The One Ring RPG Review by Bill Edmunds
NOTE: this is a very long review. If you just want to know my overall opinion, jump to the bottom paragraphs for a summary.
First, a disclaimer: I was a play tester for this game.
I imagine every role-player has his or her own personal "holy grail". That is, the game they most want to see, play, or even design. My holy grail, for all three, is a third age middle earth RPG. I've started designing countless iterations of my own personal vision and each time it changes with whatever game philosophy I'm jonesing for at the moment. Playtesting The One Ring RPG is no doubt the closest I will ever come to fulfilling my ambition. At the very least, my name is in the playtest credits!
I can't imagine a setting where the potential mechanics of which have been discussed or disagreed on as much as middle earth. Some folks want a HeroQuest-style approach where mechanics and rules are secondary to character goals and story arc, where "Love for Mr Frodo" is far more important in play than the damage dealt with a sword. There are an equal number of devoted fans who would rather see a traditional approach where things like traits, flaws, and motivations are left to player imagination without any detail in the rules. I've seen advocates of D&D 4e in equal measure with those who favor something like FATE. Clearly, gaining the approval of the legion of middle earth fans cannot be easy. Or, perhaps, even possible.
So, has Nepitello managed to please both camps? Let's find out...
The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild is presented in a slipcase that contains two rulebooks, seven dice, and two maps of Wilderland. The slipcase is decorated with a stunning cover by renowned Tolkien artist John Howe and is virtually bullet proof. Seriously, this slipcase could be used as body armor in a pinch. The dice are stored in a plastic tray that slides into the top of the case, while the books and maps slide in underneath. The dice tray "locks" the books and maps into place so they won't fall out during travel. How cool is that?
Book I: The Adventurer's Book
The first book in the set concerns Hero creation, mechanics, combat, and advancement and runs 192 pages long.
Part 1: Introduction
The introduction lays the premise of the game – and role playing in general – to novice players. I usually skip over this section whenever I read a new RPG manual, but this one drew my interest. It is presented in an easy and mercifully brief style and mostly avoids the cops n' robbers cliches that dog many introductory sections. It dives quickly into a sample of game play which interestingly doesn't detail a combat situation. Rather it portrays a simple roleplaying scene in which the characters use some of their skills. Right away the novice is gently introduced to basic concepts such as skills, interaction, and pacing.
The meat of the game book begins with the setting. TOR's milieu is not the entirely of third age middle earth but rather most places journeyed through by Bilbo and the dwarves in 'The Hobbit'. You will not find exposition concerning anything south of Mirkwood here. The focus is limited to what Tolkien called 'Wilderland' and includes the lands east of the Misty Mountains and west of the Iron Hills in the year TA2946, five years after the Battle of the Five Armies. A brief overview of Wilderland lays down the basic geography, recent history, cultures and themes of the game. Here we are
introduced to the six cultures available to the player-heroes: Bardings (folk of Dale), Beornings (followers of Beorn the skin-changer), Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, Elves of Mirkwood, Hobbits of the Shire, and Woodmen of Mirkwood (friends of the wizard Radagast). The inclusion of hobbits may seem a bit out of place given the geographical focus of the game. But given that TOR is an RPG more closely related to 'The Hobbit' than 'Lord of the Rings', it makes a certain sense. Future releases will detail more areas and cultures of middle earth.
An overview of the system is next and includes a glossary of terms, a character sheet, dice conventions, and other basic concepts. The basic mechanic will be familiar to most players; it is a roll-high versus a target number (TN) system. There are a couple of interesting twists to it, however. Players roll a number of six-sided dice equivalent to a relevant skill. Along with the D6's a twelve-sided die is rolled and added to the total. The D12 is called the Feat Die and essentially represents a character's luck. If you roll a 12 (actually a Gandalf "G" rune), you gain an automatic success not matter what the target number is. If you roll an 11 (an eye of Sauron), then the feat die is considered a zero. You then add up the total of your D6's and the feat die and compare them to the target number, the default of which is a 14. If the character succeeds on the test and rolls a six on one of his D6s, he has generated a great success. If he rolls two or more 6's, he has achieved an extraordinary success. In combat these success levels determine how much damage is dealt. With skill tests these varying levels are mostly left to GM and player fiat.
Part 2: Characters
Hero creation is divided up by culture. Each of the six cultures presents a series of standard abilities and options in a very easy to follow manner. Each one is given a write-up concerning physical characteristics, relative wealth, typical adventurer pursuits and – most interestingly – brief descriptions of the culture's attitudes toward other peoples of Wilderland. Right away it is clear that statistics and abilities run second to roleplaying elements. This is as it should be in a middle earth RPG; characters in Tolkien's writings are defined far less by their comparative power levels than by their goals, motivations, and history.
