I got my copy of Cubicle 7's new Lord of the Rings roleplaying game The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild (try saying that three times fast!) last week and I spent the weekend reading through it. It's been in the works for some time and it's been apparent from the start that the authors have tried to take a new approach to roleplaying in Middle-Earth compared to earlier RPG efforts. The game was written by Francesco Nepitello together with Marco Maggi and if those names sound familiar it's probably because you've played their board game War of the Ring. If you have you already know that these guys truly know their way around Middle-Earth! If you haven't then what are you waiting for?! BGG has it listed as the top thematic game (followed by Earth Reborn!) and 15th on the overall board game ranking. It's a great game in and of itself and it also manages to be a great Lord of the Rings game!
In this review I will talk mostly about the different mechanical systems in The One Ring (TOR). Since you all know the setting pretty well I thought you'd be mostly interested in seeing how this game differs from the earlier ones from a rules standpoint. I'm not going to get too much into the nitty-gritty, but if you just want to read my concluding thoughts on the game and aren't all that interested in individual mechanics scroll down to My Thoughts.
Setting and characters
The most obvious one might be that when playing The One Ring you divide it into two phases; first there is the Adventuring phase where the heroes are on their mission or quest and the Loremaster throws all kinds of obstacles at them. Then there's the Fellowship phase which takes place once the quest is accomplished and the heroes have some "free time" to spend as they want. It might sound like the GM/players turn of MG, but here the adventuring phase can extend over several sessions and it's not until the heroes have actually accomplished their quest that the Fellowship phase kicks in. And when it does it's really a lot more similar to the winter phase of Mouse Guard - essentially the players get to decide what their characters do during their downtime; how to spend their experience and advencement points, how to spend their treasure, where they spend their time (at home, at a haven) and if they try to use their resources to try and establish a new haven or make sure to uphold their reputation back home. Basically it's more big picture stuff, rather than going into detailed skill rolls.
Although there are a lot of different mechanisms crammed into these dice the pool is actually exceedingly simple to read at a glance and compared WFRP3 (which also uses a pool of custom dice) it's a lot quicker! While I mostly like the dice pool mechanic in WFRP3 it can take some time to sift through it and come up with the actual result when you have just rolled 15 dice and they cancel each other out. In TOR you can quickly eyeball the result and see if you beat the TN but you don't have to add them all up exactly since the degree of success is taken from the tengwar runes and not from the actual number you rolled. It's quick and at the same time allows for a number of clever little uses in the system, like the aformentioned Weary mechanic. You could of course use regular D6 for all this, but it would definitely take away some of the speed. I for one will pick up another set or two once they become available separately.
There are a couple of ways to influence dice rolls. You could invoke one of your Traits (Keen-eyed, Vengeful etc) and if the Loremaster and the table in general agree that it's fitting you simply pass the test, no roll required. Or you could spend a point of Hope (kind of like fate points, but also a measure of your characters mental well being) to add the value of the relevant attribute to the final roll. This is something you can do after you've rolled so it's quite powerful, especially considering your Attribute can be as high as seven. But then again Hope is not a resource to squander as if it dips too low you can become Miserable.
All in all I quite like the mechanics of The One Ring. They are relatively simple and easy to remember (even after just one read I feel that I have a really firm grip of the system) but there are still room for a lot of nuances and neat tricks.
There are no hit points in TOR, instead you use Endurance. When you get hit you loose Endurance, and when it sinks below your Fatigue value (basically your encumbrance from weapons, armour and equipment) you become Weary and only get to count the solid black numbers on the dice, and when you reach zero you pass out. But there's also another damage mechanic! At certain times (usually when rolling the Gandalf rune) you can achieve a Piercing blow, forcing your opponent to make a protection test, using his Armour, against your weapons Injury rating and if he fails he becomes Wounded. There are also additional rules for knockback (take half damage, but loose your next action) to tearing your helm off in the middle of battle (lowering your Fatigue score by 3, possibly preventing you from becoming Weary). There are also different actions you can perform depending on your stunt, like intimidating your foe or trying to rally your companions.
