Friday, August 12, 2016

The One Ring RPG - A Review

I'll start this review by stating the following: I am a huge fan of Tolkien's work.  I've read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy many, many times (and am currently in the middle of Return of the King again).  There have been a number of RPG projects involving his work over the years, the biggest being Middle Earth Role Playing or MERP.  I loved that game mightily.  To be able to play as a Rider of Rohan or one of the Dunedain was just an awesome experience.  Tolkien's work is what inspired me to start role-playing in the first place and I suspect this is the same with many other young people who have encountered his books.

While MERP provided a way to play in Tolkien's world it never really felt connected to his work.  To me the magic system was too much and the magic items felt to plentiful and common.  The supplement books contained a wealth of information and are wonderful to read even for people that are not interested in role-playing but just in Tolkien's world.  It was a very robust system that was well supported, books for it were published from the early 1980's though the late 1990's.  My friends and I spent many hours thwarting the enemies of the Free Peoples.

After death of of MERP came Decipher's The Lord of the Rings RPG, It was published in 2002 and was abandoned in 2006.  I cannot comment on this game as I never played it but it does not seem to have ever achieved the same level of success as MERP.  More after the break!

The Arkenstone of Thrain
Which leads us to The One Ring RPG by Cubicle 7.  Originally released in 2011 as The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild it consisted of a Loremaster's and Adventurer's core books. They were combined, cleaned up and re-released in 2014 as The One Ring Roleplaying Game.  So what do I think of this game?  I'll describe my feelings on this with one word.  FUCKING AWESOME.  OK, that's two words but you get the idea.  

I really, really love this game.  It FEELS like Middle-earth, it oozes Tolkieness.  It captures something that MERP never really did, it captures the soul of Tolkien.  Good vs evil, nature vs industry.  Its a really fantastic product and now that I'm done gushing I'll provide a little more detail.

So lets start with the basics, TOR (as I'll refer to the game from now on) is a hard cover, full color single book that clocks in at 333 pages.  The inside front cover has a nicely weathered map of Wilderland which is the main area of play, I'll discuss this later in more detail.  The inside of the back cover has the same map with a hex grid overlay and the map broken up into different areas, this grid and these areas are used to determine journey's and how long/dangerous they are.  Its a beautiful book, the pages have a worn used look and the art throughout is absolutely fantastic.  Where as much of the art in MERP was characters in combat most of the art in TOR is about the land.  It really helps to bring the world alive.  Jon Hodgson is the Art Director at Cubicle 7 and did much of the art in the book, he really captures Tolkien's world.  He's one of my favorite artists out there right now!  All the art posted in this piece was created by him for The One Ring.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

Heart of Mirkwood
The setting of the game is Wilderland, an area that encompasses the Misty Mountains in the west, all of Mirkwood and then to the Iron Hills to the East.  There is no Gondor, Shire, Rohan or Mordor in this book.  I really like how the core book focuses on this area, there is plenty to do here and other areas will be covered in future expansions.  2946 is the starting year which is five years after the fall of Smaug but many years before the War of the Ring which gives plenty of opportunity for the players to confront the growing threat of the Shadow.  There is a focus on storytelling, games are laid out in an episodic fashion with an Adventuring Phase in which the heroes travel Middle-earth completing quests and then the Fellowship Phase, which for anyone that has played the Pendragon RPG will be familiar.  This is an end of year phase in which the heroes get to complete additional actions like spending advancement or experience points or doing specific fellowship undertakings such as opening sanctuaries, taking patrons, healing corruption and receiving titles.  There are many new fellowship undertakings in each of the source books, there are lots and lots of choices for the players.  I really enjoy this phase as it gives a sense of time passing and also of the players maturing and growing in stature.

The mechanics of the game are are very nice and to be honest I'm just about D20'd out.  With so many systems jumping on the D20 bandwagon its nice to see a simple system that works so well.  The basics are thus; roll a feat die (D12) and add success dice (D6) to beat a target number (with target numbers running from ten to twenty with fourteen being average).  The feat die also has two symbols replacing the eleven and twelve pips. The eleven is replaced by an Eye of Sauron which is equal to a zero, if you don't hit your target number then something terrible may happen.  The twelve is replaced with a Gandalf Rune (like the one he etched on Bilbo's door), rolling this results in a automatic success.  The success dice are generated from your skills, if you have three pips in travel, when you make a travel check you roll a feat die and three success dice.  The 6's on the success dice have a tengwar symbol.  Rolling tengwars help to determine degrees of success.  Another interesting thing about the success dice is that the one, two and three are all outlined, if your character is Weary then rolling these numbers counts as a zero.  It sounds all a bit confusing but once you play you start to realize how elegant the system really is.