When the crunch does appear, it is still couched under the theme of culture and background. Each culture is given a Cultural Blessing which lends a mechanical benefit such as "Hobbit-sense", which benefits the overall well-being and unity of a Fellowship. Skills are largely determined by culture as well. There are eighteen skills, many of which would seem out of place in more traditional fantasy RPGs but are right at home in third age middle earth. Skills like "Courtesy", "Riddle", and "Travel" would seem unnecessary in D&D but are critical to everyday play in TOR. Each culture begins with points allocated to various common skills. Dwarves, for example, receive a Craft score of 3 while Beornings benefit from a Hunting skill of 3. These skills, and others, may be improved later on in hero creation. While most common skill ratings seem to make sense, some are a bit puzzling. Elves, for example, are quite anemic with wilderness skills unless augmented with optional points. The primary skill of Woodmen is healing for some reason. If you find some of these base scores an ill fit for your vision of the milieu, they can easily be house ruled without any fear of creating balance issues.
Each culture selects one of two combat packages. For instance, hobbits may select from Short Sword 2, Bow 1, Dagger 1 or Bow 2, Short Sword 1, and Dagger 1. You may improve these levels with skill points but they are quite expensive. The bottom line is if you want to be better than average at combat you will sacrifice your ability in other areas quite significantly. The fact that each culture defaults to an equal measure of combat ability is a bit problematic for me. While it certainly works from the standpoint of game balance, I don't think it reflects Tolkien all that well. Hobbits are certainly not as martially inclined as dwarves in the novels. I would have preferred the game to err on the side of fidelity to the source material than that of balance, but that's just my own hang up. Again this can be easily house ruled. I have already changed the hobbit combat skills to 1,1,1 and given them extra points of Hope (see below for an explanation of Hope).
From each culture comes a list of specialties, which are traits detailing more focused abilities than you find in common skills. Bardings, for example, select two specialties from Boating, Old lore, Smith-craft, Swimming, Trading, and Woodright. When a specialty comes into play you don't roll any dice; if the LoreMaster feels the specialty is reasonable then you gain an automatic success. With a few exceptions I really like this approach. It allows you to spend skill points in areas you are more likely to need them rather than spend them on skills you would rarely use. Some of the specialties I think may have been better suited to common skills. Having the 'Burglary' traits affords you an automatic success anytime you try to pick a pocket or open a lock. 'Swimming' theoretically allows you to cross a raging river without any chance of failure. Those strike me as too powerful, or at least too useful, to be considered an automatic success. I guess Bilbo forgot to take Burglary during character generation!
What about attributes? How do you generate your basic strength, agility, stamina, and so on? Well… you don't! In keeping with the approach that culture, background, and personality are of greater import than statistics, TOR's attributes are entirely dependent on whatever cultural background you select. The attributes, Body, Heart, and Wits, are associated with six skills each. Foe example, Body influences your Awe, Athletics, Awareness, Explore, Song, and Craft skills. Attributes in TOR are part of six culture-specific background 'packages'. Each package gives you your three attribute scores (based on an initial scale of 2-7), a Favored Skill, and a selection of distinctive features (from which you select two). The abilities are reflective of each background's theme. For instance, the wood elf background 'New Hope' reflects an elf who has traveled much between Lake Town and the elven king's halls and has seen much of other cultures and the Shadow. His Favored Skill is thus Travel, and his attributes denote a life of physical exertion and growing wisdom. His traits are also instructive of his story; Quick of Hearing, Swift, Wary, and so on.
The lack of a system for generating attributes may be off-putting at first, especially given that the game oddly does not include any details on developing your own backgrounds. It may be that the math for creating attributes is so obvious and simple that no guidelines are necessary. Perhaps, but I feel it is a rather glaring oversight in an otherwise terrific system for creating a character. But the selection of backgrounds given in the game is generally quite sufficient for finding something that suits you.
The effect of having your background determine attributes, a favored skill, and a selection of traits is twofold. One, it means chargen is quite fast. Two, it again emphasizes that characters in TOR are far more than a collection of stats but are instead represented by more 'organic' elements. By giving a character's personal story as much importance as his mechanical elements, we're already well on our way to playing out a story worthy of the source material. By and large I enjoy the implementation of these design goals.
Backgrounds also give a list of Distinctive Feature traits to choose from. These traits function more like traditional FATE aspects than specialties. Sample Distinctive Features include descriptors like Bold, Eager, Secretive, Steadfast, and Wrathful.
The next step in the character generation process involves selecting one of five Callings. Callings define your purpose as an adventurer and include Scholar, Slayer, Treasure Hunter, Wanderer, and Warden. Each calling assigns two Favored Skill Groups, a specialty trait, and most importantly, a Shadow Weakness. The latter is the potential doom awaiting an adventurer should he fail to resist the lure of the Shadow. I absolutely love the way this mechanic is implemented. If you are a Treasure-Hunter, the manner in which the Shadow will affect you ('Dragon-sickness') is entirely different than that awaiting a Slayer ('Curse of Vengeance'), Scholar ('Lure of Secrets'), Wanderer ('Wandering-madness') or Warden ('Lure of Power'). Just like the characters in the novels, ultimate failure involves something much more personal than mere defeat. It signifies the downfall and collapse of the character's moral being. Perhaps the most important aspect of Callings is that they provide a concrete rationale for why a character ventures into the realm of adventure instead of staying home.
