For a long time now I’ve been interested in running an old-school points-of-light style fantasy game, for no particular reason. I’ve never played or run one, so it’s not for nostalgia’s sake; rather, it’s probably for the opposite reason—because I’ve never really experienced with that style of game.
“Points of Light” was the one thing I really liked about 4th Edition D&D, rolling things back to a more AD&D-style world setting where civilization existed in the form of small towns and isolated waystations, surrounded by oceans of dark forests filled with monsters and brigands and primal savagery. Heroes come from small-town beginnings, or from the few well-fortified city states; they venture forth into the unknown to beat back the darkness and plunder strange relics of lost civilizations—faded empires, shattered races. Help may be days or even weeks away, so life can be brutal and harsh, even for the prepared: it’s the rugged individualism of a new frontier.
In sum, the generic OSR setting without archaic OSR game mechanics. The Hyperborean Tales, Lankhmar, Averoigne; old Weird Tales pulp fantasy meets the Dark Ages.
You can see a lot of the original D&D game in it, too: when a half-dozen men-at-arms is a “sizable” patrol in an underpopulated world, compared to forty or more hobgoblins, it becomes a bit of small-unit skirmish. (As in, wargame.) Hex grid wilderlands notwithstanding. They had this gee-whiz sensawunda, too; stumble into this hex and you might find some dude’s magic arrows hidden in a hollow treestump, stumble into this one and you get attacked by the plesiousaur in the lake.
Actually, I can chart this interest back to when I first played Baldur’s Gate, because its setting fits my ideal bill pretty well. A lot of open wilderness filled with hostile creatures and the occasional dungeon (or humanoid stronghold), with a few scattered hamlets along the way. Candlekeep, seaside resort for rich nobles, old wizards, and dusty tomes; Nashkel, occupied by a neighboring city-state, its iron mines besieged; Beregost, sizable trade city, and Baldur’s Gate, sprawling metropolis of the region. The Friendly Arms Inn in particular jumps out at me; a badass adventurer couple overthrew an evil overlord and turned his fortress into a waystation. Baldur’s Gate is nasty and harsh, a tough slog filled with memorable locales and unique NPCs… it’s how I imagine a great AD&D game would be like. (Not having to calculate THAC0, weapon speeds, or Armor Class modifiers—yep, that would be a great AD&D game.)
I’ve always enjoyed playing the Icewind Dale games the most—they have a rich if subtle flavor (case in point, items) and they’re easiest to progress in—while Planescape: Torment had the best story, and Baldur’s Gate II was the most accessible (while retaining a similar top-notch story). I’ve never really given the original Baldur’s Gate that much interest, despite how much it’s influenced my gaming perspective. Maybe the Enhanced Edition will change that. Maybe if it had been developed enough to not give me fucking bluescreens.
Part of my problem is that I realize it’s not an ideal genre to play in, and besides, everyone else who may be interested in this probably played it thirty years ago—it’s still a major source of nostalgia, and I’d wager most gamers into more trad fantasy have already played this. Plus, OSR just doesn’t interest me—I’d rather run a stripped-down version of FATE, or perhaps (glorious day!) take The One Ring for a test drive, considering Mirkwood matches my ideal points-of-light setting pretty damn well. (Plus its rules are kinda hot.) For the most part it’ll remain on my back-burner until I find the time and interest for it.
In lieu of a real review or anything, here’s ten of the best things I found about the new Middle Earth-based The One Ring.
- Mirkwood! You want to know a brilliant idea? Start off your three-game Middle Earth RPG line in between The Hobbit and LOTR, in one of the most detailed areas of the world, where Bilbo was wandering around just five years prior. It’s a nice sandbox to play in, a good points-of-light old-school locale, with lots of potential for cool plots, without being in a high-traffic area where the noted NPCs will overshadow the players. And it hits all the basics, containing elves and dwarfs and orcs, ruins, mystery and adventure. For small-scale adventuring and the beginning of an epic RPG trilogy, it’s a good start.
- Feels like Tolkien! The problem with the Middle Earth RPGs that came before is that they weren’t based around the actual themes Tolkien dealt with: long epic journeys, fellowship/the adventuring group as a unified whole, the fine sense of history and scale, lineage and the heroic adventures of prior heroes’ offspring, a high-fantasy realm with high-magic artifacts and creatures but with limited magic use. All of these are here as core game mechanics. Mission Accomplished.
- No Wizards! Well, Radaghast is around as a deus ex machina NPC, but no playable wizards at any rate.
- Corruption: Taint and Redemption! Speaking of major themes of Middle Earth translated to core mechanics. See anguish, take part in suffering, travel through tainted lands, and you gain corruption. How do you get rid of it? Make something beautiful ala Earthdawn: roll your Craft or Singing or whatnot to bolster your own spirits.
