Lore of the Rings, Part One
Guest Writer Ian Martin on the Tales Told by The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game
"I will choose companions to go with you, as far as they will or fortune allows. The number must be few, since your hope is in speed and secrecy. Had I a host of Elves in armour of the Elder Days, it would avail little, save to arouse the power of Mordor."
–Elrond, The Lord of the Rings
Flight of the Stormcaller recently sailed to retailers across the United States, followed by The Thing in the Depths, and that means we are now well and truly into the sixth cycle of Adventure Packs for The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. For longtime fans, this is cause to celebrate. The Dream-chaser cycle and its scenarios continue to innovate, offering a wealth of novel and richly thematic variations on the classic gaming experience, and pushing the ideas of exploration and discovery to the fore.
But for newer players, what does it mean that the Dream-chaser cycle is now sailing full-speed toward the horizon? It means that you have a new possible second step beyond the Core Set in the form of The Grey Havens deluxe expansion and the Dream-chaser cycle. And it means that the number of ways you can enjoy The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game continues to grow.
One of the questions we often hear from players who look at the array of materials they might be able to pick up after they discover the game through the Core Set is: what should I get next?
Obviously, there are all kinds of different answers we—and others—could provide, but the most important answer is "Get whatever will help you enjoy the game the way you want to enjoy it." Then we follow up that answer with some information about the different ways you could enjoy it: by proceeding chronologically, starting with the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle; by getting the newest materials and finding a local group with which you can stay current; or, frequently, by picking up The Black Riders and playing the game in Campaign Mode.
It only makes sense that a great number of new players go to The Black Riders as their second The Lord of the Rings purchase; after all, most of us came to the game not only for its cooperative adventures, but because we were already fans of Middle-earth, its characters, and their stories. And whereas the standard game encourages us to imagine the adventures that might have taken place beyond the margins of the world's larger history, the Campaign Mode permitted by The Black Riders allows us to adventure alongside Frodo for a journey that is as faithful as possible to the source materials.
Today, guest writer Ian Martin presents the first of two articles to explore the Campaign Mode experience and some of the different ways you can approach and enjoy it.
Guest Writer Ian Martin on Playing in Campaign Mode
Ian Martin is a devoted fan of The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game who placed his first progress token back in 2012. Since then, he's grown ever more involved with the community, co-hosting The Grey Company podcast and piloting Tales from the Cards, the longest-running blog devoted exclusively to The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, where Ian hosts card reviews, a new player buying guide, and various articles focused on strategy and deck-building.
One of my favorite aspects of The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is the way in which it allows you to craft the experience you want. Whether you crave the power to make the Enemy tremble before you, or you simply want to be part of the kinds of tales that can be shared around a roaring fire, there’s room for all types of players and styles. I personally have a particular love for Campaign Mode, which ties together the scenarios of The Lord of the Rings Saga Expansions, allowing players to live the events of the books complete with real stakes and real consequences.
Even within Campaign Mode itself, there are different ways of approaching the experience. One way is to seek to recreate the events of the books as faithfully as possible. After all, there is great fun to be had in trying to weave together card combinations to tell the stories we all know and love. But the beauty of this game is that it also provides the freedom to explore those great “What if?” questions that fans of The Lord of the Rings have been debating for years. "What if the Council of Elrond has assembled a different Fellowship?"
Recently, I decided to mix the two approaches and explore some burning questions of my own. At the Council of Elrond, the Wise decided to trust to friendship and secrecy, rather than raw power. In the end, their fateful choice was graced with ultimate victory. However, what would have happened if matters had played out differently and the opposite course was chosen? What if Gandalf was never delayed by Saruman’s treachery? What if he accompanied Frodo from the very beginning of his journey, along with some of the most powerful figures in Middle-earth?
To answer these questions, I played twice through the first Saga Expansion of the campaign: The Black Riders. The first time around, I adhered to the story as closely as possible (the "faithful fellowship”), prioritizing plucky Hobbits and unexpected deeds of bravery. The second time through, I used a trio of the most powerful heroes in Middle-earth (the “alternate fellowship”), pitting the best of Men and Elves and Istari against the servants of Sauron. What follows are my experiences with the two different fellowships, as I sought to see who could best avoid the burdens of treacherous fate and earn the boons that might prove the difference between casting the Ring into the fire and watching it slip into the hands of the Enemy.
The Faithful Fellowship: Sam, Merry, Pippin
Per the rules, Frodo Baggins (The Black Riders, 1) is automatically a part of all your adventures through The Black Riders. To parallel the events of The Fellowship of the Ring, I partnered him with the three Hobbit heroes that accompanied him on his journey from the beginning: Sam Gamgee (The Black Riders, 2), Merry (The Black Riders, 3), and Pippin (The Black Riders, 4).
I focused this all-Hobbit deck on keeping a low-profile and steadily building towards victory, while counting on my heroes to rise to the occasion when needed. The trio of Sam, Merry, and Pippin have a collective starting threat of twenty, low enough to avoid enemy engagements for the opening rounds of a game.