When you have chosen your Calling, you're almost done creating your hero. The final steps in the process are spending points to augment your skills and combat abilities, calculating your Favored Attributes, and then determining your Endurance, Hope, Wisdom, and Valour. Favored Attributes are enhanced versions of the basic three attributes that are invoked when testing a Favored Skill. If, for instance, your Body score is 5 but your Favored Body score is 8, you can add 8 points to a Body-related skill attempt if the skill in question is considered favored. Each culture begins play with one favored skill, as does each Background. You add two more depending on your Calling. Depending on your choice of combat packages, you can also begin play with one favored weapon skill.
Both the Endurance and Hope stats are derived from your culture and your Heart rating. Endurance is the TOR equivalent of hit points (sort of…more on that later) and Hope is a measure of a Hero's ability to defy the odds in dramatic fashion. Hope is the principle currency in TOR and really captures what makes Tolkien's stories so magical. Hope also defines your ability to resist the Shadow. These two aspects are constantly at war with each other; if your Shadow score becomes greater than your Hope score, you begin to suffer the effects of your Calling's Shadow Weakness. The mechanic works beautifully, readily bringing to mind the moral struggles of characters like Boromir and Gollum. The more Hope you spend, the greater the risk that the Shadow will begin influencing you.
Characters begin play with equipment suited to their culture. Rather than purchasing items, you automatically receive the three weapons you are skilled in, along with armour of your choice and generic 'traveling equipment'. I far prefer this approach to that of purchasing equipment; if I want a character to begin play with a suit of mail and a battle axe, I should be able to do that without fear of stiffing myself on other equipment. There are advantages and disadvantages to selecting the 'best' equipment. If you select the most deadly weapon or steadfast armor, you run the risk of carrying too much equipment and becoming fatigued very quickly. Fatigue plays a major role in TOR; when your Endurance drops to a lower score than your total encumbrance value, you become Weary. Weary characters must ignore any die result of 1, 2, or 3 on any test. This is a really big deal and one of many ways the game encourages you to think about the equipment you carry and wear. If you think that decking yourself out in the meanest suit of armor and wielding the nastiest weapon is going to let you rule the battle field, think again.
Weapons are rated in several categories. Damage, a fixed number, ranges from 3 (dagger) to 9 (great spear and great axe). Each weapon is given an Edge number which indicates the Feat Die result needed to pierce armour. The Injury stat gives the Target Number for an armor roll to resist a piercing blow. Piercing blows can result in a Wound. For example, a long sword has a damage rating of 5 (one-handed) or 7 (two-handed), an Edge rating of 10, an Injury rating of 16 (1-H) or 18 (2-H).
The effectiveness of armour is rated on a scale of 1d (leather shirt) to 5d (mail hauberk). When an attacker achieves a piercing blow, the defender must make an armour roll. If the total of this roll exceeds the weapon's Injury rating, the armour has prevented a Wound. Regardless, the character still suffers a loss of Endurance. Endurance damage represents non-lethal damage. A Wound is potentially life-threatening.
The final step in character generation is determining the character's Valour and Wisdom. A new Hero begins play with rank 2 in either Valour or Wisdom and rank 1 in the other. If he selects Valour as his rank 2, he receives a Reward. Rewards are unique cultural weapons and armor. For example, a dwarf can select an Axe of Azanilbizar, a Dwarf-wrought Hauberk, or a Helm of Awe. Should the player prefer to begin play with a rank 2 in Wisdom, his Hero receives a Virtue. Virtues are culturally defined heroic qualities. Looking at the dwarf again, we are given a choice of Broken Spells, Durin's Way, Old Hatred, Ravens of the Mountain, and The Stiff Neck of Dwarves. Each Virtue lends a special ability that effectively captures the spirit of the culture.
Once all Heroes have been created, the group engages in Company Creation. Anyone who has read 'The Hobbit' or 'The Lord of the Rings' knows that group dynamic and the concept of fellowship are vital. TOR takes this sentiment to heart and dictates that the players and LoreMaster sit down and discuss how and where the characters met and what their relationships are to each other. Each player selects another member of the group as his Fellowship focus. This person helps the Hero recover Hope faster but can also be a source of Shadow points should he be injured. Basically, think of Frodo and Sam and you've got the idea. Along with Hope, I consider the Fellowship focus the two key elements in achieving the most crucial themes from Tolkien's works. TOR realizes that powerful stats must play a secondary role to character themes, friendship, background, and the struggle against the Shadow. The game nails it.
