The Adventures in Middle-earth Player's Guide from Cubicle 7 Entertainment is probably the one gaming supplement that role-players have waited the longest for. With this book, the Dungeons & Dragons game is united with the Middle-earth of J.R.R. Tolkien's writing for the first time, officially. It only took 42 years.
Yes, there have been Middle-earth role-playing games already. Iron Crown published Middle-earth Role Playing in the 80s and 90s. Cubicle 7 Entertainment also currently publishes The One Ring Roleplaying Game. Despite the great influence that Tolkien exerted over D&D, the two streams never officially crossed before now.
Now D&D players and DMs can officially delve into Middle-earth and interact with the character's of Tolkien's fiction. At least partially, for now. The Player's Guide is exactly what it says on the tin, and it contains everything that players would need to create characters native to Middle-earth, along with the basics of adventuring in that world. Creatures, characters from the books and a deeper look into the setting itself are for a further book (or books).
For decades, the concepts that many consider to be traditional fantasy, or more to the truth D&D fantasy, have been evolving in this cooking pot of tabletop games, video games and tie-in media, and now we are getting to see the raw materials for the stew getting thrown back into the pot.
I recommend the Adventures in Middle-earth Player's Guide for people wanting to bring a more authentic Middle-earth experience into their D&D games, but I think that they might be surprised by some of the directions of the book. It is not without flaws, and I will try to address some of those as I go.
First off, the art in this book is wonderful. From the samples of the cultures of Middle-earth to the landscapes of Middle-earth to the "None Shall Pass!" Gandalf illustration on the book's cover, the Adventures in Middle-Earth Player's Guide has some great art in it. If, for some strange reason, you have never seen a Lord of the Rings or Hobbit movie, the art in this book will give you plenty of visual cues as to what Middle-earth would look like. This is great art. Few people do brooding landscapes as well as Jon Hodgson.
The new classes in this book are very interesting, and they bring to the foreground some of the genre conventions of Tolkien's works.
The Slayer is the barbaric warrior type from the less civilized lands. The Scholar is knowledgeable about the world, and a healer. The Treasure Hunter is a burglar. Wanderers are travelers who wander the roads and forests of the land. Warriors are hardy and disciplined fighters. Wardens are guardians and protectors who inspire as well as protect.
Each class has archetypes that allow for specialization and differentiation, should you have more than one representative of a class in your party of characters. The niches, while they can be thinner among the fighting classes, are well defined enough so that each class can stand out among a group of characters, and have things to do.
Instead of races, like in baseline D&D, the Adventures in Middle-earth Player's Guide instead uses cultures. When you have a handful of non-human "races," and then a bunch of different regional ways to say "human," going the cultural route makes sense mechanically. In this book there are eleven cultures covering dwarves, the various regional types of humans, hobbits and the elves. Each has their own traits, suggestions for names, bonus equipment and other things. For the non-human cultures there are also "racial" abilities. Each culture also has a type, which figures into the types of equipment that starting characters would have access to.
The Adventures in Middle-earth Player's Guide also adds virtues that help to reinforce the Middle-earth feel, and to give some additional mechanical support to cultures. Basically these are renamed feats and are broken out by the various cultures of Middle-earth. They also go a long way towards helping to differentiate different characters of the same classes. How a Barding approaches being a Warrior and a Man of Bree does that are different, and their virtues can help mechanically add those flavors.
Tolkien is held up as one of the exemplars of epic, high fantasy, but the tone that much of this book is of a darker and dirtier style of fantasy than that of the D&D style of fantasy that the game has perpetuated over the years. The Slayer and Treasure Hunter classes would be as at home in a game inspired by Howard or Leiber as they would be in a game set in Middle-earth. Other rules, such as Corruption and Shadow Weaknesses reinforce the dark fantasy feel of the book.
The Shadow over Middle-earth is growing, and encounters with it, and its allies, can cause corruption to those who are trying to fight against it. This can lead to interesting character development issues, but it can also mean a loss of player agency when Corruption can take a character out of play entirely.
The things that I didn't like are fewer than the things that I liked in this book. I'm not a big fan of the Journeys rules. I think that these rules, and some elements of the Corruption rules, take away player agency, and the Journeys rules place more emphasis on random rolls than the actions of the characters. I wouldn't see myself using these rules, only because the handful of handful of dice rolls made at the beginning of the journey would have too much of an impact of things that would happen at the journey's end. Moreso than the actual actions of the characters during the journey. I'm not a fan of taking control out of the hands of the gaming group, and neither are the people with whom I tend to game. I know that, in an actual journey, a bad event at the start of things can color what happens for the rest of the journey, but there should still be a chance to overcome. For a game that pushes the idea that the characters are heroes, not being able to overcome the environment would make me wonder if the characters could have any chance of overcoming the growing threats of the Shadow.
Honestly, outside of the occasional wandering monster, I am not a huge fan of using a lot of random tables to shape play anyway because the results tend to be inconsistent and can, at worse, poke holes in the suspension of disbelief of those playing. Journeys and travel are an important element of Tolkien's works, but they are typically the parts which appeal to me the least, so excising them shouldn't be that hard.
Whether you want to play a game of Tolkien inspired fantasy, or your games go for something a bit darker, there will be things that you can use from the Adventures in Middle-earth Player's Guide. There is plenty to bring new directions to D&D games that are looking for an influx of creativity.
Mechanically, the material in the Adventures in Middle-earth Player's Guide is tightly integrated and on point. The more indie design idea that the function of rules should inform the form of the game influenced this book a good deal. The various mechanical pieces from cultures to virtues to classes all work together to enforce the feel of the game's setting, and to make it a part of the rules of the game. This book is the product of designers and a publisher who know what they are doing and are working to elevate the design of their games. Once the physical version of the book is out, it should become an integral part of the D&D sections of any fantasy gamer's gaming collection.
I am glad that Wizards of the Coast wised up with the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons and went back to the less restrictive OGL of the third edition game. We are definitely getting an explosion of creativity in support for this edition of D&D that we didn't previously receive, with the last edition. While the D&D game itself seems more interested in replaying the past, because of the OGL we get books like the Adventures in Middle-earth Player's Guide that are willing to look at the core elements of the D&D game while still making something that is bold and new. Hopefully the third party creativity that we see in books like the Adventures in Middle-earth Player's Guide and other works like those being published by companies like Kobold Press will inspire the base of D&D development to push for new and exciting directions for the game.
I am eager to see what Cubicle 7 Entertainment does next in their Adventures in Middle-earth line, and where they take the game next. The Adventures in Middle-earth Player's Guide is a grand slam from a publisher at the top of their game.