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Review: The One Ring

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the main books that describe Tolkien’s ‘Middle Earth’ have been the subject or inspiration of a great many games down the years. Computer games, RPGs and others have all fed on his rich world-building and sense of epic adventure which, itself, comes inspired by Celtic and Nordic myths such as The Ring Cycle.

ICE defined the Lord of the Rings in roleplaying terms for many, many years and to many their work is still the defining work on The Lord of the Rings in the RPG hobby, though as a ‘slimmed down’ version of RoleMaster it wasn’t the most accessible and the rules sometimes didn’t make absolute sense.

The Decipher version tied in nicely with the movies but somehow never really managed to break out of that ‘licensed’ ghetto that some games fall into and never really managed to catch that many people’s attention.

I started out gaming with ICE’s Middle Earth Roleplaying and every fantasy game under the sun incorporates Tolkien-style elements and inspiration at some point or another. Any game trying to live up to Middle Earth has a lot standing in its way from comparisons to previous games and the attention of Tolkien fanatics and scholars to the fact that whatever the source material, it’s still ‘just another’ fantasy game.

This book describes an adventuring world that takes place some years after the end of the events of The Hobbit. The dragon Smaug is defeated, the lands of his desolation are being reclaimed. The dwarves have a king under the mountain again and Mirkwood is beginning to be cleansed.

The characters come into this new and even hopeful situation, ready to become heroes. There are still orcs and spiders, ruins, bandits, tensions between the people who became allies at the battle of the five armies. Plenty of opportunities for heroism and adventure.

The rules of The One Ring are a bit of an odd mixture of old-school and indie design elements and there’s much that reminds one of board game design as well. One can see hints of influence from White Wolf, FATE, Warhammer 3rd Edition and even, perhaps, from the Lord of the Rings MMORPG. The game is neither a true narrative game nor a crunch-heavy traditional game but falls somewhere in the middle – which is something that suits me just fine as that’s where I fall.

The game uses a d12 for all rolls and this is accompanied by a variable number of six sided dice, depending on your capability, skill and so on. One irritant is that the game uses ‘novelty dice’ and while they’re not essential to play – you can make do with normal dice – they do make things a damn sight easier. Integral to the rolls are two special faces on the 12 sided dice (the eye and a gandalf rune) marking critical success and failure, and the way the numbers are marked on the six-sided die, half outline, half solid and the 6 marked with a tengwar rune.

Success or failure is denoted by the total that you roll and the degree of success by how many tengwar runes you roll. The d12 being a flat roll means a ‘crit’ occurs on a flat probability curve while numerical totals themselves are more upon an average curve, depending on the number of dice. This is a peculiar mix of probabilities and it’s hard to tell how that will play out on a mere read through. Such common critical successes and failures is good for heroic, luck-of-the-draw games but TOR is written as a much more low key game, perhaps more suited to the average results you get from multiple dice.

The rules do reflect the preoccupations of Tolkien’s work, the importance of race and heritage, the importance of morale, the spread of corruption and weakness in the hearts of men. It does manage to avoid the ‘ubermensch’ problems with Tolkien elves, though this might annoy some purists I think it’s a good way to keep them under control. That said, the emphasis on race and past can be something of a straitjacket and character customisation isn’t as broad as it could be. Given that it bucks the current trend of super-competent starting characters and gives you a genuine learning curve, that’s not so bad.

There are formal downtime rules, called the ‘Fellowship phase’ which are welcome and it’s nice to have these sorts of things codified. Something we’re seeing in more games besides TOR of late. Again, this can be a little restricting but a skilled GM (Or ‘Loremaster’) should be able to overcome all these strictures.

Combat feels quick and quite deadly, not something to be undertaken lightly, but if the Loremaster wants to avoid total party wipes there are several ‘outs’ he can employ, or he can play it hardcore.

Character death and retirement is softened in its impact by rules for passing on a legacy to the characters that come after you. With the various books that will make up the series moving the timeline on this is a wonderful idea (one I’ve been toying with myself for other games) but ‘missing’ are rules for founding a family or dynasty and playing your own character’s children – something I’d like to see appear in later supplements.

People who are dismissive of The Lord of the Rings often talk about it as a ‘long walk’ with a little action here and there but travel and the landscape is an important part of Tolkien’s work and the atmosphere of his books. There are extensive travel rules then, and they’re a good thing to have. Wandering and exploration being such strong hooks for adventurers. Given the lighter rules-touch elsewhere this can feel a little strange, but it’s welcome nonetheless.

The Loremaster’s rules are mostly just a reflection of the character rules. The bestiary is a little wanting but covers the basic orcs/goblins, trolls, wargs and wolves that turn up so readily in Tolkien’s work as well as the spiders of the Mirkwood. Tolkien didn’t really use a great many monsters in his epics and so it’s not all that surprising, what is surprising is the inclusion of vampires, a barely mentioned side-note in Tolkien’s work but here presented in the main bestiary.

Some of the rules feel a little too simplistic, but the building of traits, skills etc upon that basic foundation do allow for a greater degree of complexity than first appears. I think it may take 2-3 sessions of play for this to become apparent and for people to settle in to how their characters work, but that’s faster than many games.

Rules, writing and art all conspire to create a good atmosphere and I would compare the look and feel most readily with Dragon Warriors, likely due to the artistic influence of Jon Hodgson. This is a green and somewhat grubby Middle Earth which makes me think of Exmoor, Stonehenge, The Scottish Highlands and trips to Danebury Ring. It is all very evocative and effective and everything dovetales nicely to convey the atmosphere they’re trying to get across and the mood of play which is respectful – perhaps to a fault – to the source.

Jon Hodgson is, to a great extend, defining the look of British fantasy in the gaming scene for me and this shines through in his work on this book and the work of his compatriots. Despite the international authorship this is a British game through and through and has broken free of the trappings of the LOTR movies. This game has its own distinct look and stands up to the earlier MERP very nicely, even overtaking it thanks to modern full-colour printing. The parchment background reduces readability somewhat, there’s a lot of what can feel like ‘wasted space’ but in this case I believe it enhances the readability and helps make the text clearer.

It is disappointing that a ‘Dark Heresy/Dragon Age’ approach has been taken to the game in that it’s going to be split over several books but fans will, of course, come up with their own filler material for other peoples and places in the meantime. Characters can feel a little straitjacketed and could start to feel samey after a while, this fits the source material and how important heritage is though. It’s a beautiful book with an interesting system that’s well explained and graspable to novices as well as RPG experts.

The three things that hold it back from a perfect score are its limited scope in space and time within Middle Earth and its reliance on novelty dice. While they’re not needed, it would be aggravating to use normal dice.

The last thing is a problem that’s out of the author’s hands. Much as in playing a Star Wars RPG you cannot help but feel that anything your characters might do or get involved in is going to be overshadowed by the characters from the books. In Star Wars there’s, at least, a whole galaxy to play in, Middle Earth is much smaller than a galaxy and the setting of this first book is smaller still, not to mention the time frame slaps you right between the deeds of the heroes of The Hobbit and the coming deeds of The Fellowship.

On the plus side

  • Fabulous and evocative art.
  • Deep and respectful approach to Tolkien’s work.
  • Hybrid game system should satisfy hardcore gamers and story gamers alike.

On the minus side

  • Novelty dice.
  • Limited setting
  • Time/space limitation will make expansion difficult. 

Style: 5
Substance: 3
Overall: 4