Part 3: Fundamental Characteristics
Attributes are detailed more here, and a new mechanic is introduced: the Attribute Bonus. When you spend a point of Hope, you may add the attribute score to a relevant skill. Each attribute governs six skills. Wits, for example, governs Persuade, Stealth, Search, Hunting, Riddle, and Lore. The effect of necessitating a Hope expenditure to receive the benefit of an attribute score heightens the dramatic importance of attributes. Rather than attributes always affecting skills, they come into play only when dramatically important. Thus, when you spend a Hope point to use your Body attribute to swing across a deep ravine, you can imagine the character struggling to make the leap and only succeeding because of his great strength and the iron grip he holds on the rope.
Skills are detailed over the next six pages. Each skill is illustrated with a quote from relevant text and given a brief but satisfactory description. You won't find specific TNs here; those are thankfully left up to the LM.
The mechanics and specifications of Traits are next. As I mentioned before, Traits are similar to aspects in FATE. Interestingly they do not require the expenditure of any Hope points to invoke. Their use is entirely in the hands of the LM and the other players. That's right, the other players at the table must also agree that the use of a Trait is acceptable. Now that's a fellowship in action!
Traits have three uses in the game. The first is to gain an automatic success with a related skill. If you want to heal a fellow Hero, you roll your Healing skill and could invoke a Leech-craft trait to gain an automatic success if the group agrees with its use. Another use of Traits is the Unforseen Action. This allows a player to interrupt a scene and give it a new twist. The example provided in the book illustrates a hero with the 'cautious' Trait suggesting he should have noticed a goblin sneaking away from a battlefield after being left for dead. The group consents and allows the player to use an Awareness test, even though he did not specifically note that he was anticipating this escape. Finally, the use of a Trait in dramatic fashion can allow an Advancement Point, used later on to increase skill ranks.
As long as the players don't try to abuse the use of Traits, the system works very well. I can foresee some players trying to take advantage of the somewhat open-ended nature of the way they work, but a strong LM should keep this in check. I am a bit disappointed that TOR didn't take the mechanic a bit further and expand it to HeroQuest and FATE levels, where you might have something like 'Heir of Isildur' or 'The weight of Gondor is on my shoulders' to further define a character's themes. Such a mechanic might have been at odds with the rest of the rules, which are certainly not as much in the spirit of 'make it up' as HQ and FATE are.
Endurance and Hope are explained more in this section of the book. Endurance basically functions like hit points in D&D; whenever you are struck with a blow you lose Endurance. When your Endurance drops to zero, you fall unconscious. As I mentioned earlier, if your Endurance score falls below your current encumbrance level you become Weary. I love the elegance of this mechanic. Simple yet highly effective at portraying the effects of fatigue and injury, this is one of the best portrayals of the concept that characters should lose their edge as they get worn down. You don't have to track modifiers or keep track of 'wound levels'. You just ignore rolls of 1,2, and 3 on any tests when Weary. Easy!
Again, Hope is used to add an attribute score to a relevant skill roll. For example, a character with Body 3, Heart 7, Wits 4 could spend a point of Hope to add 3 to an Explore test, 7 to a Courtesy roll, or 4 to a Hunting roll. You can also spend a point of Hope to use a cultural Virtue, such as a wood elf's Enchanted Sleep. When your Hope drops to zero, you are spiritually exhausted and have no will to fight, debate, or anything else. You just give up. This reminds me of some of the characters in 'The Silmarillion' who succumb to despair. Hope can be recovered by taking points out of the Fellowship pool. When Hope falls below the Hero's Shadow score, he becomes Miserable. Miserable characters run the risk of incurring a form of madness relevant to the Shadow Weakness path of their Calling. The implementation of Hope and Shadow is perhaps the most successful aspect of TOR when it comes to recognizing the central thrust of Tolkien's works. Your Hero will constantly be faced with the dilemma of using Hope and the risk of succumbing to the Shadow. I think Boromir's player must have failed to balance the two!
Fellowship points represent the strength and unity of the party. The number of points in the pool equals the number of players at the table. Fellowship points refresh every gaming session. To spend a point from the pool to replenish a point to your Hope score, the player must gain permission from at least half of the other players. Thus, fellowship is reflected not only in mechanics but in the interaction between the players themselves. You really do become your own fellowship at the table!
Part 4: Character Development
There are two currencies used for advancement. The first is Experience points, used to increase your Valour and Wisdom as well as your combat skills. Each player receives one point at the end of a session and one more if the LM deems the game was a particular success. Advancing these elements can be slow going; it takes 6 XP to raise a weapon skill or Valour/Wisdom rank from two to three, for example. Advancement Points are used to improve your skills or buy new ones. You earn Advancement Points by attempting skill tests. Even if you fail the test, the LM may allow you to gain an AP if the situation was suitably dramatic. Skills cost increasing amounts of APs as you gain higher levels.
