Let me just say up front that I’m a big fan of this cycle. For my money, this is where the game really came into its own. The Mirkwood cycle has some bright spots, but on the whole it’s pretty rough, and one gets the feeling playing it that the designers are still finding their feet to some extent. Dwarrowdelf has a few mechanical duds here and there (locate tests, anyone?) but on the whole this is a very solid set of quests, and a significant improvement. The biggest mark against it, to be honest, is that the quests are just a little bit too solid, and lack some of the innovative flair of later cycles.
Unfortunately, for all the mechanical improvements, the narrative arc of the cycle is a nonsensical mess. It wasn’t until Against the Shadow that they really made an effort to tell a linked story, and that presents something of a challenge for me. The story of the deluxe box fits together fairly well, and the story of the cycle makes sense, but the two together are a complete jumble, and both of them raise some major questions about how any of this could fit into the larger Lord of the Rings cannon. The biggest challenge here is to weave together some kind of tenuous narrative that will thread these two halves together in a way that repairs their relationship to the larger story. No small task.
So, what’s going on here? The way I see it, there are two primary through-lines in this cycle in terms of both narrative and mechanics: exploration of the mines, and the stirring of the foul denizens of Moria. To reflect this, the two themes which recur in the boons and burdens of the cycle are the Secrets of Moria cards, and a variety of threat increases and restrictions. How does this all fit together? Well, let’s take a look.
Into the Mines is a good solid quest, which is a description you’re probably going to be hearing a lot in one form or another. The only wrinkle here are the trio of sequential locations which act almost like miniature quest stages.
The Seventh Level is, essentially, the second half of Into the Mines, and hasn’t got a whole lot more going on to discuss. The resolution stage is a bit clunky, and is implemented to fix the big jump in victory points resulting from the Nightmare version adding in two mandatory 5 victory items, Overseer Muel and the Tomb. Standard mode gives 0-4 victory, so adding in 10 extra is just too much, and throws off the power-curve of the campaign. Stuff like this, and the Trolls from Conflict At Carrock, present a bit of a challenge. While I’d imagine the percentage of players using the Nightmare decks is somewhat low, there is likely a large overlap between the players who own them and the players who would be interested in a custom-made campaign expansion, so the adjustments have to be built in.
My first step when I start working on one of these is to go through the encounter deck for each quest on Easy, Normal and Nightmare mode and figure out how many victory points are likely to be in the mix. Once I’ve got that info, I’m able to make an informed decision about which quests need their totals either increased or reduced, about whether players should have to pay for boons, etc. The goal is that the average player will be able to afford 1-2 upgrades per deck, with the first coming around scenario 1-4 and the second somewhere between 4-8. Players interested in points, of course, will be able to reserve their victory totals to get a better campaign score. My goal is to create a smooth points curve which will result in similar totals at similar points in the campaign, across each campaign I design. The tricky part, of course, is the fact this was obviously not taken into account during the original design of the quests.
So, let’s get back on track and talk about the big twist of the campaign: the Secrets of Moria cards. These went through a couple variations before I settled on what you see here. The general idea here is that the deeper you delve and the further into the campaign you get, the nastier the enemies get, with buffs coming out for goblins, trolls and creatures eventually. To counter-balance that, there’s a chance that you’ll find treasure. While the cards can be avoided with a threat increase, there is the chance of reward, encouraging the heroes to go digging into the Secrets deck, which has a rather thematic feeling of risk-reward delving and ties in with the objective artifacts of Long Dark and Foundations of Stone. Since so much of this cycle revolves around fighting hoards of enemies, it seemed like a good chance to reintroduce the Battle and Siege keywords, much the same way Time and side-quests were used in the Mirkwood campaign.