This all combines into making the combat feel both cinematic and true to Tolkien. It's easy to visualize the scene as you have the hardy dwarf in a forward stance with his great axe, while the Barding warden is fighting in an open stance, giving the elf enough room to use his bow to deadly effect. Fights are also quick and fairly lethal (most enemies die if you manage to Wound them) and while the heroes can rely on their Endurance there's always the risk of a Piercing blow, even when their Endurance is at max.
Oh, and it seems to be very quick during play as well. I haven't tried it out myself yet but from what I hear it's just as fast in play as it looks on paper; a fight between a group of four heroes versus nine orcs only took two rounds and a total of about 20 minutes. That's pretty rare in the RPG world I'd say!
During a journey the players also get to choose different roles in the party for their characters. For example, one of them must be the guide (and there can only be one) who should have a high Travell skill. Then there are roles for Scouts, Huntsmen and Look-out men. They all have different tasks during the journey and should, for example, the Scout fail on his test it might mean that the party run into an ambush, or they face an obstacle in their path and have to go around.
Fatigue and Endurance also play a large part during journeys as you will have to make several tests and might gain Fatigue as you go. And since Fatigue can make you Weary it can really lead to situations where a difficult journey through Mirkwood puts you at a serious disadvantage when you suddenly need to fight. It all comes together to make journeys a core part of the entire TOR experience and I'm very eager to see how they play out.
There are a lot more to TOR but I've tried to highlight what makes the game special to me. Other stuff that I really like is the Valour/Wisdom mechanic, how money (Treasure!) is handled and the fact that some things need upkeeping. The character advancement rules are also interesting with a lot of different options on how to develop your hero.
Naturally there is also the setting itself. I think the time period and the location is well chosen; I've always liked Mirkwood and the time between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring is certainly an interesting one, with a lot of white spots on the map so to speak. What I think might have gone unnoticed though is that Cubicle 7 has decided to do the same thing Black Industries first pioneered with the 40krp-line, and release three different core sets based on different time periods and regions. The first is The One Ring, which will be followed by The Errantries of a King, which will somehow connect with Aragorn's travels in the west, and the final release will be The War of the Ring which I think speaks for itself.
The character creation system does it's part here as it's easy to make it fit over the characters from the books. Combat is the same way and when you think about the skirmishes from the books they mesh very well with what the combat system in the game would produce. And finally the journey mechanic ties it all together and I think this system is probably what brings most of the Tolkien feel to the game! The struggles and joys of the journey, the different dangers and opportunities it can bring. It's certainly what makes The One Ring stand apart from its predecessors.
There are some niggles though. Speaking of the journey mechanic for example, there is a bit of calculation involved when plotting a rout and if you try to do it on the fly during a session there will probably be 5-10 minutes of downtime as you figure everything out. This can be remedied by plotting out likely routes ahead of time, but it's still there. I'm also a little bit wary that the journey could simply become a long string of dice rolls. This is very much up to the Loremaster and players to act it out, but I think if you play with the wrong people, or in the wrong mood it might become simply an exercise in dice rolling.
There's also the Encounter mechanic which tries to bring a bit of "social combat" into the game. While I like the initiative and the overall idea of it, I think it needs to be fleshed out more. It's hard to tell since I haven't seen it in action yet, but I think some more roleplay-oriented players might feel stifled by it while the more rules-oriented might be confused as what to do next.
Finally, there is no magic. Well, no look-I'm-a-Wizard-kind of magic anyway, although there are some subtle things in the game, more suitable to Middle-Earth. I don't think this is a bad thing, quite the opposite in fact! But I thought it was worth mentioning in any case.
So what we have here is a great game in general and a spectacular Middle-Earth game in particular! Now, I'm some of my opinions will change once I've actually played it but just from reading the book I'm very impressed. You have elegant, slightly indie-esque but with traditional roots game mechanics that are integrated very well with the setting combined with heroic, but not too heroic, characters that feel real in just the right ways. And the smell of Middle-Earth are all over the pages. I think The One Ring just might have jumped to the top of my want to play list!
For the numerically minded readers out there I'd say this is a strong four out of five at first reading.