Valour and Wisdom are explained in detail next. Not only do these two values define what Virtues and Rewards a Hero receives, they are crucial elements in resisting the Shadow. You make a Valour roll when confronted by fear and a Wisdom roll when resisting corruption. You may invoke a Heart attribute bonus to modify these rolls. I feel like a broken record saying this, but once again TOR gets it right by placing importance not on traditional RPG 'power stats' but on 'theme' stats.
Descriptions of Rewards and Virtues provide necessary mechanical clarity. There are two kinds of Virtue: Masteries and Cultural Virtues. Masteries are a selection of six abilities that any character may select when advancing Virtue. Cultural Virtues are available only to specific cultures. Each culture has five unique Virtues to choose from. It is here that any 'magic' will be found in TOR. You will no doubt have noticed that I haven't even mentioned magic and spellcasting. That is because TOR contains no spellcasting system and doesn't define items as being magical or mundane. For years RPG and Tolkien fan have debated whether a Tolkien RPG should contain spellcasters. I won't go into the details of opposing arguments, but I will say that I am personally adverse to the notion. It would appear that Nepitello agrees. The magic available to characters here is expressed as a handful of Virtues that only Dwarves, Elves, and Beornings have access to. Dwarves may select from three Broken Spells, which are spells generally functioning around doors and gates. Elves may choose from Stinging Arrow, Elf-lights, and Enchanted Sleep. Beornings can remove their spirit from their body and travel as a bear. These magic Virtues do a good job of maintaining the subtle nature of the arcane in middle earth. You will not cast lances of flame or fly through the air in TOR. Thank goodness.
Rewards are divided into Qualities and unique cultural items. I love, love, love the fact that none of these items or qualities is defined as being magical. It isn't that such things aren't necessarily possessed of magic, but that, in keeping with Tolkien's works, the properties of such artifacts are defined more by their heritage and dramatic impact. Qualities are upgrades that you may assign to your own existing weapons and armour, improving the lineage and import of whatever you wield. You are encouraged to name such items. They also enjoy what Nepitello describes as 'plot immunity', meaning that they should not become lost or broken. Whether Qualities or Cultural Rewards are magical is not important; what they mean to the character is.
Some sample Cultural Rewards include a Dalish Longbow for Bardings (greater chance of the foe failing a Protection roll), Giant-slaying Spear for Beornings (bonus damage versus big enemies), Dwarf-wrought Hauberk for Dwarves (use favored Body for an Attribute bonus on Protection rolls), Woodland Bow for Elves (extra opening volley attack), King's Blade for Hobbits (automatic Piercing blow on a great or extraordinary success), and Feathered Armour for Woodmen (improves Stealth).
One odd aspect to Rewards is that it appears they are the only way to gain unique and special items; in other words, you have to earn them and the player - not the LM - decides when they are received. This certainly allows the player to carve his or her own story as designed, rather than hoping the LM gives them something they want.
Perhaps incongruously, wounds, killing blows and other aspects of life and death are explained in this chapter rather than in Chapter 5: Adventuring Mechanics. At any rate, Wounds are a lethal form of damage. When an attack achieves a piercing blow, the defender must make an armour protection test to avoid suffering a wound. If you are wounded twice, you fall unconscious. If you are wounded and have lost all of your Endurance points, you will die within 12 hours unless treated with a Healing roll. A Killing Blow is suffered if a Wounded character suffers another wound and has lost all his Endurance.
Recovery for non-wounded characters is relatively quick. You recover a number of wounds equal to your Heart rating during a rest of at least 30 minutes. If you sleep a few hours, you gain another set of Endurance points equal to your Heart + 2 as long as you are not wounded. Wounded heroes recover 2 Endurance points if treated, 1 if they are not. Wounds are recovered when your Endurance score is restored fully. It is an easy system and draws a distinct line between non-lethal (non-dramatic) injury and dangerous (dramatic) injury. In terms of LOTR, you could say that Frodo suffered a poison Wound on Weathertop while Aragorn never suffers anything other than a mild loss of Endurance. Boromir suffered a Killing Blow where the LM allowed him one last dramatic moment, giving vital information to Aragorn before dying (accomplished perhaps by allowing use of his Hardy trait).
Part 5: Adventuring Mechanics
The basic mechanics for resolving actions is given more detail here, with a chart of sample tasks related to a given ability for quick reference.
Players are encouraged to keep a map with them and update it as they continue their journeys. Successful Lore rolls come in handy in reducing the length of a trip, while failed rolls can extend it. While traveling, the group is expected to assign the roles of Guide, Scout, Huntsman, and Look-out Man. Each role uses a different skill to help on the journey; Travel for the Guide, Explore for the Scout, Hunting for the Huntsman, and Awareness for the Look-out Man. Traveling is obviously a major part of Tolkien's works; assigning these roles to members of each company is an effective way of mimicking the books. Using The Hobbit as an example, you can imagine Gandalf in the Guide role, Balin as the Look-out Man, and Kili and Fili as the Scouts. Their lack of a real Huntsman results in the group constantly fighting hunger, especially in Mirkwood. Like everything in this game, delicate thought has been given to making the mechanics reflect Tolkien. The traveling roles are one of the most inspired of the lot.
