Just before Gencon, Charles Ryan of Cubicle 7  shot an invite to the Gnomes to come by the booth and talk with the designers of The One Ring . We shot a couple of potential questions back and forth and I decided to haul along my video equipment to see if we could get the interview on tape. More than just get an interview though, Charles comped me a copy of the book to take a look at and use for more B-roll footage. Having a copy of the game and being intrigued by what Francesco Nepitello and Dominic McDowall-Thomas had to say about it, I sat down and got a decent hands on look at it. First off the interview, then the plain text and pictures review.
I’ve already put a disclaimer that I was comped a copy of the game for review purposes, but I’m going to throw out another disclaimer here. I’m a HUGE frigging Tolkien fan. I grew up reading the Hobbit and watching the animated movies. I laboriously delved into the Lord Of The Rings Trilogy about 4 years earlier than I should have, but I still appreciated it at a young age and I re-read it every couple of years. So I wondered how I would look at the game as I reviewed it. Would I be overly critical of it as a fan? Would I be overly critical of it as a GM and player, looking for a good game despite the setting? As I approached the game, I set my mind to look at it from three perspectives. How does it play as a game? How does it render Tolkien’s Middle Earth? What makes it different from the many fantasy RPGs that have roots in Tolkien’s world?
The brief answer to those questions is that The One Ring is a very structured RPG that aims to give you a very good Tolkien-esque playing experience. The mechanics are solid, the book is beautiful, and the feeling of Middle Earth oozes off of every page. If you are the type of gamer who likes incredibly open games with limitless options, that’s not what this is. However, if you are looking for an RPG that stays true to the themes and feel of Tolkien, then this will meet your desires perfectly. Let’s get to the details, shall we.
The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the WIld is a game, not just a single book. When you buy the product ($59.99) you receive 2 full color books, 2 full color maps, a set of customized dice (though you can substitute d6 and d12), and sturdy cardboard shell to contain it all in. The Loremaster’s Book is 144 pages and the Adventurer’s Book is 192. Each book in the game contains a decent index that makes it easy to find information quickly.
The core game mechanics are relatively simple. Task resolution is handled by rolling a number d6 equal to a skill rating and 1d12 that is called the fate die. The numbers on all of these are added up and compared against a target number. Beating the target number means you are successful, missing it means unsuccessful…
except that the die themselves are unique and can change some of the outcomes. On each die are different runes that can affect how the roll goes. For instance, rolling a 12 on the feat die (the Gandalf Rune) makes the action automatically successful. An 11 (the Mark of Sauron), in most circumstances, counts as a 0. Determining degree of success can be done by noting success runes on the D6 die. The more success runes showing on the dice the more spectacular the success can be considered. Additionally, a character can spend a Hope point to add a bonus based on one of their attributes. A typical roll might look like this:
GM: Your boat rushes towards the waterfall. The rest of the company are on the banks, attempting to throw a rope towards you, but you are too far away. Make a boating roll to attempt to get close enough in time to grab the rope. The Target number is 17.
Player: The player has a boating skill of 3. He rolls 3d6 (success die) + 1d12 (feat die), getting 13 on the roll. I’m going to spend a hope point. Can I add in my body score?
GM: OK. What does that bring you up to?
GM: Good, you make it. Any success runes?
GM: With a mighty heave of the oar, you push the boat closer to the shore as a rope is flung your way. Grasping the wet and soggy hemp you feel it slipping under your hand. Gripping so tight that you can see tricklets of blood coming from your hands, you maintain hold of the rope and pull yourself in.
When I first read over the success rune mechanics, I had to digest them a bit. The success was determined by the number, so why bother with the success runes on the die? I realized after reading through more of the book and seeing some of the examples that they can really function as a storytelling aid. Players like their characters to look cool, and when given the opportunity to control how their actions look inside the game, they’ll usually opt for the most awesome over the top outcome possible. With the success runes however, there is an ebb and flow that helps the story. Yes you succeeded, but how well that comes out in the story can still be left up to the dice. More success runes, the more incredible and heroic. Less, and the Game Master or player can narrate it in a more muted or less flattering style. The success still stands, but their is some direction to the narration. If used properly, I can see this really enforcing the story aspect of the game.
And that is one thing that The One Ring strives to do, help you build a Tolkien-esque story. There is a plethora of information on how to play the game and get a game feeling that resonates with the writing found in Tolkien’s Middle Earth works. In that sense, it is a bit more structured than some other RPGS, but it is a necessary kind of stricture that helps enforce the feeling of the world. You won’t easily find magic weapons or be wielding massive spells that could destroy the world, the mechanics don’t support dungeon crawls or massive whittle-down slugfests with dragons. What the mechanics do is make it feel like every hit counts and when you HAVE to roll the dice you are doing so with purpose. Big things are on the line when the rolling gets called for.