The journey out of the Shire in the A Shadow of the Past scenario went according to plan… for the most part. I focused on all-out questing and hiding from the Nazgûl, the latter represented by the mechanism of Hide tests. The threat from the searching Black Riders (The Black Riders, 39) did become too great to bear at a couple of points, and it was up to Merry and Sam to do the unthinkable and face down these enemies who seemed to outmatch them in every respect, at least at first glance. However, escape from the Nazgûl was secured thanks to a couple of copies of Dagger of Westernesse (The Black Riders, 14) and Unseen Strike (The Redhorn Gate, 14), cards that play on the ability of Hobbits to become stronger when facing down enemies with greater engagement costs. Breathing a sigh of relief, the Hobbits made their way safely to Bucklebury Ferry.
The end of this first scenario offered the first fateful choices for my Campaign. Would I choose Gandalf’s Delay (The Black Riders, 78), permanently hobbling my hand size, or The Ring Draws Them (The Black Riders, 79), making it easier for enemies to engage in the future? Would I choose the Mr. Underhill Boon (The Black Riders, 17), allowing me to cancel an enemy attack, or Gildor Inglorian (The Black Riders, 77), a powerful ally who can actually appear to provide help out of the encounter deck?
This choice wasn’t just about gameplay. It also gave me the opportunity to further flesh out the differences between the two campaigns from a story perspective. In the case of the faithful fellowship, I chose the Mr. Underhill Boon to represent this deck’s reliance on avoiding the enemy through trickery, rather than strength. In terms of Burdens, I chose Gandalf’s Delay to show the powerful effect of Gandalf’s absence in terms of a loss of knowledge and guidance, as represented by hand size.
Feeling perhaps an excess of confidence after the first victory, the true gravity of Campaign Mode was revealed in its wrath as the Hobbits entered Bree for the A Knife in the Dark scenario. Here, they were able to escape the devious clutches of several spies, including Bill Ferny himself, but the pursuing Ringwraiths, led by their nearly invincible leader, The Witch-king (The Black Riders, 68), caught up with them at Weathertop.
The Witch-king is one of the most formidable enemies in this early part of the campaign, and those who do not have the will to stand against him (at least two Willpower) can’t even defend against his attacks. I held off the leader of the Nine with every last card I had available, but a poorly timed shadow effect caused the Witch-king to launch another attack when I had no eligible defenders remaining. Left with no other choice, I was forced to sacrifice a hero. I cast one last heartbroken gaze at Pippin as he fell below the blade of the Witch-king, heroically giving his life for his friends. All seemed lost until Beorn (Core Set, 31) himself appeared with the help of a well-timed Sneak Attack (Core Set, 23), lending the needed might to defeat the Witch-king… at least for the present. Yet the price of victory was heavy indeed.
There was nothing stopping me from merely replaying the scenario to get a better result, yet I have found in my experiences with Campaign Mode that keeping the “imperfect” result often leads to the better overall narrative, that is if you value narrative concerns at all over simply achieving the best outcome. In this case, I let Pippin’s doom become written into the story of my campaign, and he entered the list of Fallen Heroes, unable to be used again in any form. Above all, it is this aspect of Campaign Mode which gives it the greatest resonance in my opinion. While a hero may fall in a regular game, and that may have significance for that one session, a death in Campaign Mode is permanent and can dramatically change the course of the rest of the campaign. In this way, each loss is as devastating as it should be, and trying to keep your heroes alive at all costs becomes a desperate need. The choice to take an undefended attack and kill a hero, or watch one fall through circumstance, attains a real gravity here.
As one hero falls, though, another must rise to take his place, and in this case, Bilbo (The Hunt for Gollum, 1) arrived to take a stand by Frodo’s side for the third scenario, Flight to the Ford. It’s easy to imagine incorrigible old Bilbo riding out from Rivendell to find his nephew and help shepherd him to safety—one last adventure to pay for them all. As the scenario opened with Frodo suffering from An Evil Wound (The Black Riders, 57), the fellowship was forced to quest as hard as possible. I committed as much willpower as possible each round, charging towards Rivendell with the help of Sam’s new boon, Noble Hero (The Black Riders, 21), which was earned at the end of the second scenario. This choice was motivated largely by story once again: after all, who is Sam if not the noblest of heroes?
I was able to avoid the grasp of the Fell Riders (The Black Riders, 63) for most of the game, but at the climax The Witch-king appeared yet again. My Hobbits were hard-pressed, and it looked all too certain that my fiercest foe would claim another hero. However, Sam Gamgee stood bravely against the tide, holding off The Witch-king with a Hobbit Cloak (The Black Riders, 13) and Halfling Determination (The Black Riders, 9) just long enough for Beorn to make a second appearance! With that fearsome ally on my side, the Nazgûl were defeated once more, and the Hobbits scrambled breathlessly into the safety of Rivendell.
A Narrow Escape
What this first part of the campaign shows is that even when you are striving to stay faithful to the existing story, the way events play out in any given campaign will always inevitably take the narrative in its own direction. My Hobbit fellowship tragically lost one of its original members, but did manage to make it to safety, somewhat stronger. In the end, I did have to rely on a powerful figure, Beorn—twice—to save the day, but narrow escapes made possible by the help of powerful allies is certainly a hallmark of Tolkien. The real question that remains is can the fellowship that is more powerful on paper do better?
The Alternate Fellowship
How will Ian's "Alternate Fellowship" perform? Next week, he'll share the details in the second part of this article series. In the meantime, you can devise your own Fellowship, faithful or alternate, and take your first steps down the road and through the adventures of The Black Riders!