Combat is described over the next seven pages. Rather than rolling initiative, each hero selects a stance. The four stances are Forward, Open, Defensive, and Rearward. A Forward stance indicates an aggressive attack with little regard for defense, an Open stance reflects a slightly less exposed attack, a Defensive stance works for heroes who prefer a more conservative approach, and a Rearward stance is reserved for missile attacks. If you think of the Fellowship's fight in Balin's tomb, imagine Aragorn, Boromir, and Gimli in a Forward stance with Gandalf splitting his attention between combat and protecting the hobbits in an Open stance, the hobbits in a Defensive stance, and Legolas in a Rearward stance.
Each stance determines a hero's basic attack and defense TN. The Forward stance has the lowest TN (6), meaning this stance will land the most blows but will also be hit more often.The Rearward and Defensive stances each have a TN of 12. When defending, your defense TN is modified by your Parry rating which is equivalent to your Wits score. Parry can be modified by +1 to +3 if you have a shield. Combatants attack in stance order: Forward, Open, Defensive, and Rearward. However, those adopting the Rearward stance are allowed an initial attack before close combat is joined. In the case of multiple heroes adopting the same stance, the hero with the highest Wits score goes first.
As discussed earlier, weapon damage is a fixed number. A great success adds the Body score of the attacker to the amount, while an extraordinary success adds twice the attacker's Body score. Thus, a hero with Body 5 who attacks with a short sword (damage 5) would deliver 10 points of damage with a great success and 15 points with an extraordinary success. Given that the average orc has an Endurance of 12-15, and you can see that combat can be quick and deadly.
A hero suffering a blow may elect to take a 'knockback' to reduce Endurance loss by half. The tradeoff is that the hero forfeits his next attack and cannot change his stance. To immediately reduce the chance that a character's Endurance will drop below his Fatigue rating, he may remove a helm to reduce Fatigue by 3.
Heroes may elect to take a Called Shot to achieve a special effect. Called shots must be declared before any dice are rolled. If the hero achieves a great or extraordinary success after declaring his called shot, he has triggered the effect. The effects of a called shot depend on your weapon: swords can disarm an opponent, bows and spears gain an immediate piercing blow, while mattocks and axes destroy shields. This is an effective approach to differentiating weapons beyond simple damage values, but I would like to see it expanded. I think Dragon Age's stunt system is a good model to look to here; perhaps rather than each weapon being limited to one effect, they could have a selection of three or four (perhaps based on culture). This would add a bit of variety without needlessly hindering the system's ease of play.
Getting back to stances, characters may elect to try a special task related to their stance. A hero using a Forward Stance may attempt to intimidate a foe, the Open Stance allows the hero to rally comrades, the Defensive Stance can help protect allies, and the rearward stance's 'Prepare Shot' increases the chances of gaining a Called Shot.
Combat is fast, fun, and deadly. There are plenty of options that allow for a decent amount of strategy without gumming up the flow. You will seldom look to the rules for clarification and your hero will rely – and protect – his companions. Armour comes into play only when it can prevent a potentially lethal blow, and each weapon has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages. The system should serve as a model for other games in showing that combat needn't be complex to be fun and challenging.
Part 6: Fellowship Phase
The final portion of the Adventurer's Book is the briefest. The Fellowship Phase represents a yearly break when adventurers travel home or stay at a haven such as Rhosgobel or Esgorath. It is during these times of rest that experience and advancement points are spent. Players get to take the wheel a bit here, describing what their heroes do in the intervening weeks and months. You can meet a new patron such as Radagast, gain or exchange a new trait, attempt to heal Corruption, raise your standard of living, open a new sanctuary, or even describe how your hero becomes part of the larger story. I especially like that Corruption can be healed by attempting a Song or Craft roll.
The Adventurer's Book concludes with six sample characters, a nice character sheet, and a rather unintuitive index. I have gone to the index several times and have literally never found what I was looking for at first glance. Want to learn about Hope? You'll have to look under 'How Endurance and Hope Work.' Want to refresh your memory about being Wounded? You will have to find that under 'States of Health'. Resting? That is under 'Getting Better'. I really hope Cubicle 7 revises this index for the pdf at least.
Book II: The Loremaster's Book
The second book clocks in at 144 pages and offers guidance and new information to Loremasters. This tome covers handling tests, combat, journeys, the Shadow, a Wilderland bestiary, a basic gazetteer, and an introductory adventure.
Part 1: The Role of the Loremaster
Inexperienced gamers will find this 4-page overview a helpful and friendly approach to the LM's job. Others may probably skip it unless you are a bit rusty.
