I don’t think it’s a stretch to say The Black Riders is one of the most popular Lord of the Rings: The Card Game expansions to date. It brought what a lot of players had been eagerly anticipating: a chance to play through the familiar Lord of the Rings story. It also introduced Hero cards for many players’ favorite hobbit characters, offered a significant boost to the Secrecy mechanic (for those of us who love Secrecy), and established rules for Campaign Mode. This last one is very important, as it’s fundamentally shifted the paradigm for how players think about interconnected quests. Deluxe boxes and expansion cycles in Lord of the Rings have always told singular connected stories, from the Hunt for Gollum to Lord Alcaron’s betrayal in Against the Shadow, but even as one quest leads directly into the next, there was no framework for how to deal with player card cohesion, or making the choices of one quest matter in future ones, as you’d expect in a single multipart story. Introduce Campaign Mode, where Heroes and Allies can be permanently killed and where Boons and Burdens make the quest’s choices matter in a more significant way. It came as little surprise that shortly after people were able to play with the new Campaign rules, they started talking about adapting them to other quests.
There have been discussions of custom Campaign Rules for the expansion cycles on numerous occasions, complete with some custom Campaign cards or perhaps just with specific deckbuilding restrictions. It’s not a new concept, and even before The Black Riders people have been playing quest cycles with the same deck to maintain a campaign. But after I heard a discussion during one of the Grey Company Podcasts in which they discussed alternatives for the Nightmare Decks as Game Day kits, I realized one of their suggestions was exactly right: Print-on-Demand Campaign packs for pre-existing expansion cycles.
Recently, FantasyFlightGames has changed their Lord of the Rings Game Day kits to being special one-day events featuring a new Print-on-Demand quest. For one-day kits like this, akin to a Tournament Kit, the custom-quest route works excellently as a means of delivering an early look at a unique product, as well as allowing for them to further increase the quest pool and gather disparate players to local game stores. However, that only works to build community on a single day. One of the best ways to build a gaming community, I’ve found, is to have regular (often weekly) events at a LGS. Not only does it keep people out playing and gathering around the game, it also allows potential new players to observe the games, learn how to play, and then come back the following week with perhaps cards or decks of their own. A one-day event isn’t going to offer this possibility, but a regular sanctioned event will. (Magic: the Gathering’s Friday Night Magic has learned this.) This is where Print-on-Demand Campaign Kits, which encourage multi-session play, come into play.
In this post, I’m going to introduce a project I’ve been working on: a custom campaign mode for the first expansion cycle of Lord of the Rings: Shadows of Mirkwood. The project itself is designed to model a Game Day pack distributed through normal channels (and made available as Print-on-Demand cards eventually), and the printed cards consist of the Campaign Cards, Boons, and Burdens necessary to turn Shadows of Mirkwood into a single campaign. Due to the limits of available Boon and Burden card frames (there have only been Treachery and Objective burdens, and there have only been Objective and Attachment boons), I’ve elected to create these using standard card frames, with the intent that they’d stand out to established players, and since they’re usually going to be proxied out anyway they should be easy to pick out in a deck. The GenCon Print-on-Demand decks are all around 50 cards, so I decided to make this Campaign Deck (and any future ones) exactly 50 cards. This prevents me from making too many, but also forces me to consider where I can add a few cards to increase replayability of these original quests.
With the introduction out of the way, let’s look at the Campaign itself!
A Tale in Nine Acts
“Wait, nine acts?” you say, “I thought the stories were made in six-expansion parts?”
Well, you’d be partially right. The traditional six-Adventure-Pack cycles do tell a singular story, but they always come attached to a Deluxe Expansion which contributes to the Adventure Pack quests in a not-insignificant way. Despite the fact that the Deluxe quests don’t always lead directly into the Adventure Pack quests (see Khazad-Dum as a particularly troublesome example), I decided that there were enough reasons to include them in the equation to make it worthwhile. In addition, it wouldn’t be much worth making campaigns of only three quests, so if the Deluxe quests weren’t fit in here they wouldn’t get to be involved in campaigns at all.
The big sell for me was the fact that the encounter sets are all shared between each deluxe and its corresponding adventure packs. This links all nine quests thematically, if not sequentially, and it doesn’t seem absurd (except in the case of Khazad-Dum) that the heroes who succeeded at completing the first three quests would also be asked to take on the challenges of the six adventure packs. It’s often the same characters instigating the deluxe and adventure pack quests, and they often take place in the same locations. Being developed and released as a single cycle makes them all a part of the same story, and therefore I thought it would be best to include them in a single campaign.
If nothing else, it lets me make the campaign that much longer, and if it makes no sense to you to include the three deluxe expansion quests, you can always start the campaign with the first adventure pack!
Appointed By the Eldar
The three quests in the Core Set, more than any other set of deluxe quests, were not designed to tell a single connected story, though they were linked together sufficiently through the device of making them quests given to the heroes by Thranduil and Galadriel. As the story was basically not present in these quests, I decided to attempt to inject some of the story’s presence into the gameplay. First, simply adding narrative text to each campaign card would make the players more aware of the story, but since the first two quests revolved around delivering Thranduil’s message to Galadriel, it seemed necessary to create a card for Thranduil’s Message. The card effect is small, but in Journey Along the Anduin the possibility for location lock and threating out is significant, so a persistent threat increase seemed significant. The effect still seems weak, perhaps, but remember that I’m not attempting to increase the difficulty of the quests.
