The One Ring RPG is the latest rules set to take on the challenging task of recreating Middle Earth for the fantasy gamer. No other fantasy world has so many fans or so much detail to it and its an ambitious undertaking even to try to take on the licence. I've played several games which have tried previously - MERP I found too slow due to the numerous calculations required, and The Lord of the Rings RPG I found to be unbalanced in its design. This new game though comes at a time some years after the hype around the films has died away and promises to be a more accurate simulation of Middle Earth.
The first thing that any reviewer has to say about this product is that its presentation and appearance are stunning. I am always impressed if a game has made an effort to look good and this is one of the best looking games I have ever seen. The product consists of a hard backed folder which contains two softback books - the Adventurers Book (about 150 pages long) and the Loremasters book (about 200 pages long). There are also two maps detailing the Northern lands of Middle Earth that the game is set in, and a set of dice in a slide out tray for use with the game.
Its worth noting that the game presents itself as part of a trilogy, covering the years from the end of the book The Hobbit to the events covered in The Lord of the Rings. There are three sets planned, each covering a different geographical area and roughly thirty years of history. This first set covers the Wilderland, the area around the forest of Mirkwood, and the first thirty years after the slaying of Smaug the dragon.
The maps included are very attractive and printed on thick paper that should help preserve them better than those found in a lot of other games. As you might expect they cover the Wilderlands in some detail and one of the maps is designed to assist the Loremaster with travel and encounter information. The dice used in the game consist of D6's and a single D12. Those provided with the game are marked with runes but this doesn't preclude you from using your own dice, which is a relief.
Both of the books provided with the game are beautifully illustrated in a style that I think prefectly captures Middle Earth as I imagine it. The characters shown are dressed in Dark Ages style clothing and armour and carry a mix of suitable weaponry from that period. Each chapter is started with a scenic view of the landscape of Middle Earth perfectly setting the mood and tone of this vast and believable world. All of the illustrations are full colour and there are plenty of them. For those that were wondering the appearance of the game does not copy the designs used in the Lord of the Rings movies but deliberately sets out its own consistant style.
The Adventurers Book as you might imagine is the players book and details the basic rules and character creation. As this rules set only covers one specific area character options are limited to the people found in the Wilderland area. Races are therefore limited to Bardings, Beornings, Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, Elves of Mirkwood, Hobbits of the Shire and Woodmen of Wilderland. Each is fully detailed explaining their culture and appearance, the starting skills and abilities and a choice of background options. The background options help provide an aid to roleplaying a character who fits in properly and also determines a characters basic attributes. As previously mentioned it is expected that a further two sets will expand this list of races to cover other areas of Middle Earth. So if players are upset they can't play a Rohirrim its only a matter of time before those rules are available.
The classes in The One Ring are fairly unique, presumably in an attempt to avoid parallels to D&D. The classes ( or Callings as it refers to them ) are Scholar, Slayer, Treasure Hunter, Wanderer and Warden. Unlike many other games there is no distinct list of special abilities linked to each class. Instead they provide further background on your characters motivation to become an adventurer and a few minor abilities, referred to as Traits which help define who they are.
Character creation is much more about designing a character around a roleplaying concept rather than a set of abilities. No dice are rolled so there is no random element, its all about choosing the right background and class to suit your idea and then recording the skills from each. Additional points are available at the end of character creation to help make your character unique by improving whatever skills you want.
Astute readers will probably have noticed that there are no obvious wizard or cleric character classes. Magic does exist in The One Ring RPG but it is very subtle and low powered. Certain character Traits may be chosen which give access to simple magical spells ( such as those that open or ward doorways ) but there is no obvious D&D style magic. Players may choose to make their characters masters of ancient lore and emphasise magically related skills and traits, but there is no way to make a magic-user character. There may be more options in subsequent sets but for now only the great Wizards such as Gandalf and Radagast have access to more powerful spells.
