[CARD.BOARD.BOX] #20: THE DARKENING OF MIRKWOOD (THE ONE RING RPG) REVIEW

oneringdarkeningofmirkwood“Stick to the forest-track, keep your spirits up, hope for the best, and with a tremendous slice of luck you may come out one day and see the Long Marshes lying below you, and beyond them, high in the East, the Lonely Mountain…”  -Gandalf the Grey

When mentioning the greatest Role-Playing Game campaigns of all time, there is usually a pretty short list of commonly agreed upon titles.  I’m not talking adventures or single modules mind you, but actual multi-part campaigns. The list usually looks something like this (in no particular order):

Beyond the Mountains of Madness (Call of Cthulhu)
The Great Pendragon Campaign (Pendragon)
The Enemy Within (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay)
The Bloodstone Pass Saga – The H Series (Dungeons and Dragons)
Against the Giants/Queen of the Demonweb Pits – The G/D/Q Series (Dungeons and Dragons)
Harlequin (Shadowrun)

To that august ensemble, I whole-heartily endorse the addition of THE DARKENING OF MIRKWOOD, releasing this month for Cubicle 7’s The One Ring RPG.  Yes, my hairy-footed friend, it’s that good.

Let’s get a few things out of the way.  Yes, I am a massive fan of The One Ring, but that is due in no small part to the quality of releases that have arrived following the game’s original release a few years ago.  The content has expanded the game without feeling like splatbooks, and with the release of Darkening, the game’s original goal of providing rich material within the confines of its first setting, Wilderland, has come to a compelling close.

First of all, consider this: The Darkening of Mirkwood was originally scheduled for release many months ago, and it was purported to contain not only deep setting material for the Wilderland (basically the geographic region where most of the action of The Hobbit novel takes place), but also a huge campaign spanning 30 years of game time.  But that’s not what happened.  During the writing process, Cubicle 7 determined that the stuff they were churning out was so good that they split the book into two separate products: The Heart of the Wild, released in late 2013 is an entire book detailing the Wilderland, while The Darkening of Mirkwood will be a full volume covering 30 years of adventure between the time of Smaug’s death and the ultimate fate of many of the inhabitants of Mirkwood during the rise of the Shadow in the North some decades before the start of the War of the Ring.
Given that they were originally one book, please be advised: you don’t needDarkening to fully appreciate Heart (essentially just the expanded setting sourcebook) but you will really want Heart to properly utilize Darkening.

But you “don’t use published adventure material” I hear you saying, “I write all my own stuff.”  Well, be that as it may, I still strongly suggest you take a look at Darkening.  As a Gamemaster, over the years I have discovered a distinct preference for a certain type of adventure content.  One that not many publishers create, and one that I think more people would be interesting in checking out if there were more out there.

You see, most published adventures are detailed plot-point by plot-point storylines, complete with all the stats, decision trees, monsters or whatever else.  A story with very defined beginning, middle and end scenes.  There is little room for personalization, barring full scale re-writes or simply replacing NPCs in the book with one of your own creation.

On the other hand, over the years there have been a few books published for a couple of games that are more like plot outlines, with stories painted in broad strokes that cover a variety of potential paths. They have fully actualized NPCs that are meant to be inserted as you see fit, and subplots that are hinted at, but still fleshed out enough so that if your player groups latch onto them, you can bring them to the fore with a minimum of effort.  Books like Shadowrun’s Mob War or their Denver box set come to mind.  Or even Renegade Crowns for Warhammer FRP, which was for all intents and purposes a campaign setting and plot line creation toolkit.

Darkening of Mirkwood is closer to this model, and I love it for it.

The core of the book is a year by year breakdown on the titular darkening of our favorite forest.  Each section begins with details about world events that occur in the time-frame, including stuff that happens way outside of our geographic area, like the death of Fengel, King of Rohan.  These events serve to not only enrich the tapestry of the game world and give the players a sense of a living, breathing setting, but they help to ground your game in the proper Tolkieny tone.  Not to mention news from afar is a perfect way to seed plots for future use.

Following the events, each year gives you one (and sometimes two) detailed outlines for a suggested adventure to take place in that year.  It is not expected that every group will play every adventure.  Indeed, some years provide suggestions in the Events section for other concurrent adventures that may take place if a play group is more interested or involved in other parts of the Wilderland.  So if your Fellowship is composed mostly of Beornings, for example, they may be more invested in the challenges facing the skin-changer’s people instead of the stuff corrupting the Southern parts of the forest.  Still, even the adventures that you don’t run will provide that much more depth to your ongoing Tale of Years for Mirkwood and the nearby Anduin Vale.

What’s really interesting however, is how the outcome of many of the adventures is woven into the very fabric of the overall tale.  So while yes, as players we may know the ultimate fate of the North in broad terms, if not specifics, what The Darkening of Mirkwood succeeds in doing is still maintaining the player characters as the focus of the stories.  They are not simply witnesses to history.  A good RPG after all, has the PC heroes as well, the heroesI

Most importantly, those stories in Mirkwood can be changed and altered by the actions of our heroes. The players will become a force for change, one way or another. For example, early on there are a number of new settlements that are petitioning the Woodmen to be counted among them, to become a new outpost of Woodland Hall, and friends of Radagast.  If the players intervene for or against any of these factions (or indeed, if they do not) then the outcome of the petitions may have very different results.  And those results will play out in many, many ways in the years to come.

And I mean years.  In real life.  If you even play half of the outlined adventures in here you’ll be at it for a long time.  My group plays once a month, and averages 2-4 sessions per game year.  At that rate, to complete Darkening my group will take about 90 sessions.  At our once-a-month rate, that’s seven and a half years, real-time, of gameplay.  I can’t wait to get started.

MirkwoodArt

A final note:  If you’re not currently playing this game, you should be.  Even casual Tolkien fans will find a lot to like here.  And with Cubicle 7’s recent announcement of a revised rulebook, not to mention books allowing play of Rohirrim and People of Gondor, even hold-outs who were turned off by the small scope of the game’s initial setting should bite the bullet.  There are some truly cutting edge ideas in this game, and that’s part of how it became my all-time favorite RPG after over three decades in the hobby.  But that discussion is perhaps outside the scope of this article.  If you really would like to hear me tell you all about it, stop by the store, or drop me an email atPAUL@GAMESANDSTUFFONLINE.COM
And ya know, maybe, just maybe, I may run The One Ring in an upcoming season of RPG LAB.

-Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff.  Among the many other hats he wears is Board Game Night Master of Ceremonies; the G&S Keeper of Tolkien Lore; and Content Manager for Gamesandstuffonline.com.  He also sits on the Gama Retail Division board, though he doesn’t think a hat comes with that job.  [Card.Board.Box.] is his semi-regular column about gaming for this very website.  Semi-regular because he long since stopped fooling himself that it was monthly, though he is foolish enough to currently be thinking about starting up another wholly separate one.

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