There had to be some boons to offset the increasing threat and other burdens pursuing the heroes, and since the story placed them in Lothlorien between Journey Along the Anduin and the Escape From Dol Guldur, it seemed fitting to include a set of boons for the players to earn before braving one of the more difficult quests in the game. Initially it was a set of zero-cost player cards (of all types), but after the release of the new Silvan-themed events it seemed too obvious not to make the boons all zero-cost events based on Lothlorien’s prominent figures. As each player is allowed to choose one boon to add to their deck, I allowed these cards to push the power envelope pretty hard. Unlike the Treasures of The Hobbit quests, there isn’t an easy way for the players to search them out of their deck when they need them. Dol Guldur is one of the only quests in which they’re readily available.
A Hunt Against Time
Fortunately, the story of the Shadows of Mirkwood adventure pack cycle is pretty loud and clear: the heroes are hunting for Gollum to capture him and bring him back to Thranduil’s halls. The idea for a burden objective that stayed in play through all the quests and tracked how long it took for the players to find him seemed like the obvious choice when it became apparent that I needed some way to reconcile the fact that the Conflict at the Carrock and Journey to Rhosgobel both had nothing to do with hunting Gollum. If those were side missions taking you away from the main hunt, then I needed to encourage players to defeat them quickly. The objective would essentially track the number of rounds in each game, with certain boons and burdens adding or removing progress as the heroes struggle to keep up with Gollum. In this way, Gollum’s lead would build up between quests until they reached the big showdown in the Dead Marshes, when all those progress tokens would be put to use.
There’s a lot of text on this campaign card, but unfortunately much of it is required to fix the problems inherent in the original quest (that were originally fixed in the nightmare version). The basic fixes make Gollum easier to recover if he escapes, allow the deck to continue collecting resources if he isn’t in play, and prevent you from winning if he isn’t in play when you made the final escape test. But the meat of the campaign card comes from how it utilizes the progress from The Hunt for Gollum: by turning its progress into resources for Gollum at the start of the game, it forces you to dredge through the Dead Marshes until you’ve used up all the “anti-progress” you’ve accumulated before you can actually capture Gollum. And the more times he escapes, the more times special Gollum-themed burden cards can be added to the Campaign Pool. All of them reference either escape tests or the player guarding Gollum, but since they only would appear in this quest or Return to Mirkwood, they have relevance in both quests.
Once the players have finally captured Gollum and successfully deliver him to Thranduil after Return to Mirkwood, the campaign is completed and the players are victorious!
Rewarded For Your Altruism
The heroes’ challenging pursuit of the ever-elusive Gollum has to be offset in some way, especially as the heroes spend two quests doing nothing to further their quest as they step aside to aid Grimbeorn and Wyliador. Fortunately, those two powerful beings in Middle-earth are not without gratitude, and have the resources to reward the heroes for their assistance. After the other quests, progress can be removed from The Hunt for Gollum through doing things vital to the quest: finding Signs of Gollum or exploring Emyn Muil locations. However, there is no inherent way to keep up with Gollum when you’re fighting trolls or saving Wyliador. For that you must turn to your patron and ask for a boon in return for your assistance: but whether it’s an actual boon card or simply reports of Gollum’s movement is up to the players to decide. Choosing these boons can be hugely advantageous, as they give the players access to powerful player and encounter cards, but if Gollum has accrued too much of a lead they may need to be turned down in favor of getting rid of those pesky progress tokens.
I included a number of these moments in the campaign, where the players are allowed to choose one boon each from a number of options. In order to keep them somewhat differentiated from each other, I themed each set of choices even as I gave the individual cards different functions. In Lothlorien, you may choose between zero-cost neutral events with powerful effects. After the ordeal at Dol Guldur, you may choose between permanent attachments that boost stats (similar to those in the Black Riders box). From Grimbeorn you may choose player cards, whether powerful allies or even more powerful stat boosts for your heroes. And from Wyliador you may choose encounter cards. One of them, Words of Wisdom, starts each game in play and grants a permanent bonus to all the players. Two others are objectives that can randomly appear out of the deck, either allowing for a free healing or offering a conditional-yet-powerful ally. The last is a treachery that helps rather than hurts the players. I tried out including a treachery with only the text Doomed 1 (but not Surge) to see what a boon that was essentially a “dead draw” out of the encounter deck would look like, but it turned out to be boring. If you’re going to give the encounter “dead draws” like that, you might as well also make them powerful allies like Gildor or Wyliador’s Companion!
Enter the Campaign at Your Pace
Hopefully this gives you a sense of how the campaign works. For those complaining that the campaign doesn’t increase the difficulty of these original quests, which frankly aren’t as much a challenge as more recent ones, there’s nothing stopping you from playing through a NIGHTMARE CAMPAIGN, and seeing how you fare with burdens that all have surge (whether printed or not) and all nine nightmare decks! And for those who are just looking forward to a chance to replay through the Shadows of Mirkwood and tell an interesting story along the way, I recommend you give this expansion a try. I’ve uploaded an archive of all fifty cards (technically fifty-nine cards, as the Campaign Cards are two-sided) to Dropbox and included the link below, so you’re welcome to download it and give it a shot.
And for those who are really interested in the idea of this project, but aren’t terribly thrilled by the Shadows of Mirkwood… I’m already working on one for Khazad-Dum 😉