Traits are another neat mechanic, I've found they really drive role-playing.  Each hero gets several of them during the character creation process, they are things like Bold, Shadow-lore or Smoking.  They can be used one of three ways; to invoke an automatic success on a skill role if you can apply that trait to the roll.  To force a standard action attempt when one would not be allowed or to gain advancement points for character development if you can role-play and succeed on a role that emulates the characters trait.

Barding Wanderer
There are a number of character cultures available in the core rule-book and they are in alphabetical order:  Bardings or the men of Dale, followers of King Bard.  Beornings who are hardy men and women that follow the mighty Beorn.  Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, followers of the King Under the Mountain.  Elves of Mirkwood - of Thranduil's court.  Hobbits of the Shire, everyone's favorite little people.  Woodsmen of Wilderland - a tough rural people that live on the western edge of Mirkwood forest.

Each of these cultures has a Cultural Blessing which is a special ability held by that group, for instance Bardings get "Stout-hearted", when testing Valor they get to roll two feat dice and keep the better of the two.  There is also a list of eighteen common skills held by members of all the cultures, a standard of living from Poor to Rich and two lists of weapon skills of which you get to choose one.  Each culture also has six background options that provides starting ability scores, a favored skill and a list of distinctive features of which you get to choose two to describe your character.  Each culture is finished off with a list of male and female names and average adventuring ages.  Once your culture is chosen you get to customize them with a Calling.  These are like character classes, they are:  Scholars, Slayers, Treasure Hunters, Wanderers and Wardens.  Each one give you favored skill groups, a trait and a shadow weakness.  There are lots of option for customizing your characters from backgrounds, skills, distinctive features, assigning Valor and Wisdom (which in turn give you cultural virtues such as a A Hunters Resolve or cultural rewards such as a Dwarf-wrought Hauberk).

Endurance and Hope are based on your characters Heart attribute and are modified by the characters culture.  Once you have these you figure your fatigue score which is based on your equipment and then you are done!  Character creation is fun and easy, I'll be posting a walk-through of a new character at some point.

Just a quick note on equipment, there is not an extensive list of stuff.  Armor, ranging from a Leather Shirt up through a Mail Hauberk, helms and shields exists.  There is no plate armor.  Weapons are standard fare with swords, axes, spears, bows and the Dwarven mattock.  Everything has an encumbrance which all add up to give your hero his/her fatigue score, the higher the score the harder journeys and fighting becomes.  All the rest of your heroes equipment falls into traveling gear, winter and autumn gear has an encumbrance rating of three, summer and spring gear is two.  This includes season appropriate clothing, food for a week and basic equipment.

Once everyone has a hero, the players setup a company and introduce their characters and figure out how they have come together.  Each player can pick a companion as their focus which helps them to recover Hope.  The group is given a Fellowship rating, this is a shared pool of points used to recover hope during their adventures, this number is equal to the number of player in the fellowship.

King Thranduil's Hall
Which brings us to my favorite part of this system, journeys!  This part of the game feels very Tolkien-y to me, I loves it my preciousssss!  When traveling Wilderland the group first picks a route, this is checked against the Loremasters map to determine what types of land are traveled through, these range from very easy to daunting.  This determines the distance and speed of the journey.  Fatigue tests are taken based on the season and how many days each leg of the journey takes.  The toughness of the fatigue rolls are figured by determining if the players are in Free Lands (TN12), Border Lands (TN14), Wild Lands (TN16), Shadow Lands (TN18) or Dark Lands (TN20).  Players assign their heroes a position in the group for the journey, these are Guide, Scout, Huntsman and Look-out Man, each one has a different responsibility on the trip.  Players roll fatigue as they travel, if they fail they increase their fatigue score, if this ever goes equal to or over their Starting Endurance score then they become Weary.  If anyone rolls an Eye of Sauron then a Hazard happens.  For instance if the Scout rolled an Eye of Sauron on his fatigue test then you would roll on a chart to see who the Hazard effects, lets say its the Scout again, one of the Hazards for Scouts is Cruel Weather which means the party is caught in a fast moving storm and the Scout takes additional consequences for failing an additional explore roll.  Its a really fun little system that adds so much to the feeling of the world.  Going from point A to point B can be dangerous and requires careful route planning as different shelters can help the party to rest up and gain back fatigue.

Road to the West
Combat is simple and uses the following steps; 1. Resolve surprise 2. Determine initiative 3. Assign combat advantages 4. Resolving opening volley 5. Close Combat!