Part 2: Game Mechanics
Advice and clarification on resolving skill tests are expanded to give clear guidance on Target Numbers more difficult and easier than the standard level of 14. For incredibly difficult tests, the Epic Feats mechanic is introduced. This basically addresses once-in-a-lifetime stuff like Bard shooting Smaug in the little bare patch on his chest.
TOR's equivalent of D&D's skill challenges involves multiple tests, with great and extraordinary results lending two or three successes, respectively. This mechanic still leaves me a bit puzzled; the rules don't clarify whether you need to achieve a number of consecutive successes, or merely a number of non-consecutive successes over a period of time. I'm guessing you need to achieve them consecutively without any failed rolls.
"Loremaster Characters" takes the approach that LM characters will be simpler in nature than player-heroes. I wish other systems, especially Pathfinder, would adopt this philosophy. It makes my job as LM so much easier and keeps the game from slowing down. The LM character section offers some fairly incomplete guidance on designing NPCs. Sound advice on giving them one Attribute Level, Skill ratings, and Endurance points are a good start, but that's all there is. Further, there is some inconsistency. The rules mention detailing skills, but every LM character in the book only details skill groups, not individual skills. I am also not entirely certain when to demand an opposed test; page 25 suggests there is no reason for an opposed test if a hero tries to sneak past someone, but page 21 gives an example that suggests something else. Hhhmmmm….
Specific rules for conducting tests based on Corruption, Fatigue, Fear, Orientation, Perception, and Protection are all well considered and simple. These rules continue to stress the importance of actions outside of combat. The next section, "Journeys" really bring that to the fore.
Anyone who has read Tolkien even once or twice knows that traveling through the wilds plays a major role in his stories. TOR is the first middle earth RPG that places importance on this. Journeying plays a big part in this game and the mechanics of it are very fun. Each of the traveling roles, Guide, Look-out Man, Scout, and Hunter, have something to do that impact the time it takes the company to reach their goal. You can get lost, run into monsters, experience crappy weather and get really bad sleep. Each small part of Wilderland is described as being a Free land, Border land, Wild land, Shadow land, or Dark land. These region types affect your journey in various ways, as do the seasons and terrain. I generally dislike the "now you travel across steep mountains and low plains to get to your destination" part of any campaign. TOR has me actually looking forward to them.
A consistent issue that crops up with any RPG is whether combat is grid-based, necessitating the use of miniatures or tokens. TOR's combat system is unique in that the rules arguably assume you won't be using miniatures. Rather than detailing terrain with any number of specific obstacles, cover, and other features, each combatant makes a Battle skill roll to determine whether they are able to take advantage of battlefield features in general. A success vs a TN determined by the LM grants the combatant an extra success die he may use at any time. A great success yields two extra dice and an extraordinary success gives three dice. These extra dice may be used in any way the player wishes, even granting the die to another player. This mechanic certainly makes combat flow faster than grid-based combat where every feature is detailed with a modifier. This isn't to say the game ignores modifiers; there are attack modifiers ranging from +/- 2 to +/- 4 depending on whether the LM decides the hero is moderately or severely hindered.
Initiative depends on which side is 'defending' and which side is 'attacking.' I'm still somewhat confused with this mechanic. The game assumes the heroes will be defending most of the time and will thus attack first ("holding initiative"). I find this rule fairly unintuitive and will probably use the suggestion that, in cases of uncertainty, each side makes a Battle roll with the higher roll gaining initiative.
Rules for surprise attacks and ambush provide opportunities for several skills to come to the fore. Depending on he situation, heroes can use Battle, Stealth, or Hunting to ambush a foe. TOR really does a terrific job of making every skill useful. There are no 'dump' skills in this game at all.
Another nice little roleplaying mechanic introduced here is Tolerance. It indicates the number of social test failures a party may suffer before an encounter turns sour. I'm not necessarily speaking of it turning into a combat situation, although that may be a possible, but a definitive 'end of negotiations.' The Tolerance rating depends on whether the LM's characters value Wisdom or Valour. The tolerance is equal to the hero with the highest Valor/Wisdom score. This simple choice is a nice way of reflecting the culture of the LM characters as well as giving the heroes a chance to take different approaches in their encounters with NPCs. Tolerance can be beneficially affected by having at least one hero of the same culture as theNPCs in the party, and adversely affected by cultural prejudice (let's just say that dwarves are not hugely popular!). Like so much of TOR, this mechanic is easy to implement, fun to play, and portrays the writings of Tolkien successfully.
Part 3: The Shadow
Here is the heart of the entire game. Corruption is the most deadly force facing the players and they will encounter it in some form in most gaming sessions. Sources of Corruption include Anguish (torment, tragedy, and so forth), Blighted Places (Shadow lands and Dark lands such as Dol Guldur and the Withered Heath), and Misdeeds (cowardice, oath breaking). Consequences of Corruption depend on your hero's Calling. Each Calling has four 'levels' of Degeneration. Each level is progressively worse than its forebear. The Slayer Calling, for example, suffers Spite, Brutality, Cruelty, and finally Murderousness. These flaws allow the LM to force players to roll the Feat Die twice on tests and take the lower result and to worsen the effects of failed rolls related to the flaw. When a hero's Shadow score falls below his Hope score and he is in the fourth stage of Corruption, he is done. He succumbs to the Shadow and is forced out of play.
