There are a couple of obvious difficulties when it comes to tying the core set and first cycle together into a campaign. It made for an interesting challenge to say the least.
First, the story and themes are all over the place during this cycle. First you’re running errands in Mirkwood then you recreate Aragorn’s hunt for Gollum, with detours that are more interested in recreating random moments from the books (Conflict at the Carrock, Emyn Moil, Dead Marshes) than in fitting into an overarching narrative. It’s not an insurmountable barrier, however, and I think I was able to fit the disparate pieces somewhat neatly together.
The second problem is that the quest mechanics are as jumbled as the narrative. The designers seem to be finding their feet on a couple quests in this cycle, and there are a few duds as a result. A lot of these quests were “patched” by the nightmare releases, but I’d imagine that many people don’t have those, and it would be nice to bring the fixes over for those who aren’t interested in the difficulty increase that comes with them.
My objectives, then, are clear: Find a narrative through-line that makes sense, and patch up the quests that don’t work as well as they should.
I decided to tighten the focus on the hunt for Gollum, as that seems the most logical path, since that narrative is pretty clearly referenced in the entirety of the six quest cycle. The second and third quests don’t really tie in at all, so I’ll have to do something about that, but it should work. Making the core set quests fit into the cycle is a bit tougher. The first two quests form a nice arc, but Dol Guldur is pretty much off on its own, and none of the three fit very well with the hunt arc. The prisoner aspect of Dol Guldur, bane of solo players everywhere, ended up being the missing piece. If Sauron’s busy searching for Gollum, it would make sense that the prisoner would be questioned about it. That works well enough for me to justify the continuity of the nine quests. It’s a bit awkward perhaps, but there’s only so much that one can do.
The first quest didn’t need a lot of fixing, but I decided to toss a few victory points on Ungulant’s spawn anyway, for two primary reasons. It never made sense to me that you could fight the “boss” enemy, only to have them shuffled back into the deck and emerge again, especially if you take the path which requires you to find and destroy it. The second reason is that it gives the heroes a reason to pick a fight, and injects the potential for a few victory points into a scenario that doesn’t have many. We also introduce the first boon of the cycle with Message from Thrandual. I like this card for a couple reasons, mainly because I think quest items are just cool but also because it solidifies the link between this quest and the next. I took inspiration from Alcaran’s Scroll and Book of Marzebol for this card, and resisted the temptation to do anything too fancy with it.
Next up is Journey Down the Anduin, a quest very fondly remembered by most players of the game and known as being one of the really solid quests which players return to again and again. It doesn’t need anything in the way of fixes, but, as I said, the carrying of the message here helps keep it narratively connected.
Dol Guldur was an obvious choice for our first burden of the campaign. Being interrogated by orcs and potentially nazgul in the depths of Sauron’s fortress is obviously going to have an effect. It certainly took on a toll on Thráin, as reported by Gandalf. Haunted by Shadow is probably a little too tame, and given the infamous difficulty of this quest I could have got away with something more harsh, but I didn’t want the player’s stuck with anything too tough, given that this is still just the first cycle of the game, and the overall difficulty curve is on the lower side. I think this card strikes a nice balance. The real trick was finding a way to squeeze all the necessary story text on the front of the card. Trying to get a hero ambushed in the forest, captured and tracked back to Dol Guldur all in the same of a couple lines is no mean feat!
Now the story begins in earnest. The Hunt for Gollum was one of my favorite parts of the campaign to design, as it all fit together quite easily. I love the twist introduced in the nightmare pack in which the orc hunters will try and snatch back the clue objectives, and knew that I wanted it in this version as well. It’s not as necessary a fix as some of the others, but it makes the quest feel a lot more dynamic and engaging to me, even if it takes effect only rarely. The trick here is that each clue acquired here is going to be carried over for the next four quests, which makes it feel a bit more important to get them all as opposed to picking up the minimum necessary. Anytime the players have a choice which will have future consequences is a fun moment to play, and even more fun to design.
Carrock is the quest at which the campaign really starts to make its effects felt on the individual quests. It’s also the point at which I get to start playing around a little with the mechanics of the game. The Time keyword and Side Quests are two big innovations which came out much later in the game’s lifespan, cycles 4 and 5 respectively. Bringing these concepts back to these early quests is a lot of fun, but it also neatly solves some of the problems of these saggy middle scenarios. Carrock and Rhosghobel both suffer from being disconnected from the overall narrative. They feel like distractions. The Hunt side quest and Timed Orc Trackers keep the narrative more present for the players, and give a sense of continuity to the experience. They also shake up a couple quests which have started to feel pretty rote for me and, I imagine, most experienced players. Our second boon is the recruitable Beorning, based of course on Grimbeorn himself.
Rhosgobel is probably my least favorite scenario of the cycle. It’s also the hardest one to fix. I’m not a fan of quests which involve digging around in the encounter deck for specific cards, and I can’t stand enemies like the bats as they restrict your deck building options far too severely for my taste. It’s not a terrible quest, but I’m not a fan. There’s another ally available here for the enterprising, which gives the players quite a little gang of buddies if they get them both. Rhadogast’s healing prowess also give a nice excuse to provide the players with the opportunity to ditch their Dol Guldur burden at last.
Emyn Moil is, to say the least, not the most popular scenario. It suffers from just not being interesting enough, with too few enemies in the encounter deck and not a lot of interesting locations. Adding another hunting orc spices things up a bit. It’s not the most interesting choice, being something of a repeat of a burden we’ve already seen, but it makes sense that the hunters from Mordor would meet up with those who have been tailing your party.
The Dead Marshes is another clunker. The nightmare patch gets moved over, and we slip another treachery related to Gollum into the deck. This is, or should be, the culmination of the players hunt, and they’ll doubtless be happy to see the last of that side quest after having it hang over their heads for three scenarios.
Return to Mirkwood isn’t a scenario which I did a lot with. Frankly, it’s got enough going on as is. At this point, the players should have a pretty substantial collection of gadgets, and with Gollum to deal with and orcs still hunting them, it’s enough to just let it play out. I didn’t attempt to do anything to fix the commonly cited problem with solo play. The reason for that, to be totally honest, is that I just don’t play one-handed solo. Frankly, the game doesn’t seem particularly optimized for it. A great deal of the challenge comes from the encounter deck cards combining in interesting ways, and player keywords like Ranged and Sentinel lose their usefulness.
Alright then, there you have it. On the whole, I’m quite pleased with how this turned out. I’m hoping to get some final feedback before having it printed. If you have a chance to take a look, please do let me know what you think!