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.