- Dice Mechanics! When these were announced, the worry was that they’d be like Warhammer FRPG’s box of inane special bits. Instead, it’s quite simple. The One Ring uses a dice pool (ala Roll-and-Keep or Storyteller or Shadowrun) of d6′s, backed up by a Feat Die (ala the Wild Die of Star Wars d6 or Savage Worlds), in this case a d12. Rolling a 6 on the d6′s gives you a raise, e.g., makes your result that much better if you succeed; the dice pool results are summed, and go up against a base difficulty of 12-14. The d12 is closer to a d10, numbered 1 through 10 with two special sides: a Gandalf rune (auto-succeed) on the 12, and an Eye of Sauron (bad things happen) on the 1. Very slick, and you can use dice you already own. A full set is provided in the slipcase, I’d like to see separate sets for sale.
- Encumbrance/Fatigue! One of the best systems in gaming for handling this, I kid you not. Running too much, wearing heavy armor, or otherwise exerting yourself in combat makes you Weary, which brings us to the other half of the dice mechanics: while Weary, results of 1, 2, and 3 on the d6′s aren’t counted. Ouch. But at least your high-end results, including the raises from rolling a 6 and the Gandalf rune on the d12, still count.
- Beautiful maps! I’m partial to cartography, and this set’s strong selling point is the maps. There’s a nice player’s map of the Mirkwood region, along with a GM’s map, showcasing the major features, hex-grid distances, all color-coded to determine how long it takes to travel in one type of terrain or another.
- The Art Loving Rules! It’s all very evocative of Tolkien’s Dark Ages Europe-esque world, in part because John Howe was tapped for this project. Though, it was Jon Hodgson’s work that made the book shine. All the art on this page is from the interior of the book: vast, mist-shrouded wilderness, like old-school landscapes, showing just how small and insignificantly finite our adventurers are in this ancient land.
- Dynamic Character Creation! There’s only a half-dozen different faction-races—hobbits, dwarfs of the Misty Moutain, wood elves, Beornings, woodmen, and Bard’s riverfolk—but each has a variety of skill-sets to pick from and assign, various backgrounds, and occupation/callings, which results in a flexible system. Much more “who you are” than the D&D-esque “what you do,” which is nice, with plenty of freedom of choice. I’m hoping more will be added sooner than later, but the base ones cover a range of possibilities.
- Synthesis of Form and Function! I know number two is similar, but I can’t get over this fact: it feels like The Hobbit. MERP always felt like Rolemaster wearing a Lord of the Rings mask, with its drudgery of charts, deadly criticals, and excessive list of skills. Decipher’s LOTR game was marred by typos, horrible handling of a cash-cow license, and a D&D-esque feeling of “descend into this dungeon, kill that, take its loot.” The One Ring is the first game that doesn’t feel like a variation on D&D, but gives an actual Middle Earth game vibe, in its handling of mechanics, narrative, and combat.
And a few things that aren’t so great, just so I’m not accused of favoritism. Every game I own has at least a few flaws, and this one is no exception.
- Damn the Simulationist Nature! This is one of those games where skills like Singing and Cooking are actually important. I guess it’s nice that they have mechanical uses, and they do have a place in Tolkien’s books, but is this the kind of thing you really want to bother with in an RPG? Yes, rolling your Cooking makes sense—think of Samwise in the movies—but it reminds me of the ’80s, Rolemaster’s everything-and-its-cousin skill list and AD&D’s nonweapon proficiencies, which were the last places I saw Cooking listed as a skill. Ugh.
- Lack of enemies! The only adversaries are those which appeared in the books, namely various kinds of orcs, trolls, wolves, spiders, and bats/vampires. That’s about it. Granted, plenty of variety in each type, so they’re perfect for scaling and changing it up, but there isn’t a whole lot of variety. I am glad they left the dragons and balrogs for more applicable supplements. But I foresee encounters becoming very repetitive.
- Indexing is a bitch! Get used to switching back and forth between the Player’s book and the Loremaster’s book. I’m not exactly sure why they have this terminology, since important rules are spread out between them; other rules are mentioned once, and never referred to again. The worst parts are the rules that aren’t lumped with similar rules, and dumped someplace off the map—sometimes in another book. So it can be hard to find what you’re looking for if you didn’t memorize the books cover to cover.
Those are the only complaints I can drop on this, though, aside from a few niggling nitpicks that aren’t worth mentioning. Cubicle 7 has a GM—err, Loremaster Screen scheduled, along with Tales of the Wilderland, a seven-adventure loosely-linked adventure campaign. I think the game’s strength will be its scale of cumulative slipcase/box set games, allowing a group to run parallel adventures to the novels from the time of Smaug’s death to the fall of Sauron… provided the line has enough longevity and supplements.
I picked up The One Ring a few months ago, back when I had some Amazon gift cards, and have been paging through it since; very impressed so far, so here are some initial impressions. Something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, but I’ve been busy fixing computers and stuff. Besides, not like I got a review copy or anything as posting incentive.