The character creation mechanics are also definitely Tolkien. One of the first things you notice is that the Culture that you choose takes the place of a race or class and determines a lot of the core aspects of your character. The cultures are things like The Elves of Mirkwood, Beornings, or Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain. While these don’t define everything about your character, they do provide a particular base. Choosing the culture that fits the type of play you want to engage in will be important. There is room to play around here though. Once you step past the culture section, you are able to choose many different things. Your Standard of Living, Calling (what you do), Shadow Weakness (major flaw), Attributes, Skills, Valour, Wisdom, Hope, and Shadow . All of these factors provide you a different way to flavor your character and set them apart from the cultural base. Choosing different Skills and Backgrounds will also help you get a unique character. You won’t be limited to playing a Legolas or Boromir clone unless that is what you really want. One thing to mention about character creation, is that many of the traits and backgrounds you can build into your character act as gimmes or enablers. There aren’t mechanics provided or necessary with them, but having the trait or background enables you to do things other characters would have a harder time with. Possessing the Lordly trait might get you an audience with a king while having Beast-Lore lets you track and have knowledge of animals in the area.
The Loremaster’s book is a great resource that provides information on many diverse subjects related to the game. There is advice on how to run the game, stats for various creatures, rules for becoming corrupted by the shadow, storytelling tricks and tips, etc. It’s what you would expect from a basic GM’s book, but like the rest of the product, it’s aimed at helping you run a great Tolkien themed game.
I’m always interested in the setting information for licensed settings or settings with an established fan base of their own. How does the RPG tackle the setting? Would it make a good introduction for the broader world? Does it stay true to at least the feel of the source material? The One Ring is dead on for a Tolkien-ish feel. I’ve mentioned how the mechanics support playing to the feel of Middle Earth, but the setting information hammers it home. Quotes form Tolkien can be found all over within the book and the language of the flavor text (when not pulled from the source) evokes the source. The setting as described starts right after the events of the Hobbit. The information in the next two books in the One Ring series will take it up to the twilight of the Third Age where Return of The King leaves off. Adventures over the Edge of the Wild deals primarily with the lands described in the Hobbit and the Wilderlands. There is very detailed setting information provided in an easy to grab form. You won’t feel like you are reading a history lesson when going through the setting information, but you’ll get the facts that you need.
If you want to step outside of the Wilderlands with your adventures, you might find it a small bit cumbersome. However, a moderate knowledge of the lands of Middle earth will let a GM fill in the gaps and take the party outside of the lands presented in Adventures over the Edge of the Wild. The approach of limited area is a good one for the theme of the game. It provides enough detail for GMs and players, but doesn’t allow the game to jump from local heroes to world-ending badasses immediately, a feeling I’ve had as a player in many D&D/Shadowrun/White-Wolf games. No, the game sticks to the feel of Tolkien and the limitations feel more like familiar borders as opposed to imposing walls. As I mentioned, it wouldn’t be hard to take a group outside of the presented lands, but a basic knowledge/research of Middle Earth will help if you decide to.
I’m going to let the video speak to the beauty of the books, but I’ll drop a few pictures in here for the non-video watching readers. The watercolor style captures the feel of Tolkien beautifully. The art is detailed and exquisite. The graphic design and borders hit right to the style that fans have come to expect. It isn’t hard to tell that this is a book that took a decent chunk of money to make. It will also be one of the showpieces of your collection on it’s visual merits alone.
Overall this is a great game.The mechanics are simple but provide an extra layer to the dice rolling that can great change the feeling of successes and failures. Everything about The One Ring strives to marry the feel of Middle Earth to the action and story going on at the gaming table. It might not resonate with gamers who have only experienced Tolkien through the pages of fantasy games and the millions of fantasy books which were inspired by his initial works, but it might act as a good stepping stone for those kinds of gamers to get into the world of Tolkien. The One Ring is a beautiful product, full of detail, exquisite art, and great writing aimed at one single purpose – to help your game feel like it really is in Middle Earth.
I’ve never tried to run a middle-earth game in a system that wasn’t built around it, so I wonder how well you can capture the feeling without strict attention to detail or hacking of the system to support the theme? Have you ever tried it, or have you relied on products like this that make it their goal to get the feeling of the setting down?