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.