Dark Deeds in Bree

4 bands of strangers approached the Prancing Pony in Bree. The sign creaked in the night as it flapped in the wind, and the rain drove hard into their faces. All the travellers were huddled under their cloaks, seeking what scant protection they could from the rain, but as they passed inside, there was an audible gasp from the common-room, as they cast aside their hoods, and revealed their faces.

PrancingPonyOne party were dwarves, 3 stout and sturdy chaps travelled from far to the east, perhaps even from Erebor itself. Some whispered that their leader was none other than Dain Ironfoot himself, the King Under the Mountain.

Most of the others were elves, that was clear to see. Again, the rumours quickly began to spread as to the identities of these mysterious strangers: the Elf-Lord of Imladris, the Prince of the Woodland Realm, even the Lord and Lady of Lothlorien. No-one knew for certain, and it was not long before one drunkard in the corner had confidently proclaimed them Beren and Luthien returned.

The most troubling of the strangers for the folk of Bree stood a little way apart from the others. A huge, dark figure, he said little and moved slowly: indeed those who saw him out of the corner of their eyes seemed to be caught in wonder for a moment, convinced that they had seen a tree.

Fortunately, Barliman Butterbur, proprietor of the Prancing Pony was more accustomed to strange folk visiting his tavern from time to time and, once he had confirmed that they did not require any of his food or ale, he confided in them of the recent murder which had shaken the village. Whoever the incomers were, they were clearly upstanding folk, and they swiftly agreed to investigate the matter for him, and bringing the villain to justice.

DSC01184Yesterday, we had our first Lord of the Rings Fellowship event, convening at our FLGS to investigate a murder at the Prancing Pony. The format is fairly simple: there are 5 “suspect” enemies, and 5 “hideout” locations. At the start of the game, one of each are selected at random, and put to one side, whilst the remaining 8 cards, along with a couple of irksome treacheries, are shuffled into an “investigation deck” – exploring active locations allows the players to view cards from the investigation deck, and hopefully enables them, by process of elimination, to identify the villain, and where they are hiding.

As the distributors had insisted that the event be run on a weekend, and at short-notice, we just had the one 4-player game going, and we may have brought a sledge-hammer to crack a nut, with the decks we had chosen: Treebeard/Rossiel/Haldir for me, and Celeborn/Legolas/Brand son of Bain, Glorfindel/Elrond/Galadriel, and Dain/Ori/Nori for the others. The player of the Noldor deck was wearing Nenya and an Evenstar, but sadly these were adjudged to have no in-game benefit. Instead, armed with our decks, and a box of biscuits, the Fellowship of the Party Rings set out… (on reflection, maybe I should have brought some Brie as well

I've been waiting since Black Riders to do this...

I’ve been waiting since Black Riders to do this…

Stage 1 requires players to either raise their threat at the start of the round, or reveal extra cards, so we ploughed through as quickly as possible, opting for the threat increase very time: Nori was keeping threat under control for the Dwarf-deck, whilst Galadriel patched things up for the other 3 teams. The quest card has a “max 4 progress per round” limit, and needs 12 progress, so it’s three rounds minimum, but we didn’t take any longer. The highlight of the first stage was Haldir hitting Bill Ferny with a Black Arrow to kill him in the staging area, and get rid of his very irritating effect. We also managed to clear an active location each round, and had successfully eliminated 2 suspects and 3 locations by the time we hit stage 2.

Advancing to Stage 2 reveals a location per player and, having revealed 3 locations in round-3 staging, we were now in an awkward position of having 7 locations in the staging area, and nothing else. The biggest problem was the Market Square, which puts your threat up every time you place progress on a location in the staging area: 2 copies of this at once meant that it would have cost us a staggering 14 threat to trigger one of the Northern Trackers. Fortunately, the dwarf player had Thror’s Map and Key, enabling us to gradually remove the Squares, then track away everything else. I added the first square to go to the Victory display, with Leave No Trace, allowing me cancel the next one to appear, with The Door Is Closed.

DSC01187Stage 2 is slightly difficult to hang around on: every time you place progress, you are forced to either advance to stage 3 or reveal extra encounter cards. Fortunately, I had drawn Gather Information early on, and when we explored it, another player was able to fetch her copy, letting us kill some time – it also meant that we could find some of the missing pieces for card combos – the Dwarf deck was now in full-swing, and the Elves had double Northern Tracker, but I was pleased to get my very cheesy and unthematic, but helpfully powerful Elf-Friend Treebeard + Silvan Tracker combo out (he was also the Steward of Gondor).

We had narrowed down both the suspect and the hideout to two possibilities, and it felt like every investigation was leading us back into cards we had seen before, so we decided to bite the bullet and make a guess.

When you advance to Stage 3 of this quest, you have to name a suspect and a hideout – if you have successfully eliminated all the other possibilities by looking through the whole investigation deck, this should correspond directly with the two cards put to one side at the start of the game. If not, you have stumbled onto bigger plots, and suddenly find yourself faced with extra villains and locations. Our first player for the turn guessed at Todd the Troll and Bill Ferny’s house – and she was wrong on both counts!

Suddenly, we found ourselves faced with Todd the Troll and Old Orc-Eyes, as well as Bill Ferny’s House and the Combe Storehouse. The suspect enemies automatically engage the first player at the start of the encounter phase, and cannot be damaged whilst there are any Hideouts in play. The hideouts are, of course, large, with nasty travel effects – including the resurrection of Bill Ferny, and the inevitable immunity to player-card effects.

Fortunately, by this time, we had big enough forces out to withstand the onslaught. Todd the Troll’s 7 attack with threat-trample was probably the biggest concern, but was dealt with by the marvellous combination of Dain Ironfoot, made sentinel by Arwen, and auto-healing each round thanks to being an elf-friend, and sharing the table with a Silvan Tracker and Elrond – it turned out to be very powerful, which was fortunate, as we’d only done it because the idea of “elf-friend Dain” seemed funny.

After two rounds we cleared the second hide-out, killed Bill Ferny again for good measure, and jumped on the villains. The silvan/tactics player had clearly been looking forward to this moment, and was fairly close to being able to kill both suspects outright herself, and Brand readying an extra dwarf when the first suspect bit the dust, was enough to finish off the other.

Card-sleeves: good for protecting your decks, bad for photography under artificial light!

The victorious heroes, and the defeated villain

All-in-all, it was a good evening. Whilst the encounter deck certainly had some nasty tricks up its sleeve, and things could easily have gone a lot worse for us, this quest feels much more like the right sort of level for casual, shop-based games than the nightmare quests did (I still don’t really believe that 4-player Nightmare Battle of Five armies is even possible). The quest also feels like it has good replayability value, and whilst there is some frustration to be had from the randomness of the investigation deck, it’s not like Redhorn Gate where you are actually just stuck in an infinite loop – you always have the option to guess and take the extra cards/threat and press on. I can definitely see this one getting played more than just the once on the event night.

I feel like it has taken a while for this game to find the sweet-spot for Organised Play: there are still issues to be ironed out, including how we would have decided the “winners” of the play-mats and quest decks if we’d had a larger group turn up, and the amount of notice and leeway the distributors give the shops to run their events, but I hope this way of doing things continues, and that we get more quests that are this much fun to play.

I’d love hear tales of other people’s fellowship events: epic moments of triumph or despair, any tales worthy to live on in song. Comment below, or on Facebook.

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