Flight From Moria is probably the most mechanical inventive quest of the cycle, and it’s got enough going on that I don’t want to mess with it too much. The trouble, of course, is that this is one of those quests which makes extensive use of the victory point total, which tends to mess with my campaign rules if unchecked. It actually works out alright in this case, as the difficulty of the quest directly correlates to the number of points gained. As an added balance, the players get a slight boost if they forgo victory points in order to make a quick escape, and can avoid getting stuck with the Awakening Fear burden. This is a quest that offers a lot of interesting gameplay decisions for the players in campaign mode. Rush fast and dodge a burden, stick around as long as possible to maximize victory points, or strike a balance somewhere in the middle. It works really nicely. The constantly changing quest stages obviously make a mess of the Secrets deck, so that’s set aside here, which works for me thematically as the heroes are racing for the exit and not doing much exploring.
The Redhorn Gate is a great quest, and still remains one of my favorite location focused quests in the game. Like Flight From Moria it builds in a victory point scaling mechanism. Also, we get our next major burden, and it’s a bit of a monster. Might of the Mountains is one of those fun treachery cards that offers a horrible choice between two awful options. Now, Redhorn Gate is a fairly tough quest from the get-go, especially if you don’t build your deck especially for it, which is harder to do in campaign mode where your choice of heroes is restricted. Fortunately, Arwen is here to help out, and she brought a new boon with her! The Arwen boon is obviously an excellent counter for this new burden, or any of the nasty snowstorm effects which you’ll come up against in this quest. Experienced players, however, will know that they may be better off saving this one-shot ability for the following quest…
Road to Rivendell is a fine quest with an interesting mechanical twist. It’s also a quest with a huge blemish. I don’t imagine I have to remind anybody about the presence of the dreaded Sleeping Sentry treachery card lurking in the encounter deck. Simply put, it’s a bad design, as it’s essentially a cancel or lose card. It’s not alone either, Dwarrowdelf has a good handful of outrageously punishing treacheries like Sudden Pitfall. This is a crappy way to lose a quest. Favor of the Evenstar, hopefully, redresses the balance to some extent.
Watcher in the Water is… alright. I know there are a lot of players that quite like this quest, but it’s never really grabbed me. I’m definitely not a big fan of the “first letter of the card name” gimmick. My ambivalence is probably a factor in there not being a cool boon/burden for this quest, but it doesn’t really suffer for the lack, given the number of cards likely to be in play at this point in the campaign. If not for the limited number of card slots available (though the limitation is, granted, self-imposed) I’d probably try and get something in here.
The Long Dark is a quest that looks great on paper but usually doesn’t amount to much in play. An added Lost action, though certainly less deadly than the one added by the nightmare version of the quest, spruces things up a bit. I went back and forth on letting the players carry over the artifacts from this scenario and the next, but ultimately decided for it, as it’s just too cool not to. And, honestly, these come up rarely enough that it’s a bit of a non-issue.
Foundations of Stone is, of course, an excellent and innovative quest. I didn’t want to mess with it too much. The only wrinkle is making sure that the Secrets cards play nice with the encounter decks swapping in and out, which is one of the reasons why there had to be five of them, just in case.
Finally, the big bad showdown with the Balrog. No big changes on this quest, but this is where the narrative comes to a head. It’s a bit sloppy, of course, but I think I managed to smooth over the cracks well enough.
So, there you have it, the Dwarrowdelf campaign in its entirety. I was quite pleased with how this one came out, though it ended up going through quite a few changes as I worked on it. The original Secrets of Moria cards functioned quite differently, acting more traditionally with the players earning them one at a time and adding them to the campaign pool. This turned out to be… awkward. It involved off-loaded a lot of the rules onto the campaign and Secrets cards, with a lot of wasted space repeating them for every quest. I even made it so far as to get this version of the cards printed out before realizing that it just didn’t work. I’m a lot happier with the current version, as it works a lot more cleanly while preserving the feeling of mystery and danger. My only regret is losing the special shadow effects on the original cards, but it’s a small price to pay.
Next up, Gondor!