Although I love RPGs, and I love Tolkien’s fictional setting, I have never been a fan of RPGs set in Middle-Earth. I’ve tried, honestly! ICE’s Middle-Earth Role-Playing (MERP) was just a watered down version of Rolemaster, a game I really didn’t care for. To add insult to injury, the game only went up to level 10, and then told you, “Oh, do you want to keep playing? Then you need to buy Rolemaster.” Rolemaster…we used to call it Rollmaster, because there was a table for *everything* – sometimes with seemingly nonsensical results. It’s just my opinion, of course, but, hey! I’m the one writing the article. It did, however, have fantastic art and amazing setting material. I bought a lot of MERP books just for the research, maps, and writing.
I looked at Decipher’s Lord of the Rings RPG, and it just didn’t wow me. It was another race/class system, married to the basic setting. If I were going to go that route, I would most likely just look at D&D and doing some adaptations in terms of setting. Its main advantage was being licensed in conjunction with the movies, so it had great photos, and it released some great looking maps.
As a result, I was a little hesitant to look at The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild, the new RPG from Cubicle 7 & Sophisticated Games. I was intrigued by the slipcover format, and the art looked good, but I held off. After seeing reviews that were declaring things like “easily the best RPG based on Tolkien’s works to date”, I finally decided to spend some of my Christmas cash and grab a copy.
“A Box Without Hinges, Key, or Lid”
The first thing that stands out about the game is the format. The game, which retails for $59.99, comes in a slipcover case. Within, you’ll find an Adventurer’s Book, primarily aimed at players, a Loremaster’s Book, for the gamemaster, 2 maps (also split between players and GMs), and a set of special dice. The books are softcover, featuring excellent art, including art by John Howe, one of the two main artists working on the Peter Jackson movies.
The dice are very well made, and they come in a plastic tray that actually holds the books and maps in the slipcover. They’re specific to the game, with Tolkien symbols on them, but you could opt to just use normal dice. There are the Success Dice, six D6s that have a Tengwar rune on the 6. Getting Tengwar runes during a skill check increases the degree of success on the roll. These D6s also have the numbers 1-3 in outline, with the 4-6 in solid black. This feeds into the mechanics of the game; characters under certain detrimental conditions don’t count the outlined numbers, making it substantially harder to succeed at even the easiest tasks.
The last die that comes with the set is a D12. Imagine! The lonely D12 getting some love. This die is the crucial Fate Die, rolled on pretty much every skill check. The 11 and 12 have been replaced with an Eye of Sauron mark and a Gandalf G rune (the rune found by Frodo, Aragorn, and the others on Weathertop…yes, I’m a Tolkien geek.) If you’re an Adventurer, rolling a Gandalf rune is always good, and rolling the Eye of Sauron can be very, very bad.
“Far O’er the Misty Mountains Cold”
The game is set, intriguingly, in the lands east of the Misty Mountains. For lack of a better way of putting it, the setting is set around the countries visited during The Hobbit, and the campaign starting point is nominally set as 5 years after the events in The Hobbit. With The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey releasing this year, could this be coincidence? I think not.
Races available to play include Elves of Mirkwood, Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, Hobbits of the Shire, and 3 races of Men – Bardings from Laketown, Beornings who follow Beorn’s ways, and the Woodmen of Mirkwood.
The game is ostensibly the first of three One Ring games. Each game will advance the timeline and add both more locations to adventure in and more races to play. According to interviews I’ve read, the second game will add the countries west of the Misty Mountains, and the third game will add Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor into the mix.
“Like a Horrible Game of Blind-Man’s Bluff”
Actually, despite my chosen quote, I think the rule system of The One Ring is simple, fun, and very evocative of the setting.
Rather than choose a class, characters choose background elements that give them different skill levels and traits. From these elements, a character’s statistics and abilities evolve. And yes, they’re tremendously flavorful. It can actually be quite beneficial to have a trait of “Smoking” or points in the Courtesy skill.
