published in TOR — Lake-town in the year 2946, around the time of the first Gathering of Five Armies. I’ve used the setting in the past to run The Marsh Bell and many of the adventures from Tales from Wilderland for TOR. Reading about it again in the core AiMe books, I’m quickly reminded of how much I like the setting and how well it facilitates assembling a company from across Middle-earth.

Here are some of the highlights regarding the default setting from the AiMe Player’s Guide and Loremaster’s Guide along with some commentary regarding why, in my opinion, it works so well as a campaign starting point.

The Adventures in Middle-earth Loremaster’s Guide has this to say about character/company creation:

Assembling a Company (p. 11)

The composition of the group of characters is very important, as no other gaming element has a comparable influence on the type of campaign that will take shape during play. Assembling the right group of adventurers is therefore a step that should be considered with the greatest care.

To facilitate this decision, this chapter offers a standard solution, one that should easily accommodate the choices made by the players during character creation: The default campaign starts in 2946, on the occasion of the first Gathering of Five Armies, a celebration held in Dale for the first time, five years after the eponymous battle.

Newly created heroes may be adventurers that have been attracted to Lake-town by the clamour surrounding the event, or by King Bard's proclamation. They may have ended up there on their own, or they might have accompanied an official emissary. If the Loremaster wants the campaign to feature characters as personalities of importance, the adventurers might even be those emissaries themselves! Whatever the details, the Gathering of Five Armies provides a quick and easily customisable option.

This “standard solution” also provides the perfect mechanism for bringing cultures of Middle-earth together that otherwise may not readily know of one another (e.g. Hobbits of the Shire and People of Minas Tirith) or be disposed to co-mingle (e.g. Dwarves of Erebor and Elves of the Woodland Realm). It gives players the freedom to play whatever culture they want without immediately requiring the Loremaster to create a narrative device to accommodate disparate cultures while at the same time honoring the source material.

Regarding King Bard’s proclamation and the Gathering of Five Armies, the Loremaster’s Guide has this to say:

King Bard’s Proclamation (p. 11)

Five years after the fabled Battle, the Free Peoples came once more to Dale, for the first festival called the Gathering of Five Armies, to remember and to celebrate the death of Smaug. The wise among them also speak of the defeat of the mysterious Necromancer, who was driven from Mirkwood around the same time by the White Council.

In the months before the Gathering, King Bard of Dale sends heralds and messengers out across Wilderland, who proclaim the king's words:

"And so, Free Peoples of the North, gather up your courage and bring it to me. I have plans for the North such as you will scarce believe, but I need your strength to turn plan to deed. In return for playing your part in our rebirth, I will pay well in gold, land and the satisfaction of knowing you lead your people from the shadows into a brighter future."

This new age of Wilderland is a fragile thing. 2941 was a year of great triumph – the orcs were scattered, the Dragon slain, the Necromancer banished – but the Shadow still lies on Middle-earth. All the good that was done can be undone, all that joy can be turned to sorrow and ash, unless heroes arise to defend the Free Peoples and safeguard this fragile dawn.

Being an adventurer, and possibly a hero, is very rare at the end of the Third Age of Middle-earth. Most of the Free Peoples of the North are content to stay at home where life goes by in a familiar pattern at a familiar pace. Adventurers are different though. The AiMe Player’s Guide has this to say in their regard:

Rules for Creating Characters (p. 24)

Adventurers are often simply common individuals born in exceptional times. They have most likely led an ordinary life until the day something happened and changed the way they looked at their world and the people they knew. For some reason, the place they grew up in didn't look as interesting and boundless as before, or they started to realise that they weren't doing enough for the safekeeping of their loved ones by staying at home in idleness, pretending shadows weren't growing nearer and nearer every year.

For every member of the Wise and the Great, for every Wizard or Ranger of the North, there are countless more like Samwise Gamgee, simple people who never crossed the boundaries of their own village or town, or individuals like Gimli son of Glóin, who ignored the existence of Rohan until he visited it, or Men like noble Faramir who, while learned in many lores, never encountered an Elf or a Hobbit before the War of the Ring.

Answering King Bard’s proclamation, the full text of which can be found on page 22 of the AiMe Player’s Guide, provides players with a good deal of freedom in developing their character backstories and a strong foundation upon which to build their fellowship. Both of these elements are key to meaningful and fulfilling roleplaying in Middle-earth.

I ask my players the following questions to help them tell their characters’ stories and build the foundation of their fellowship.

Why did they leave home to set out for Dale? Or, if the characters are from Dale or Lake-town, why are they leaving their homes to set out for adventure? Are they Hobbits fascinated by the tales of Bilbo Baggins, Woodmen concerned that evil yet lurks in Dol Guldur, envoys from Gondor or the Woodland Realm or elsewhere, Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain looking to further strengthen the alliance with King Bard, or residents of Dale or Lake-town inspired by the excitement surrounding the Gathering of Five Armies? The possibilities are limited only by the playable cultures available. Whatever the players decide, answering this question will help flesh out their characters’ backstories.

How did the characters find themselves in a company with one another? We can readily assume that the company itself was formed during the Gathering of Five Armies and are now passing back through Lake-town after being assigned an important task by King Bard. But what about before that? Did they come to Dale alone for personal reasons? Did they come with an official entourage to deliver an important message for one of the wise and/or powerful of the North? Did they aid each other in a time of need along the road and travel the last leg of the journey to Dale together? The players’ answers to this question will help build the foundation of their fellowship.

Finally, what is the task the company has been assigned by King Bard? Are they to deliver an important message to Thranduil, Beorn, or Radagast? Are they to patrol the wild, surveilling and perhaps slaying wandering packs of goblins and wargs that still roam Wilderland in the wake of the Battle of Five Armies? Are they to search for an ancient, artifact in some remote and desolate ruin? The answer to this question should be determined, in part, by the classes and backgrounds of the characters and, in equal part, by the aspects of Tolkien’s work that resonate with the Loremaster and players.

As I mentioned before, I’m excited to be running Don’t Leave the Path. I’ll make sure to follow up here to let you know how it goes.

You can register for the three week at Eventbrite here.

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Tags: Adventures in Middle-earth, Backstory, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Narrative Gaming, The One Ring, Roleplaying