D&D and Middle-Earth have had a rather complex history. On the one hand, Gygax admitted to not enjoying Tolkien as much as more sword and sorcery-esque fare, and that certainly comes across in the more mercenary assumptions of early editions. At the same time, Gygax knew what was popular. Part of the motivation for Gygax’s original fantasy rules to Chainmail that gave Dave Arneson the seed that became the original Blackmoor campaign, which went on to spawn D&D once the feedback loop passed it through Gygax again, was a desire to pander to a desire to do Tolkienesque battles that had been percolating about in the wargame scene. The balors, treants and halflings of D&D were originally named as balrogs, ents, and hobbits until the Tolkien estate caughed and asked them to stop.
Following that, decades passed with no official meeting of D&D and Middle-Earth, despite some sort of Middle-Earth RPG existing for much of that time span. ICE’s MERP was based off Rolemaster, Decipher’s heavily movie-based Lord of the Rings RPG used their CODA system, and of course Cubicle 7’s The One Ring is a bespoke system made specifically for that game.
However, let it not be said that Cubicle 7 are blind to an opportunity. They have the Middle-Earth RPG licence, Wizards put out a pretty functional OGL for 5E, all the tools were there for them to make a legal, commercially viable Middle-Earth adaptation for D&D, so that’s exactly what they have done in the form of Adventures In Middle-Earth, the rules for which are presented in the Player’s Guide and Loremaster’s Guide.
This is essentially a 5E conversion of The One Ring, with adaptations of most of its signature rules and features present. For instance, the Player’s Guide gives you rules on corruption, journeys, audiences, and downtime that capture the spirit of the equivalent One Ring systems as closely as something built on the 5E blueprint can. Likewise, character options substitutes cultures for races, almost all of the cultures being ones you will recognise from existing One Ring material, and the character classes go along with One Ring‘s general ethos of not giving player characters overt spellcasting.
Whilst, of course, part of the advantage of using a 5E-compatible product is that you can drag and drop material from other 5E products into your campaign easily, in this case I’m not sure doing so would be a fantastic idea. The book points out that if you really want to drop in PC wizards and clerics of the Valar and the like, you could, but it doesn’t give you much support for doing so – in particular, your choice of class here defines how corruption affects you, and there’s no details on how corruption affects the standard 5E character classes, so if you use any of those you’ll either have to work out their corruption for yourself or they’ll be immune to corruption. The assumption in the Player’s Guide is very much that you will use the cultures and classes in there along with the new rules system.
This reliance on The One Ring continues in the Loremaster’s Guide, with its depictions of Wilderland drawing extensively on the setting material already developed for that and working on the same assumption that you will be playing in a rather Great Pendragon Campaign-esque way, with a timeline provided covering what happens after the end of The Hobbit as the Shadow comes back and things build up to the War of the Ring.
This makes a lot of sense because if you’re not after an especially tonally loyal Middle-Earth gaming experience standard D&D already handles things for you perfectly well, so you may as well just use that. Anything you add into Adventures In Middle-Earth will tend to shift the tone away from Tolkien purism, and if you care about that you won’t want to do that and if you don’t care about Tolkien purism you probably won’t want to use Adventures In Middle-Earth in the first place.
Since Adventures In Middle-Earth takes so much of a cue from The One Ring, this means that it constitutes a little revival of a type of game you saw back in the 3.X-era D20 boom which seems to have largely fallen by the wayside: namely, the full conversion of someone’s existing game. Aberrant, Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer and others all got their little conversions during those wacky days of the 2000s, and the results were rather mixed because some of the conversions were slow and careful whilst others were rush jobs to feed the 3.X shovelware market.
Now, the 5E OGL is substantially friendlier than the 4E equivalent, the GSL – which was so infamously bad it prompted Paizo to invent Pathfinder just so they didn’t have to adopt 4E and all the legal strings that would be attached as a result, and was otherwise so widely rejected that the 4E third party supplement market was pretty much dead on arrival. But whilst we have seen a stream of third party 5E products coming down the track, we haven’t seen so many “this is my game, only a 5E version of it”-type products. I think this is because the old “system does matter” mantra has finally sunk in, combined with the collapse of the 3.X bubble leaving people cautious.
However, in the case of Adventures In Middle-Earth, I think there really was a point to making a 5E equivalent of The One Ring; D&D has borrowed from Tolkien long enough that an official meeting of the two feels like a historical inevitability. It’s not quite The One Ring, but if you want a combination of that game’s atmosphere with the somewhat chunkier player character power that D&D offers, it’s a good second best.
With these two products out, it looks like the bulk of the hard conversion work has now been done; the next supplements announced is essentially a reprint of an existing One Ring adventure collection with the 5E stats slotted in, and to be honest if you already own the adventures in question it probably won’t be worth buying them twice since you can just use the two core Adventures In Middle-Earth books to fill in the stats perfectly well. To be honest, there’s a sufficiently deep pile of One Ring stuff that can be converted, and enough new One Ring stuff coming out, that I don’t seriously expect any major new releases for Adventures that isn’t just system-shifted One Ring stuff, but that’s fine – like I said, running this under The One Ring would be my preference, but having the option available is very handy.