Once in close combat the heroes decide each turn which one of four stances they are taking.  The first three; Forward, Open and Defensive are all considered close combat.  The fourth is Rearward, this is the only ranged combat stance.  Each stance determines the combat target number, the order of action and how hard the hero is to hit.  Each stance also has a task associated with it, for instance heroes in the Open Stance can forfeit their attack to Rally Comrades.  The enemies get Hate points that let them do all kids of nasty things to the party.

Encounters are interactions with other NPC's, maybe a stranger met on the edges of Mirkwood who's help the players need or maybe the players have entered King Dain's court and need access to his library of great records.  First an introduction is done by a spokesman or by all of the group, then the interaction takes place, heroes use insight, persuade, riddle or maybe song to try and gain a number of successes.  There is a tolerance rating is set by the Loremaster, if this is exceed by a number of failed rolls than the encounter is over.  Then the number of successes rolled prior to the failure is added up to see how successful the interaction has been.  The players never know the tolerance number which can change.  For instance the party is in King Thranduil's hall attempting to persuade him to provide an Elven scout to lead them through the Mirkwood, but just by having Dwarves in the party Thranduil's starting tolerance number might be lower as he's not a big fan of the Dwarves.  Neat stuff and so simple but it allows for some great role-playing opportunities.

Dol Guldur
Corruption is also something the heroes need to worry about, as they encounter distressing events, cross into area's tainted by the Shadow, commit dishonorable acts or take possession of cursed treasure then they can gain corruption in the form of Shadow points.  This represents a growing doubt, weariness and self-interest in the hero.  When the heroes Shadow points equal his Hope points that hero suffers a bout of madness.  Each time they suffer madness they gain a flaw based on their calling.  This helps to keeps the players focused on the playing the heroes, this is not a game for people that want to play the bad guys,

Nassty, nassty Orcs!
Speaking of the bad guys the core book includes a number of adversaries including numerous types of Orcs, Spiders Trolls, Wargs, Werewolves and Bats. Other books include new and more powerful adversaries for the players to fight against!  The Campaign chapter includes the Tale of Years, a year by year breakdown from 1050 to 2951.  Wilderland and the surrounding regions are detailed, campaign structure is discussed and a number of major players like Beorn and Radagast are fleshed out.

The final chapter is a nice introductory adventure called The Marsh Bell.  The heroes travel from Esgaroth south along the eastern edge of Mirkwood looking for two lost Dwarves.  Gloin of The Hobbit fame sends them on this quest which includes a number of natural hazards and also some baddies to fight.  Its a nice short adventure that plays well.

River Barges
As you can probably tell, I love this game.  Its a breath of fresh air, something new that drips Tolkieness.  My biggest complaint is that within a week or two of purchasing the book the spine peeled away from the inside of the book, leaving me with a back cover that flops around.  Binding issues aside, this is a fantastic game, if you enjoy Middle-earth at all and have been waiting for a new game in that world since MERP's went the way of the Dodo bird, than this is the game for you.  I'll be posting in the next few weeks about the character creation process, I'll make a brand new hero for you all to follow along with.  I also will be doing some shorter reviews of the additional books that are available in the line.  Thanks for reading and always remember;

"It's a dangerous business, walking out one's front door"

- Gandalf


  1. I am planning on playing this game with a few friends (3), and I was wondering if you have any idea how to resolve a journey situation in which there is no role. I know the rule book says it is an automatic failure, but if let's say no one is a scout, and Bad Weather is rolled as a hazard what should happen? Is the hazard ignored, or does it effect the whole group? Thanks for taking time to read and respond.

  2. Sounds like just the morass of annoying rules and conditions I'm looking to avoid. No thanks!

  3. Very nice review. I've just started playing TOR, and it is a great game. It is not "D&D with Middle-earth on top," by any means. As I get older, I tend toward simpler rulesets that have fewer niche mechanisms. TOR is an exception to the rule. I don't believe it is overly complex, but, yes, it does have a number of things going on. As the author above notes, though, the rules are very well conceptualized and all work well together. And they really deliver the best Middle-earth roleplaying experience I have ever had. I also had MERP books back in the '80s and '90s, and enjoyed reading them. Some of the materials were of pretty good quality, but their gameplay and mechanics frankly left a lot to be desired -- it just didn't feel like Middle-earth. TOR's materials are not only beautifully done and inspiring, but they deliver a great experience. You shouldn't bother to try to use TOR to play a generic "fantasy RPG"; there are better systems for that. But if you want to wander the Shire, cross the Misty Mountains and spend time kicking around the Mirkwood or maybe even venturing into Dol Guldur, TOR is the ticket.

  4. Thank you for this review, it was very helpful!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.