The One Ring, released this last October, is the latest attempt to make Middle Earth into a viable roleplaying game. You could ask whether or not we need another Middle Earth RPG, since we have I.C.E.’s MERP and Decipher’s Lord of the Rings, but unless you’re a huge fan of either of those you’ve probably already answered the question with a “yes.” MERP was a copy of Rolemaster with Middle Earth setting details slapped on; Decipher wasn’t terribly knowledgeable about roleplaying games, and their product line shows: the books were passably solid but not exemplary, and support for the line bottomed out sometime shortly after the Two Towers sourcebook was released. (It was also focused more on the movies than the books, which may or may not be a bad thing.)
Whether or not we need another high-fantasy elfs and goblins RPG is another question, Epic Pooh and China Mieville and all; I still like Tolkien’s (and pre-Tolkien) novels to the subsequent fantasy genre, and make an exception in my general dislike of traditional fantasy for a couple of reasons. (The big one being that Tolkien wrote a myth, the end-all of Northern European mythic cycles to be precise, while everyone since writes in the genre known as fantasy. Then again, I also love The Iliad and Norse fables and the like.) YMMV.
In any case, The One Ring, Cubicle 7′s newest RPG. (It goes well with Starblazer and Doctor Who; they should have some “Imported from Britain” sticker on there for their outsourcing of European nerddom to America.) It’s written by Italian Francesco Nepitello, who knows his Middle Earth better than most. And while it’s another of those dreaded indie storygame RPGs, the influence of traditional games is immense: I can see running it either as a high-end tactical trad game (with some homebrewing to the combat) just as well as a storygame.
So far I’m liking what I’m seeing. Unlike previous Middle Earth attempts, the game adheres strictly to Tolkien’s style and world, meaning there’s no playable wizards for one. It also tries to make game mechanics out of some of Tolkien’s themes. Travel, for one; the included maps are used to determine just how long it took to get from one adventure to another. Lineage for another; after a player’s hero is “retired,” they can continue their story using that hero’s offspring, which is pretty cool. And while there are no magic-users, artifacts do exist, much as Bilbo and the dwarfs stumbled into a cache of magic swords.
The setting is Mirkwood, the wild expanse of forest and lawless orc-infested land depicted in The Hobbit. Take your old-school D&D wilderlands/points-of-light setting and turn it to eleven; safeholds are few and far between, the going is treacherous, and various enemies lurk in every corner. Plenty of room to explore and adventure in, and the books are littered with interesting story-seeds and plot hook ideas.
The dice are an interesting feature and selling point; you get a number of d6s and a d12, which you roll in a dice pool of sixers (equal to skill rating) with the d12 as your wild/action die. Rolling a six on the d6s gives you the equivalent of a Raise, making the result that much better. The d12 is actually a d10 with two special sides: a Gandalf rune, acting as an auto-success, and an Eye of Sauron, which isn’t quite an instant failure, instead making the result interestingly bad.
So, you end up rolling a bunch of d6s (up to six) plus the d12 against a base difficulty of 14, which can be a stretch on 3d6. Skills are divided under three attributes; you can add the related attribute’s total to the dice-roll total by spending a Heart point—something like a cross between Willpower and FATE points—if you don’t think you rolled high enough. (Otherwise, attributes don’t do that much.)
Combat is very streamlined, and though it’s not as tactical as it could be, it’s meaty in its own right. It revolves around the abstract of choosing a combat stance, which modifies physical aggressiveness and placement. So, not tactical in the maps-and-minis way, but a fine balance of choosing your balance of offense/defense. It’s also worth noting the game’s amazing encumbrance system: exhaust yourself, carry too much heavy weapons/armor, and suddenly you’ll find yourself Weary. When Weary, rolling any 1′s, 2′s, and 3′s on the d6s aren’t counted in your total. Dayum.
Character creation is simple, yet flexible. You choose from one of six races—hobbits, dwarfs of the Misty Mountains, wood elves, wildermen, Beornings, and Bard’s riverfolk—and then pick your background (which provides skills and abilities), some more skills, some favored skills (and favored attributes, which raise the bonus provided when you spend that Heart point to boost favored skills), and lastly, pick from one of five callings—slayer, treasure hunter, scholar, wanderer, or warden. Which also provide you with benefits and new options.
It may sound limiting as a class system, but trust me, it’s not; there’s a lot you can build from all the options, and it gives a great feel of “who you are” rather than the D&D-style class feel of “what you can do.” That said, I’m hoping for a companion or something that adds in more races, backgrounds, and callings.
The One Ring comes in a slipcase for $59.99 (cheaper on Amazon!), containing two softcover rulebooks totalling 336 pages, two 22″ x 17″ mini-poster maps, and a tray of dice—six special d6s and a special d12. It’s a tad on the expensive side, softcovers and all, but it looks loving beautiful, and I’d say it’s totally worth the price I paid… which was negligible thanks to my Amazon gift certs and the fact they only charge $37 for it.) If you’re a Middle Earth fan, and don’t mind looking outside the D&D box… give it a shot. It’s the most Tolkienesque Middle Earth RPG so far.