Players will be ultimately more concerned with their Shadow score than any other statistic. They will invoke such skills as Song and Craft to overcome the growing influence of Corruption. Sound like anything you have read in Tolkien?
There is a bestiary describing several foes common to those adventuring in Wilderland. Several different kinds of Orc, Troll, Spider, and Wolf make up the bulk of these creatures. Monster stat blocks are simplified versions of hero stats, making managing these foes an easier task for the LM. They have one Attribute, six skills, unique abilities, and basic weapon skills. Monsters also use Hate points to allow finite use of special abilities.
Part 4: The Campaign
'The Setting' is a history and basic gazetteer of Wilderland. Most of this information is expanded from Tolkien's own works. For example Rhosgobel, the home of Radagast, is painted as an abode to Woodmen in addition to the wizard. This section of the book is written to evoke plot seeds for the LM as much as anything. 'The Darkening of Mirkwood' introduces the importance of Beorn and Radagast to the narrative, as do entries on the Necromancer (Sauron), the Lamp of Balthi, River-maidens, and the Werewolf of Mirkwood. 'Further Adventures' brings us a system for continuing the adventuring legacy from a deceased, corrupted, or lost hero to a new hero. If your hero dies, you can begin play with a new hero who benefits from some of your previous hero's experience ('Heroic Heritage').
Part 5: Introductory Adventure
A 17-page adventure concludes the Loremaster's Book. 'The Marsh Bell' is a well-wrought introduction to the game, allowing exploration of the game's most important elements. Heroes will fight a few monsters, use many of the game's skills, test an important NPC's Tolerance, trek through the wilderness and even delve into a small dungeon. It is an enjoyable one or two-session game that will leave you eager for further adventures.
Style: 4.5… rounded up to 5. This is a beautiful set. Just a quick glance through the two rule books reveals some top notch artwork and attractive graphic presentation. While it was quite a coup for Cubicle 7 to secure Tolkien-supremo John Howe's services, it is Jon Hodgson whose work here I'm really happy to see. Hodgson's subtle colors and atmospheric landscapes are a perfect fit for middle earth. The page layout reflects a maturity not seen in many RPGs. The fonts, spacing, borders, and general color are all attractive and yet not intrusive. Just flipping through these books is a genuine pleasure.
The writing style is excellent as well. Easy to understand yet thankfully not dry, Nepitello's prose is consistently engaging. I have enjoyed sitting down with these books countless times for the simple enjoyment of reading them.
I have heard many bemoan a lack of organization in rule presentation. To be sure much of it feels all over the place and I have had a difficult time finding just what I wanted to look for on several occasions. This is often due to the poor indexes, but the somewhat scattered rules don't help much either.
Yet none of this has affected my enjoyment of these volumes. Lodged in the beautiful slipcase, these books, maps, and dice will look terrific on any shelf.
Substance: 4.5… rounded to 4. I'll not mince words here. This is the best middle earth RPG by a long shot. I enjoyed both MERP and Decipher's LOTR RPG, but this one really gets it right in places where previous efforts fell short. TOR understands what makes middle earth tick. It isn't in cool powers, bloody combat, and magic flinging mages. Middle earth is about overcoming the Shadow, even when it occurs in the most personal forms. TOR has countless great mechanics that drive these themes home. It is very easy to house rule without wrecking subsystems. Most importantly, it is fun to play.
I debated about whether the game deserves a 4 or 5 rating here, and I've decided on a 4. It does have its imperfections. There is too much forced game balance where culture and combat skills are concerned. Initiative is a little wonky. Some important-to-purists-like-me things, like the elven ability to walk on snow, are missing. Callings are a terrific idea but I don't think they reflect some of the characters such as Pippin, Merry, and Sam. You could even argue that Bilbo wasn't a Treasure Hunter until he had developed a bit.
Mostly I'm giving it a 4 because there is room for it to grow. I'm excited for future supplements to shed more light on this incredible setting. I would like to see Called Shots expanded a bit. I would like to see guidance for creating your own Backgrounds. I would like to see more Backgrounds in general. I want to see more examples of NPCs. I would like to see a revised index.
TOR is a great game even for those who aren't interested in middle earth. If, like me, you are a game junkie who simply enjoys a well-designed and well-written game, take a look. If you get gassed by encountering intelligent mechanics and new ideas for your own home brew, check it out.
If I could play only one RPG over the next 365 days, TOR would be at the top of my list.
NOTE: there is a terrific online character generator that will give you a good idea of the game. Check it out at http://azrapse.es/tor/sheet.html