Characters also choose their Calling, the reason they adventure in the first place. This can give them benefits, but it also dictates the way they might be influenced by the powers of the Shadow as well. A character motivated as a Slayer may know more of the enemy and be quite good at certain skills, but they may be coaxed by the shadow to seek Vengeance. A character who is a Scholar may have excellent Lore oriented abilities, but they can be drawn towards Shadow by the Lure of Secrets.
Characters making a skill check roll a certain number of Success Dice plus the Fate Die. They are trying to beat a Target Number set by the Loremaster, and, as I mentioned above, certain symbols on the dice give better or worse results than normal. What’s fantastic, however, is that a lot of the traits chosen during character creation can give successes without ever picking up the dice. A character asked to make an Awe roll who possesses the trait Lordly might point this fact out to the Loremaster. The Loremaster may agree that, since the character is dealing with deferential peasants, there’s no need for a roll.
“And he was miserable, alone, lost.”
There are some great rules around negative conditions in the game. As various things happen, players expend Endurance points, and running out has very negative consequences. A character without any Endurance becomes Weary, and they can have difficulty accomplishing even simple tasks.
All characters have a Hope score, and they can spend Hope points to bolster themselves in action. As the power of Shadow slowly grows over a character, however, and they “Lose Hope”, they can become Miserable and in danger of succumbing to the Lure of Shadow. This can have a profound effect, not only on the character’s immediate actions, but on the character’s long range behavior. Think of Denethor and Boromir. Both are noble characters who are driven to do terrible things by the power of the Shadow.
A terrible blow from an enemy’s attack can leave one Wounded. Being Wounded a second time can knock one out of a Combat.
These very flavorful concepts really bring out a lot of the Tolkien-esque feeling. I can imagine a Loremaster telling Sam’s player that he’s Weary, having spent all Stamina to climb the Tower of Cirith Ungol and defeat the various orcs along the way. Or telling Gimli’s player that he’s Wounded, following the splitting of his helm at Helm’s Deep.
“The Party Went Along Very Merrily”
While I don’t want to spoil every rule, I do want to address three places where the game succeeds admirably: Journeys, Fellowships, and the Fellowship Phase.
A Journey in The One Ring is an Encounter all its own. Each Adventurer can take on one or more roles in the party, such as Guide, or Scout, and each is responsible for certain challenges that may come about. A failed attempt at Guiding may get the Fellowship lost, while a failed Scouting might lead to a battle with a troll! Rules for encounters, how different terrains affect the challenge, and more are provided.
Fellowships give every player access to more Hope, or chances to restore it. They also offer a Fellowship Focus. Every in the party may choose someone in the party to be their Focus. If they are aiding or protecting their Focus, they get extra chances to succeed. If their Focus is badly hurt or killed, it can cause them tremendous disadvantages.
A Fellowship Phase is a specific part of the game, representing the Fellowship stopping at a sanctuary of some sort, relaxing, recovering, and perhaps gaining information. This is when they spend experience to increase abilities, or gain specific rewards in the form of cultural blessings and superior equipment.
If one looks at The Fellowship of the Ring, you can break the first part down as follows: Frodo and Company travel through the Old Forest (an Adventuring Phase) and are rescued by Tom Bombadil. They stay for a few days at Bombadil’s home (a Fellowship Phase), and then set out through the Barrow Downs (an Adventuring Phase). They take respite at the Inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree (possibly a Fellowship Phase, although there’s still danger, so perhaps not), adventure to Weathertop, through the Trollshaws, and across the Ford of Bruinen. When they arrive in Rivendell, it’s most assuredly a Fellowship Phase.
“You are only a little fellow in a wide world, after all.”
Overall, I think the game is great. I have yet to actually sit down and play it, and that will go a long way towards cementing my feelings of it. In general, however, I’m impressed. This game, unlike other games based on the same source material, really seems to have a Middle-Earth feel to it.
I look forward to finally playing an RPG set in a world I’ve loved since age 8. This is a world that was directly responsible for me getting into RPGs, and it’s nice to think that I might finally come full circle.
Have you played The One Ring yet? What was it like? Am I right in my assessments of it? Or do you think that maybe I haven’t given earlier RPGs a fair shake? Let us all know.