In brief then the game system is based around your characters Skills. There are only three basic Attributes, described as Body, Heart and Wits. Under each of these are a selection of related Common Skills and Weapon Skills defined by a number of dots ( six seems to be the maximum skill level as you can only colour in six dots at most ). When you make a skill roll you roll a number of D6 equal to your skill level, plus a D12 as a random element, and total it up trying to beat a target number. In many ways this seems almost a hybrid of the White Wolf system and the D20 system. The Target Number (TN) for moderate difficulty is 14 and two dots are considered an average level in a skill. So, a character making an average Stealth roll with an average two dots in the skill Stealth would roll 2D6 + 1D12 against a target number of 14. I'll leave it up the mathematicians out there to work out the odds in this system !
There is plenty more to the system but there is no point going into too much detail in this review. Familiar elements such as Hope points which can be used to increase rolls are included, as well as a Fellowship pool which any player can use are examples of some of the other mechanics. At its heart the game system is quite simple, although there do seem to be an unnecessary number of additional rules which will potentially slow the game down. One thing I did find surprising is the abstract way in which certain elements are dealt with such as your equipment. Normal equipment is dealt with in terms of your characters level of wealth rather than keeping tract of exact amounts of money. In the same way any mundane treasure found is recorded in terms of Treasure points rather than exact amounts. This may seem unusual to players used to agonising over such details and this rules style carries on into the combat system.
Combat in The One Ring is extremely abstract and is one element of the game I am not entirely comfortable with. Rather than keep track of characters on a map or with miniatures each combat allows players to choose a particular combat stance from either Forward, Open, Defensive or Rearward. Each stance determines both the characters physical placement and their level of aggresiveness. Those characters who choose the Forward position find it easier to hit, but in turn its easier for their enemies to hit them. The base Target Numbers are all determined by stance and then modified by the targets Parry score. Its an unusual system, if I understand it right the monsters ( or other adversaries ) don't get a say in the matter, its all down to what the heroes want and that determines the TN for both sides. This very abstract system seems a massive contrast to games like D&D which now focuses on miniatures and battle maps. In contrast The One Ring's rules seem like an attempt to emphasise storytelling over tactical combat.
Health in The One Ring game is measured in terms of Endurance. Much like Hit Points these will be drained away slowly until a character is unconscious and dying at zero. In addition to this however there are specific states such as Weary and Wounded that a character can get to automatically as a result of receiving a critical hit in combat. From the examples shown in the book it sounds like combat is designed to be quite deadly, but that game mechanics such as Hope points can be used when necessary to help avoid characters suffering a fatal wound as the result of a single unlucky dice roll.
Moving on briefly to the Loremasters Book you will not be surprised to learn that this is a typical GM's guide to running the game and presenting the world. The basic rules are discussed in more detail and expanded upon in places. Rules are introduced to deal with situations such as travel, the corruption caused by the Shadow and awarding Advancement ( experience ) points. There is a good selection of monsters included, all the typical creatures found in Tolkiens books including several different types of orcs and trolls for a GM to choose from. In addition there is a lot of background detail on the Wilderlands, its history and peoples. An introductory adventure is also included which is quite atmospheric and helps show how the game mechanics all fit together.
Both the Adventurers Book and the Loremasters Book are presented in such a way as to give lots of advice and suggestions on running the game. Despite this though I would not reccomend this game to new players as there are certain concepts and ideas which might be difficult for new players to handle. The Loremasters Book does go to some lengths to show how your game can be played alongside the official history of The Lord of the Rings without contradicting the main story. However, until the subsequent boxed sets are released it is difficult to see how much longevity this setting has.
In conclusion I was very impressed with The One Ring RPG. It is a great looking game with an emphasis on roleplaying over power gaming. Characters are always going to be fairly low powered compared with other games, with no flashy spells or special abilities. Instead a real effort has been made to make the characters fit into the world and the story. I apologise for not having yet had the chance to playtest this game fully but felt that people would prefer to hear something about it now rather than wait for someone to complete a campaign. Hopefully in the near future someone will be able to write a playtest review that more fully examines the combat system in detail. However for now I am happy with the games mechanics once you accept that the aim is to provide an exciting narrative in the style of Tolkiens stories. This I think it does admirably and I think fans of Tolkien and Middle Earth will not be dissapointed by this new interpretation of the world of the Lord of the Rings.